Join Brian Lee White for an in-depth discussion in this video Building the kick drum layer, part of Mixing a Hip-Hop and R&B Song in Pro Tools.
All right, so now that I have a basic mix of levels, I can really dig into the session and start my processing. So what I like to do with the most songs is start with the drum tracks and build a solid foundation, the kick, the Snares, and the cymbals, and then immediately moved to my vocals to get a really great Vocal Sound and then come back to the Instrument so that I can place those around the vocals. Now you don't have to do it this way exactly, and I don't do it that way in every song, but it's a really great strategy to make sure that your vocals stay up front, and you have room for them. Rather than adding them at the last point of the mix and risk blurring or having contrast issues with other instruments that you placed.
So again, I'm going to start here with the drums and the first thing I want to do with my drums is submix them into an Aux Track. So I am just going to select my drum Tracks, all the way over here to the Tambourine, and I am going to get rid of my Memory Locations real quick, and I am going to hold Option+Shift or Alt+Shift on the PC, and I am going to say New Track. I am going to use a Stereo Aux Track, and I am going to call that Drums. And the Pro Tools is automatically going to do the routing for me, it's going to create a Bus, and it's going to router into an Aux Track.
Now anytime I create an Aux Track or Return, I want to solo safe that, so Command-click on the Solo button, that means when I solo other things, I don't have to go in and solo that Aux Track. It's been solo safe or solo defeated. So, to start on my drums I want to start with my kick stack. Now something that's very common these days in music that's produced electronically is layering your percussive sounds to get exactly what you want.
So as opposed to let say working with an acoustic kick drum you have to get all your punch, all your energy, all your snap, out of that one recorded drum using EQ or Compression, or a combination of processing. Because I'm just layering samples, and I have total control over the sounds, what I like to do instead and what many producers like to do in Urban or Electronic music is actually layer their kicks so that no one kick is doing all the work.
So in this case, let's just go ahead and listen to some of my kicks here, I have this Medium kick that I am going to use for Texture and pull up the Memory Locations and go to Verse 1. (music playing) I have an 808 kick that's going to give me that nice low boomy sound. (music playing) It's very clean. Then I have a high 808 that plays on the accents just the same as this 808, it just plays on an accent an octave above.
Then I have a snap kick that's going to give me my nice snap or brightness that's going to allow to punch through all of the dense instruments. (music playing) So, combined. (music playing) So I get my texture and my dirtiness from that Medium kick. That's all the character. because this song is really kind of that vinyl sampled sound, kind of mixed with a track beat with a 808 and hi-hat sixteenth note kind of vibe, and I really wanted to add some kind of character kick that kind of really dirtied it up a little bit and gave it some really nice texture.
So a lot of times I am using these drums not for necessarily more low-end or more high-end, but a texture, and you will see producers layering drums to get different textures or spread the energy in different ways across the spectrum. Now one thing that I'm hearing immediately with this Medium kick, and this is something that is very common with drum samples or even loops that you get in loop packages is they've been heavily normalized. So I can even just see on my meter that just a Raw sample there is actually clipping the output and what I hear that doing is it's actually taking the saturation plug in the VCC, and it is just driving it a little too hard just like it would, a console input and a little bit of that's cool, but I'm hearing a little too much from the get go.
And so what I am going to do is I can do one of two things. I can go into the Edit window, and this is how I prefer to deal with this and use Clip Gain to just lower the input level coming into the mixer. Let's listen again. (music playing) And it's already cleaning up. Hear that, that's just no good. That's just clipping out VCC. (music playing) And that's nice, and I can actually just return the Volume there, post that plug-in, that VCC plug-in because the Mixer in Pro Tools itself is not going to clip.
Now I can clip my Output, I want to make sure that I am not clipping my Output as I am processing the Master Fader here, as I am doing any EQ or Compression on my kick. So I could just check that whole stack right now on my Master Fader because those are most likely going to be some of the loudest things in my mix. (music playing) And I'm still good there. (music playing) Where that distortion was actually coming from, was always hitting that saturation processor just a little too hard. You can see it's still pinning it, and I'm still getting some character, but I'm not getting as much distortion out of that drum, and that's a good thing.
So Clip Gain is one way to deal with it. I said there was another way, what you could do is simply just put a Gain plug-in before that insert. Remember all inserts in Pro Tools are pre-faders. So just lowering this fader is not actually going to change the way the insert sees that signal. So we will kick that back up. All right, for this kick stack, like I said I have got layers of samples, so I have got my ultra low, my texture, and my snap.
What I am going to want to do is process this even further to get it to sound great in the context of the mix. And one thing I am hearing with this Medium kick drum is that it's a little woofy and against my Lead Vocal, I just know that that's just going to have too much build up in the low mid. So what I am going to do is add a little EQ, get rid of some of that boxiness, it will be a little bit more there.
(music playing) I like that. Now my Snap kick, I am going to want to add a little EQ to also. Now this sample has some low-end in it. Now I am getting plenty of low-end from the 808 and the Medium kick there. So I am actually just going to go ahead and cut out all the low-end from this Snap kick. I am going to filter it right there about 100, and this Snap kick sample, I think it came from some sort of electronic music sample kit.
It's got a really nice snap to it, and I like it a lot, but it's just too much snap for this hip-hop song. And so I am actually going to go ahead and low pass filter it, also just bring that in there. So let's just listen to what we did. (music playing) Perfect. And again, I'm not looking to have this snap kick super present, that's why I have ruled off some of that top end.
All I'm looking for it to do is just add a little bit of bite to my drum stack, because there's not a whole lot of bite coming from the 808 drum, which is a very low drum, very low pitched sounding drum. And even if I used EQ, a lot of compression just really drops the high end of the 808, it's never going to snap quite as hard as a snap kick, because the envelope or the way the transient is shaped in the high frequencies just isn't there for me to do that.
Now another thing that I like to do with my drum stacks is make sure that I can hear them on smaller speaker systems. Now specifically this 808, this 808 is my main bass element in the verses. There is no bass instrument other than the 808, and this kick layer during the rap verses. A bass comes in at the hook during the chorus, but I want to make sure during the verses this stays nice and full, and that's fairly common in a hip-hop song where you have an 808 kick, maybe it's a pitched kick that's actually playing the bass line or just staying and peddling one specific note.
But it's a tuned kick with a lot of sustain like I have here acting as your main bass element. (music playing) So what I want to do is I want to try to draw out some of those harmonics so that we can hear them on smaller speakers, because right now, we are really just getting very, very low frequencies coming through, which is great for a large speaker system or really nice headphones. But for people with iPod docks or ear buds or things like that, you are just going to totally miss the kick.
So a little trick I like to use is some saturation on my 808, and I particularly like the Saturn plug-in from fabfilter. And what this is actually a multi-band harmonic or Distortion tool, and I have got a little preset that I use it so much on 808s. It's got a nice little Preset that I made, and what it does is it actually gives me three bands, I have split up three saturation bands, and I can have different types of Saturation and Drive and mix levels in each band.
So I can use it like an EQ, as well as a Saturation tool. I can adjust the level of these bands. So let's just listen to see what that does. (music playing) Oh yeah, really brings out those harmonics. That almost acts like an exciter, right, because I am distorting the top end, really just kind of brining out some sparkle or noise that's barely there in the sample.
So this is a really powerful tool, I don't want to over do it, I don't want to create too much distortion in the low end. (music playing) Just a little bit, I just want to pull that forward a little bit so that it comes through on smaller speaker systems. It might be barely noticeable, if you are listening to it on a large speaker system, but I guarantee if you put on some ear buds or some really small speakers, you are definitely going to hear the difference adding some sort of harmonic distortion to your kick drum, especially your low kick Drums adds, and you can really use any kind of distortion plug-in.
I could even use in the built in distortion in Pro Tools, the Lo-Fi plug-in to achieve a similar result. I particularly like this, because I have a lot of control, I am kind of a control freak when it comes to my distortion. I like to know exactly what I'm getting, where other engineers kind of just like that magic button, that magic plug-in thing that just adds a little saturation, but you don't have a lot of control. Either it's fine once you understand the goal of the processing. I am not just adding distortion, because I think distortion is cool.
I'm adding distortion because I want to draw out those lower frequencies, so they're audible on smaller sound systems. Now the other thing that I'm noticing about this 808 is that on certain hits, certain accents it just gets a little too big, and if I switch to the Edit window, we can clearly see that on certain beats that kick drum hits fairly hard, as compared to let's say the Medium kick or my Snap kick, those are fairly consistent.
Now one thing that we can take advantage of in producing music electronically with samples is that we can maintain consistent velocities or dynamics. Unlike an acoustic kick drum performed by an actual drummer, there is going to be a lot of variations in each kick hit, where I would want to use a compressor to control the hit to hit dynamics, to sort of even them out. In this case, I can just set all the velocities to the same level. Now, I actually wanted a little bit of down beat push on certain hits, but what I'm finding now that it's all stacked together with the rest of the mix.
It's a little too much, and so what I am going to do to solve this issue is I am going to use a little bit of limiting, so I am going to bring up my Inserts here, and I am going to use a little bit of L1 just to tame those specific hits. So I am going to go ahead and pull down both the Threshold and the Out Ceiling, because I don't want to actually add any volume. If I just pull down that Threshold, I would actually add volume to the signal. I am going pull this down until I get attenuation just on those louder hits.
(music playing) And that's a good amount. But what I am hearing now is a little bit of distortion, and that's really common from a fast brick wall limiter on low frequency material. Now this is a one millisecond Release time, that's just too fast for low-frequency waveforms. They are actually just going to trace the threshold and they're going to grab and release along with the cycle of the waveform which creates distortion, and I can alleviate that by pushing that Release up to, let's just do 50 milliseconds.
(music playing) And that's nice. Just to demonstrate what I'm talking about, if I really crank this down, and I had a really fast Release time. (music playing) Hear all that distortion? We don't want that. So we are just going to go back just a little bit and move any of that distortion by pushing up that Release.
(music playing) Now I do hear a little bit of Drive coming from my VCC on those hits, and that's cool. That's just going to give me a little bit of extra texture along with that Saturn kind of digging into some of those notes a little bit harder. Now the final touch that I want to add to my kick drum stack is actually a little bit of ambience, and this is a trick that I like to use on my kick drums, and I know a lot of people say reverb on kick drums, I heard that a total no no, and in most cases, super long reverbs, really muddy reverbs, you don't want to use on your low-frequency instruments like kick drum, because it's just going to make your mix muddy.
But the kind of reverb I am going to set up is very short, and it's just going to be for some width. So you just are going to get a hint of space on the kick drum. Now these are all Mono samples, the MediumKick, 808 kick, and the snap kick are Mono. The high kick I printed is Stereo, but there's really no stereo information on that, and I want to give a little bit of width to them, so we get a little space out of our kicks. Now some kick samples are already stereo and already have some ambience or space built into them, these don't.
And how I am going to achieve that, I am actually going to do that on my Texture kick, the MediumKick, I am going to create Return on a Send, that's where my Reverb is going to live. I am going to make sure that Stereo Aux Track, and we are just going to call this Wide, it's that's what I am going to do. Now, how I am going to achieve this effect is I am going to use a Multi-mono D-Verb plug-in. Now it's very important that I choose Multi-mono. This is where the trick lies. Multi-mono plug-ins allows me to choose separate left and right processing settings.
So I can actually unlink that two and have separate settings on the left and the right-hand side. And in this case this is a Mono Algorithmic Reverb. So I am going to be getting some randomness between the left and right-hand sides of the Reverb Algorithm. So I am going to start with something real short, I am going to do a medium room, and I am going to do something just around 300, very short, like I said, this isn't reverbing the traditional sense of really long echo. I am going to boost that Gain up here.
Now here is the trick. I am going to go ahead and unlink the left and the right-hand sides, and I am going to set the right side to have a little bit of Pre-delay. Right around 30 is good. Now what this does is it actually Delays just the right side of the Reverb Chain. So let's listen to that. Solo safe, Command-click. (music playing) So that's kind of cool.
I am actually hearing that width and what this is it's a variation of the Haas Effect, H-A-A-S, because I have delayed the right side, our ear and our brain is hearing the left side first, slightly earlier than the right side, and it's creating a sense of direction or location and widening the stereo field. Now I can tighten that up for less of an effect or increase it for more. Now because this is a kick drum, I don't actually want to get into such long delays that we are actually screwing up the rhythm of the track.
I just want to create a little width or a little space for us. Now one thing that I do with these hostile processes is I like to reduce the volume a bit of the early channel. So in this case, the left channel I'm hearing first, it has no Pre-delay. I am going to reduce the volume so that I hear the left and right-hand sides about the same perceived level. Now your meters will show differently, but your ears are actually going to hear the left side as being louder, because you are hearing it first.
Now I like to kind of balance that out. I do that when I do the Haas Effect on Delays too. Something you want to look up, do a Wikipedia search on Haas--H-A-A-S--Effect in audio. It's a pretty cool principle. After this, I definitely need some EQ, because whenever I add Reverb to a kick drum I know I am going to run into issues with low-frequency smearing. So I am just going to get rid of all the mud from the get go, pull down some of that 500, and actually I want to kind of emphasize the snap of the kick there.
So I am going to boost the high frequencies a bit, because I want to really emphasize any of that beater sound in the stereo field. Now this is really just to taste. Let's go ahead and listen to that. (music playing) So there is really no rule here, other than that when you're adding any sort of Reverb or delay to low-frequency elements, you do want to aggressively tackle any residual resonance with some sort of EQ.
Now the other cool check that I can do to take this even more over the top is use some sort of Stereo Width Enhancer. So I could actually go in and use some sort of Stereo Field processor, so I could just even use the Air Stereo Width Plug-in here, and what I cloud do is I could just take that width and just really maximize it. (music playing) And this is just basically using a mid-side process to increase the volume of the side channels of the stereo information, while reducing the center channel information.
Again, this is just going to give me a little bit of extra width on that, and I am not going to use so much of this effect. Now I could increase, it depend on the mood I want to set, I just want a little touch of it for my kick stack just to give me some texture and interest to all those kick Drums. Let's listen to our stack. (music playing) And I will set this Reverb level in the context of the mix. (music playing) And of course, I am going to need to come back to this probably once I get the other instruments EQd and set up.
Right now, I just really want to get that strong kick drum playing, so it lays a strong foundation for all my other drum elements as well as my vocals and other instruments.
Recommended prerequisites: Pro Tools Essential Training and Pro Tools Mixing and Mastering
- Setting up the mixer
- Layering kicks and low-frequency management
- Enhancing the lead vocals
- Working with rap "stabs" and "adlibs"
- Processing vocals with EQ, compression, and other effects
- Warming up bass and low-frequency tones
- Re-creating a "sampled vinyl" sound
- Creating "width" and "depth" in the stereo field
- Adding automation
- Mastering the track with compression and limiting
- Bouncing out a stereo mix