How to Make a Great Kick Drum Sound

As a producer your kick drum defines your sound and can make or break your track. It is is easily one of the most important elements in any dance track. After battling kick drums for years, Ableton Certified Trainer Lenny Kiser has found some simple and effective techniques for getting  kicks to sound punchy and fat on a club system and laptop – read on for his secrets!

There are many different ways to design and process a kick and many producers do it in their own unique way. This is not the only way to do it but rather a great starting point for learning how to build great kicks. In my work I have found that there are four main considerations to take into account when developing a kick – read on for each, or check out a video tutorial of all four at the end of this article!

Editor’s Note: Lenny, an Ableton Certified Trainer, has experience making kick drums off all kinds in his own remixes and productions. Check out the kicks in his recent remix of STRFKR’s “While I’m Alive”:

1. Sample Selection

Choosing the right sample is number one. Take as much time as you need on this, as the right kick sample may be light years better than the one you just EQ’d for six hours! Set aside some time to find solid kick samples and organize them in a way you can access quickly when producing. Some good tips on finding the right sound:

  • Play your kick pattern and bass together when auditioning different samples to find the best match.
  • Use the hot swap function () in Ableton to audition different kicks with the bass
  • Load several kicks into your chains list and use the chain activator (image at right) to activate and de-activate different kicks to audition them together.

2. Layering

The next step to an effective kick is to layer different samples together – designate one as the, “Top Kick” which will contain the mid and high frequencies and one as the, “Bottom Kick” which will contain the low frequencies.

The top kick is what people will hear and the bottom kick is what people will feel. No two molecules can share the same physical space and neither can two kick drums. You’ll need to remove some of the low frequencies from the top kick so it doesn’t fight with the bottom kick. This can be done in many different ways. I prefer to use the filter in the simpler device and set it to, “highpass 24.”

Play the two kicks together and adjust the filter on the top kick until you hear a point where the two kicks play nicely together and sound like one. The frequency at which you stop at is dependent upon the samples you are using so use your ears and stop where it sounds good. I recommend doing this with sub-woofer or on headphones that can reproduce some low frequencies below 50hz. Some additional tips:

  • Experiment with non-kick drums sounds as top layers: tom drums, hi hats or noise.
  • Use the device chains volume control to adjust the volume balance between your kicks.
  • Take it a step further and create a: Top Kick, Body Kick and Sub Kick Layer (Whoa.)

Using a Synth Sub Kick Layer

The advantage to using a synthesized sub kick rather than a sample is that you have more control of how your kick sounds in the mix. The ability to change the amplitude envelope on a synth gives you control over how fast the sound reaches its loudest peak (attack stage) and how long it lasts for (decay stage). This is extremely helpful when placing your kick in a busy mix as a faster attack will mean a punchier kick and a longer decay will mean a larger and longer feeling kick. Dance music is extremely rhythmic, so getting your kicks to pulse perfectly in time with the tempo is huge!

There are many ways to generate a synth sub kick and here are three that I have found useful:

  • Use the Operator Preset: Sine Kick
  • Use the Max4Live Drumsynth Kick Device – Fat Analog Kick
  • Download Bazzism: a third party Kick Synth (shareware correction: this is a paid  VST – with a free trial. Support great plug-in developers!)

3. Processing

Now that you’ve got your kicks layered and filtered, it’s time to process and glue them together to make them sound like one. I use compression to glue the sounds together, EQ to subtract any additional fighting frequencies and saturation to add warmth, grit and distortion. Pay particular attention to the order in which you place your devices in your signal chain as this will have a factor in the overall sound. I’ve found that using the above chain, EQ-Comp-Saturation-EQ works well.

Processing Tips:

  • When EQing, cut before compression to gain headroom and boost afterword with another EQ to bring any frequencies back.
  • For compression try using ratio’s between 4:1-10:1 with very little gain reduction (about 1-6db) and a fast to medium attack time (1ms-10ms)
  • Test out different saturation curve types to color your sound differently. Try the curve “Analog Clip” for warmth and “Hard Curve” for more extreme distortion.
  • If you find yourself EQ’ing the kick with more than several bands boosted and/or large cuts or boosts (more than 8db) this may be a sign to look for a different sample.
  • Group your processing chain into an audio effect rack to A/B the before and after processed signal by using the device activator.

4. Tuning Your Kick

Your kick will sit better in the mix and be more musical if it is tuned to the key of your song. To do this you will first need to figure out the fundamental frequency of your kick. Use the frequency display on EQ8 or Spectrum to do this.

Open the frequency display and place your mouse over the peak of the kick. This will show you the frequency and associated pitch in a dialogue box below. Now you can tune your kick using the transposition control in the simpler or on the tuning or pitch control of the synth. It is very helpful to use a reference chart (like the one above) before tuning that shows which frequencies are associated with certain pitches. This is done for you if with the Drumsynth Kick or Bazzism.

Tips:

  • Figure out what frequency your kick fundamental is at and find the associated pitch. I.e. 41hz = E
  • Use the tuning control or pitch control on your sub kick to tune to the key of the song.
  • If you don’t know what key your song is, use your ears! A key detection software will only be about 60-70% accurate, so instead try to match it by ear. More info here!

VIDEO WALKTHROUGH

If you’re having issues grasping any of the above concepts – check out the video below where I show off the techniques discussed above and specifically how to use them in practice:

Kick drums are worth investing the time to get them right. Through strategic sample selection, layering, processing, and tuning, your kicks will make your tracks shine and people will dance! I can’t emphasize enough that the most important thing to take away from this is to find the right kicks to start with. Check out some of the Mad Zach sample packs for some great kicks to start building with.

Lenny Kiser is an electronic music producer, performer, audio engineer and instructor – need more tips? Let him know on Twitter

bass drumbuilding a kickkickkickdrumspowerful kicksProduction
Comments (62)
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  • Max Cherry

    Kick on the sample track sounds brittle with too much compression on the attack…

  • xsix

    hallo , I missing the operator preset sine kick
    where can i find it ?
    i Cannot find anything about it on the ableton site

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  • Andrew R.

    great tutorial. i would be cautious, though, when compressing and adding saturation to any sound because the increased gain (perceived volume) can actually trick your ears into thinking that it sounds better just because it is louder. I would turn makeup gain off in the compressor and match the volume after compression to the original volume of the kick and then A/B by turning it on and off and do the same with the saturator plugin. This allows your ears to more objectively judge how the compressor/saturator are affecting the sound/timbre off the kick. just my two cents

  • Byron

    did anyone find the Sine Kick preset in Operator? I’ve checked Live 8 and 9 with no luck…

    • Daniel Adams

      I know this comment is old, but if you can’t find the preset, I’m guessing it’s probably just a sine wave, with a pitch envelope that has an initial attack a few octaves higher, and quickly drops back to the base frequency.

  • Hauke Frederik Pengel

    I think it is a nice tutorial but what I loved at your Snare Drum Tutorial was, that it was build totally with Live. No external Samples. This is whining on expert level though. P.S. I find the free M4L Device Kick Drum Designer from Point Blank Music School very useful. But I am going to take a look at Bazzism too.

  • TriX5tar

    Thank you for this, so helpful.

  • jon

    Hi Lenny, thanks for the great tutorial!

    However in don’t have the ‘sine kick’ preset in my library. Did you get it somewhere special?

    • CrownECakes

      I don’t either. What’s the deal?

  • lostnthesound

    In case this hasn’t been mentioned, the kick can be tuned to any note within respective scale that matches the key of your tune. Just because your song is in “Fm” doesn’t mean your kick has to be as well–it could be in G, G#, A#, C, C# or D#. This way you can keep the pitching to a minumum (that is of course if that’s what you’re after). Cheers.

  • Javier Quiroga

    question… tunning the kick drum to the key of song can reduce your harmonic range in the mix? i mean, possibly you are masking the kick frequency with other sounds like bass, or even, the main sample. saludos!

    • Luiz Zen

      I have a similar question…

      If I tune some prominent instruments, like for instance, kick and bass and lead synth, to the same key, they will either suffer from phase cancelation or sum up to each other, creating an unnexpected result, right?

      Then the question is: should I forget the “rule” (that can be just in my mind) of always tunning everything to the same key? Yet, is there really any rule on this? Maybe tunning just some (which) instruments?

      Thanks!

      • Lucas Graczyki

        Since your kick shouldn’t play together with the bass and leads usually take a different frequency range there’s no need to worry about phase cancelation either constructive or destructive, the idea here is that different instruments produce different waveforms or (specific timbres) of the same same tonal value or Key, so they sound nice together and without interference. My rule is, do everything on Key first and work from that point to your taste working on dissonances to get the effect desired on parts of the tune. And as the kick goes just be careful with phase cancelation when layering and you’ll be fine.
        (Feeling like I could have responded this in portuguese kk.. saw your little avatar face around here Luiz and decided to drop a word of advice… good producing brother…)

        • Luiz Zen

          hahah Thanks, “bird”! 🙂

  • Aaron Garabedian

    Lenny writing for DJTT!! You still working with the academy? Some great tips here too thanks!

    • Lenny Kiser

      Hey Aaron! I don’t work at the academy anymore. I’m teaching music production and performance classes with Ableton out of my studio here in SF now. Glad you found this tutorial helpful!

  • Per Jakobsen

    any hint on how i would apply some of these workouts whan i use maschine and route as audio in ableton ??

    • Lenny Kiser

      Route the different kicks from maschine to separate tracks in Ableton then group those tracks together as the kick group. Then you can apply the processing on the group (Compression and Saturation). Any necessary top kick filtering can be done on the individual tracks inside the group with the Autofilter device set to high pass or EQ8.

  • levitt

    Great article and video!

  • Ryan

    Parallel compression too!!! You have to be careful because it can make the kick way too loud, but compressing your kick drum (and your snare/clap) in parallel can do *wonders* for getting it to hit the right way without being too loud. Use the clean track for the snap and brightness of the kick; and use a compressor with a fairly fast attack, fairly long release, and fairly high (2.5-3.5:1 or so) ratio for the body and the thump. Then find the right mix between the two. It might not always work, but you’d be amazed at what it can do in the right situation! Parallel compressing my kicks and snares/claps is pretty much part of my default workflow.

  • Jim

    Great article, perfect for some stuff I’m working on now. When you guys talk about getting kick “samples” do you mean from songs, or from loop packs. I get all mine from packs or buying the maschine expansions, which are pretty good starting points. Loop packs are hit or miss though. Just curious what your starting point is. Thanks

    • Ryan

      I can’t speak for DJTT, but I wouldn’t sample my kick from a song, unless you have a really good sample of a clean drum break. Even then, your kick has been permuted by all the processing done to the track you got it from. Loop packs can be dodgy too, I don’t really use them; the key is finding a couple of really great drum sample libraries. These can be bought, downloaded for free, torrented (though you didn’t hear that from me), or even found in your software library, depending on what software you use—though those samples tend to be kind of lame.

      Without exception, every one of my kicks comes from one of two libraries I use: one is a comprehensive set of 808 samples, the other a comprehensive set of 909 samples. I got both for free! Sometimes I’ll layer another, less standard kick with my main kick to give it some character, but usually I’ll stick to the main samples.

      808 and 909 kicks are the industry standard, but if you don’t want to use those, that’s fine too. Just go hunting for great drum sample libraries. Not loops, but one-shots. That’s my .02.

    • Lenny Kiser

      Hey Jim,
      Glad you found this helpful! As far as, “samples” I am referring to single hit drum sounds from either sample packs, built in Ableton samples or anything I have recorded myself from an analog drum machine, acoustic kick drum or field recording. Sample packs can be hit or miss as some are over-processed, but some are also really good!

  • Christinaperri

    If somebody want to make a great kick drum sound so they can admit a great music development institute or rkaudio.com.

    DJ Hardware

  • IM

    One correction, Bazzism is not shareware!! It’s a paid VST/AU plugin, and Thomas is a rad dude who has made a very helpful device.

  • Joseph Wilk

    Quick addendum to tip #1 (sorry if this is covered in the video, but I am at work): the chain selector can be assigned to a macro knob, making it even easier to scroll through potential kicks. Loopmasters had a good video about it last year (I am in no way affiliated with Loopmasters): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=839Ug8q10Is

    • Rafael Marques

      Thank you!

  • Jake Hale

    I’d love to see something on making a really nice snare, which for me where you can adjust the snap/crack

    • Guy&Girl

      /pop.

    • antifm

      Ill see what i can put together mate. Ill have to link you to my website that is still under development but ill try and post it here on the forums and maybe it will become another article in the DJTT website

      • Jake Hale

        awesome! KMP

    • Lenny Kiser

      Good idea!

  • HIGHFANCY

    That guy in the first picture looks like he went crazy trying to find the perfect sample 😛 Great article though learn something new everyday!

    • antifm

      The man in the photo is Frank Gossner, from Voodoo Funk. Picture was taken i think in Nigeria, by Damian Iwuagwu. You can find more on Voodoo Funk at http://www.voodoofunk.blogspot.com

      • Dan White

        Good spot! 🙂

        • antifm

          with 2+ decades in this industry, i better know who’s who or im toast!

  • lupzdut

    Great tips! Sometimes I forget how important it is to not overlook the smaller details.

    • Lenny Kiser

      It’s all about the small details that make a good track great!

  • Ewan Collins

    One thing that I would add is mixing your kick and drums int the track. You can have a dodgy sounding kick that sounds like someone is hitting a trashcan, but once in the mix sounds brilliant. So essentially, don’t spend hours on making a perfect kick by itself, because the kick has to work with the other instruments. Get it sounding good in the mix primarilly. Sometimes rubbish kicks sound better than the clean-cut perfect ones.

    • antifm

      Very good point. As a producer very early in my days, i found this out the hard way hahaha i was wondering why my kicks all sounded so muddy, and sometimes too bright

    • odizi

      I don’t totally agree. What I do is I spend a lot if time for the kick and the snare. I preload all my plug-ins in the master track (fl studio) and I mix all the stuff like I’m mixing/mastering a song. When it sound good for me, I can start and focus in the all sides of the track. It seems to work well for the moment.

  • Sasch Halpin

    Great tip, gonna try a few of these methods now. Cheers Lenny!