Is Tuning Kicks Really Worth It?
Kick drums. The heartbeat of dance music and we all strive to have the best in the business. But what makes a kick great when every track is different? Some would argue that the ‘perfect’ kick drums are tuned in relation to the key of the track for an extra tight low end.
Let’s dive into the world of tuning kicks.
Wait - kicks can be tuned?
You probably know that a conventional kick drum is just a sine wave that pitches down from a very high to low frequency in a few milliseconds. As it reaches the sub-bass region, it will usually slow down in velocity for that thump we stomp our feet to.
Quick zap - longer boom.
Let’s clear something up first. When we talk about the ‘pitch’ of a kick, we are referring to the section of the sub tail that slows to an almost steady note. The first part of the kick sweeps through hundreds of Hertz so quickly we could never attempt to label it by pitch.
Due to the fact that in many - if not most - cases the kick never actually sustains a single tone, we are moving away from talking in terms of exact science. However, this stuff is important and, as we’ll get to, we can see some patterns emerging in professional tracks.
Do the pros think about kick tuning?
We analysed a handful of successful tracks from the biggest producers to find out if they are tuning their kicks to the rest of the track, or indeed using kicks in a certain pitch.
To find out the key of their kicks we used Voxengo Span, Ableton Live’s Tuner and a technique we’ll explain in the next section.
Avalon & Tristan’s track ‘We Are Psychedelic’ is written in D# and
sports a kick with a sub tail pitch of G#, a harmonious fourth above the root note.
Astrix & Rising Dust’s track ‘Universo’ also uses a kick in G#, which is the same key
as the track.
Zyce & Flegma’s track ‘Ayala’ has a thunderous low bassline in C# and a kick in G#, a fifth above the track’s key.
Outsiders use a kick in A, a fifth above the bassline in D, in their track ‘Portals of Infinity’.
We’re seeing a trend here, with lots of the artists using kicks that are harmonious with the key of the track.
So that’s that. Let’s all tune our kicks, right?
However, in Mekkanikka & Ajja’s track ‘Futurism’, which is written in F#, the kick never appears to pitch down lower than G, which would make for a very unharmonious diminished second interval.
It still sounds incredible though.
Symbolic & Outsiders also appear to use an inharmonic G# kick in their track ‘High Hopes’, which is in F#.
So what’s going on here? Well, there’s still a trend that all these tracks share. All their kicks have a sub tail frequency between 49 and 55Hz, or the notes G and A.
When discussing these findings with Psytrance Youtuber Dash Glitch, he explained that fundamentals in this frequency range will sound optimal on big sound systems.
Why tune our kick?
Think about it - when the kick’s tail and bass note overlap, as they do in most tracks, we have to work with two mighty bass elements stacked right on top of each other.
The main argument for tuning kicks is to ensure that the tail of the kick is harmonically in tune with the first note of the bassline.
If you’ve ever played the low notes of a piano or keyboard, you may know that keys too close to each other sound muddy, while conventional intervals like fourths and fifths resonate much nicer. Similarly with kick and bass, not only does it help for them to be harmonious with each other, but maintaining good phase helps to avoid cancelling each other out.
Cancelled bass = weak bass.
With phase relationships, the trick is to get both waves to cycle up (positive) and down (negative) at the same time.
This is where an oscilloscope is your best friend. Chuck a free plugin, like occularScope, on a bus or your kick/bass channel to check their phase relationship in real-time. Check out our previous article for more information on occularScope.
Is your kick in tune but out of phase? Don’t sweat. Voxengo’s PHA979 is a phase adjustment plugin for manually shifting phase in small increments. Ultimate precision.
Our friend E-Clip provided a great review of the PHA979 on Youtube.
So how do I find the pitch of my kick sample?
Let’s get right to it.
1. Find a section of the kick tail, towards the end, with a complete sine cycle.
2. Snip at the zero crossing and duplicate the sine cycle a whole bunch.
3. Use an analyser or tuner to find the key. We sometimes tune by ear using a keyboard. Remember, this isn’t an exact science.
Top Tip: Duplicate the cycle 100 times and render it to a new file. Tune this incredibly long sine wave up two octaves to really hear the note.
How to Tune a Kick
If we’re using a kick sample, simply pitching it up or down a semitone should work great, however, avoid pitching by too much as it will drastically change the length and tonality of the sample.
Alternatively, if we’re using a kick plugin like Sonic Academy’s Kick2 or BazzISM we can manually change the frequency of the pitch envelope.
In Kick2, the last nodes on the pitch envelope will usually determine the key of the kick. Raise these up or down to change the tail end pitch or use the pitch control in ‘sub control’ to pitch the whole envelope up or down.
It’s just as easy to change the pitch of the kick in BazzISM. Simply use the ‘fEnd’ slider to change the frequency or click the note icon to select from the list. Done.
Breaking the ‘Rules’
”You must have a kick tuned between 49-55 Hz”
“It must be harmonious with the rest of the track”
“It must be in phase with the bass”
As we highlighted earlier, there are plenty of examples to be found of technically discordant kick and bass combinations that still sound great. And we’d bet that many a time that these fourth or fifth intervals are being implemented, it’s not even on purpose. Just sounded good to the artist.
Still, this theory is great to have in your toolkit. How can you improve your next kick and bass?