This might be unpopular, but I don’t recommend that you use kick drum synth plugins. Too many producers waste time trying to synthesize a good kick when they should be focusing on writing a good song.
You see, the top sound designers that make all the samples for Splice, Loop Master, Vengeace etc have some very nice analog drum machines, very nice analog outboard gear, and many years of experience.
It would be extremely unlikely that you could achieve a better result with a single digital plugin. Even more unlikely that you could do it quickly.
Pianists don’t build their own pianos. They just write music.
At the time of writing, there are 185,575 kick drum samples available on Splice alone. So there is plenty of unique and high quality kick drum samples out there for everyone.
Let your songs define you first. We can look at custom kicks later.
There is nothing wrong with tuning your drums, but tuning your kick is yet another Youtube tutorial tip has not been explained well. You do not need to do it every time.
The only time you need to tune your bass drum to the key of your song is when you are using a long tonal kick that has a clear note to it. e.g. big room boomy EDM kicks, Trap 808 kicks, and sometimes long Techno kicks.
If your kick is short and percussive (like most kicks), it is unlikely that its pitch will have a frequency clashing problem.
If it is not causing a problem, yet you decide to tune it anyway, then one of two things might happen.
You will tune it up and then your kick will become too punchy and have less bass. Or you will tune it down and your kick will lose punch and become too subby.
If your kick is not tonal, you should choose the pitch based on the punch and feeling more so than a note on a keyboard.
It's not worth sacrificing a great sounding and feeling kick, so the numbers/notes on your analyzer look pretty.
If you are not sure, then the Ableton Tuner plugin can help out to some extent. Play your kick through it. If it struggles to find a stable note then there is a good chance that it is a percussive kick.
If it finds a stable note, then your kick might be tonal. In such case, you would tune it to the root note of the song. If that fights with the bass or feels too low/high then you can sometimes tune it to the 5th (+7 semitones). Or an octave below that at (-5 semitones from the root note).
You could say that the kick drum frequency range of most acoustic kick drums is somewhat similar. But for us music producers it is different every time.
However, there are still a few fundamental kick frequencies that I find useful when EQing a kick drum.
I am often asked how to eq kick drum frequencies to make them sound fat. Well, if you choose a good kick drum sample then there is a good chance that it will need no EQ at all.
If something still sounds strange, then try looking at those frequencies I mentioned above. Try a boost or a cut on each and see if it makes it sound more like your reference songs.
Kick drum compression is often overdone. I rarely use this. A well-designed kick sample from a good sample company is usually compressed enough.
If you over-compress your kick it will sound either too short and small or squashed and lifeless. If you must compress, consider parallel compression as it is more subtle.
Furthermore, I don’t use any volume/velocity programming with my kick, so I don’t need to control any dynamics.
There are only two things I commonly do with a compressor on a kick.
Add some attack/Reduce the body. Use a slow compression attack with the release time in sync with your tempo. For House Music that is often around 100ms (or 0.1 seconds).
Soften the attack (Fast attack time)
However, both of those things are more effective with your ADSR volume envelope in your sampler.
All the more reason to program your drums in MIDI.
People usually make mistakes because they do too much. Either their kick drum EQ and compression is over the top, or they use too many random plugins. Usually, because they feel like they are meant to do something. The secret tip for how to make a kick drum sound good, is do less.
Remember to trust your ears and listen. If the kick already sounds great, it might not need anything.
If a plugin is not making a kick dramatically better, don’t use it.
I recommend starting your mix with only your kick. Set it at a level so it is not clipping anything. Leave about 8db of headroom on the master bus. (i.e. the master peak level should be hitting -8db Peak).
Then don’t touch the volume of the kick for the whole rest of the mix. Try to keep it as your anchor point and balance everything else around it.
Use your reference songs to decide how loud your other instruments should be relative to your kick.
Mixing Kick And bass in House Music is different to broken beat music.
There is a special rule for House based genres. e.g. Electro House, Deep House, Tech House, Progressive, Trance, Techno etc.
The kick should have more sub frequencies than the bass line.
It would be quite common for me to use a low shelf or high pass filter on my bass line somewhere around 45hz. But...
I would rarely cut the sub out of house music kick drum. I would only do this if there was an obvious and audible problem.
When mixing Kick And Bass in broken beat genres such as Dubstep, Drum & Bass, Breakbeat etc it would be the opposite. The bassline would take priority for the sub.
When mixing Trap and hip hop tracks that use a Roland TR-808 kick drum, there is one more technique to keep in mind.
You can either do this with a single tonal kick sample or with two layered samples.
In the case of the single sample, the kick is also the bass sound. They are one and the same. The 808 thump is also the long tone. So just balance from there.
If you are using 2 samples then mixing the kick and 808 would go more like this. One sample is quite short, punchy, percussive/without tone, and does not need a lot of sub frequency. The other sample is the long 808 bass tone.
When mixing 808 and kick samples the biggest thing that helps things glue together is choosing complementary sounds.
Keep in mind the descriptions (one short percussive, one long tonal etc) and audition a bunch of samples as I explained above. Try to find that magic combination that naturally glues together.
If you don’t find a match right away, then experiment with the short kick's pitch. Sometimes it will glue better in one pitch more than others.
Now, to fine tune them. The long 808 doesn’t need to be punchy, so you can try a little side chain on this, or a shave off some attack with the ADSR of your sampler. Or a combination of both.
Sometimes it can be nice to take the combined output of both of these and apply some group compression/overdrive, but this is not essential.
...btw, remember to Download my free kick drum sample pack
What are your favorite kick tips? Or your favorite drum machine?