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I recently began a series of posts on the “controversial” (tongue-in-cheek) topic of kick drum technique, the first of which was about playing “heel up” strokes with the kick drum foot. Part 2 of my kick posts revolves around what you do with your kick pedal AFTER playing a stroke. This technique is directly linked to heel-up, so if you aren’t a heel-up guy then no need to read further.

In short, “burying the beater” means continuing to press the part of the kick pedal that touches the drumhead (the beater) into the drumhead after the stroke happens, instead of rebounding right away. This technique is the opposite of how one would hit a rack tom with a stick, where pressing the stick into the drumhead after the stroke would deaden the sustain of the stroke. It’s this “deadening” of the sustain of the kick drum that makes burying the beater an appealing technique. The tone of the kick is slightly different when burying the beater than when not, and most engineers (live and studio) prefer the “buried” tone. The pressure required to keep the beater pushed against the drumhead after a stroke is the reason burying the beater is so closely linked to the “heel-up” technique. Keeping the beater buried with heel down is quite a strain on the ankle, but the natural weight of the raised leg can easily keep the pedal in down position.

However, the REAL benefit from burying the beater is NOT a tone thing. In fact, I don’t really think the tone difference made by the technique is all that important. What matters to me is the way the spring on the pedal itself operates when I’m burying the beater. Here’s how it works…

– The beater, when buried into the kick head, leaves the pedal spring fully stretched and ready to fling back. If, while burying the beater, the foot is lifted suddenly off the pedal, then the taught spring will burst back not only to the natural stand-still position, but even FURTHER the other direction.

– The volume of your kick stroke is directly related to the velocity of the beater as it approaches the drum head. Additionally, the velocity of the beater is directly related to how large the distance is between the kick head and where the beater starts moving toward the kick head.

– The bottom line: I leave the beater buried into the drumhead until the last moment before I want to produce another stroke. Then, as I suddenly lift my foot to prepare for the stroke (heel-up style), the pedal flings back maybe 8 inches away from the kick head – instead of the 5-inch distance that the beater sits at while in a normal standstill position. This requires careful timing, but stomping on the pedal while it’s flung way back (from the released spring tension) means that I get a much more powerful kick stroke.

– Last thing: The pressure required to keep the beater pushed against the drumhead after a stroke is the reason burying the beater is so closely linked to the “heel-up” technique. Keeping the beater buried with heel down is quite a strain on the ankle, but the natural weight of the raised leg can easily keep the pedal in down position.

SUMMARY: Don’t be afraid of the tone that comes from burying the kick beater into the kick head. It brings a ton of additional power and tone. This is a somewhat wordy explanation, but if you’re grasping what I’m saying and you spend some time working with it you should see a much stronger kick stroke in your playing.

Drummers are PASSIONATE about kick drums. I mean, wow. Technique, dimensions, pedal choice, head choice… there are so many forums and articles on the topic, often containing really heated rhetoric. So, let me start off this series of posts about kick technique with a disclaimer: I DON’T THINK I’M RIGHT. I’m not suggesting that my way of doing things is the one and only correct way. Please feel free to disagree with me. The only thing I’m trying to convey is that my personal kick technique, which I’ve developed over my years of playing, seems to work really well. Not only does it work well for me, but it has worked well for my students. And I think it might work for others too. So I’m sharing it.

That being said…

I want to begin in the rock world – in what I think of as playing in a power environment. By “power environment” I’m referring to any musical context where the drums are bringing a backbeat (snare on “2” and “4”) in a way that dominates the groove of the song. This includes pop, rock, country, hip hop, punk, metal, and others. Jazz, on the other hand, is not normally thought of as a power environment, because in that genre the drumset has a more subdued and nuanced dynamic. Folk is another example of a style I would not consider to be a power environment. Additionally, any of the styles I listed above as being power environments could easily become NOT so, if the physical room that one performs in is too small or boomy or whatever (I’m thinking here of churches or wedding receptions or any other situation where one would play rock grooves quietly).

Sorry for all the disclaimers, but… just in the name of clarity… the technique I’m suggesting in today’s post is ONLY for loud and forceful playing in a power environment. Got it?

Ok. Today’s post is about playing the kick drum with a “heel-up” technique. This means holding one’s leg (knee, calf, etc) slightly in the air so that one’s heel is not touching the kick pedal.  Then, when preparing for a kick stroke, the entire leg (knee, calf, etc) is lifted even higher, such that the entire foot rises almost entirely off of the pedal. The stroke itself comes from the lowering of the entire leg in a sort of stomp, bringing the foot back down onto the pedal with the thrust of the entire leg behind it. I’m using the word “entire” over and over because the technique really hinges on the WHOLE leg being involved, rather than just the ankle.

The source of power in this technique should be obvious, and it far exceeds the power offered by a “heel-down” technique. The heel-down technique involves keeping all parts of the foot on the pedal, with both toe and heel touching the foot plate. When preparing for a kick stroke, the heel remains on the foot plate while the foot itself is pulled up using the ankle. The stroke comes from the foot returning to the foot plate (again using the ankle), and all the while the heel has remained on the foot plate.

The basic difference between “heel-up” and “heel-down” techniques can best be understood as the difference between tapping one’s foot and stomping one’s foot. A tap involves just the ankle and a stomp involves the whole leg. The power difference should be obvious, and the tone difference that results is a MAJOR factor in the feel of the groove. Power environments needs a powerful sound from the drummer, which is where most of the DNA of a power environment comes from in the first place. The more powerful your stroke on the kick drum, the more air will be pushed through it, and the more air being pushed through the kick drum, the more powerful the sound.

Now, there are some guys that I’ve seen who can play with surprising power using only a heel-down technique. This is not the norm, but it certainly exists. My hat is off to those dudes, but I would argue that those guys would get even MORE power if they would use a heel-up technique. It seems like physics doesn’t allow a tap to be stronger than a stomp, even if one’s tap is abnormally strong.

A few additional notes:
1) There is no need to raise your leg higher than a couple inches while preparing for a heel-up technique kick stroke, and the technique definitely involves the ankle is its own way (more on that in the next kick technique post). So don’t go overboard in lifting your leg higher than necessary or locking your ankle.
2) The contact point on the foot plate should be the “pad” of your foot (the base of the toes). While seated, try to lift both your toes AND your heel up off the ground slightly, while still touching some part of your foot to the floor. That part that’s still touching is the pad of your foot, and that’s where I make contact with the foot plate on a heel-up stroke, as opposed to using the toes themselves as the contact point.
3) I personally use heel-down technique all the time, but only in quieter environments. So again, don’t go overboard in thinking that heel-up is the ONLY way to do things.

SUMMARY: Learn to play the kick drum with heel-up technique. This will take time if it’s a new technique to you, but the power will be worth it. Identify if the situation you’re in is a power environment, and if it is, get your heel up technique in the game.

Last week on my Tumblr I posted a photo from a session I did recently. The engineer at the session asked me to remove the reso head on my kick drum for the tracks, which I’ve noticed is becoming common. My well-spoken friend Seth Earnest sent me an email in response to the no reso head idea, and he brings a bunch of great insight to the topic. With his permission, I’ve posted the email he sent below. Get ready to learn something.

*NOTE: The audio examples referenced below are now posted on my Tumblr.

I do a lot of engineering and mixing, as well, so it’s funny as my skills are developing there how I find myself in a battle between my engineer hat and my drummer hat.

With my drum hat on, I almost always despise the sound of a kick without a reso head on it. It’s just attack-y with no bottom and sounds dull, right? Especially compared to a reso head with no “sound” hole. There’s nothing more awesome than a well-tuned, wide-open kick drum sound w/both heads w/no holes. It’s magnificent, and makes me feel like Keith Carlock or Bonham.

Putting that hat on the rack and sliding into my mixing hat is where the reso head/hole/no hole/no reso head really kicks into gear. It’s also full of many variables ranging from the song, the room, the bass player–both how he plays (busy/sparsely) and his tone (round, warm, lots of lows, edgy, lots of mids, clicky, rock-n’-roll, with a pick, w/o a pick, etc. etc. etc.)–and many others to avoid a land mine on down the road of the tune as the mix is being built.

What this brings me to is that the exact sound I hate as a drummer of no reso head becomes really tight & punchy through a mic in the control room and cuts through a mix well w/o a lot of twiddling on my part as the mix engineer. If I’m playing with a really round-playing bass player with a lot of subby stuff going on in his tone, I really want that kick to cut through and be the attack to the bass player’s bottom end. There’s only so much space in a mix for the low end, and to have two full-range sounds (booming kick and round bass) gets way too muddy for there to be any joy in that range. And that range is so crucial for a tune’s foundation.

If my kick is boomy, huge, round, awesome and full on the bottom end, my bass player will have to back off his lows and put more mids in his tone to cut through a mix and not muddy up the bottom end (see the “Grooves” audio example).

So, there’s a lot of “where do I want to end up” and working backwards that has to happen on the producer/mix engineer’s part. These days, a lot of producers are the engineers or mix engineers. So, either I as producer need to determine the final vision of the song and explain to my engineer, or I have to get the vision from whomever is producing to know where he’s going. If I know I’m going for a Roots-style low end on certain hip hop track, I know I’m going to want ridiculous warmth and roundness out of the bass and a nice “thump” (read lower mid-range) out of my kick to push the low end of mix through the song without it getting muddy.

Keep in mind I’m talking exclusively in the studio world right now. Live music is a whole other thing that I only understand from a musician’s perspective.

But, if I’m going for a tune with a Jaco-esque jazzy bass tone, I have all sorts of room in the low lows for my kick drum to serve as the foundation. I can slap a no-hole reso head on that kick, mic it from the outside so I get that huge boomy joy out of a great kick, and put the two together for a solid low end foundation.

All of THIS being said, I come back (long-windedly so) to the reso head off issue. It creates a kick sound with a nice thump, a nice attack and nice mid-range punch that tends to be easier to fit into a mix than a bigger-sounding kick drum. Wise engineers know where they’ll be headed come mix time and will go ahead and mic everything accordingly. It creates a much better mix time because if everything is engineered with the final product in mind, there’s a LOT less twiddling and bangin’ your head against the wall during the mix stage.

There are so many different styles of mixing, too, so each person may do it differently. I know you’re familiar with Mayer’s Continuum, and I listen to that record’s low end, and it’s freakin’ money at all points. This is an example of a genius set of players, producer (Jordan) and mix engineer (Michael Brauer) planning ahead and creating all of this subtle interplay between two of the best players in the world–Jordan and Palladino.

Steve Jordan has a relatively boomy kick on most of those tracks, but what’s really interesting are the holes our brains fill when dealing with sonic information. Listen to “Waiting on the World to Change.” Jordan starts out on his own with that sick groove, and his kick is boomy–def has a reso head on it–but it’s not getting into the sub area. That kick is centered around 100Hz or so, but it implies a much deeper set of frequencies, and then when the bass comes in, it’s sort of “around” that kick on either side, both lower (like 60-80Hz) and above it (200HZ or so), so each sound has it’s own little home. The kick sounds deeper when the bass comes in b/c they’re working together to round out the bottom, but the kick on its own is actually not as deep as we might perceive it to be if we heard that track soloed out without any other tracks in the mix.

On track 2 (“I Don’t Trust Myself”), it’s the same idea but with different frequencies. Jordan’s kick is up around 150Hz, and Pino has that huge low end (under 100) but also that mid-range attack for how he’s playing (esp. the slap thing he’s does every few bars) up in the 400-600 range.

Track 3 brings a different approach. That hot-rod loop starts, then the “real” drums kick in w/the rest of the band. The “real drums” kick drum is mostly an attack/punch sound, and the bass is low and round. Also, it’s interesting to note that after the band kicks in, the hot rod loop get a low-cut EQ on it (i.e. everything below around 200-250 is rolled off, I think); the kick drum on the hot rod loop has almost no legitimate low end once the “real” drums come in. BUT, most interestingly, our brains almost create the low end b/c low end is implied by the timbre of the kick drum itself.

It’s like thunder. If we only heard the upper frequencies of thunder (say, above 120Hz), we would still process it as a “boom” because its timbre implies and our brains process it as having all that low end, as well (see the “Thunder” audio example). It’s a subtle thing that if you really listen you realize there’s actually not the low end there, but the quick, instinctual perception of our brains becomes a god-send in a mix environment when you only have so much frequency real estate to deal with. You can imply something without it actually being there in a mix, and that will always leave room for something else.

Mixing, I’m learning through tedious trial-and-error, seems to be a series of compromises.

SOOOO, the reso-head-off for a lot of engineers can remove one set of land mines on down the road of “How in the world do I deal with this kick and bass interfering with each other?” A decision will have to be made one way or the other (kick gets the low-end or the bass does, but it can’t be both), and a wise engineer will make decisions early on which make his life easier as he goes.

I brought up Keith Carlock earlier: listen to his stuff on the Steely Dan records he is on. That is NOT his normal kick drum sound. He’s normally blasting some awesome-sounding, wide-open kick sound, but that would have muddied up a SD record, so he (or they or the producer) were like, “Nope. Tight and dry, Keith.” My taste is that the newest 2 SD records are too thin sounding, but that’s just my taste. So, there are a lot of taste issues, too. 

This is a ridiculously long answer for a simple question, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot, too. I used to get offended when an engineer would ask me to take off my reso head, but I’m now beginning to learn a lot more of why he might be asking as I’m learning more about mixing.

My point in all of this is that an engineer will use tricks and aural brain assumptions (like the posted audio examples) to make a mix work, and, sometimes, they know that a reso-head full kick sound will impede where they are going in their vision of the mix.

On the other hand, some engineers are just lazy and don’t want to fully engage in the art of capturing your kick drum as it actually sounds and ask you to do stupid stuff because they don’t want to get off their butts and actually listen to what’s happening in the room. So there’s that whole ball of worm cans to deal with, too.

Super deep kick drums are popular these days, and for good reason. They look super cool.  And, the cool-looking, huge kick drum must sound good too, right? Well, no.  Extra deep kicks actually don’t sound good at all.

It makes a lot of sense, although the situation is the opposite of what you might first think. The resonant head is on the drum to do one job: resonate. And, the closer you put that head to the attack head, the more it will do it’s job to resonate sympathetically with your hits. Therefore, a deep kick drum, although appearing huge, actually sounds quite thin… because of the simple logic that the deep kick puts your res head further away from the attack head, and so it resonates less. Ironically then, the thin kick ends up sounding huge, and the deep kick sounds thin. This makes sense with the course of drum-making history, as early kick drums began with 10″-12″ depths, and have only exceeded 18″ in depth over the last decade. It turns out that the highly sought-after vintage kicks that everybody wants in the studio are ALWAYS 14″ depth, maximum.

This was all just logical theory to me before last week, though. For the Sanoski sessions, I brought the Bill Mike kick drum (14×24) and a different acrylic kick that I was borrowing (20×20). We tried the 20×20 first, and then the 14×24… and it was no contest. Now, of course the winning kick was bigger in diameter, which is the biggest factor… so I suppose one could say that it wasn’t a fair shoot-out. But still, I’ve heard great sounding 20-diameter bass drums before, and for the record, the 20×20 didn’t just lose in the comparison, it really didn’t sound good in the studio AT ALL.

I think a case can be made, however, for the deep kick drum in a live setting. There are plenty of ways to make ANY kick drum sound great in a live performance, and the deep kicks do look REALLY cool… so there you go.

SUMMARY: Super deep kick drums don’t sound nearly as great as they look.

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