One of the few signature sounds in hip hop music is the Roland TR-808 Bass drum. Roland released the TR-808 drum machine in the early 80s and its synthetically created sounds won just as many detractors for their lack of realism as it did fans for its ability to put together drum patterns without the expense of a kit, microphones and a recording studio. Drum machines such as the MPC-60 and SP-1200 would soon eclipse the TR-808 due to their ability to use samples of ACTUAL drums, but the one sound from the 808 that permanently stuck in the hip hop production culture, was the sub bass kick and its many variations.
The 808 bass drum has survived and flourished mostly because it isn’t a drum at all. It is a pulse of synthetic low end existing primarily between 20 and 80 hz. The attack, sustain and decay of this pulse can be tweaked, allowing it to be used to pad existing kick drums, or exist on its own. As hip hop began pushing into funk based drum tracks in the late 80s and early 90s, the 808 found its way into the background; filling the low sub frequencies where very little else is found. In the mid 90s, the 808 began to return to the front of the mix as southern rap music emerged with a more stripped down production style. Producers began to manipulate digital samples of the 808 kick, often layering in punchier kicks and combining them into single samples. The result was an even rounder and fuller boom than was even available on the original drum machine. (Unfortunately, the southern rap genre also brought back the OTHER 808 drum sounds such as the hi hat, ride, clap and crash which in my opinion, belong in the dustbin of history.)
Today, the 808 kick is as popular as it has ever been and remains one of the more challenging aspects of mixing a rap record. How much is too much? How loud is too loud? Here are a few tricks of the trade I am willing to share. If you want more, you’ll have to pay me to mix your record like everyone else.
As mentioned above, the 808 kick has different applications. There will be times where it should be treated like a drum, and others like a synth bass. This will affect how you compress and control the dynamics. If the 808 is short and being used as the primary kick drum, compress it like you would an acoustic kick, just don’t flood the channel. Over compressing an 808 will bring up ‘crunchy’ frequencies that exist due to its synthetic origins. Give it a gentle 3 to 10 db of compression with an attack that is just slow enough to allow the punch at the front of the sample to hit hard, but fast enough to hold the rest of the sample in place. If the 808 is a long sustaining tone, treat it like you would if it were a string pluck on an electric bass. Often times, 808 kick samples have big front end attack, very little sustain and long but steep decay. Compression can extend the sustain of the pulse and keep the decay audible for a longer period. To do this, set your compressor with a high threshold and a high compression ratio. I find myself compressing these kind of 808 sounds between 8 to 1 and 12 to 1 but again, I keep the threshold very high. The trick is to get the compression to hold down the attack but then release in time with the sustain and decay. Solo the 808 and then toggle the release time of the compression. Your release time is set too fast if it is quicker than the decay of the sample (this sounds like the sustain and decay actually bump up in volume.) The trick is to find a release time that matches the decay time. The result is a more even sound, allowing it to cut through the mix and do its job without causing picture frames to come off the wall in the next room. I also use tape emulation and saturation with 808s to achieve the natural analog warmth they gained by being flooded onto two inch tape in the 80s and 90s. You will have to experiment with that on your own.
As mentioned, 808 kicks aren’t actual kicks and you will find that particular attention needs to be paid to how they are tuned. Unlike an acoustic kick, which may sound good so long as it is tuned to any of the seven notes in the particular key of the record, the 808 is a bass pulse and will clash when it plays with non-unison and non-pleasing harmonic notes in the music. Because it is very low end, it can be a bit difficult to tune by ear alone. Use a tuner plug in (preferably while you are still making the beat) and tune the 808 to the root note of the passage in which it is contained. It has also become popular to use the 808 as a bass and tune several samples to different notes and place them with the corresponding chord changes. Personally, I’m a funky guy so I would rather just play a bassline, but if you’re part robot and like that electronic feel, knock yourself out. Just make sure you tune each sample to its correct note. If need be, 808 kicks can usually be fine tuned in the mixing stage with little to no artifacts using a standard pitch correction application.
Surprisingly, this is usually the least of your concerns. There just isn’t much in the spectrum and standard boosting of the limited frequency of an 808 are nearly the same as just turning up its overall volume. That being said, I have found myself placing hi pass filters on 808 kicks just to roll off some of the REALLY low frequencies below 30 hz. Even though most monitors usually roll off at 50 hz or so, they still TRY to produce those frequencies which takes energy away from reproducing the remaining spectrum. Rolling off the very very bottom of what the human ear can hear can often add a bit of clarity in the overall mix. You may also have to do some work in your EQ section if there is another competing source of low end within the mix. A bass that plays through the record can create problems if it has notes that hit right on top of the 808 pulse. A wise beat maker will avoid these bass battles, but there have been times where I have needed to notch down the specific frequencies of a bass that corresponded with the note of the 808 to keep them from compounding. (Another solution for this is side chain compressing the bass to the 808, but that’s for another article.)
If your 808 is the only kick in the record, you will have to place it up front just as you would an acoustic kick. In rap, the kick and snare are usually the loudest single musical instruments. Given that an 808 is mostly sub frequencies, boosting the companion frequencies between 80 and 120 hz will add punch and insure your kick will still be heard on laptops, cellphones and other low end transducers that lack the ability to reproduce the very low end of the spectrum. If you are using the 808 as a pad, start by setting it well under the volume of the dominant kick and adjust in small increments from there. We all want that very bottom end to rumble, but make sure the rest of the content is not being compromised. Mixes should always be done using the flattest monitors and environments possible. Remember that consumer headphones and car radio systems boost low end considerably. Even when the bass is set at unison zero, it is often not really so in consumer systems. If it is heavy in the studio, it will almost always be heavier in the car. Play your mix at speaking volume in the studio. If the 808 has disappeared, turn it up slowly until it is audible. Then play at full volume. Your sub bass should be clearly present, but not overwhelming. If you used proper compression techniques, the 808 should still cut through effectively without being too loud. If you don’t use a sub-woofer in your mixing environment, it can be quite difficult to get a clear perception of the loudness of your sub bass. These days, 8 out of 10 beats that are brought to my studio have WAY too much below 60 hz. When you are in the final stages of your mix, place a spectral analyzer on your master fader and look at the low end. There shouldn’t be much there below 30 hz. If there is stuff going on down there, give it a 6 to 12 db roll off. You won’t lose much in beef (the human ear only hears down to 20 hz,) and you will gain some clarity and punch.
After 30 plus years, it is safe to say that the 808 kick is here to stay in rap production. But like any good thing, there is always the danger of it becoming cliche from overuse. Use your 808, but bottom up those acoustic kicks and put them to use as well. Now if you excuse me, I’m on the way to the repair shop to pick up my sub-woofer, which needed a new voice coil due to a client’s careless love of, “that B-A-S-S bass.”