How to Get a Killer Kick Sound in Your Home Studio

The kick drum is used to keep the pulse in many genres of music, and along with the snare drum provides the underlying rhythm. It is therefore vitally important that the kick drum is heard in a mix, especially at the low end. Recording a great sounding kick drum requires some basic understanding of the drum construction, tuning, the room, and damping. Processing the kick drum recording in a mix requires some fundamental knowledge of compression and EQ. The kick drum usually poses a problem for home studio owners because it sits in the low end, and is, therefore challenging to fine-tune.

Parts of the Kick Drum and What They Do

Kick drums vary mainly in size and material, and all have some essential components. The kick drum comprises of a back head (batter, where the beater hits the drum) and a front head (resonant or reso). As with all drums, the two heads resonate with each other to provide the unique tone of the drum. The kick drum also comprises front and back hoops, lugs, shell, and supporting legs. Although not strictly part of the kick drum, the kick pedal is an integral part of the setup.

Main Parts of The Kick Drum

Figure 1: Main Parts of The Kick Drum

Sizes

Kick drums vary in depth and diameter. The depth of the kick drum generally ranges between 12,” and 22” and diameters range between 16” and 28”. Kick drums with a shorter depth tend to have less sustain and are therefore more punchy. Deeper kick drums have a more explosive sound. Kick drums with a greater diameter have a lower pitch compared to drums with a smaller diameter. The overall volume (depth x diameter) of the drum also plays a part in its tone and sustain. Rock and pop music tend to gravitate towards 22”,24” or 26”, while jazz musicians go for smaller kick drums around 18”.

Shell Material

In general kick drums are made from wood. Would is an excellent material for kick drum construction as it accentuates low-end frequencies. Trends change over the years; however, woods used in kick drum construction are typically Maple, Beech, Birch, Walnut, and Cherry. Different wood types provide different accentuated frequencies, for example, Birch accentuates low and high frequencies, whereas Cherry accentuates low frequencies only.

Some shells are made from synthetic materials, such as acrylic, fiberglass, and carbon fiber; however these are much less common than wooden shells. Acrylic kick drums were popular in the 1970s as they were part of acrylic drum kits produced at the time.

Heads (Batter and Resonant)

There are a wide variety of heads available from top brands such as Remo, Evans, and Aquarian. Heads that are suitable for recording include the Remo Powerstroke 3, Ambassadors or Emperors, Evans EQ3, and Aquarian SKII, but this is a lot to do with personal preference and taste. Think about using clear heads when recording and this will aid in the setup of microphone placement and damping. It is also common to cut a hole in the resonant head so that a microphone can be placed inside, or damping can be performed easily.

Coated heads provide an amount of built-in damping to the kick drum - check to see if your drum is pre-damped. We’ll cover damping more in detail in the next section, but look into the Evans Emad head if for further insight.

Heads are typically made from either one or two-ply plastic sheets. Two-ply is more durable whereas one-ply have a quicker playing response - two-ply is very suitable for heavy use.

Avoid using a batter head which has been repaired using tape - if budget allows replace the damaged head with a new one before recording. Check the batter head for dings and dimples, and again if budget allows replace it with a new one.

Tuning a Kick Drum for Recording

Regardless of what kind of drums you have, how expensive or cheap they are, tuning is probably the most crucial aspect when it comes to getting a killer sound on your kick drum. This is so important that it is worth mentioning twice - tuning is vital to getting a great sounding drum kit!

The method for tuning the batter and resonant heads is virtually the same. The resonant head can be used to adjust the tone and thump of the kick drum. The batter head will be tuned to provide a low pitch, but also to give the drummer something that feels responsive enough for the playing style - the tighter the batter head is tuned, the higher the response when being played.

Follow these simple steps to tune the kick drum heads:

  1. Overtighten every tension bolt on the front and back to be sure that the heads are fully “seated.” (This is especially important with brand new heads.)
  2. Loosen all the tension bolts so that the hoop and head are free to move.
  3. In the order shown in Figure 2 (below), hand tighten each tension bolt as tight as you can with your fingers.
  4. Repeat the process in step two, but this time, push the head at each position with the palm of your hand.
  5. Check that there are no wrinkles evident on the head.
  6. If you know how to adjust each lug position according to the tone at that point, do that - if not, don't worry.
  7. Turn each tension bolt 1/8th of a turn (follow Figure 2).
Kick Drum Lug Tightening Order

Figure 2: Kick Drum Lug Tightening Order

Finally, with the bass drum in the recording position, double-check that there are no wrinkles on either head, and check that none of the tensioning bolts and lugs are loose, or rattle while the batter head is being struck. While playing the kick drum listen for unwanted overtones - we will look at removing these in the next section.

Kick Drum Overtones

It is no secret that cheap drums the cheap heads produce many unwanted overtones. However, if you followed the tuning steps above, you will be well on your way to getting a great sounding kick. If you find that the kick drum has excessive overtones, revisit step 5 above and make sure there are absolutely no wrinkles in either of the two heads. Although if you still cannot get rid of the overtones with tuning, there is always more that can be done with additional damping.

There are a few homebrewed damping hacks that can be employed easily and at no cost. There are also quite a few commercial products available which boast they can do a much better job. These include various manufacturer’s weighted bass drum pillows, foam inserts, and felt strips.

In either case, damping the kick drum should be done without choking the tone of the drum and heads. The common mistake while trying to remove overtones is to stuff a duvet or large blanket inside the shell of the kick drum. While this removes all of the overtones, this also removes all of the character and tone of the drum. Instead, place a small blanket whose two ends gently touch the batter and resonant heads. Place a medium-heavy object on top to stop the blanket from moving around during playing. The heavy object should not be so heavy that it affects the sound the kick drum too much.

Remember to check the sound of the kick drum, overtones and all, through the mic and recording system that you will use to capture the drum track.

Getting the Kick Drum Sound Right for the Song

Depending on the type of music that you are producing the kick drum sound will differ on each production. For example, when producing a speed metal song, the kick drum will be energetic, fast, and repetitive. In this case, the kick will sound more appealing if the sustain is low, the attack is fast, and the volume is even.

The sound of the kick in a speed metal song will be entirely different from that of the sound of the kick drum in a slow ballad. In a slow ballad, the space between kick drum hits will be longer and therefore require longer sustain - and probably be played, and recorded at varying volumes.

Try to set up the kick drum sound in the recording phase to match the type of song that is being produced. For example, varying the damping inside the drum will affect the sustain and will be helpful later on when mixing. A useful rule to follow is at the sustain of the kick drum should be finished before the next hit.

The Drummer

Taken from: Williams, T. (2019). How to Get a Killer Snare Sound in Your Home Studio. [online] Williamssoundstudio.com. Available at: https://williamssoundstudio.com/recording/how-to-get-a-killer-snare-sound.php.

The final sound of your finished mixed will be significantly affected by the performances of the musicians who played on it. The drummer is no exception. His or her performance will dictate a lot of how the final song will feel and groove.

The drummer that you end up recording with will either be a novice or a seasoned professional - or anything in between. He or she will have some recording experience or none at all. All of which should be taken into consideration when managing a recording session.

For the inexperienced drummer, patience and encouragement is king - keep the mood light and enjoyable, stay professional, record every take, and be prepared to put in some extra effort to nail each section of the song. This is a home studio after all - not Studio II at Sunset Sound!

Patience and Encouragement is King

Figure 3: Patience and Encouragement is King

Kick Drum Pedal

Now that we have talked about the kick drum itself, let’s spend a little bit of time understanding the all-important beater and pedal. Depending on the type of music that is being played drummer well either be using a single or double kick drum pedal. The double kick drum pedal requires a little more setup and a larger footprint in the recording room.

You may or may not have access to a selection of beaters. Beaters come in the following materials: rubber, plastic, wood, and felt. Plastic and wood beaters provide a little more attack and click, whereas felt and rubber are a little softer. Felt beaters are probably the most common and are generally okay for most music genres.

Make sure that the pedal is adjusted so that the action is smooth and sensitive. The drummer will likely have their setup preference, but in the case of a novice, you may need to help out. To set up a kick drum pedal, there are a few primary adjustments that need to be understood. These are spring tension, beater swing, and beater height. The beater should be about 4 inches from the batter head when the drummer’s foot is resting on the footplate.

Check that the pedal does not squeak while played. You may think that a small squeak on the kick drum pedal cannot be heard over the sound of the drums however you’ll be surprised that when the track is compressed how evident the squeak will become. If you find a squeak spray a modest amount of lubricating oil (WD-40) onto the area causing the noise. The squeaks are generally produced by the moving parts of the pedal. Wipe off any excess lubricating oil and do not allow any oil to get onto the footplate as this will cause the drummer’s foot to slip and slide on the footplate.

The kick drum in the kick pedal need to be stable while the drummer is playing. In some situations, it is advisable to put a large, heavy object in front of the bass drum to stop it from moving around. Additionally, many kick drum pedals have rubber pads on the bottom, and spikes that can be extended to grab into the drum carpet. Be careful not to damage the floor if using the pedal spikes.

The pedal must also be clamped to the inner hoop of the kick drum. Some pedals include a piece of rubber to stop the hoop from being damaged. It is especially important to protect the hoop if it is made from wood. Add a piece of fabric, or rubber if you have it, between the pedal clamp and the hoop if the pedal is not already fitted with one.

On occasions, the kick pedal clamp will be damaged and cannot be securely attached to the hoop. Sometimes the tightening bolt is missing or damaged. If the pedal cannot be repaired and your budget allows, purchase a new kick drum pedal.

Microphone Setup for Recording the Kick Drum

In a home studio environment, we are usually limited to the number of microphones we can use to record a kick drum. Professional studios tend to use at least two microphones, one placed at the batter head and one placed at the front of the drum.

Record with microphones that are capable of capturing the low energy of the kick drum. Look for something with a large-diaphragm like the Shure BETA 52A, or BETA 91A.

Remember that the overhead and room microphones will also add to the sound and texture of the kick drum.

Recording with the Kick-out Microphone

If you only have one microphone available the kick drum record at the kick-out position.

If there is a hole already cut in the resonant head you can use this to position the kick-out mic. If you or the drummer are not comfortable with cutting a new hole in the resonant head remove the front head. Place the microphone a few inches inside the drum and point it towards the striking position of the beater.

Recording with the Kick-in Microphone

If you’re lucky enough to have a second microphone uses it at this position.

Point the second microphone directly at the striking point where the beater hits the batter head. This will ensure that the microphone captures the attack (click sound) of each hit. Position the microphone close enough to the sound source but do not position it where it will interfere with the drummer’s performance.

Kick-in and Kick-out Phases

Phases should always be considered whenever recording a single sound source with two or more microphones - audio cancellation can occur when two recorded signals are mixed together. Careful placement of microphones will help to reduce phase issues while recording. It is usually advisable to put microphones the same distance away from the sound source however in the case of the kick drum, as this is such a large piece of equipment, this is not practically possible.

It is therefore advisable to check any phase cancellation issues by either listening to, or recording, the kick drum signal through your DAW. If you find any phase cancellation issues move either or both of the microphones until the phase cancellation is removed.

Also, check that the kick drum phases are in alignment with the overhead and room microphones. Remember that phase alignment can be done in the mix but should be done before recording.

Kick Drum Mix Group

If you are recording the kick drum with two or more microphones it is highly recommended to put both tracks through a single auxiliary track (group). A grouped track allows manipulation of the mixed sound from one fader and one set of controls. This is also useful if you decide later to add a parallel compressed track, a sampled track, or any separately copied and processed tracks.

Mixing Through a Drum Bus

Setup your mix session so that the drums are all routed through a drum bus. This is common practice and allows manipulation of the complete drum group through one auxiliary track. In this way, you will be able to change levels, mute, and solo all of the drums at the same time.

If you set up the kick drum mix group described above, route that through the drum bus. The drum bus will usually be routed to the mix bus.

Gating the Kick Drum

Even with the correct microphone choice, the placement of the kick drum microphones will inevitably record bleed from other parts of the drum kit. Some mixes sound absolutely fine when drum microphone bleed is unprocessed, however this is a matter of taste and genre and sometimes the kick drum track will need to be gated.

Care is needed here is sometimes the gate will remove quieter hits. Often a standard gate will be sufficient to process the track, however it may be required to use an advanced gating setup for full control. Advanced gating requires a duplicate kick drum track, with a low-pass filter feeding the side-chain of the gate on the original track. Some advanced gate plug-ins have an inbuilt low-pass filter which makes this process a little simpler.

Compressing the Kick Drum Track

As a jumping-off point we are going to aim for 3 to 4 dB of gain reduction. Start with a compression ratio of 3:1 and increase it if necessary - generally the more aggressive the music, the more aggressive the compression ratio. Set the initial attack to 4 or 5 ms and dial it back to clamp down further on the initial transient. Set the release time at 200 ms - this is a fantastic starting point for kick drums.

Compressing the Kick Drum Track

Kick Drum EQ

Follow these four steps to EQ your kick drum:

  1. Use a high-pass filter and remove all frequencies below 40 Hz.
  2. Find the fundamental frequency of the kick drum and boost it 2 or 3 dBs. The bass drum fundamental frequency changes per drum but generally sits around 60 Hz - it’s the first big bump on the left of the frequency spectrum.
  3. Cut out any unwanted resonant frequencies (these generally sit between 200 and 600 Hz).
  4. Emphasize the sound of the beater on the batter head by adding 1 or 2 dBs somewhere around 3 kHz - sweep the frequency up and down until you get the beater sound that fits the song.

The kick drum and the bass need to sit in the mix together - this is covered in the last section in this article.

Should I Put Reverb on My Kick Drum?

It is not always a great idea to add reverb to any instrument with a lot of low end - these are usually best left dry. However, it is certainly possible to add reverb to the “beater click” attack sound. Just remember that you will probably need to remove the low end first. This is easily achievable by filtering the signal before putting it through the reverb and can add a subtle effect, especially with a long pre-delay. In all cases, the reverb should be used musically and sparingly.

Augmenting the Kick Drum Sound with the Sample

In quite a few cases, especially in a home studio, it is simply not possible to record a great sounding kick drum. Sometimes there is just too much bleed, the microphone is not up to the job, or you cannot get a cheap drum kit to sound as good as you’d like.

It is entirely possible to save a mix using sampled kick drum sounds. The samples that can be replaced are generally the kick in, kick out, and kick-room microphones. The process of applying sampled sounds to drums can quickly become complicated, and therefore, it is just briefly mentioned it here.

Adding Artificial Low End

One trick for adding some artificial low end is to trigger a 60 Hz (or equivalent fundamental frequency of the kick drum) from the original recorded kick drum track. This may be necessary in cases where the original kick drum track is missing some bottom end.

  1. Set up a new auxiliary track and insert a gate, which is side-chained from the original kick track, that opens in sync with the kick drum pattern. Insert a sine wave generator (set to 60 Hz) before the gate, so that when the gate opens, the low-frequency sign wave is played.
  2. Adjust the gate settings (attack and release) so that the artificial sound blends naturally with the original kick drum track.

As this is an artificial sound consider applying some additional distortion and harmonics to make the effect more natural.

Mixing the Kick Drum and Bass Guitar

Although this is a little off-topic for this article, it is worth mentioning the interaction between the kick drum and bass guitar in rock and pop productions. As both of these instruments occupy the low-frequency range in a mix, it is essential to be able to separate them so that they can easily be heard.

There are a few methods to get the kick drum and bass guitar to sit together in a mix:

  1. Using EQ on the bass guitar track carve out a few dBs at the kick drum fundamental frequency.
  2. Use to side-chain on a compressor to duck the bass guitar when the kick drum is played.
  3. Use a little of 1 and 2 above.

The amount that the bass guitar needs to be attenuated depends on the recordings. However, a reduction of 2 or 3 dB is usually enough to do the trick. Aim to have the processed bass guitar track and kick drum track at the same SPL. As both instruments sit in the low end, use your studio headphones to set the levels, or use a VU meter or spectrum analyzer as a graphical aid.