What to Look for in a Kick Sample

Posted on October 15, 2014 by Samples From Mars


Which Kick?

Exactly which kick sample you decide upon depends entirely on the elements in your track, and you should always do what sounds best. But, regardless of your track, you will always need a library of high quality professional samples.

    For the most part you can: use your ear in choosing high quality sample libraries, do research to see which libraries your favorite producers use, and finally, look at the waveforms of the kick drums to make sure nothing funny is going on.

    There are 4 major things to look for in terms of waveform:

    1. Avoid DC Offset.

    Without getting too boring, DC offset causes the sample to be asymmetrical around the baseline (-infinity). It appears as a lopsided waveform. This can occur when recording with older hardware drum machines, and can often be avoided by using a preamp with a transformer. In terms of sample digging, you want to avoid samples with DC offset, as it limits the amount of headroom a sample can have.

    2. Avoid late peaks in the waveform.

    Sound confusing?! If the low frequency sub of a kick drum sample peaks louder and later than the attack portion, the low end of the kickdrum will sound much later than the rest of the track. This is something that is hard to hear on smaller sound systems, but becomes greatly amplified on larger systems. It can be seen in this waveform:

    Whereas a more minor example,shown below, is probably OK:

    I had a personal experience with this when I produced a track using the first kick drum pictured above, and the track was DJed at Roseland Ballroom in NYC, on a huge sound system. It came on and the low end of the kick drum sounded WAY later than the rest of the track. It was awful. Here's a link to the gearslutz discussion that helped me figure out what was going on! Luckily we solved all of this before mastering and I corrected the sample at the envelope level.


    3. You don't want an attack that is too punchy for its own good.

    Years ago, I used to be so obsessed with punchiness and transient designers that I made my drum samples way too punchy, at the sacrifice of body and weight, which is absolutely necessary for house music. We all want a punchy kickdrum, but if the attack of the initial waveform is far greater in amplitude than the body, the body of the kickdrum will not be loud enough. Sometimes an 808 sample, for instance, can be too clicky. To remedy this, you can try parallel compression, but it's often better to begin with the right sample. Here is an extreme example:

    4. Beware of clipped waveforms

    The above waveform has been clipped - where the original wave would be elliptical (right word?) at the top, it has become square here. Sometimes this can be a sign of a poor sample, while other times it may be exactly what you're looking for. Sometimes clipped waves can sound great - use your ear!

    Which Frequency?

    The frequency of your kick should not occupy the same frequency that your bass occupies. In most cases the kick will occupy the lowest region of the frequency spectrum, with the bass sitting above it. So that, if your kick samples are hitting at 80 Hz, your bass may be around 100 - 150 Hz. However, if you laid down an amazingly deep sub bass around 40 hz, you can still use that same 80 Hz kick drum if it sounds great.

    Most people suggest using kick samples that are the root key of your track. This is a nice starting point, but often I find this is a little too diatonic for my tastes, and end up using a tuning that falls somewhere besides the root of the key. The added benefit of this is that it inherently will not occupy the same fundamental frequency of the bassline. I also know many people that own 808s (and even just 808 drums) that refuse to re-pitch the kick (you can't do this on the original machine anyways) because it hits so nicely.

    The takeway, in my experience, is that sidechaining the bass to your dance kick samples should only need to be done minimally, as the bass and kick should be operating at different frequencies. I have made tracks that had both a huge sub bass and a really deep kick, and have heard them on some of the best sound systems in NYC and it sounded awful. It sounded like the speaker cone was trying to move too fast. Avoid this at all costs unless you really know what you're doing - even if it sounds good at home. Check out this tutorial to learn more about EQ'ing kicks and basses.

    How Loud?

    Level: For dance music generally your kick should be the loudest element in your track. If you solo your kickdrum, note where it hits on the master meter of your DAW. Hopefully, with all of your tracks combined, you should not be exceeding this level by greater than 1 dB. So if you are hitting at -1.5dB when your kickdrum is solo'd, you should be under -.5dB with your whole track playing.

    Since the kickdrum will usually be the focal point of your track, you can build your elements around it and make sure that they are not too loud. Start your mix by setting your kickdrum to a certain level, and do not let this level be exceeded by more than 1 dB no matter what you add. This can be done in a number of ways including: sound selection (frequency selection), sidechain compression, parallel compression, saturation, careful EQing and more.

    Perceived Loudness: Try cycling through 10 different kick samples, and make sure they all hit exactly -1.5dB on your master buss when solo'd. Now listen to each sample on its own. Notice how much louder / quieter some kicks sound in relation to others even though they are the same level on that meter? This is because how loud the kickdrum appears to your ear is more complex than how high it hits on that meter (and is often related to how long a kick peaks for). What you ideally want to strive for is a loud sounding sample that punches through the rest of your track (frequency selection is important).

    In Reality

    You should just choose whatever kick sample sounds best for your track. But if you understand these concepts, you will be able to better judge what may work technically, and eventually you will be able to have the best of both worlds - style and technicality.

    Posted in Kickdrum