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4 Ducking Techniques to Increase Kick Drum Clarity

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4 Ducking Techniques to Increase Kick Drum Clarity
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Hey folks, Matthew Weiss here — weiss-sound.com, theproaudiofiles.com.

Still waiting out this Coronavirus, kind of sucks, but here we are. Perfect time to be catching up on The Pro Audio Files YouTube channel. I’m going to be giving you a lot of free content here, because what else we got to do, right?

Anyway, if you want to get in depth with some of the stuff that I’m talking about, I have paid content, there’s a link to that in the description below, and whether you choose to go with the paid stuff or the unpaid stuff, I’m going to make sure that I’m giving you some really, really great information, and I’m going to start here with a concept called, “Ducking.”

Ducking is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when one thing ducks out of the way of another, and we can control this through something called, “Sidechaining,” or, “Keying.”

Now in this particular case, I’m going to show you a very, very common use of this idea, and that’s going to be ducking certain elements out of the way of the kick drum in order to gain more clarity on the kick.

So I’m going to play this little chorus section of the song, and then I’m going to get into these ideas a little bit further.

[mix]

So I’ve got my kick drum, and my kick is pretty round. It doesn’t have a whole lot of top end, but we can still hear it pretty audibly. It’s not like it’s really, really dark, really rounded, and kind of in the background. It’s got some punch to it, it’s got some upper content to it, but overall, it’s still on the rounder, softer side. I’m going to solo that up for you real quick.

[music]

Right, so when I put the two layers together, it’s kind of pillowy, and most of the energy is sort of focused in the low end, as kicks typically are. So if I want to get a little bit more clarity on this kick drum, make it feel like it’s taking up a little bit more space in the mix, and maybe cleaning up just the articulation, particularly of the low end, then I might want to do a few tricks to get some of these other things out of the way, particularly the bass, but this idea extends to all sustaining synths that are in the mix.

So right underneath our kick drums here, I’ve got our bass…

[bass]

It’s just one stream of sub with some nice little grungy overtones that are kind of cool sounding, and then I’ve got all of these synths here coming together on one synth buss, which I didn’t label because I was being lazy. Here we go.

[synths]

So we’ve got a lot of constant movement in this, meaning there’s frequency content that’s just there and droning on, and usually, that’s the stuff that ends up masking things that are percussive elements.

So what I’ve done here is I’ve created a send channel. I’m using Pro Tools, this is a little different if you’re using something like Fruity Loops. You have to actually assign the send from the channel that you’re sending to, which is a little counterintuitive. It’s in the manual, but here, in most DAWs, you’re going to be assigning your send from the channel itself, and I’ve put it into pre-fader mode so that we can really monitor exactly what it’s doing.

Now, I’m going to show you a couple different ways you can do a ducking technique. The first is just going to be our straight up, straight ahead dynamic compression ducking. So what I’m going to do here is on my synth buss, I’m going to pull up a compressor, and here, we see a little picture of a key. It says, “No key input.”

I’m going to click this, I’m going to go to my busses, and I’m going to look for, “Kick SC.”

That’s the same send that I’ve got coming from the kick drum, and it stands for “kick sidechain.” Now I’m going to go in here where it says, “Sidechain,” and I’m going to hit, “External.”

So I’m assigning the compressor to react to what’s being fed through the sidechain, and that’s the key to ducking. Compression normally acts on the signal itself, but by putting the sidechain into play, what we’re really doing is getting the compressor to act to a different source, and so our compression is going to happen when the kick drum hits.

So let’s dig into that.

[music]

And you can see here on this graph that every time the kick hits, we’re getting compression. Now, what I’m going to do is exaggerate this really, really dramatically here. We’ll put this right here, and make this very, very obvious.

[mix]

Now, that’s obviously very, very over dramatic. It’s really ducking too hard, because it sounds like a hole puncher is just knocking out the synths every time the kick hits, but you can also hear that if I take this out…

[mix]

Versus when I bring it in.

[music]

The clarity of the kick becomes immense, because everything else is getting out of the way completely.

Well, what I really want to do here using this technique is not duck the entirety of the kick, but really just allow the initial attack of the kick to kind of poke through a little bit, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to raise up the threshold to sort of target just where the attack of the kick is peaking, and I’m going to adjust some of these other settings as well to make it a little bit less obvious.

[song]

There we go. So now I’m doing a much smaller amount of ducking, maybe I’ll exaggerate it a little bit, maybe just turn the threshold a little down, turn the ratio a little bit up, and I’m using a very, very fast attack, so it’s allowing just the initial hit of the kick to kind of poke through.

[mix]

Without.

With.

[song, no ducking, then with ducking]

So it gives us just a little bit more articulation on the kick drum, and if we do it subtly enough, it doesn’t feel like we’re really losing any of those synths.

Now, let’s take these ideas a little bit further, and refine these techniques, and see if we can maybe get a little bit more clarity, or maybe a little less loss of the synths themselves.

How’s that possible? Well, there’s a few ways we can do it. First is the Pro-C 2, in particular, this is great, we have a stereo link, and what I can do is I can take it and shift it all the way toward where it says, “Mid only.” What that’s going to do is it’s going to use the compression, but only on the mid channel, so the things that are living directly in the center, the phantom center between the stereo field, that stuff is going to get ducked, but everything that’s living on the sides is going to stay in the same place, and the overall net effect of this is that it’s going to provide just as much clarity for the kick, because the kick is only in the center, but it’s going to leave the sides intact, which is going to make it still have that sort of ethereal feel without losing any of the synth itself.

So let’s check that out.

[mix]

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Without.

[song]

With.

It’s subtle, but we get just a hint of clarity on the knock of the kick without losing any of the synth this way. It’s a really cool approach.

Now, I’m going to exaggerate it one more time just so you can hear it very, very obviously, and you’ll hear that ducking happening in the center while the sides are retained.

[mix]

As opposed to stereo.

[mix, Pro-C 2 set to stereo]

You hear how that really knocks it out as opposed to when we just do the mid.

[mix]

I mean, it’s still very obvious, but it’s — the side stays constant.

So okay. Let’s put that back.

Now let’s take a look at where the kick is really living in the frequency domain, versus where the synths are living in the frequency domain.

[music]

Notice that when I attenuate a whole bunch of 200Hz right here, the articulation and clarity of the kick becomes very obvious, and that’s because that’s the energy that’s being masked. The synths have a good amount of that low-mid, upper-bass kind of content, and when we get rid of it, the most dominant element in that range next is the kick, and so if I attenuate a bunch of this 200Hz, the kick becomes really, really obvious to hear.

[mix]

But there’s a problem, and that’s the synths suddenly become really anemic. We lose a lot of that space, we lose a lot of that color, and all of those things that make these synths really cool and captivating. So what we can do is create a multiband scenario with ducking.

So this is going to be the same idea as our just static compressor, except for this is going to target very, very specific frequencies.

So I’m going to pull up the FabFilter Pro-MB. Same thing here, I’m going to set the kick sidechain, and I’m going to target just around 200Hz, and I’m going to pull in from the external, which of course is going to be our kick. Set the attack very fast, keep the release pretty quick, and we are going to duck it out.

[music]

So you can hear pretty easily that if I exaggerate it too much, you hear that sort of pulling in that frequency range. It’s kind of like a less obvious version of what happened when I exaggerated the flat dynamic compression. It’s too much, but it gives you an idea of what’s really happening.

[song]

So let’s make a couple little adjustments on the threshold, maybe make the ratio — let’s do a hard knee and maybe make the ratio a little lighter.

[song]

Pretty cool. It just allows the kick to sort of jump on through, just for the moment that it is present, and then we get all that frequency content that’s in the melody right back, and there we have our cake and eat it too, right?

Now I want to show you a third technique, this is a very specific plugin, but it’s one that I use a lot. It’s like the cheat code of ducking. It’s called Track Spacer, and it’s kind of like multiband, except it’s using a whole bunch of different bands, and so you can really pinpoint exactly what you want to duck, and I’ve got that on the bass here, so it’s a very similar idea to what I just showed you.

Let’s pull in the multiband there, and let’s unbypass this.

[mix]

Now, it’s got some controls here where we can focus in on what bands exactly we want to get out of the way, so if I pull this all the way up to 20kHz, this is going to duck everything that the kick is providing.

[song]

Very cool plugin, and it really contours to exactly where the kick is living.

Now, in this particular case, because the bass is primarily sub bass, we really do want to focus on just allowing the sub bass to get out of the way. I kind of like those overtones, I want to preserve them a good amount, so I’m going to set my top frequency here to about 100Hz, and really just focus on ducking out the sub, keep that sub range nice and clean every time the kick hits.

[mix]

So we’ve got this nice, open kick sound now, and we’ve done it in a way where we don’t really feel like we’re losing anything from the other elements.

Now, I will say this. In my own personal style of mixing, I actually do like a little bit of frequency overlap, I don’t mind it when things ever-so-slightly blur over each other. To me, it gives it a nice, organic sound, a little bit of that extra mud or dirt, as long as it’s not really inhibiting the effect of a specific element, I feel like it helps to give the track more personality, so I tend to do this stuff pretty darn subtly.

So I probably even back off this ducking a little bit, maybe slow the attack down ever so slightly, speed the release up a little bit, take the ratio down a little bit. This kind of stuff, and then maybe back this off even a little bit more, down to like, 25, because I really don’t want to hear it too much at all, I just want to get a little bit of clarity on that kick, but I’m okay with some of these extra tones kind of folding over each other and creating a vibe, and not necessarily getting the most clarity in the world, because sometimes, that’s not as important as the feel.

[music]

That feels really good to me, so glad I could demonstrate this little technique. Ducking is probably a pretty fundamental part of the mixing process. It’s not something that we do all the time, but it’s a very useful idea, like — I’ll do it a lot of the times when I have really, really loud hi-hats, like in trap records, and I want those hats to be really, really present, but I don’t want them to mask the vocal, so I will duck them out of the way of the vocal, so while the vocalist is in, whether they’re rapping or singing or whatever it might be, then the hi-hats are getting attenuated ever so slightly, and whenever there’s breaks in the vocal, the hi-hats come up ever so slightly, so it feels like the hats are very loud the entire time, but they’re actually not. They’re getting out of the way. This can happen in all sorts of scenarios. Vocals to acoustic guitar, bass to rhythm guitar in a rock track, there’s just a million examples of where ducking can be very useful, either in full compression mode or multiband mode.

Anyway, if you dig what I’m doing on this channel here, you like this information that I’m presenting to you, then hit that like button, hit that bell on the subscribe so that you can get notifications whenever new videos come out, and don’t forget to check the links below in the description, we’ve got all sorts of really good sales going on from time to time, and really great full length tutorials where you can learn quite a bit.

Alright guys, until next time.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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