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Clipping Kick Drums in a Hip-Hop Mix


We’re going to be talking about using distortion to replace compression. This is something that comes from my “Seven Dangerous Techniques That Can Get You In Trouble”. The reason I titled that article that is because this kind of a technique can get you into a lot of trouble. But we’re going to pull it apart so that you can know when to use it and when not to.

What we’re going to be looking at right now is everybody’s favorite thing in the world, kick drum. So I’m going to give this a little play.

[hip-hop instrumental]

Let’s solo that kick. Now, in the context of this mix, which is really just set levels and I traded the vocals… The vocal is this Jean Grey, by the way, really awesome rapper. It’s now time to start processing things and figuring out how I want things to really sit.

I know that I want this kick to hit harder. There are a lot of ways that I can do that, either through some use of EQ, or some use of compression, or some use of various other techniques. There are really a lot of ways to make something hit harder. The question is, which one do I want? Well, let’s examine some possibilities, and look at the pros and the cons.

Let’s take a look at simple limiting. Limiting is going to reduce the transient impact of the kick, allowing you to pull the overall kick up and make it louder. It doesn’t necessarily make it hit harder in the mix, but it allows it to stay louder in the mix, which is not much different than hitting harder. Although, it’s a little different. So let’s hear that.

Okay, so the obvious pro there is that the kick is definitely coming through a lot heavier. The con is a little more subtle. You get an immediate gratification by hearing the kick as louder. The problem is that you’ve also softened and rounded the kick out, and that might not be what you want, particularly for a hip hop record. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t limit drums all the time. I certainly do. I just have to really pick and choose very discriminately when I’m going to do that.

Let’s look at another option. Let’s use something called soft clipping. Soft clipping is kind of like limiting, but the limiting curve starts earlier and ends faster. So what ends up happening is you get frequency distortion along with the change in the sound shape.

[hip hop instrumental]

So let’s listen to the original and then the clipped one.

[hip-hop beat]

Well, I like that. Let’s talk about the pros and cons here. Obviously, the pro is that it’s hitting harder. It also has a little bit of cool character to it that it’s gained. It reminds me a lot of over-driving the outputs of an MPC, which is a sound that I grew up on. So I like that. The con is that obviously we’ve changed the sound now, fundamentally changed it. It almost doesn’t totally sound like the same kick. It sounds very distinctly processed.

If I really liked the way the natural kick sounded unprocessed, this would not be a good choice. But because I feel like the kick could use more character, as well as more impact, I think this is a strong choice for this record. Also, it is connotative of an older style of hip hop production, that mid-’90s boom-bappy kind of feel. So I think that it works in all of those regards.

I’m going to play all three of them again, just so you can give it a hear, and then I’m going to discuss my settings on the actual clipping device and what I used.

So the limited version sounds more like the original kick, but it sounds softer. The clipped version sounds less like the original kick, but it sounds harder. I think overall, the clipping wins out on this one.

Now, what am I doing here? All right, I’m using this AIR Lo-Fi plugin. This is stock in Pro Tools. There’s a good chance that whatever DAW you’re using also has a stock setting that involves clipping distortion. Now, in this Lo-Fi plugin there’s a whole bunch of stuff. We’re ignoring everything, except for one thing and it might be a little hard to see. But right here, where it says “Distortion” and “Clip”, I have this little knob here.

Now, let’s start it from zero and you’re going to hear the natural sound.

[hip-hop drums]

Now, what’s important to realize here is that my actual peak volume has been significantly reduced by doing this clipping. When I flip it in and out of bypass, you’re hearing a very, very big change in level. The unprocessed one is significantly louder, almost six decibels, I think it was about four decibels, maybe, louder than the processed one. Watch the meter.


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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch:
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