Phantom Kick Drums
In this article I’d like to touch on a common issue facing many producers: how to get big, loud, punchy kicks (aka, bass drums) that are also clean and allow for plenty of other instrumentation. If you produce trap, hip hop, house, EDM (by the way, what the hell does that mean?) or basically anything with a lot of bass, please read on. And if you stick with me through the more scientific portion I’ll show you how to make one from scratch.
A little context: whilst collaborating on various projects over the years, singers or instrumentalists would sometimes ask for bigger, fatter, “louder” kick drums. My response would often be, “ok, well it’s pretty loud already, but we can keep turning it up.” This had mixed results, especially since I erroneously thought the solution was to crank the sub bass frequencies (40-65 Hz or so). This would sometimes work… but mostly no amount of EQ-boosting, volume, compression or limiting could make the particular kick drum I was using sound “really big” to their ears.
I believe what my collaborators wanted to hear was what I’ve come to refer to as the “phantom kick.” This is a kick that is produced so that it seems much louder than it actually is, and can therefore actually be mixed quieter than other types of… well, non-phantom kicks. What’s amazing is that these types of drums produce the aural illusion of having much more bass than they truly do.
To illustrate, listen to the following kick drum loops, and choose for yourself which one is louder (headphones recommended).
If you’re like most of the people I tested you decided that B (the phantom kick drum) was the louder of the two. However, you would be technically wrong. While both drums peaked in my session at -7.0 dbFS, drum A had a RMS of -9.5, while drum B (the phantom), had an RMS hovering between -10.4 and -10.5. To summarize, the phantom kick (B) has a lower RMS loudness by nearly 1.0 db, yet it seems (at least somewhat) louder to our ears.
I used the word “somewhat” in the previous sentence because depending on the frequency range of your speakers (i.e., yours subs go down to 10 Hz), and your experience with critical listening, you might not have heard much of a difference. But that’s kind of the point. On most speakers systems and/or headphones the phantom kick is going to punch you in the face with impact.
In case you were wondering, both kicks have the exact same amp envelope (shown below), so neither is technically a longer or shorter sound.
Of course, the easiest way to find this phantom kick drum sound is to simply find one already pre-cooked for you, either from your DAW’s built-in sounds or 3rd-party libraries. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you’re a perfectionist like me, you want full control over the sound of your kick (everything from its pitch envelope, to its amp, click, etc). I recommend learning how to craft your own kicks (phantom or non-phantom) because a. the kick drum is massively important in so many genres nowadays, and b. depending on the BPM of your song the length of your kick’s amp envelope (i.e., the total length of the sound) may need to change, especially since it will (probably) need to leave some room for your bass line. So, learning the ins-and-outs of how to make this type of kick is something that can pay dividends.
A great tool to start with is the “Nicky Romero Kick” plug-in by Sonic Academy. (I currently only own the first version, but the same concepts will apply in version 2). Its default preset is a perfect example of a phantom kick. In fact, you’ve already heard it: it is kick drum “B” above. As you can see in the following pictures, all I did to kick B in order to create A was turn the click all the way down, and make the pitch envelope extremely short.
So, here is Phantom Kick Drums 101: it is all about the pitch envelope. I’m not an expert on psychoacoustic phenomena, but my guess is that a longer pitch envelope gives our brains more time to grab onto frequencies that our ears are more adapted to hearing. If you know the basic principle of the Fletcher-Munson curve, this seems plausible.
Let’s look at the frequency curves of the two drums layered on top of each other in the following EQ capture (from Ozone 7).
It’s pretty apparent that the yellow frequency curve (a capture of the phantom kick) has significantly more content—as in more decibels—than the blue curve (kick A) throughout a wider range of the frequency spectrum. However, it’s worth restating here that kick A is technically the slightly “louder” kick, given its higher RMS value (both drums peak at the same value). Amazing, right?
The click is also an important part of this sound’s timbre. The following graphic shows what happens when the click portion of the Nicky Romero default sound (drum B) is muted. Around 1k the phantom kick starts to lose steam, and from about 2k upwards the drums are roughly identical.
The big take-way point here is that your kick’s pitch envelope is most effective in the 100 Hz to 1k range, at which point the click can take over and fill in the presence/brilliance portion of the sound. These are rough estimates of course, but experience has confirmed this to be a good rule of thumb.
Wait, how about acoustic drums?
All this thinking about big loud kick drums that cut through the mix, and hit hard on every system, got me wondering if acoustic kicks could compete. Is there a major advantage to using synthesis that is always going to win over producers and listeners?
A great test that came to mind was the kick from “Grindin’” by Clipse (produced by The Neptunes). Check out the frequency curve of this kick drum versus the default Nicky Romero, again the yellow line. (Fyi, I adjusted the “Grindin’” kick to peak at the same level as the Nicky).
I have to admit I was very surprised to see how close they were, especially from about 300 Hz up. The Clipse kick cuts off abruptly at around 16 kHz, the result I believe of mp3 encoding (sorry, I couldn’t find a wav). But the real noticeable discrepancy lies below 200 Hz. Three things jump out at me: the Clipse kick peaks at 100 Hz, then has another noticeable bump at around 180 Hz, and a relative lack of energy in the sub area—there’s a fundamental down there of around 40 Hz, but it’s 10 dB or so quieter than the Nicky Romero sub frequency. This is a great lesson in how you can compensate for a lack of energy in the sub area by emphasizing the 100-200 Hz range. I regularly spin “Grindin’” when I DJ (an oldie but goodie), so I know that this kick does indeed work: even if it doesn’t rattle the subs so much, it bangs hard in the bass/lows.
Now let’s travel back to a time before the Nicky Romero Kick was invented and look at how we can replicate the loudness/impact of the phantom kick. I’ll be using Ableton Live for this example, but any software or plug-in that allows layering and bussing will work.
To start, I randomly grabbed a clicky 808 sample from my library (I’ll call this my “main layer”). A very standard bass drum sound, it looks like this:
Here’s how it compared to the default Romero Kick, aka the “phantom.”
Not too bad! This could in itself explain the popularity of the 808 kick, arguably the most important single drum sound ever. Still, let’s explore how we can morph it into an epically loud phantom kick! Comparatively, there’s a noticeable lack of content in the 200-800 Hz range, so let’s see what happens if we beef up that general area of the spectrum. I put Ableton’s Multiband Dynamics on, set the mid range band to affect 200-800 Hz, and then used upward expansion to boost that range by about 11 dB.
The result was that my 808 not only felt louder and punchier, but we can confirm it by comparing it to the Nicky Romero one (yellow).
So, there’s a big lesson: if your kick is sounding wimpy, try boosting the low mids.
Now we’re getting somewhere. But, you probably noticed the big dips in the 808 at around 1k and 2k (I sure did). Trying to fix these with EQ seemed like a plausible solution—but I just ended up getting unappealing, pop-like resonances. It kinda worked, but overall I felt like the drum sound was worsening—I was barking up the wrong tree.
In any case, I needed to think about adding a “click” sample layer in order to move into true phantom territory. I selected (pretty randomly!) a high tom drum machine sound, pitched it up an octave and adjusted the amp so that it was very “ticky” (short decay, no sustain and very little release). Then, a 24 semitone pitch envelope added even more tick (it’s really a “zap”). Finally, on this drum layer I added a high pass filter to cut below 1 kHz, and a pretty big bell cut at 1 kHz as well.
But things weren’t sounding right. I went back to my 808 sound, added a 2 octave pitch envelope (one of the keys to the phantom kick, after all), and rolled off the click with a low pass filter, so as not to compete with the click layer I had just added.
Then I added another multiband compressor (yep, two in a row), this time doing a lot of compression between 1 and 8 kHz. This was followed by an EQ with a deep bell at 190 Hz.
Then, to raise the overall RMS of the kick I add the Glue Compressor, which I fed into Ableton’s Limiter so I could cut off the very high peaks I was getting. The result was that my kick now peaked at -7.0 dbFS, and had the same RMS loudness as the original Nicky Romero phantom. You might notice that the channel on the left (the Nicky Romero) has a slightly higher RMS value. This is because at the exact millisecond of the screen capture they were at different places. You’ll have to trust me that my various metering plug-ins all confirmed that they are the same exact RMS.
Now, alas, have a listen:
Frequency-wise, the result looked like this in comparison to the original phantom kick.
Pretty close! Of course, that was just one of a plethora of ways to sculpt a kick like this. Anyway, no two sounds are exactly the same. Try experimenting with different pitch envelope amounts with different decay lengths, different samples for the click layer, different samples for the “main layer,” maybe adding a dash of distortion, and so on. As always with sound design, finding your own method—and your own sound—is half the fun (at least for me).
Let me know what you think of my kick drum. To my ears I honestly can’t really say which kick drum I would call superior. Maybe I’d choose the Nicky one, but I’m not unhappy with mine either—it would really depend on the track I was producing. The real point is that the kick I produced had a decently high RMS value, and plenty of frequency content in areas that the human ear most readily hears. Thus, it should come across as “loud” in a mix, without unnecessarily hogging mix headroom with too much sub bass.