Making Tracks: Just for Kicks

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FIG. 1: The beat heard in the online audio example was created in the Step Sequencer grid in Image Line FL Studio 8.

The pulse of the kick drum anchors just about every pop-music arrangement. So getting the kick to sit perfectly in the mix is essential. Finding the right rhythm for the song is vital, too — but assuming you've nailed the rhythm you want, what can you do if the kick still isn't working?

Depending on how the kick sound is being generated, you'll have various tools with which to massage it or thrash it into submission (see Fig. 1 and Web Clips 1 and 2). If it's embedded in a sampled loop, for instance, you may need to extract it to a separate audio track or copy and paste the kick audio into a sampler. The methods for doing that are beyond the scope of this column. Assuming the kick is available as a separate sample, I'll show you some good ways to mess with it (see “Step-by-Step Instructions”).

Overtone Control

A kick that sounds firm and full when soloed may have too much beater click when placed in the mix. You can pull back the highs using EQ or a gentle lowpass filter, but then it may not cut through enough. Apply a peaking filter (which emphasizes the overtones at its peak frequency without cutting any) to the highs or mids to move the kick forward in the mix. This is often a better approach to making it more audible than simply increasing its overall level at the mixer.

If the kick is mostly boom, with no mids or highs that can be brought out with EQ and filtering, apply some distortion to add overtones. Heavier industrial styles call for a lot of distortion, but a little gentle distortion may work well to fill in the kick sound in grooves that are not quite so in-your-face.

Tune Out the Mud

If your kick has a ringing sustained tone, when you add a bass track you may find that the kick and bass are fighting with one another, producing sonic mud. This can happen when the tone of the kick is in a different key from the bass line.

One way to deal with this is to retune the kick up or down a few half steps so that it's in the right key. If the kick sample is assigned to multiple MIDI keys, you can do this by editing the sequencer track. If it's assigned to only one key, use the coarse tuning parameter in the sampler.

If the bass line is harmonically active, you may still find the frequencies fighting. In that case, try shortening the decay or release segment of the kick's envelope so its tone stops more quickly. In one song, I used a sustaining kick tone in the intro, tuned to the key of the song, but when the bass entered, I switched to a kick that used the same sample and played the same rhythm but with a shorter envelope decay so that the tone was tighter.

Speaking of envelopes, some musical styles call for a softer, more muffled kick. You can easily tame an aggressive kick by lengthening the attack time of the kick's amplitude envelope. The ear is very sensitive to attack transients, so even a small adjustment can make a big difference.

It's About Time

Advancing a MIDI event just slightly ahead of the beat makes it feel more aggressive. Delaying it just slightly behind the beat creates a laid-back feel. To experiment with this, start with a perfectly quantized beat and put your sequencer in loop playback mode. In the piano-roll editor, switch off the snap-to-grid option, zoom in so that the mouse can make very small timing changes, and scoot individual kick-drum notes forward or backward.

This technique can be especially useful if you choose to layer one kick with another. The attack transients in the two kicks may not line up perfectly, which could result in a double-click or flam sound. This can work well in a hip-hop groove, as it can add a hypnotic feeling that something is slightly wrong. But if you don't want it, grab the MIDI notes that are triggering one of your two kicks and drag them forward or backward, moving them all by the same amount, until the flam disappears.

Sometimes I use radically different kick sounds in different parts of a song, strictly for the sake of variety or surprise. Another way to keep the kick fresh is to automate subtle sonic changes during the course of the song. For instance, you might add more distortion at a key point in the chorus, or lengthen the attack time slightly to enhance the more hesitant sound of the bridge. And don't forget to edit the kick pattern when it's time for a fill.

Jim Aikin writes about music technology, teaches classical cello, and writes fiction. Visit him online



Step 1: Choose a filter type that will bring out the best in the kick.

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Step 2: To add missing overtones, apply some gentle distortion.

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Step 3: Retune the kick up or down so that it''s in the same key as the song.

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Step 4: For a softer tone, increase the envelope attack time slightly.

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Step 5: FL Studio''s Step Sequencer window has a strip chart for shifting the timing of notes.

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Step 6: Automating sonic changes can keep the kick fresh.

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