The goal of this blog post is to help you stop struggling with mixing kick drum and be able to get a tight and punchy kick that will sound right in the mix, with enough low end to fill up the bass range and enough mids to cut through the mix.
The kick is the heartbeat that drives the music in many genres of music.
The kick drum, along with the snare will be the defining factors of your drum sound so it is crucial that it cuts through and connects the listener.
Here, I'll present a variety of engineering techniques that will help you and other upcoming engineers get great sounding kicks on every mix, and no matter what genre it is.
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01. Always Get it Right From the Source
The best way to get great results is to get the right sound straight from the source.
If you’re recording your own kick drums then make sure that you get the sound that you’re going for during recording, don’t wait to fix things later in the mix.
Before you even hit the record button you should already have an idea of what the final results will sound like.
You can’t press record and then hope for the best.
If you’re not recording your drums live then make sure that your sound design skills are on point.
If you’re using samples then make sure that you choose great samples that will make your mixing job a lot easier.
Once you’ve got it right from the source then polishing the sound to help it shine in the mix shouldn’t be a problem.
Think of it just like cooking. If you have bad ingredients, no matter if you get a world-class chef the food will still be horrible.
This also applies to mixing kick drum as well, make sure that you always have the best ingredients.
02. Phase Problems When Mixing Kick Drum
Most people make the mistake of jumping for the EQ to make the kick pop in a mix.
If the kick is out of phase then no matter how much EQ boost you add, the kick will never cut through the mix, especially if it’s a dense mix.
So, to save yourself a lot of hours on the EQ simply flip the polarity of the kick while listening in context to hear how it affects the sound.
This doesn’t only happen on live recordings, it also happens if you’re layering a lot of kick drums.
If you’re layering to get one great kick sound then make sure that each layer dominates a particular frequency.
For instance, if you have 3 kicks; one will only play the sub, the other one will take care of the bass and lower midrange, and then the 3rd one will take care of the higher frequencies.
Another great way to make sure that layered kicks sound great is to choose samples that work well together, especially if the kick drums are in the same key or scale.
Also check the phase of the overheads and room microphones.
03. Using Gates and Expanders for Clarity
In some recordings the snare bleed can be way too loud in the kick drum mic, and to fix that problem you’ll need a gate.
If you don’t remove the snare bleed on the kick you’ll end up boosting it later and add unnecessary phase issues.
In some genres, such as jazz, this bleed is good but just make sure that when you boost the high frequencies on your kick it doesn’t make the snare or other sounds that the kick mic picked up harsh and aggressive.
If your mix starts sounding harsh then you know that you need to take care of the mic bleed where you don’t need it, especially if you’re going to be aggressive on the EQ.
To avoid hindering the artistic performance you always have to manually gain ride your gates. Either ride the threshold or on/off switches.
You don’t want your gate to be turned on during drum rolls, bridge, quieter parts of the song etc. to avoid messing the drummers performance.
Once you start cleaning your kick drums with gates you’ll find that you start having much more control of the low-end and you get more definition.
Always make sure that the gate or expander doesn’t ruin the transient / attack.
There are many different ways and techniques you can use to make sure that you don’t ruin your transients.
The problem with gate plugins is that they tend to mess up the transient of a sound so choose a gate that has a look-ahead feature to make your job a lot easier.
04. Use Transient Shapers to Affect Attack and Decay
Since transient shapers are fairly new in the engineering space, they’re not something that you often see being recommended.
This is one of those tools that will save you a lot of time on the EQ.
This is usually the secret source to getting punchy drums for most mixing and mastering engineers.
It’s also important for us to understand what the transient of a sound is.
In simplified terms, it is solely the attack. So with a transient shaper tool, you’re just manipulating the attack of a sound. This is usually 0-30ms of a sound.
In some cases you’ll want to increase the attack while in some cases you want to decrease the attack of a sound.
If you have 2 kick drums in a mix where 1 is dominating the sub and lower bass frequencies and the other one dominating the midrange and higher frequencies then decreasing the attack on the bass kick makes more sense.
Then after you can add more attack to your high kick to get your kick to cut through the mix.
However, always experiment to find what works best for each song.
05. Kick Drum EQ
The one thing that's a bit tricky when mixing kick drum is EQ.
There are many different kick drum sounds and also different genres so that makes it a bit hard to come up with a formula that works all of the time.
So, each situation will require a particular approach that will work best for the song but there are certain guidelines that you can use to make sure that you’re always on the right track.
The first thing that you want to determine is the role of the kick in the song.
Give the entire song a listen to determine the role of the kick then your job as the mix engineer is to emphasize that feel.
To do that practically we need to find its pocket in the mix.
Is the kick going to dominate the lower bass or the upper bass region?
What I see a lot of people do is once they’ve determined the role of the kick they immediately jump to EQ the bass to make space for the kick.
The thing about the bass, unlike the kick, it is dynamic and notes keep changing.
So, when you think you’re cutting 65Hz to make space for the kick you’re simply reducing the “C” note on the bass and just messing up the performance.
Even worse if the bass player is not hitting the “C” note, so you’re just reducing nothing.
Avoid cutting frequencies on the bass, if you have to cut out some resonance then that’s understandable. But I would rather go for big boosts instead of cutting frequencies on a bass sound.
The approach I take when it comes to bass is to boost the frequencies I want to hear and the boosts need to be wide (not too wide), no narrow boosts for me.
To help the kick dominate the low-end I add a low shelf cut on the bass at around 60Hz and a HPF (high pass filter) at around 30Hz.
On the kick I always do a HPF at around 20Hz to clean any rumble to give myself more headroom.
Then I’ll create a low shelf boost to emphasize the low-end and add some weight to the kick.
To make sure that the kick doesn’t interfere with the bass I won’t boost anything from 100Hz up to 250Hz to help the bass dominate that frequency range.
The frequency I always cut when mixing kick drum is the boxiness that is around 400Hz-500Hz.
Every time I do this cut the midrange stops sounding cluttered or muddy.
To emphasize the attack and snap for the kick, a boost in the higher mids (3kHz-5kHz) always does the job.
Be careful though because too much high mid frequencies can be harsh or bring up some mic bleed on live recordings.
At this point, the kick needs to be cutting through the mix.
If your kick drum is still struggling to cut through at this point then what you want to do is to cut frequencies on other sounds in the mix to make space for the kick.
You can also try a boost around 800Hz - 1.5kHz to boost the midrange of the kick, but make sure that this doesn’t add too much boxiness in the mix.
Pushing the midrange will also help the kick to be audible in small speakers.
Also try cutting around 250Hz-300Hz then bring up the output level to compensate, this should help the kick cut through and make space for other sounds in the mix.
When mixing kick drum, you generally need 3 things to help it sit properly in the mix; Sub, Midrange beef and Attack.
If you’re working on a hip-hop track that has an 808 sample then you’ll want the opposite of what I just mentioned above.
In this case, you want the 808 to dominate the low-end.
So, you’ll need to push the HPF (high pass filter) of the kick to around 30Hz plus a low shelf cut at around 60Hz-80Hz.
In this case, you’ll need to boost your kick around 100Hz, a small wide boost will do it. Don’t make the Q/bandwidth too wide that it ends up boosting the low-end.
You can do this on any genre, it doesn’t have to be hip-hop or 808, if a bass guitar is driving the low-end of the song then this is the approach you should go for.
Note that these are just guidelines, this is not a formula.
When I say around 60Hz-80Hz, that’s giving you a starting point. Push the EQ to 120Hz and get a feel of how it sounds.
Make sure that you experiment.
The numbers I mention above will help you avoid asking yourself; “where do I cut?” or “where do I boost?”.
If all that fails then changing the sound of the kick or re-recording will be the best options.
Watch the video below for a visual representation of what I just explained above.
Mixing Kick Drum: Get Perfect Kicks on Every Mix With EQ
06. Shaping Your Kick Drum With Compression
This should be the easiest part of mixing a kick drum but people complicate it.
In many cases, the noob just doesn’t understand how to use a compressor and different compressor types (FET, VCA, Optical, and Variable-Mu).
I won’t go into all that stuff in this tutorial but a great resources to find out what each compressor is and what it does then I recommend checking out Producer Hive: https://producerhive.com/ask-the-hive/types-of-audio-compressors-when-to-use-them/
To help you understand compression a lot better, I recommend that you look at it in 2 different ways.
1. Smooth - you can achieve this by using a fast attack and slow release, with a ratio of 3:1 to 4:1
2. Punchy - to achieve this you need a slow attack to let the transients go through and a fast release with a high ratio of 4:1 to 6:1.
If you’re working on a dance or pop track that’s playing at 128BPM then punchy compression settings should be your goal to help the kick drum cut through.
But if you’re working on a sparse and slow neo-soul song that’s playing at 75BPM then smooth compression settings make more sense. That way you can make the kick long and ringy since there’s enough space and time.
In some cases you want the best of both worlds, this is why most engineers will always record both kick-in and kick-out.
This approach gives you more flexibility.
You can also achieve the same results by layering kicks or simply taking 1 kick drum and splitting it into 2 parts (lows and highs).
If you’re not working on a high tempo song then what you can do is to use smooth compression settings to increase the decay of the low-end kick and use punchy settings on the top-end kick.
Obviously there are more reasons and creative ways to use compression, it’s not only just to smooth things out or make them sound punchy, but this is the approach I always start with when compressing a kick.
Make Your Kicks Punch With a Compressor
Another great technique that you can use to help your kick sound fuller in a mix is Parallel Compression.
It will help you add more definition and weight to your kicks.
If you want to make your kicks sound huge in a song then parallel compression is your friend.
If that's a bit confusing then watch the video below to get a better understanding of how this can help you.
Mixing Kick Drum With Parallel Compression
07. Use Triggers for Live Kicks
When your live drum recordings fall flat and lack punch then drum samples can be a life-saver.
The reason a lot of engineers steer away from drum triggers is simply because they can clash with the original drums when not used correctly.
When they’re used right though, they can fix technical issues, modify the tone, or alter the dynamics.
The best approach is to always figure out what your live kick drum(s) is missing.
Is it lacking clarity, attack, boom, punch?
Figure out what’s missing then find a sample that will fill the gap and blend it with your live kick.
Most drum triggering software comes built-in with tuning controls that allow you to fine-tune each sample to taste.
Always use this to your advantage and make sure that your samples are in tune with the original drum sounds.
When it comes to complex rhythms which have ghost notes, rolls and fills then drum samples tend to become more noticeable.
To avoid that, all you need to do is to automate the threshold of your drum trigger plugin in those sections of the arrangement.
Finally, make sure that you check for any phase issues. Check that the sample is not causing any frequency cancelation and it’s aligned with the original kick.
08. Use Sidechain Compression to Give Space to Your Kick
The main goal of using sidechain compression is to get the bass out of the way for just long enough to hear at least the transients or attack of the kick drum clearly.
So basically, you briefly lower the volume of the bass part whenever the kick drum comes in.
Now, because the kick would have masked the bass anyway, you don’t miss hearing it for a short amount of time.
Each DAW does this differently so I won’t go in detail with this.
09. Add Saturation for Beef and Aggression
Some kicks just lack character to be able to push through a mix.
If you’re working on a dense mix, then to make the kick more distinguishable you’ll need to use saturation or distortion in some cases.
Saturation is a great way to emphasize the midrange harmonics on a kick to make it more compatible on smaller speakers.
You can make a kick sound huge and powerful by saturating it a little.
So, try different types of saturation to see if you can get more power, tone and personality out of your kick.
10. Use Automation
In some songs you’ll find that in dense sections of the song the kick cuts through nicely but in quieter parts it gets way too loud.
If that happens then use volume automation to reduce the volume of the kick just for those quieter parts of the song.
Automation can also be used to make certain parts of the song sound bigger.
For instance, you might create a 1dB boost on the kick in the chorus sections to make it sound bigger and more energetic than the verse.
A neat trick would be to add a 0.5dB-1dB low shelf boost just for the chorus parts. This is more felt than heard.
When you’re doing your automation, make sure that it doesn’t sound obvious though, less is more.
11. Use Reference Songs
If you try everything above and all fails then you’ll just need to rely on reference material.
In the morning, when your ears are still fresh, take a moment to listen to songs that are similar to the project that you’ll be working on.
You can also do this before diving into a mix.
This helps you focus and have a clear vision of what you want to achieve.
Take those reference songs into the studio and load them into your project when mixing then keep going back and forth between your project and the reference tracks.
The goal is not to make your mix sound like the reference, the goal is to capture the feel.
If it’s a happy song that makes you dance then you go for a bright and punchy kick.
If it’s a dark moody song then a low and midrange focused kick sound with a smooth attack will capture that feel.
So, when you choose your reference songs make sure that they will help you capture a particular feel or emotion.
Don’t just choose a song because it won a Grammy award.
Another tip is to choose a song that is in the similar key with the project you're mixing. You can also choose songs that are in the scale of the root key as well.
If the songs are not in the same key, just make sure that your EQ moves that you make are based on what will work best for the song and not based on making your mix sound like the reference.
Referencing your mix on less bass heavy speakers can help you properly place the kick drum, so reference on as many sound devices as you can.
This includes headphones, smartphone, laptop, car etc.
You want to test your mix alongside the reference songs in different sound devices and that’s how you’ll get a good sounding kick drum for every mix that you work on.
By now you should have a good understanding of what goes down in the process of getting a kick to sit well in a mix.
Remember that this knowledge is to give you a solid starting point, these are guidelines for mixing kick drum not a silver bullet.
Take these guidelines to the next level by adding your own fingerprint.
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