There are numerous sample packs offering club-ready kick drums and this is by no means a bad thing. However, these might not always be suitable for your track. Sometimes it’s necessary to layer a few kicks together or bastardise a sample to make it fit for purpose, and sometimes this means creating a kick from scratch. In this article I’m going to cover what you’ll need to look for when layering kicks up, how to create a kick from scratch, sampling and resampling, EQing, compressing and the rest of the steps necessary to get the kick drum you’re looking for.

For Starters

There are tools available like Nicky Romero’s Kick Synth and BazzISM vst that will allow you to create a kick from scratch. They are synthesisers that emulate electronic kick drums, giving you customisable pitch envelope settings and layering possibilities, however, there’s enough literature on them on their own websites. Firstly I’m going to look at d16 group’s Drumazon, which emulates the classic Roland TR-909. In Ableton I’ve drawn in a simple pattern with a kick drum on every quarter note.

Ableton midi editor

I’m using Voxengo SPAN and s(M)exoscope by Bram.Smartelectronix.Com (both free) to visualise the kick drum. Spectral analysis is covered here, and the s(M)exoscope is like an oscilloscope, which is useful when looking at the volume of sounds. Here’s the default kick drum sound from Drumazon (you might need to disable the two INT. SYNC buttons on the top left to be able to trigger the drums via midi):

Drumazon, Span

By opening up the decay we get a longer sound that allows more low-end through. This is because kick drums are typically made with a pitch envelope, starting high and ending low. Now drop the pitch knob to get a deeper sound:

Drumazon, Span

I’ve added Live’s EQ8 and made some surgical adjustments. Firstly, I’ve hi-pass filtered at 35 Hz as this is below our fundamental and can eat up headroom. Secondly, I’ve added a mild boost around 45 Hz where the weight of the kick can be really felt; in addition there’s another boost at 150 Hz. Finally I’ve removed some frequencies at 250 and 500 Hz.

Ableton EQ analyser
Getting Deeper

Now I’m going to layer the 909 sound with Live’s ‘group tool’. Select the plugin chain (including the drum machine) and hit cmd+g if you’re on a mac or ctrl+g if you’re on a PC. This will group the devices into a new plugin instrument. Click on the show/hide chain list and re-name Drumazon to 909.

Ableton instrument

Drag a Drum Rack into the space underneath the existing chain to add a new layer. Drum Rack is a great multi-sampler made for drums (as the name suggests). A great trick is adding numerous kick drums and using Live’s MIDI effect ‘Pitch’ to scroll through them, making it easier to audition them in context. I’ve dragged my collection of home-made kicks into the drum rack, starting on note C1 (this is the MIDI note we’re triggering) – there’s not quite enough room for all the samples but it’s fine for this demonstration. Be sure to add the MIDI pitch effect before the new drum rack we’ve added and not before the group, otherwise we’ll end up triggering other sounds from the Drumazon.

Kick rack

Press play and slowly move the MIDI pitch’s pitch knob up and you’ll hear the custom kicks being scrolled though. The result of this is being able to find a layer to add to the 909 without tediously dragging and dropping each sample. I like +11 and +28, so I’m going to duplicate the drum rack (cmd+d on Mac, ctrl+d on PC) and use the different pitch settings on each. A healthy slab of EQ, tuning and enveloping will be needed on each hit to get it sitting nicely. On the +11 kick I pulled the amplitude envelope’s sustain down to 0 and dialled in around 500ms of decay, just letting the initial impact of the sound through. I’ve also hi-passed it at 130 Hz to stop any low-end frequencies clashing with my 909. With the +28 kick drum I’ve used similar settings, this time with a slightly longer decay of 800ms and rolled off at 100 Hz. I’ve also dipped this sound by 2dB in the group’s chain.

The three sounds together sounded a bit busy so I’ve ditched the +11 kick. Some final EQ and compression on the two sounds together and it’s starting to sound good:

Kick layer, Span
Next Steps

We can take this sound even further. The kick has a great sub and some character but lacks some thwack and punch. I’m going to bounce a single instance of this kick and drag it on to a new audio file for later. I’m going to lift a kick from someone else’s record and layer it with my own. Ordinarily, it’s best to do this with WAVs/AIFFs and not mp3s but since this is just a demonstration we can get away with it! I’ve loaded Blende’s edit of Blondie – Heart of glass [link now dead, sorry guys!] into Live and adjusted my tempo to 122 bpm. I’ve turned ‘warp’ off and moved the start marker of the file to the first kick drum, paying careful attention to the zero crossing point. Now, duplicate the track by hitting cmd+d/ctrl+d (Mac/PC).

If you were to hit play, you’d hear the loop twice as loud. What we’re going to do is neatly extrapolate the kick from the loop using phase cancellation. This is something I learnt from Monte’s YouTube tutorials – you should definitely subscribe to them as they’re awesome. Add a utility plugin to the duplicated track. If you’re not using Live, any plugin that can flip the phase will work (in Logic it’s the gain plugin). Click both Phz-L and Phz-R so they are both enabled. If you’ve done this correctly, you should hear nothing:

Ableton Utility

Use the fade tool (cmd+alt+f/ctrl+alt+f) and add a slow fade in to the phase-flipped track. Now, if you hit play you can hear the isolated kick. Keep adjusting the fade until you’re getting enough of the low-end from the kick through without hearing the percussion:

Phase inverted

Before:

After:

Bounce this and drag it onto a new audio track (or Live’s resample tool is marginally faster). Now you can hear it with the 909 layer we made earlier. Using the fade tool, add a short fade to the beginning of the 909 later so the transients don’t clash. I’ve tuned the 909 layer down 2 semitones to get an even lower bottom end. Balance the levels of the two kicks, then shift-select and group them together using cmd+g/ctrl+g. Now we can process the two audio tracks together as well as adjusting their combined level without altering the balance.

To finish the kick sound off, we’re going to multi-band compress it. Multi-band compression uses different compression settings on different bands of frequencies, typically a low-pass, hi-pass and one or two band-pass filters are employed. Live’s multi-band compressor has three bands that you can solo to hear each by itself.

The low defaults to 120 Hz, which we’re going to adjust to 90 Hz. We’re going to leave this untouched and move on to the high-band, which defaults to 2.5 kHz. Bring the compression threshold down by dragging the right-hand rectangle to the left then drag down inside the rectangle. If you’ve done this correctly, it will turn turquoise. Un-solo the band to hear the effect this is having on the overall sound, and adjust to taste. Finally, adjust the dry/wet knob to around 75%, to allow some of the uncompressed sound through.

Ableton Multi-band dynamics

Finished kick:

Further Processing

For me that kick is finished, and I’d bounce it out to my folder of kick drums to use down the line, but it could be taken further. It could be resampled with more layers of kicks adding different characteristics: kicks sampled in big rooms, tuned to different pitches, breakbeat kicks etc. Layering kicks with a short hi-hat can add some presence and bite to a kick, too. The whole process is geared towards getting a unique kick that fits in the context of your track, so be conscious at all stages to check it with other sounds you know work well and A/B it with modern records.

Synthesising a Kick Drum

Finally, we’re going to synthesise a kick drum from an ordinary subtractive synthesiser. I’m using Logic’s ES2 but really anything that has a couple of oscillators and envelope stages will do. I’ve done my best to reset the sound to the absolute basics: here we’re only hearing one oscillator (white noise). The amplitude envelope has maximum sustain and minimum values for attack, decay and release, the low-pass filter is completely open and there are no effects enabled.

Let’s start with the oscillator.  I’ve programmed a note on each quarter beat at C3 to hear our sound develop. A kick drum sound is made from a beater hitting taut skin and it occupies the lower end of the frequency spectrum. With this in mind, let’s choose an appropriate wave form (sine) and tune it down -24 semitones.

There’s an annoying click to it so add a touch of attack and slightly more release. Now drop the sustain to 0 and dial in the required amount of decay (depending on whether you want a long, boomy kick or a short thump).

Logic ES2

Next we want to simulate the sharp transient caused by the beater smacking the skin. Using the ES2’s router, select the target as ‘pitch 123’ and the source as ‘env 2’. The sound will be unchanged so far. Turn to Envelope 2, bring all the values to 0 and on the router turn the amount up to full. The sound should still be unaffected.

Now, as you add decay to Envelope 2, you will hear the effect. Shorter values around 40ms will give you a typical 909 sharp, thudding kick drum. Longer values will sound more like an 808 boomy bass. Roll off some high-end with the low-pass filter or alter the pitch envelopes amount to reduce some of the high frequency content.

Logic ES2

A real kick drum this is not, but what designing one in a subtractive synth gives you is control over parameters that can make it a really your own such as ring modulation, oscillator sync etc. Layering this with real kick drums mean fine-tuning the pitch and envelope settings to get a careful blend of the sounds.

Some Great Drum Packs:

*edit* I’ve made a video detailing some of the above techniques (and more) using Sample Magic’s Stacker: