Eight leading producers, mixers and DJs share their tips on how to get the most punch, clarity and low-end impact out of your 808 drums and bass lines.
808 samples are a staple of modern production, used in everything from hip hop to electronic music production to contemporary metal. But they can also be a challenge to mix, often competing with other elements such as your kick and bass, and if not well-chosen or well-processed they can easily muddy up a mix.
We’ve asked eight top producers and mixers how they deal with challenging 808s, especially when working with source material where they did not choose their own 808 samples. Here are their tips and techniques – from adding distortion, to sidechain compression, to shaping your 808 harmonics and transients.
I love 808s, both as kick drums and for creating bass lines. They’re great for everything from straight up pop to hip hop, trap, drum & bass, even house music.
Harmonics in 808s are really important, as are the pitch envelope and transients. I often replace the transient audio with a piece of pink noise I’ve made in a synth. I then compress this using a CLA-2A compressor, especially when using the 808 as a kick drum.
808 mixing is particularly important for the radio. Tracks that sound heavy in a studio or club can sound empty on the radio, so sometimes it’s necessary to add 3rd- or even higher-order harmonics using these techniques, to give the listener the impression of bass and help cement the key of the track.
2nd- and 3rd-order harmonics are what give the 808 presence. You can create or exaggerate these harmonics using distortion; but a more precise way to do it is to use the Cobalt Saphira harmonics shaping plugin to enhance odd and even harmonics, which can help shape the tone of the body of an 808. Another plugin that can help you add harmonics and shape the tone is Renaissance Bass.
I usually process the body and transient separately, then fade them into each other and compress. Often it’s good to distort and add harmonics, and then use a filter such as OneKnob Filter and automate it so that a steep low-pass filter cuts the high frequencies and deadens them in the first 15-20 milliseconds after the transient hits. When distorting the body, you also get unwanted high harmonics, which the filter automation can tame to taste. If you do this, make sure that you join the transient to the body at a zero crossing and in context with the pitch movement of the body at the join.
If you want to shape the sound of a kick drum or 808 in even more detail, you can zoom in a wave editor and cut-and-copy individual frequency cycles. The 100 Hz part of the waveform gives the 808 its punch, so sometimes adding more cycles of 100 Hz can give you the punch you need while allowing the rest of the duration of the sound to remain clean of EQ/transient modulators. Multiband transient tools can also be used to lift the 100 Hz punch zone.
Mixing Engineer & Producer
(DJ Khaled, Pitbull, Daddy Yankee)
There are various ways to get your 808s sounding big and powerful. I have found in my experience that 808s vary in character almost as much as vocals. I know, I know – you're saying, how is that possible? But if you have a high workload, you will come across all types of 808s, from a simple, clean, beautiful sine wave, to an 808 sampled from an mp3 that was time stretched and processed to sleep.
So, the tools I use depend on which 808s I get. In the case of starting with a nice, clean sine, it may be as simple as inserting a Waves SSL E-Channel or G-Channel and simply boosting a little 40 Hz and maybe a bit of compression. But when an 808 is in bad shape I need to use several plugs. When it lacks in sub power and just sounds flat, I’ll use Vitamin or Renaissance Bass to bring the low frequencies up to a level that feels right. When the 808 lacks in top-end attack and is too round with too little definition, I’ll use Smack Attack to shape the initial transients and sometimes even exaggerate the tails.
Remember that compression is your best friend when it comes to 808s. Some of the compressors I go to are the CLA-2A, the Renaissance Compressor and sometimes the dynamic section of the SSL E-Channel.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t share my most important piece of advice: After you’ve spent the time crafting the perfect 808, you will realize that the moment you add a kick into the mix, everything changes. If your mix has a kick and an 808 that play together, always keep in mind while working on the 808 that you need to consider its relationship to the kick. I have found that one of the biggest challenges is in blending those two elements together. Sidechain compression and multiband compression will play a big role. A C6 multiband compressor can help you dip a frequency in your 808 to make room for the kick. In some cases, just rolling off the low end on the kick at around 80 Hz with a Q10 or an eMo Q4 can leave plenty of room for your 808 to sound big.
In any case, practice, practice, practice. Over time you will develop your own ways to arrive at the same place we are all trying to get to.
Recording, Mixing & Mastering Engineer
(Avicii, David Guetta, Sting)
Often in contemporary R&B and especially trap music, the bass line is created by tuning an 808 kick across the keyboard and playing a melodic pattern. This 808 bass line becomes the foundation of the whole track and must remain HUGE in the mix.
But when applying a single-band mastering limiter to get final level up to commercial standards, the 808 bass can get crushed and often sound floppy and distorted.
My solution is to use the L3-16 Multimaximizer multiband limiter and increase the ‘priority’ setting on the low-frequency band.
This enables the 808 bass to rumble through, all the way down to the sub frequencies, while bringing up the track level by shifting the limiting to other frequencies.
Here’s what my settings might look like for mastering a song with an 808 bass line:
Digital Farm Animals
Producer, DJ & Remixer
(Galantis, Nelly, R. Kelly, will.i.am)
Here’s my normal process for processing 808s:
- First, make sure you’re using the right sound to begin with! One recommendation I have is the 808 Warfare for Kontakt.
- I normally get rid of any high frequencies I don't need using an EQ plugin – normally from 500 Hz upwards. I will also sometimes get rid of some of the very low frequencies, 0-25 Hz, if I don’t intend to use them.
- Quite often I will boost the lower mids using Renaissance Bass. This allows me to give a precise boost in whatever area I want to feel the 808s most.
- Normally I will put 808s in mono.
- Lastly, I usually sidechain the 808 to the kick drum.
(Dr. Dre, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem)
It's funny – with all of the hip hop I have produced, I was never a huge fan of 808s until just recently. I used to use them instead of bass lines for a while, but then I started to figure out how to combine them with the bass lines. I had to learn that the sub frequency of the 808 has a literal place where it needs to exist in conjunction with my existing bass lines.
I now use sub 808s to round out my mixes, and I always push them through the Renaissance Bass: I just dial through the frequencies until I find the right feeling.
DJ, Producer & Remixer
(Madonna, Katy Perry, Tegan & Sara)
For big bass-heavy drums, it’s all about space and contrast. Try sidechaining the long sustained bass hit to a separate punchy top kick, so the low end has a slow attack. This space allows the punch of the beater to cut through, before the tail of the bass rings out.
Producer & Mixing Engineer
(Megadeth, Deftones, Danzig)
Mixing 808s can be tricky. I get mix projects from all over, and never know what sort of recorded 808 I will be working with.
The weird thing that most people probably don’t think about when they are listening, is how much character an 808 can have. You have pitch, pitch travel (sub drop style), attack, sustain, and release. I find that the two parameters I need to adjust most often are the attack and the sustain, unless the pitch of the 808 directly offends other notes in the key, which happens sometimes: in that case, I’ll transpose whatever is happening in the section and fly in an 808 that doesn’t bend your ear all out of whack.
To adjust the attack and release, I will often use the Smack Attack transient shaper, which is the first plugin I’ve found that really does the job. Some of the problematic 808s that I get are too ‘ticky’ or ‘clicky’ on the front end. In the past, I’d sometimes go as far as to edit the envelope manually with fades and automation, which was tedious and just not rewarding. With Smack Attack I can address the attack extremely quickly and musically with one knob.
Tweaking the release is sort of genre-specific. In heavy music there are different approaches for each subgenre. In a more traditional rock/metal track you might choose not to put the largest 808, or maybe just use it low in the mix for weight. In other genres, the 808 will be a very loud and proud sound, where you might have it right up in the mix and more than one in a song. So it’s important to have an idea of the genre you are working on to make an informed mix decision.
How you set the sustain of your 808s is always going to be relative to how present the 808s are in your mix. The main thing with setting the sustain is the tempo of the song, and which part of the song it is. If it’s the giant drop after a buildup in the bridge, you can bet I’m gonna make that thing long and huge. A conservative 808 would be a count of Boom, 2,3,4, out…, whereas a long one could be Booooommm 2, 3, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4. It’s all relative to taste and the content, but hopefully you get the idea.
Here’s my Rakestraw 808 Fixer preset that I worked up after messing with Smack Attack for a while.
One last tip: Probably one of the most important things about mixing 808s in heavy music is having an adjustable high-pass filter sidechain working your mix buss compressor. In the past, and you can hear this sometimes in mixes, when an 808 dropped, the whole mix would suck in a little bit. By using a high-pass filter in the sidechain of my mix buss compressor, I can prevent those 808s from collapsing my mix for their duration.
Producer, Songwriter, Mixer
(Clean Bandit, Years & Years, Jax Jones, TIEKS)
Here are my presets and tips for mixing 808. Click here to download all the presets.
808 Chunky Sub Bass – PuigTec MEQ-5
Provides some clarity in your chunky sub bass lines.
808 Hat Softener – PuigTec EQP-1A
The old boost-and-cut trick – but only on the top end, which does wonders for more laid-back electronic tracks.
808 Thick Kick – PuigTec EQP-1A
Adds a good chunk of bass, and a dash of top end to help lifeless kicks.
808 Suuuub Kick – PuigTec EQP-1A
Boosts the low and cuts the top for when your 808 kick needs to shake your bones and nothing else.
808 Kick Intensifier – Renaissance Bass
I use this when I’ve been sent an 808 kick that needs some love. Tweak the frequency to match your track for best results.
808 Dirty Clap Spreader – CLA Effects
Gets your claps sounding a little more lo-fi and spreads them out from the center of your mix, giving your more room for vocals and lead lines.
808 Bass Punch – CLA-2A
Adds a bucket load of front to 808 bass lines in need of some encouragement.
808 Snare Comp – CLA-76
Similar to my ‘808 Bass Punch’ preset for CLA-2A, but for electronic snares: This will give you a snappier, fuller-sounding 808.
808 Hat Improver – Maserati GRP
Brightens up your 808 hi-hats to really help them poke out in the mix.
808 Kick Tops – SSL E-Channel
I often get sent projects to mix with multiple kick drums, some covering the bottom end, and some covering the top. This preset helps tidy up the ‘toppy’ ones and accentuate everything I need for them to do the job in the mix.
808 Toight Snare – SSL E-Channel
This one mimics what I do on my SSL during a mix: There’s some top end added for clarity, while scooping out some of the lows, plus a snappy gate and a touch of compression help keep things sounding nice and tight.
Got 808 tips of your own? Share them below in the comments!