How to Listen to a Kick Drum
“What does the perfect kick drum sound like?”
I ask questions like this to my college students when we are working on sound engineering. Most look at me with distrust- they sense a trap. Last year one of my students shot back,
Well done, Jake.
Learning how to mix sound for an event or recording is a life-long commitment. You need to know the tools. You need to be able to identify certain frequencies. But mix engineers the world over know that sometimes you can get bogged down in gizmos. The first and last rule of mixing audio is: you have to listen.
So we’re going to listen to some different kick drums today. We’ll discuss what a kick drum does, and how it fits into a band, a song, and a genre. Let’s begin.
(BIG FAT DISCLAIMER: You may not hear any of what I’m describing if you listen on ear buds or your phone speakers. Listen on quality headphones or a speaker system. Also, my Youtube links are just so you know which recording I’m referring to. If you want to really hear it, listen to a high quality audio file.)
“Feirce” by Jesus Culture
This is a good place to start, since many readers will be aware of contemporary worship music. This kick has two sounds to it: deep low end, and high punch. The mix engineer has taken out the middle of the sound, since other things like vocals, guitars, and synths need that space. But we don’t miss it.
The kick is also unnaturally consistent, which comes from compression. That’s not a bad thing- we need that kick to be a solid foundation. I only say unnatural because no drummer hits the kick drum at the same velocity every time.
If you are having trouble hearing the kick drum try this:
1. Bob your head with the music.
2. Start counting “1,2,3,4” when the band hits the chorus. You should hear the cymbals, guitars, and synth all hit before Chris Quilala sings, “Like a tidal wave”.
3. Every time you count “1” you should hear a low thud. That first beat is called the downbeat. There are more kick drums than that, but you know for sure that’s the kick.
But that’s not the only way a kick drum can sound. Let’s try another.
“Could You Be Loved” by Bob Marley
In this song, the kick drum happens nearly every beat, but has a much higher and thinner tone. You hear the beater on the drum, but the sound is “dry” which means it doesn’t last very long.
Another important thing when listening to the kick drum is the relationship between the kick and the bass guitar. Often both instruments live in the same territory, so the players and the mix engineer need to make a decision about which one is the main thing, and which one is complementary.
Whereas with “Feirce” the kick was below the bass, in this case, the bass is the bigger and deeper sound. The kick is just punctuation. In Reggae, the bass is so important that we can take from the kick drum and give to the bass. But together, they are perfect.
“Carol of the Bells” August Burns Red
Ah gun shots for kick drums. Listen to how click-y that is! A drummer friend of mine had to explain this to me.
Metal has huge electric guitar sounds with lashings of distortion. Drummers who played with two bass drum pedals and did a lot of fast footwork wanted people to hear it, but it was getting lost in all the guitars. So they started gluing quarters to the skin of their kick drums right where the beater hits the drum skin. That way, every hit would have that “click” at the beginning. Now drum companies make drum skins with a metal disc already implanted in the skin. Crazy, but it works for this genre.
“Mean Ol Frisco” by Eric Clapton
This sounds awful right?! Why are they hitting an old suitcase with a rutabaga? What was Eric Clapton thinking?
But it makes sense- this is a swampy blues song. It’s all about slide guitars, a honky piano, and Eric’s voice. It should sound like you stepped into a saloon. And the suitcase kick drum fits perfectly. It’s so bad it’s good. Or I should say, "It's so... appropriate."
There is no perfect kick drum sound. There are just workarounds and tradeoffs that fit for every genre and song. That’s the fun of being an engineer. You have to make those decisions based upon your musicality and ability to best serve the band.
If you are looking for some more practice, try this exercise: grab some tracks from the most diverse genres you can think of: jazz, country, zydeco, EDM, hip hop, Bollywood, whatever. Only listen to the kick drum and start to give it descriptive words. Use colorful adjectives, make analogies, or think of where the sound hits you in your body. Before you go reaching for an EQ or compressor, you need to think about the feeling or emotion you want to convey. Because that’s what music is for.