7 Tips To Make an 808 Kick Sound Better & Cut Through The Mix

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  • The 808 kick is a classic sound that’s here to stay.
  • Learn how saturation, parallel compression, and EQ can take your bass to the next level.
  • Make your 808s shine with this guide!

The 808 kick is one of the most prolific bass sounds to ever grace a record. From hip hop, metal, pop and even newer emerging electronic genres, the 808 kick can be heard on countless records and could very well even be the defining feature of some genres. Thanks to its popularity, now any kick with a lingering sub is simply referred to as “an 808”. Producers like Lex Luger have made entire careers using trademark 808 basslines.

7 Tips for Better 808s

In this article, we’re going to run through 7 approaches that will help you think differently about 808s.

  1. Context Is Key
  2. Saturation, Harmonics, and Distortion for Character
  3. Tonal Balance With EQ
  4. Sidechaining With a Kick
  5. Compression for Dynamic Control
  6. Parallel Processing for Warmth and Texture
  7. Don’t Forget To Experiment!

1. Context is Key

In its most basic form, an 808 kick / bass sound is just a sine wave with some pitch modulation to create a transient or “click”. So 808s are best defined as kick drums made from sine waves, focused on the very low frequencies.

Since 808s in their rawest form are kind of bland sounding, processing is essential. Thankfully, most 808 samples already have some form of distortion, compression, or other effects applied, if only subtly.

The context of an 808 kick changes depending on the genre. A common technique in metal implements the use of a pitched down copy of the 808 running in parallel to the original source so that it gets that ultra-low end – commonly referred to as “booms.” In Hip-Hop, this is almost unheard of.

At a certain level there’s always the artist’s intent. If this super hot producer hires you to mix their record and you change their vision too much, that could mean they do not call you back next time – or even worse they might disappear entirely before even paying you!

By the same token, they’re hiring you for your flavor. It’s almost your duty to crank it to 11. Read the situation to understand the context you’re working in and act from there as authentically as you can – within reason.

2. Saturation, Harmonics, and Distortion for Character

At every stage you can totally blow 808s out in a way you almost didn’t think was possible, and that is no truer than with saturation. In the context of mixing we use saturation to help fill in some of the holes in the frequency spectrum. When it comes to sound design we use these units to add grit, dirt, and thicken the source material up.

Saturation works by adding harmonics to the signal. It’s easy to imagine how this makes it easy to fill in the frequency range. At a certain point you can start over saturating the signal producing full-on distortion. Some distortion is pleasant and can help from a sound design and mixing standpoint whereas digital distortion (like the clipping from inside of a DAW) is generally taken as unpleasant – though there are modern instances of it being used to somewhat good effect.

Saturation comes in many flavors like tape saturation, tube saturation, triodes, pentodes, and even consoles add their own different flavors of saturation with their own character. Adding a bit of saturation helps your 808s to stand out in the mix and give it a little more uniqueness. Considering everyone more or less has access to the same 808 sounds, why not make yours stand out?

(To read more about the difference between distortion, overdrive, and saturation, make sure you read Boost VS Overdrive VS Distortion VS Fuzz (Differences Explained))

3. Tonal Balance With EQ

When using EQ on your 808s, the same rules apply as with any other instrument, but there are a couple of thins to consider. In particular, you should pay attention to how your 808s interact with any other bass or kick sounds.

Your kick should ideally have a different root note than your 808. That makes it naturally sit better in the mix and allows you to better carve out space for those elements by using EQ. In a nutshell you are giving each element a little dip in its EQ curve where the fundamental of the other element is sitting. If those two elements are sitting in the same spot you’re never going get them to sit right without some shift in pitch to either one or perhaps even a super aggressive side chain (which might not give you exactly the kind of result you’re after).

A high pass filter can be very useful here as well, though with all things audio, it depends a lot on the individual elements in your track. If you overdo your high pass filter sweep you can really thin out your sounds and suck the life out of a song.

Is using a high pass filter necessary? Not really, though if there are a ton of actual recordings in the project you may find that it helps get rid of that extra hum you picked up while tracking. Also in general low frequency rumble can build up in many other ways, including through the use of reverb.

Conversely, a similar contrasting effect can be achieved by using low pass filtering in conjunction with your high pass filtering. Going a bit further with your filtering, you could play around with automating the “Q” of your filter to give it more texture and breathe a little more life into your mix.

I’ve spoken a lot about cutting but boosting with your EQ can help a lot as well. When done in conjunction with the subtractive EQ technique mentioned earlier, boosting some of the next harmonics up in the series of your 808 can make them more audible – especially on smaller speakers.

(To get your mixes sounding even better, we put together the ultimate guide to subtractive vs additive EQ!)

So, if you’re cutting 55 Hz in your sub, boosting 110 Hz, 220 Hz, or even 330 Hz could give you more of the balance you’re after while letting the kick live in it’s own place, allowing the 808/sub to fill in any holes in the frequency spectrum. If you can get the above down, you may even find yourself not needing to use side chain compression as much as you used to, provided you’re able to get create separation with your panning and cuts.

4. Sidechaining With A Kick

Now, all that being said, side chaining totally has its place in music. It shouldn’t just be used for everything. That’s where a lot of producers that change genres from EDM to something like hip-hop somewhat struggle with on their mixes – the whole context thing. So much of the bass sound in hip hop comes from that overlap in frequencies and more importantly, it doesn’t pump like EDM tends to do.

In certain circles like the EDM community, you see sidechain compression as somewhat of a catch all for mixing sub harmonic frequencies when its really only one possible solution that’s entirely stylistically dependent. That is, you only really tend to use this technique when you need that pumping sound, which is probably why a lot of EDM producers default to it.

Typically when someone mentions sidechaining, they are talking about sidechain compression, though depending on your DAW almost anything could be sidechain-able. Sidechain compression is the most known because it can almost make sounds disappear when you need them to. Sidechaining can also be used in a sound design sense as you will impart some character on the source. How fast the sidechain compressor responds can also play a pivotal role in how the tail ends sound or how it sounds when it comes back in.

One of my favorite uses of this technique is sidechaining an EQ to the source to make a little room when a new element like a guitar solo is introduced. If you have multiple bass instruments, this may even be a useful tip to get them to all sit better.

An original Roland TR-808 (Image: Roland USA)

The other most common use for sidechaining with basses comes in the form of a transient designer/transient shaper – and this is where I may lose a lot of you. Transient designers are really just another form of compression. Whether you are setting up sidechain compression on a transient designer or a compressor, it tends to be the same. Your main focus will be on the timing to shape your sounds.

Typically speaking for sidechaining, you want to have the compressor on your 808/bass with the kick as the sidechain “key”.

Put simply, however fast the attack of your kick is, is how fast you want the attack to be. This means that as soon as the compressor reads the kick, it’s clamping down on the signal. Timing wise, it should end up being somewhere between 0 ms and 10 ms. Keep in mind that very fast settings can result in “clicks” as the compressor reacts instantaneously to the kick.

The release settings will just be however long the tail of your kick is or rather, how fast you want your 808 to come rushing back in after it gets clamped down on – usually around 80-200 ms. However much you are actually compressing when the side chain is triggered will determine how much of the signal is getting out of the way.

In most situations where you don’t necessarily want to pump you just want maybe 1-3 dB of gain reduction, whereas obviously if you want more pumping you would be more aggressive with your gain reduction – aiming for even more than 5, 10, or 20 dB. You may even want the signal you’re trying to pump to completely disappear.

Then again, if you’re the producer, you have the power to fix things without resorting to sidechaining. This doesn’t mean don’t use sidechain compression, just don’t rely on it to fix things that can be fixed more effectively in other ways. So if you’re using sidechaining just to kill any lingering bass notes, why not shorten their duration instead?

At a certain point getting that clean mix starts with your writing. Produce with intent and don’t be lazy, it’s just making life more difficult for yourself down the line.

5. Compression for Dynamic Control

“If you can contain the dynamics of your bass then the rest of the mix kind of falls in place.” – Eric “Mixerman” Sarafin – “Zen and the Art of Mixing

Compression is a huge part of today’s bass sound. It almost doesn’t sound right unless you’ve compressed it. So, the short and sweet of it is with bass, I go middle of the road with the attack and release to begin with (both knobs in the center) and work back from there to find how fast the compressor needs to be. Most of the time, it’s going to be a little slower – at least in my experience.

When you first start using compression, its important to always be A/B’ing what you’ve done. Is it better or is it just louder? Is louder better in this scenario?

Generally speaking FET compressors tend to be favorites among audio engineers for bass instruments as they can accent and help bring some of the midrange harmonics up, though I’ve used an opto in that slot for similar (albeit smoother) results.

Again, it’s all about intent here. It’s about knowing where are you trying to get to and knowing whether or not the tool you’re using is helping you get there or is it drawing out the process longer than it needs to be. Spending longer on a project than you need to can really kill your creativity and in turn, bring your productivity down. Let’s get more music done!

Multiband compression can be useful for these sorts of applications as well but I feel they’re better utilized if you only have a single file beat you’re mixing into.

If you have access to the multitracks, then there shouldn’t be a reason you couldn’t just use an EQ or compress the bass instrument itself instead to get a better result.

In the context of 808s though, multiband compression can help you do more creative sound design as you can really accent the high frequencies to give your sounds more personality or even compress a hole of sorts in the frequency spectrum for your sound to kind of sit in, without making the signal you’re compressing sound too thin either (which can be the case with EQ cuts).

6. Parallel Processing for Warmth And Texture

I like to treat parallel processing kind of like my last attempt to get something bigger, fatter, or punchier. Typically when someone mentions parallel processing, the first thing people hop to is parallel compression. If you want something to have the fullness of a compressed sound but you also want to keep the transients intact or even bring the transients out more, then parallel compression is what you’re after.

However, just lumping parallel processing into just parallel compression would be unjustified as there’s a myriad of textures waiting for you beyond parallel compression.

All parallel processing is set up the same way, its just a duplicate of the original source with the effect all the way on (100% wet) so you can balance it with the dry signal to taste. Whether you are mixing in a parallel super distorted, vocoded, or compressed signal, parallel processing allows us to be more creative and exert more control over our FX.

A word of warning: phase is important, and you can run into phase issues with parallel processing if you are not careful. Particularly with bass this can result in a muddy, weak, or confusing low end.

One way to help avoid phase issues is to split the signal with a crossover filter before processing (let’s say 80 Hz). The frequencies below the cutoff are unaffected, but we process everything above 80 Hz. This means any additional processing we do on the midrange and above will not affect the bass range. This is particularly useful if we already like the sound of the sub-frequencies but want to add a bit of character elsewhere.

Parallel Compression

Where parallel compression shines is on vocals, drums, or really anything that is going to be a major component of the whole song.

Maybe you just need to get that super quiet part a little more oomph. In most situations you will end up squashing the signal by 5-7 dB with an attack and release that’s not too fast but not too slow. The nice thing about parallel processing is the fact that you’re not generally mixing in the most pleasant of sounds – but when combined with the dry signal it just works.

Experiment with messing up the signal to get the kind of character you want. So many compressors have a mix knob on them these days, you may not have even been aware that you’ve already used parallel compression before.

When it comes to 808s, parallel compression can help when you need more body but you cannot sacrifice more of the impact. Meaning that this is a very situational technique that you may not see often with 808s. With 808s, where you can really be creative is beyond parallel compression. Try also adding in some distortion and other effects that mix well with the dry signal.

7. Don’t Forget To Experiment!

While it’s great to have some good general rules and guidelines for how 808s can fit into a mix and really make your track bang, never forget that experimentation will lead to new discoveries and help you to develop your own characteristic “sound”.

What happens when you blend that distorted 808 bass with a flanger and mix it in? You could even add a delay to the signal to introduce phasing and make it even more distinct. Just remember to use parallel processing and clean up any muddy subs from the delay and modulation effects with a high pass filter.

The key here is informed experimentation – once you know the rules, you will be better at breaking them in new and exciting ways. While you can learn from pure experimentation alone, you’ll save a lot of time by understanding the fundamentals about how modern 808 bass sounds are mixed first.

The world needs more interesting 808s. Better is purely subjective but we all know what a good 808 sounds like. Walk that line between what you know is good and what you find to be a little more adventurous and only then can we move those boundaries forward.

(For a full guide to mixing subs, make sure you read Mixing Low End (8 Tips For Face-meltingly Large Bass))