There’s just no denying that the kick drum sample you use in your song is going to act as a foundation, and if you’re kick sample isn’t picture-perfect the odds are pretty good that the song is going to suffer because of it – even if everything else is something special.
The thing that makes finding the perfect kick sample so difficult is that there are so many different variations to pick and choose from, so many different ways you can go, and so many different ways you can play around with this key element.
Musicians are always wondering what makes a kick drum sample so solid, what makes one sound work for a particular song when it wouldn’t work with another. Learning what to listen for can make or break your ability to add this key component to your songs from here on out.
Below we dig a little bit deeper into the key aspects you want to pay attention to as a musician, the details you’ll want to zero in on if you want to knock your kick samples out of the park from here on out.
Let’s get right to it!
Don’t listen in a vacuum
One of the biggest problems musicians have when trying to find the right kick sample is listening to these individual samples all on their own, trying to fit these puzzle pieces into the rest of the mix without actually listening to everything contextually.
This is like trying out a half a dozen different spices independently of one another and then hoping that they would work well in an otherwise tried and true recipe – just because you liked the way they tasted separate from everything else.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to have everything ready to go as far as your recording is concerned. But you will want to use whatever you do have ready to add at least a little bit of context to your kick samples, finding the right one with everything put together.
It’s not a bad idea to throw together a couple of samples on a track and then individually mute and isolate different kick samples throughout the song to get a feel for which one may work best. This kind of hot-swap practice speeds up the process significantly.
Be cautious of envelopes
Both the attack and the release of your kick sample sound is going to be a big part of how well it works – or doesn’t – in your music, and these kinds of envelopes can quite literally make or break an otherwise perfect set up for your sound.
Whether you’re looking for something a little more staccato, something a little bit more rounded out, or something a little smoother altogether, the individual attack and decay qualities of your sample need to be in line with the overall sound quality and tonal profile you’re shooting for to get the right fit.
If your envelopes are on the wrong side of your tonal profile it’s going to feel a little off and a little sour. Sometimes you can do a little mixing and a little tinkering to get things back in line, but other times you’ll have to go wholesale for a new sound altogether.
Dial-in the EQ spectrum
Again, you need to make sure that your overall tonal profile and the harmonic content you’re generating in your sound is matching up nicely with your kick samples.
That doesn’t mean that everything has to blend together perfectly – a little bit of contrast can shake things up and sound new and fresh – but it does mean that everything has to work well together.
There’s a reason why soy sauce isn’t used in Mexican cooking all that much, just doesn’t fit and feels out of place. The same kinds of problems are going to pick up if you aren’t paying attention to the EQ spectrum of your sounds altogether.
Layer, layer, layer
Top-tier songwriters and musical professionals understand that the odds of finding a single perfect kick sample to really round out their song are so astronomical that they don’t even attempt to do so – but instead look for a number of different kick samples that can layer together to create the perfect sound they are shooting for.
Layering is a little bit more advance and something that you aren’t going to want to take a “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” kind of approach to, but it is a proven methodology that can add a lot of richness and a lot of interest to your song that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
You might even have to play around with nontraditional kick sample instruments (and we use that term loosely) to add a little bit of extra texture and another layer to your kick samples sounds. Play around, use your creativity, and unleash your inner artistry and you’ll find something that works with just a bit of layering.
Start off with your tuning
A lot of artists jump from one kick sample to another right out of the gate just because it doesn’t feel right at first, abandoning samples that would have worked perfectly if they had just toned things up first and got the fundamental frequency of these samples right before moving on.
The transpose function of your sampler is going to play a big role in getting the tone of each individual kick sample pitch perfect right out of the gate, and a little bit of fine tuning – and a little bit of creativity – can have you creating something really special almost out of thin air.
Again, you need to make sure that your listening to the samples you are tuning in context so that you can really dial things in. But you might be surprised at how samples sound after little bit of tuning, especially ones that you would have discarded wholesale beforehand.
Get those levels matched up
Anyone that has spent even a little bit of time in the production world understands the value of matching up levels when you are comparing two different audio files side-by-side, and you’ll need to make sure that this is a big part of your kick sample search.
Even just the smallest of differences in levels can have a dramatic effect on how we perceive certain sounds, their strengths and their weaknesses, and whether or not they “play nicely” with the kind of music we are looking to create.
Focus on your meters as you level match so that you are creating fair comparisons across the board.
Don’t be shy about wiping the slate clean
A lot of people – not just musicians, but people from all walks of life – could learn a lot about how to succeed in this crazy world of ours by focusing on the principle of sunk costs and the value in sometimes walking away from a project that just isn’t working, no matter how hard you’ve tried to make it come together.
One of the biggest challenges as a creative artist is “killing your babies”. It’s easy to fall in love with something that isn’t quite right but something that you have worked hard to craft, but the important thing is to recognize when you have carried this effort just as far as you can and aren’t going to be able to get it any closer to where it needs to be.
It’s never going to be easy to wipe the slate clean and abandon a kick sample you’ve been dialing in for hours and hours on end (maybe even longer). But sometimes it’s the right thing – the best thing – to do.