May 13, 2022
In a typical live setting with a full drum kit, the drums dominate the room – but without a little strategy that often means crushing snare and cymbals, and not much kick drum punch. Especially for louder genres like rock or hip-hop, that good solid kick sound is important, so here are a few tips on getting punchy kick drums on stage.
First things first: tune the drums. Before you set up any mics or other gear, tune the drums – kick especially – to the room. This could also mean using dampening or other techniques to keep the drums tight and making sure the kick sounds good in the room. This step is too often skipped, but when done it can make the rest of the journey easy.
Typical mic positioning for a live kick drum is the standard, just inside the hole on the rear head. To get a punchier sound with better attack, try deeper in the drum (closer to the beater). To get a warmer sound, try just outside the sound hole. Placing the kick drum mic at the front head may yield great attack, but it’s not generally the best idea, as it can easily get kicked and/or pick up squeaking from the pedal.
It’s typical to start with the kick drum once sound check starts (but don’t forget to check in the context of the whole mix). Once you’ve set a good gain, bring the fader up to a reasonable level and listen to the kick on its own. In many cases, you’ll want to scoop it out a bit somewhere between 200 and 400Hz, to reduce boxiness and/or mud. Depending on the venue’s resonances, you might need a little cut around 100 Hz too – or not! A bit of a boost somewhere between 2 and 6kHz might help emphasize the clicky attack, and a small midrange boost might help gain smack. For that, try boosting the mids a bunch and sweeping the frequency selector until you find the right area, then back off the boost. Be careful with boosting in general, as you can get into a feedback nightmare. In rare situations, you might need a bit of a low shelf boost to emphasize the woomph, but in many others, you may need a small cut there.
If you’ve got the opportunity, setting a noise gate on your kick drum can help clean up noise and spill, and help you tailor the decay. If your gate has a key filter (AKA side-chain filter), you can use that to key the gate to open when the beater hits, rather than in response to any stray low-end bleed from drums, bass, etc. Use a fast attack and set the decay so that the drum doesn’t sound cut off. Finally, you might want to set your attenuation amount to something other than infinity – say 20 or 30dB. This way, the kit’s overall sound isn’t drastically altered every time the gate opens.
Just as in mixing recorded drums, compression is a key tool for shaping your live kick drum. It may be even more important in a live setting, as drummers can hit the kick with wildly varying levels. As a starting point, try a slower attack time – say 30ms – to let the beater attack come through. Set a fast enough release time that the compressor disengages before the next hit. Start with 200ms or so and adjust from there. A good starting place for your ratio is about 4:1 with a hard knee. You may not end up with exactly these settings, but they represent a great place to start, and you can listen and tweak as needed.
Getting a fat, punchy kick drum can turn an ok band mix into a smashing success, so it’s worth it to do a little work in sound check to get the kick right. Just be sure to listen closely, as there are so many variables from player to drum to venue and keep an eye on the mix as the room fills with people. The effort will be worth it!
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