The Roland TR808 kick drum has been a staple of hip-hop production for decades, but many project-studio musicians still struggle to achieve a great 808 sound in their own mixes. So here are some sonic tips to help you get the best out of your 808 samples.
The most important thing to realize about the 808 is that its powerful low-frequency pitched fundamental is not only its most celebrated asset, but also its biggest liability. Yes, it'll blow the subwoofers out of people's cars, but that low end simply won't translate on the small speakers and earbuds of most mainstream listeners, because there's scant frequency energy above it. This is why many mix engineers end up deliberately distorting the 808 to generate additional upper-spectrum harmonics. "The biggest misconception about 808s is that they're all bass," comments Jay-Z's long-time studio collaborator Young Guru, for instance.
"That's the easiest part of the 808, but you're not always going to hear that low, low end on a radio... You have to give it a little bit of distortion so that that thing can creep into the 120Hz and 140Hz, and then go even further into your midrange."
Low End Polarity Line Up
Alternatively, many producers will layer other drum samples (or even live drum loops) alongside their 808 to introduce more midrange character, but therein lies another potential pitfall. Whenever you layer more than one kick drum together, there's the potential for frequency cancellations between them, especially at low frequencies. So two things are vitally important: firstly, that you make sure the waveforms of the different drum sounds line up in the same way for every hit; and, secondly, that you experiment with refining the exact timing and polarity relationship between the layers for the most appropriate mixed sound. "I am literally shifting things in terms of a few milliseconds to make absolutely sure that the kicks line up," says DJ Swivel (who's engineered for Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West), "and that there's no phase inversion. This ensures that each drum punches through as strongly as the last.” For maximum sonic nuance, you might even want to experiment with more in-depth phase-manipulation tools such as all-pass filtering (try the one in Cockos's freeware ReaEQ plugin) and phase rotation (Variety Of Sound's PreFIX is a good freeware option for that).
Similar concerns can also arise when layering a bass part alongside the 808. "An 808 is an actual musical tone," explains producer Bob Horn (well-known for his work with Usher, Timbaland and Akon), "and if you have a synth bass sometimes it'll play that pitch, and sometimes it's playing other pitches. It'll conflict." For this reason, it makes sense to avoid the eventuality by tuning your 808 sample to a pitch that doesn't conflict with the bass line, or else notching the 808's fundamental frequency out of the bass channel to avoid the frequency collision. Some enterprising types actually side-step the issue completely by setting up the 808 and bass as a musical call-and-response (check out 'Bitch Niggaz' from Dr Dre's seminal album 2001) or by adjusting the tuning of the 808 in real time so that the kick itself doubles as a bass line!
In addition to the subject of tuning, many 808 samples hovering the internet are often detuned. It is important to use a tuner plugin to adjust the root note and tuning of the 808 sample in order for the 808 notes to correspond with the notes you are actually playing.
Another crucial element to consider with the 808 is its length. The original hardware drum machine had a Decay control which allowed you to adjust the sound's sustain, whereas this aspect of the sonics becomes fixed in sampled form, and a lot of producers don't consider the ramifications of this. With faster kick-drum patterns, for instance, the overlapping tails of long 808 samples can quickly cause a build-up of undesirable low-end mix clutter that robs the whole mix of punch and energy. Possible remedies for this include shortening the sample tails with your sampler's envelope controls or forcing the sample to trigger monophonically, so that the sample can't overlap itself. (The latter can also, incidentally, prevent inadvertent MIDI double-triggers from flanging the sound, which is another thing to be on your guard against with any programmed drum sample.)
Even if you're only encountering an 808 pattern when it's already been bounced as a continuous audio track for mixdown, that doesn't mean you can't still tailor the drum's length to your needs. Gating frequently provides a very simple solution, because the lack of level variation in most programmed 808 parts makes it child's play to achieve consistent triggering. My main advice here, though, would be to use a gate plugin with a Hold time setting in addition to the more common Attack and Release time controls, because this gives extra flexibility when it comes to defining the mixed kick sound's exact release envelope. (If your DAW's bundled gate doesn't offer this facility, try Bob Perry Audio's freeware plugin instead.)
The length of the 808 isn't just a technical mixdown question, though, because its endpoint can also fulfill an integral role within the rhythmic groove. For example, you can give a snare sound more subjective power and momentum by having it cut off the kick's sustain tail, so that it's almost as if the kick 'carries' you over from its downbeat all the way to the snare's backbeat. Shortening the sustain of subsidiary off-beat kick hits within a pattern is also a neat way to reduce their rhythmic stress, whether you do this by making adjustments in the sampler or by multing the subsidiary hits to a different audio track for tweaked gate settings.
808 Sliding & Gliding
The 808 slides are one of the most commonly used techniques in modern electronic music and beat production. It is a simple technique that can be achieved using minimal setting adjustments. To begin, it is important to make the 808 'monophonic' by setting the number of voices to '1'. This means that only one note will be triggered at a time instead of multiple notes, such as a chord. Then to make it slide/glide, you need to switch the 808 sampler to the 'Legato' setting. Finally, you can adjust the Glide Time to create long/quick sounding 808 glides. For this example, we used Ableton's sampler which has a direct 'Glide' setting but you can apply similar settings on whichever DAW/sampler that you are using.
Finally, the way the 808 is mixed in any track also impacts upon how loud it can be mastered, because it's your low-frequency headroom that's usually the bottleneck where loudness-processing is concerned. In this context, it's not uncommon to find on commercial masters that the kick-drum peaks have been clipped, rather than limited, to drive up the loudness, and again this distortion can actually turn out to be an advantage for small-speaker translation, as long as it doesn't unacceptably change the drum's tone and/or rob too much of its attack as a result.
Essential 808 Serum Presets
The production team at Samplified has designed a hyper focused 808 Serum Preset pack that contains 50 highly unique and customizable 808 presets. All presets are very adaptable to any style of music that you are producing. Check out the demo track below.
These presets will give you the ability to manipulate the source audio and wavetables, and craft your own sustaining tones and heavy hitting sub frequencies. Crafted by Samplified’s sound designers, it uses Xfer’s powerful and popular Serum engine to great effect, with endless sound design potential. Be sure to check out our preset pack below and stay tuned for more as we have more music projecs, demos, and tutorials coming your way.