How To Mix 808s and Kick Drums

Getting sounds to compliment each other in a mix can sometimes be a challenge- especially if you aren’t familiar with mixing audio yet. A common question most producers ask when it comes to mixing is how to get their 808s and kick drums to sit better together in a mix without clashing or drowning each other out. While there isn’t only one answer, here are a few strategies you can use to make them co-operate within your beats.

Choose the Right Sounds to Begin With

This is obvious, but still deserves a mention. Choose the right raw materials from the beginning. My general rule in mixing is this: if it doesn’t sound good before mixing, it likely won’t sound that much better after.

How do you know if you have the right sounds? Easy. They hit and punch automatically with minimal manipulation of each sound.

This means once you have a kick and 808 programmed in your beat, all you have to do is balance each one’s volume to get them to punch. All you would need to do after that is enhance what’s already there. Key word: enhance, not fix.

Correct Phase Issues Before Mixing

Up until I went to audio engineering school, I had no idea what phase was or how big of a factor it played in mixing beats. Turns out- it’s an important one, especially when low end is concerned as phase cancellation can destroy your mix while you hope an EQ will make the problem go away (spoiler: it won’t).

Phase cancellation occurs when two sounds consisting of the same or similar frequencies are out of phase (moving in opposite directions), leading to an overall reduction in perceived volume.

     outofphase

2 signals that are 180 degrees out-of-phase

For example, say you have a kick and 808 that both hit perfectly when they are isolated on their own, but when you put them together in your mix- suddenly the low-end disappears – each sound no longer hits clearly, and the overall track sounds hollow and flat due to the phase cancellation that’s occurring within the bass frequencies of the track.

This is a common problem, and there are several ways to correct phase issues like this.

First- you can flip (or invert) the phase button ø on one of the offending sounds using a Trim, Utility or any plugin that has phase-invert functionality built into it. Upon engaging the phase flip, listen to see if the low end hits clearer or harder. If it doesn’t, undo and re-evaluate your approach.

Second- you can change the sounds you’re using to find 2 that are in phase with one another. This ties into the first point of this article. The best way to know if something is in phase is to use your ears. Audition your kick samples alongside your bass sounds and select one that cuts through and feels good within your low end.

If the previous 2 options don’t work- you can try nudging the kick or the 808 (only one of them) forward or backward in the arrangement to help line up the phase between the two. Usually, this would involve nudging the kick up (so the attack happens sooner) or the 808 back (so the sustain happens after the kick). Don’t do this drastically – just a few ticks over will be more than enough to create a phase difference.

Pick One of Them to Dominate the “Bassment” – and Set Volume to Match 

While our goal is to always make a track sound as big as possible, it’s important to determine which elements will dominate a mix.

This is specifically true for the low end, which will usually share frequencies among the kick and the 808. The challenge of mixing 808s and kick drums is that we may naturally want to keep both of these sounds dominant in a mix. That being said- it’s important to choose one to “be the king of the bassment” as I call it. This is because, scientifically speaking, low frequencies take up a lot of space, as they need room to travel and develop, hence why you may not “feel” a bass when you’re sitting close to a speaker but it hits you in the chest when you stand at the back of the room.

Once you’ve decided which sound you want to take priority in the low end, set all your volumes to infinite (no volume) and bring up the volume of the prioritized sound FIRST. For example, if your kick is the most important, start with that and blend everything else after.

Mixing this way will help create more space and room for each element to breathe, and give your mix a “cleaner” aesthetic overall. Furthermore, you’ll create headroom in the whole mix, which will allow you to increase the overall volume and presence of every element in the song during the mastering stage.

EQ the Kick and 808 so They Play Nice Together

Lets talk EQ strategy now. After deciding on which sounds you are going to use in your track, choose the frequency range that you want each sound to occupy based on the quality and fundamental of that sound.

An 808 mostly consists of sub frequencies, therefore you may decide to have its energy focused on 75hz and below. In comparison, you may notice your kick’s fundamental (where most of its amplitude is located) is somewhere around 125hz. Now that you know this information, you can strategically cut frequencies to make room for the other sound.

Continuing with the example, you may decide to notch out 1-3db of 125hz using an EQ on the 808 in order to create space for the kick. Conversely, you may use a shelf EQ to reduce all frequencies below 75hz on the kick in order to make room for the 808, as pictured below.

808 Kick Drum EQ

808 and Kick Drum EQ cut examples

A good practice when mixing 808s with kick drums is to focus on cutting frequencies rather than boosting, since cutting will create space and not create congestion or additional phase issues within a mix.

Sometimes, you don’t want to actually reduce the low end of the kick at all and may opt for other strategies such as the next point- side-chain compression.

Use Side-Chain Compression to Make Room for the Kick Every Time It Hits

While EQ is a great tool to create separation and clarity amongst instruments, sometimes it is not the ideal choice. This is because whatever you do with an EQ will affect that sound’s frequency range consistently throughout the song. This may prove to be unhelpful when key changes occur within your song and the fundamental of the song changes position, resulting in a loss of unnecessary frequencies at times when you actually need them most.

In situations like this, I reach for a compressor, put it on the 808 and engage it’s side-chain to be triggered by the kick. By doing this, I allow the frequencies of a sound (ie, the 808) to pass through and only get compressed (reduced in volume) when the key (the kick) is played. In this example, if done correctly, the kick would come through clearer and on top of the 808 in the mix. You usually want this to happen fairly quickly and transparently, so the settings of this compressor will usually have a fast-mid attack and a fast release in order to let the kick drum punch through without squashing the dynamics or sustain of the 808.

Multiband Sidechain Compression

FabFilter Pro-MB on an 808 with Kick Drum keyed sidechain to make room for it in the low-mids

For more control, I will use a multiband compressor such as the FabFilter Pro MB and set it up to only side-chain compress a part of the 808’s frequency range, such as the low-mids in order to allow the kick to pass through when it needs to over top the specific frequency it dominates.

Work on the Transient Shape of Each Sound

Lets think about each sound logically for a moment. A kick drum has a clearly defined transient, with the loudest part of the hit or attack of the sound happening immediately then fading out with minimal sustain. An 808 is similar but has much more sustain than a standard kick drum hit as it “rings” out.

Transient-Shape808s have a lot of sustain while kick drums are mostly attack.

We can use transient designers, such as the SPL Transient Designer or Native Instruments Transient Master, to manipulate the transient shape of each sound to make them fit better together.

This may consist of reducing the sustain of the kick so the initial attack punches through, while reducing the attack on the 808 so the kick punches through (sidechain compression will help with this as well).

Similar to my EQ practices, I am usually trying to use a transient designer in a subtractive fashion- removing what I don’t want in order to make room for what I do want from the other elements.

Use Parallel Processing for Punch

In every mix that I do, I have a few pre-set channels with processing that I may call upon during a mix including:

1) Parallel Distortion Channel (“808 FAT” pictured below)

2) Parallel Extreme Compression Channel (“808 LOUD” pictured below)

Parallel Processing
Parallel processing channels featuring distortion, compression and EQ.

These channels are busses/sends that would be used simultaneously alongside the original “dry” track. Both parallel channels may also feature a following EQ to clean up muddiness or low-end problems since we want both to bring out the mid and high frequencies of each sound (the punch/clarity of the sound).

I would send some volume from each track until I feel like it’s enhancing what’s there without creating phase issues or changing the sounds too drastically, and massage the volume faders for each parallel bus to taste from there. The goal is to enhance the 808 and kick sounds so they blend together and have some higher harmonic content to help each cut on smaller speakers, leading to a “fatter” sound overall.

Process Them Through the Same Subgroup Before Hitting The Master

Every DAW handles this differently – what I’m specifically referring to is sending the output of the 808 and the Kick to the same subgroup bus channel where they get processed together before going out to the final master.

Most mixers will traditionally have all of their drums going to a Drum subgroup, and the 808 (and other bass elements) going to a Bass subgroup, before each subgroup goes to the final Master bus track for bouncing.

This approach is different as it has your kick and 808 going to the same subgroup bus before being summed with all other sounds at the Master bus level.

The processing on this subgroup could involve a number of tools- including EQ, compression, distortion and tape saturation (that’s what I usually do with mine).

What’s important is to not to overdo the processing. These sounds are meant to be dynamic, therefore some mild compression could help them glue together and adding some harmonics via distortion or tape saturation may help enhance their combined presence and synergy.

Subgroup
The 808 and Kick (top 2) output go to the BASS subgroup (bottom) where they are processed together with effects

Conclusion + More Learning

While these are only a few ideas, I hope these strategies offer some additional insight on how you could make your kicks and 808s work better together in your mix.

Want to get a more in-depth look at mixing 808s and Kick drums?

Learn how to use professional techniques and tools such as EQ and compression by watching the FREE Mixing 808s and Kick Drums online course from 5PiECE.