Bass Drum Mixing

Posted on Posted in Music Mastering

Written by Edward Vinatea

Creating the bottom end / mixing bass drums

Table Of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Setting Up The Right Bass Kick Drum Level
  • Mixing EDM Bass Drums
  • Going Sub Sonic
  • Bass Drum Compression
  • Mixing Bass Drum & Bass Line
  • Ducking
  • Bass Drum Equalization
  • Things To Avoid

Introduction

Honestly, trying to learn drum mixing online can be very frustrating and a waste of time, especially if the stuff you read was written by a rookie engineer. Even if you can hear audio examples, you could still be learning from someone with a hidden agenda to sell you something. Yes, you could think the same about this article, but please read on, hopefully I will disprove that too.

Setting Up The Right Bass Kick Drum Level

Whatever tips, or online samples you download, hear, etc, the information could be completely wrong for your song/mix. I’m not talking about beat patterns, but track leveling. There are many variables, so you need to listen to what the song needs in the first place. The reality is, there is no instruction manual to get the correct level of a kick drum in any mix. Having said that, you need a flat response speaker monitor to get within the ball park. A nice, full and balanced kick drum is the result of critical monitoring and experience. If you are unsure that you are overcompensating for the lack of a good monitoring environment, try playing your mix on as many systems as you can and listen for how the kick translates. Does this kick drum pop up your chest in and out of your song? Is it deep and phat for your hip hop, dance music track? These questions can only be answered by ‘listening’, and that can be subjective at times. To make it more objective, you’d need a spectrum analyzer. As a matter of fact, with one, you could nail the kick’s mix level each time without needing to check on multiple playback systems, this is especially true if you do mixes very consistently and repetitively all the time. You do need, however, to be RTA trained.

Assuming you have your drums laid out and ready to be mixed, have you ever wondered how some of the mixes you’ve heard sound really punchy and phat? More often than not, what you’ve heard was the result of mastering.

But, were these great sounding bass drums the result of the mastering process alone? The answer is, no. The mix itself has to have the correct bass drum level, eq and compression for this great sound to emerge. Even the kick drum you are trying to record is very important because of its fundamentals. If you are capturing/tracking in your own studio, then the microphone type, its polarity and position is important to the set up and thus, successful recording. Knowing that setting up a drum kit for recording may require anywhere from 2 to 30 mics, this article doesn’t discuss tracking or mixing in the studio. Nevertheless, you may still pick up another tip or two about drum mixing, and you may even learn a bit more about what ME’s can do to improve upon your record’s bottom end, or reinforce what you’ve already learned in the past.

Mixing EDM Bass Drums

In this brief article I focus first on EDM (electronic dance music) and try to explain a few concepts. It all starts with what you choose as your main bass drum. In case you thought I was going to discuss working with only one bass drum track/channel; be aware that the reason some bass drums sound ‘huge’ and fuller than others is usually the result of layering multiple kick drums.

 

The best dance remixers in the world will tell you that in order to get a ‘big kick drum’ sound, you probably need to layer two or more bass drums that complement each other. In theory, if you doubled the same sound, you only increase amplitude, so you end up with the same thing, only louder. That’s not what we are after. If you use a drum track copy and shift it, the result is a phasey kick drum. We don’t want that either.

You need to understand what is needed for your bottom end in the first place. For example, there are thin kick drums that have great punch and there are heavy boomy kick drums that have a ‘phat’ sound which gives a tremendous presence (weight) in all lower frequencies, including sub sonic content.

Furthermore, you could have 2 different types of bass drums with similar fundamentals, harmonics and sub harmonics, but with two different beat patterns which create an excitement to the bottom end (e.g. one on the downbeat and the other one off with a slight time shift)

While having great impact on the bottom end may also not be always necessary and some of these tips may not work for some of you who – for instance – record and mix classical, pop, country, blues or even some rock, they are a must do for most dance, reggae, hip hop and even some R&B mixes. Just imagine how an EDM track with a thin and undefined kick drum will sound in the club, or a rock ballad with a soft brush snare pattern and with a huge, heavy bass drum will sound on the radio. It’s a matter of aesthetics and there is usually a good type of bass drum for each song.

But remember, we are not talking about arrangement but bass energy or power, a.k.a. ‘the bottom end’. If we were, then we would also be questioning the need of a bass drum for your tune in the first place.

Even when two or more bass drums are not layered together, you can usually hear a second one, for example, coming from a sample loop. One thing that remains constant in all music genres is, whatever kick drum you choose for your music, it needs to be at the correct level.

This is perhaps more important than any fancy multi-layered kick drum arrangement at the end of the day, because if the bass drums are not leveled high up enough in the mix, the purpose of multi-layering them in the first place is defeated .

BTW, if your drum foundation is based on one sampled beat loop, you need to listen careful and make sure that the sample was very well recorded and that all frequencies needed to create an exciting rhythm track are all represented. Because you can’t control individual drum levels on sampled beats, the results are usually not professional enough and when compared to most commercially released tracks, you end up disappointed. So other than to use them as effects or as part of your drums foundation, set up a real drum mix and separate as many drums as you can, especially what we are discussing here, your bass drums.

Going Sub-Sonic

Another thing to consider is your speaker monitors. Many people are mixing kick drums that are sub sonic or almost sub, without sub woofers. They use monitors that cannot reach sub sonic frequency response {around 45Hz and below}. If you are mixing a phat and heavy sub sonic kick drum like the ones from the famous Roland 808 on monitors that don’t have sub sonic frequency response, you are going to most likely over compensate for what you don’t hear, thus producing a mix with excessive bass frequencies, especially at the sub sonic level. Read this anecdotal article regarding mixing-mastering sub sonic kick drums in a Hip Hop track {click here}.

In order to be good at mixing drums, you need to know the basics:

Bass Drum Compression 

It is through this processor that we can obtain control over bass drum dynamics. There are no set rules of thumb to get the best sound out of a compressor, but its correct use is as important as how you apply frequency equalization to it {How the kick track gets equalized in respect to the big picture}

Most beginners squash the signal with the wrong amount of threshold, ratio, and kill the punch by not changing the attack time. If you are not sure of what you are doing, just set the threshold so that your gain reduction is about 3 dB. Change your attack to 20ms and start with a soft compression ratio of 2:1, and literally, play it by ear.

For the most part,  it’s always better to leave a bass drum uncompressed with higher dynamics at the correct level than a squashed kick drum {over-compressed} at the wrong level. Some engineers may argue that leaving a kick uncompressed isn’t good either, but if you send your mix this way for mastering, the mastering engineer could fix the higher kick drum notes with narrow band compression. But again, doing it right in the mix yields the best results.

There are other tricks like copying the same bass drum to another track and re-arranging or filtering frequencies, roughly between 38Hz and 200Hz so that the result is a ‘second’ kick track with more punch but without sub sonic information. Mixed together and at the right level with the original  bass drum track, it will get the punch that is lacking. Granted, you could argue that you can get similar results by applying the filters directly to the kick, but it won’t be as effective. Sure, if you know exactly where the punch and its harmonics are, then by all means try that (more about this on another article 🙂

Mixing Bass Drum & Bass Line

Now, leveling the bass drum in a way that sounds good for your type of mix is half the story .

Whether it’s a real fender bass guitar or a PCM {pulse code modulation} bass sample, how you layer these two will result in a well defined or undefined bass area. Working with a low cut eq filter  a.k.a. HPF, could be the best tool to separate a kick from a bassline, but careful attention should be paid to their relative levels.

The bassline should be present but never overtaking the bass drum at any given moment throughout the mix because it will mask the kick’s impact. Also, panning the bass drum or the bassline more to one side of the stereo field is impractical because bass sounds have more weight and sound better when they are panned dead center. So, avoid panning these to the side channels.

One technique often used when mixing these two tracks/elements is ‘ducking’.

Ducking

Let’s suppose you have a bass guitar or synth line and a kick drum track but it seems that the kick gets “smeared” or under defined  because of the bassline, both have overlapping frequencies and similar frequency range and the presence of the bass tends to overwhelm the kick drum’s presence. It would then be nice if the bass was a bit softer each time the kick drum hits, right? The solution is known as “ducking” (the bass “ducks” each time the kick hits).

The illustration shows the ducking process in Logic Audio and as described below.

On the bass track, insert a compressor, and instead of letting the bass sound itself trigger the compressor, select the kick drum  from the Side Chain popup menu in the compressor. (Note that the names of the Audio Objects will not show up in the popup; you have to pick the right object by looking at the Object’s parameter pane or on its channel strip, right below its Output pop-up). Additionally (important) you have to switch off “Auto Gain” in the Compressor. What you have now is a bass track that only gets compressed when the kick drum is active, thus creating a kind of “pocket” for the kick to sit inside. As for the Auto Gain: when this is on, Logic will compensate the attenuation that takes place in the Compressor, by amplifying the output signal. In this particular case you explicitly do not want that to happen: the entire idea is centered around getting the bass to play softer. Auto Gain would destroy that.

Bass Drum Equalization

This is where lots of you can’t get it right most of the time. The reason is the lack of a control room for mixing and your studio monitors. Trust me, unless you are truly working in a professional studio environment or have tons of experience mixing, you’ll never get it right. Well, if you try and keep trying, you might get lucky.

That also doesn’t mean that you will never get the kick in your mix to sound good enough for the mastering guy to master your mix. But, the most frequent mistake is to submit a mix with a weak sounding kick drum and expect the mastering process to “magically” make it sound like that killer-phat bass drum you heard from the last DMX CD, or a slamming dance track from remixer Moby. If you want that result, then choose that phat killer kick drum for your mix in the first place, or forget it.

The second most common mistake is to over-boost the lows with a generic low-frequency shelving filter or bump some of the low frequencies with a bell type eq where it wasn’t needed, and then expect that the mastering engineer will make it sound heavier at his end. Again, it’s not going to happen, so choose the ‘right’ kick drum in the first place. We {ME’s} may try some corrective equalization {which could only bring back the sound of the kick to its original state} but again, if the fundamentals are not there, expect disappointing results.

We (ME’s) have tricks to fix some bass drum issues, but 90% of the time these badly compressed, equalized and mixed kicks come with similar bass-line problems.

The result is a mess in the low end that nobody can fix except you, of course, but at your end. Assuming you are working with sound modules and drum machines, in my experience, it’s best to use the sample, synth patch or module sound just as it is. I find that 90% of the time these percussion tones sound great by default and need no eq changes, especially at the low end. So, it’s only a matter of you mixing them at the correct level and programming some nice dynamics to their envelope settings {mainly to create an accent to the downbeat and maybe some swing, etc}.

Things To Avoid

OK! Finally, try not to have your drums and bass line sub mixed {stem mixing}, if you do or you have to, then be sure to have the ability to go back to the original drum mix session to adjust/correct and sub mix them back to two tracks again. Needless to say that once imported back to your session, your sub mix should be panned one track hard left and the other hard right, if not, the side channels go to the center, losing all the stereo information in your two-track stereo sub-mix. It would also sound mono-ish and louder than before.

Another thing, try not to mix directly from a MIDI drum machine and/or other tone generators (via syncing to SMPTE/MTC or other) if they don’t have separate outputs to their individual drum instruments. If you do it and the bass drum doesn’t sound correct, you will need to adjust levels from the parameter menus in those units and try again until you get it right. The draw back of working this way is that usually those MIDI devices don’t have any sound reinforcement gear built-in, like compressors and equalizers. What you hear is what you get and there maybe some latency issues with this method as well. So, transfer the sounds {again separately, if possible) to a workstation {DAW} and use your audio software to mix and tweak your tracks from there.

As a ME, I have been able to re-build and re-shape bass from badly mixed music sources, but don’t count on this as every engineer’s part of his mastering process. Ultimately, it’s you and not the mastering guy who has to make sure that the sound of the bass drum(s) in your music and the overall mix is good for the mastering stage. You must be happy with the sound of your drums and bass in the first place and prior to order mastering. And don’t forget, if the mix doesn’t already stand on its own, you need to go back and figure out what you need to change to make sound great.

If you need more information, go to our message board to post questions or create a new discussion.

Recommended reading:

Mixing sub sonic kicks in Hip Hop

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