When it comes to working on mixing a hip-hop track, great low end is expected from your audience. They want something clean and punchy – a kick drum and sub combination that they can feel. To accomplish this, there are a few core concepts you need to understand first.
Mixing the low-end instrumentation in your song is completely different than many other instruments. When compared to something like a vocal, it’s easy to understand why. With vocals, you’ve got the featured sound that’s going to be right in your face in almost any genre. It’s upfront and attention grabbing. Unfortunately, that same approach isn’t going to work with your low end. Push it to the front of the mix, and you end up drowning everything else out.
So what can you do to keep the power of great low end prevalent in the mix without masking your other instrumentation?
Getting The Most Out of 808s
808 kick drums are one of the most common production sounds used in hip-hop music, known for their long, round resonance that can be pitched up or down and essentially “tuned” to your song. The droning low-end sub frequencies fill out a lot of the lower frequency spectrum when they’re used, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect right out of the gate.
If you don’t have access to a library of 808 samples, similar results can be achieved by using a synth like Sub Destroyer that can be triggered off of your kick drum hits. Simply record down the MIDI of each hit, then pitch your notes up and down to follow the song’s bass, just like you would while programming 808 samples.
Once you’ve got your performance locked down, there’s still a bit of sweetening that can be done to get the most out of your sub frequencies in the form of transient design and saturation.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that these lower frequencies are almost always going to sound great on a system that has a subwoofer or high-end monitors, but what about the laptop speakers and cell phones? This is where the pros know that you need some of that harsher, high frequency grit on your 808s to make them stand out.
Find the highest resonant frequency you can boost without significantly changing the tone of your 808 and work to make that stand out as much as possible. Compression, saturation & transient designers can all add to the cause, but each performance and mix will be different. Trust your ears and always compare your mix on different speakers/setups to make sure you’re hearing that 808 in any situation.
Low End is Mainly Mono
Have you ever heard someone say that the placement of your subwoofer doesn’t matter because bass frequencies aren’t directional? It’s a great concept that can be easily applied to your mixes too.
What I mean by this is that there’s little reason for trying to make your kicks or sub frequencies wider – they’re powerful enough in mono to hold their own in any mix when used correctly. Many times I see people trying to “thicken” up their 808s with spatial wideners or panning, but in reality they just need to be using their compression and EQ more effectively.
Take for example a kick drum getting lost in the mix – you might try to offset the panning a bit or even turn it up louder in the mix with little to no effect on the end result. The truth of the matter is, you’re better off leaving that kick right where it is and EQing it differently to help it cut through. You probably don’t need more kick than when you started mixing, you just need more top end to help it cut through.
The Kick-Sub Relationship
At the end of the day, your kick drum and sub frequencies need to play nice together if you want a consistent and punchy low end. Most of the time this means letting the kick drum shine through for the initial hit, then quickly bringing the sub up behind it for the resonance, and the perfect way to accomplish this is through the use of sidechaining.
By sidechaining a compressor to duck the frequency range around the kick drum from your sub each time the kick hits, you’re opening up space for both to cut through. This is a trick that’s been used by hip-hop and EDM producers for years, and it’s still one of the most effective ways to get the two low-end tracks glued together as one.
Rely on your kick drum to provide the punch and cut you need to have your low end stand out and let the resonance of your sub keep the low end full and harmonic between hits, then you can shift your attention to the rest of the percussion that keeps the mix interesting.
More Ways To Sweeten Your Mix
Sweeteners are some of the best ways to keep your tracks sounding fluid and interesting to a listener, but there are many more options available to mixers than simply using saturation on their tracks.
JST VIP members get access to The Producer’s Guide to Synthesizers & Sweeteners – over 50 pages of production techniques for synths, samplers & sound design. Find out how production samples can be used in your mix and how you could be building your own sounds today.