Hey everyone! My apologies for the long wait for this new tutorial but I’ve had an extremely busy past few weeks. I’d like to thank everyone for their support on the Fleetwood Mac “Dreams” remix which peaked at #8 on HypeM’s most popular chart and #2 on We Are Hunted! Next week I have another great tutorial coming, featuring an interview with my mastering engineer, multi-platinum producer Holger Lagerfeldt. This month will be exciting as I have a bunch of new tutorials (including a very detailed YouTube tutorial on Sidechaining), a new remix, and my first podcast in my new monthly mix series which are all coming soon. As always you can keep up with my latest news on Facebook or Twitter.
For today’s tutorial I wanted to address something that someone asked about on Facebook, which is how to avoid muddiness and get a kick to really punch right through a mix. In dance/pop production your kick is truly the anchor of your track and in my opinion it’s the single most important element, so this is a very good topic to get into.
Before I get into the various methods we can use to enhance the punch and attack of our kicks, it’s first important to consider the kick sample that we’re using. When I was starting out with producing, I would constantly struggle to understand how the producers I was comparing myself to were getting their drums so huge and punchy in the mix. I constantly read compression tutorials, eq methods, and all kinds of things thinking that the problem was in my compression techniques or something technical like that. It wasn’t. The real problem was, my samples were crap. When I began to track down stems of major artists such as Kaskade, and I listened to their drum stems, I realized that while they were certainly better than me at compressing, their samples were just infinitely better than mine were to start with. This taught me a valuable lesson, maybe the most valuable tip, that I can possibly pass on to you guys: the quality of your sounds and samples is a thousand times more important than your processing techniques. There’s a lot of reasons “pro” productions sound so good, but no single thing is as important to the pro sound as picking amazing samples right from the jump. There’s only so far you can go in trying to turn a poor sample or sound into a good one with effects and processing.
So what makes a good kick sample? To put it simply, great low end power, snappy mid/high range punch, and proper enveloping/release time. The low end (the sub component) of the kick is obviously responsible for the weight and body of the kick, and it’s what makes a kick thump on a big club system. Equally important is the snappy and punchy mid or high range element(s), which can be hi hats, click sounds, cowbells, or any number of samples that have a nice sharp attack and mid range punch. Many young producers leave out or don’t focus on the mid range component of their kick enough, assuming that if the sub is powerful it will cut through a mix regardless - unfortunately this could not be more wrong. If you listen carefully to your favorite dance records, you’ll notice that the producer almost definitely used a very powerful hi hat or mid range layer to the kick which allows it to slice through the often congested 1k-4k area of a mix.
The final element of a great kick is it’s enveloping - its attack and release characteristics, or to put it simply - it’s length. The part of this where I hear a lot of mistakes made (and where I used to make many mistakes myself) is on the release part of the kick. I cannot stress enough how massive of an impact on your track the release and length of a kick will have. The duration and release slope of your kick will have more of an impact than anything else in your track on the groove, the feel, what kind of bassline will fit in the mix, and many other things. As a general rule, when making my own kicks (I use the Metrum plugin by Vengeance Sound), I start enveloping by setting the kick to end at 235ms or somewhere around there (this is an eighth note at 128bpm), and then start playing with both the release time and the release curve. For snappier, french house style kicks (like those used by Madeon) you often want a very short kick, often as short as a sixteenth note, or with a sharper release curve at 1/8th. These types of kicks are very short, snappy, tend to have less sub content, and are enveloped very precisely to cut quickly in and out of the mix. For kicks that are more common in electro house (Mord Fustang comes to mind here), I often hear kicks with a more generous release time (1/8th note and a pretty full release). These kicks consequently carry more low end weight and occupy far more room in the mix, which means there’s less room for other elements.
In the audio clip below, you can hear two different versions of the same kick: one with an un-enveloped and quite long release, and one with (to my ears anyway) a more preferable shorter release time and sharper release curve. You can also hear quite clearly how even without compression or manipulation of the kick aside from it’s envelope, the whole groove of the kick and top loop changes. Notice how when the end of the kick is trimmed shorter with a quicker release, there’s a nice push and pull that emerges between the kick and snare. The final point to make here is that there is no right or wrong, as the duration of the kick is completely up to you and what kind of track you’re making, and what you want the mix to sound like. I merely want to point out that getting a punchy kick and clear low end starts with using the proper kind of sample and realizing the impact that this sample will have on the rest of the mix. Clearly, if we use the super long version of this kick, there’s going to be very little low end room left in the mix for a bassline, and so on.
In part II, I’ll move on and discuss some techniques we can use to actually enhance the punch of our kicks and make them sit better in the mix.