Once we have a good sounding sample for our kick, there are a number of ways we can enhance its clarity and punch in the mix.
The first thing to do is to use an EQ to remove any excessive sub frequencies. Depending on the EQ you’re using and the sample, you should cut anywhere from 15hz and below to 30hz and below to remove excessive sub rumble. Frequencies below 20hz are not even audible and unfortunately subs in this area have a nasty habit of distorting your frequency balance and eating up massive amounts of headroom unnecessarily.
The second thing to consider is the relationship of kick and bassline. Typically, we want the kick to peak around 55hz, as this is precisely where large club systems have their most powerful low end. The bass should sit around 90hz and up, and because of the frequency overlap that naturally occurs with these two elements, you really have to be smart about the composition of the track in general. A long subby kick will not mix well (regardless of punch enhancement) with a big, subby, long release bassline. The push and pull between the kick and bass is one of the most crucial elements in dance music and is something you should always consider before trying to enhance punch, as a proper kick/bass relationship will naturally allow more room for the kick in the mix.
The most obvious and easy way we can enhance punch in a kick is the proper use of a compressor. It’s important to remember that proper compression will not only shape the attack of the kick we’re using, but also the body and tail of the kick as well. To enhance the snap of a kick’s attack, we want to use an attack time on the compressor which can range anywhere from 5 to 30 miliseconds. This will allow the initial snap of the kick to pass through the compressor relatively untouched, which helps us preserve and enhance punch. If you’re using a compressor with an internal sidechain feature that’s tied to a highpass filter, use it. One major problem you’ll run into when compressing kicks is that heavy compression can really kill the sub element of a sound- using the highpass filter built into your compressor can help reduce this. Also, it’s usually good practice to blend some dry signal (assuming your compressor has a dry/wet mix knob) back into the kick after compression: this helps us preserve transients, keep some sub frequencies intact, and avoid over-compressing the kick, which will actually suck all punch out of the sound. Below is a clip of the uncompressed kick, followed by the same kick compressed with the Klanghelm DC8C compressor (70/30 dry wet, 3db of gain reduction).
A quick but essential point to make here: use your ears, always. This kick is sampled from the intro of a commercial track, so it’s already had a ton of processing applied and been mastered. Kicks like this not only don’t need much further processing, but too much will actually degrade their punch and quality. Go easy on compression if the kick is already processed!
Another excellent way to enhance the punch of the kick is to use a transient designer plugin - the best on the market in my opinion is the SPL transient designer, although many built in plugins like Logic’s Enveloper work just fine as well. The SPL is an extremely simple but powerful plugin, so long as you don’t overdo things. Simply increase the attack knob by just a bit, and you’ll hear the initial snap and punch of your kick slice right through the mix. Below you can hear the original kick, followed by the SPL transient designer. It’s followed by a clip of the kick with slight compression and transient enhancement. Notice how you can really hear added snap and punch on the kick’s initial transients.
In a post coming up later this week, I’ll be going into great detail about another technique we can use to enhance punch - parallel compression. It’s a bit too much to go into here but definitely stay tuned for that tutorial as well if you’re interested in this topic.
One warning: be careful not to overdo things. As you will quickly see when experimenting with compressors and transient designers, there is only so much punch you can add before the kick starts to sound strange, distort, or completely loses it’s low end to an unacceptable level. If you’re using Vengeance samples, or samples from commercial tracks, again be very careful here: these samples have already been highly compressed and additional compression will likely do more harm than good.
Finally, be aware at all times that the most important thing with any mix is it’s balance and overall structure. I might have a kick sample that sounds great in a properly balanced mix without any compression or transient enhancement, because the levels of it’s surrounding elements are correct and not overpowering the kick. If I put the same kick into a cluttered mess of a mix with no frequency or level control, it’s likely going to sound like it doesn’t have nearly as much punch - but this has nothing to do with the quality of the kick. If there’s one technical thing you guys take away from this or any of my tutorials, let it be the following: always, always be aware that when producing music, you are working with a fixed and limited amount of headroom. There is no plugin, transient designer, or trick that lets us produce over 0dB without clipping or needing to lower the master. Because we’re working with a fixed amount of headroom, this means that we can only fit so many elements at a certain level into our mix before we start crowding the mix, leading to masking, distortion, loss of punch and clarity, and a whole host of other bad things. Always remember that less is more, and even the punchiest kick in the world will lose it’s power if it’s placed in a bad mix.