Any modern producer knows that the low end is a key part of production.
And for some genres, 808s are the core of the track (looking at you, trap music).
So with 808s being so important, understanding how to properly use 808s is a key part of the producer’s arsenal.
It’s not enough to simply drop 808 samples in with your drum loop and call it good. There are many ways to use 808s the wrong way.
That’s why we put together a list of essential tips to keep in mind when using 808s in your tracks.
These are simple, easy-to-use tips that you can use in your productions immediately.
(Disclaimer: When we refer to 808s, we mean the classic 808 kick drum)
Tip #1: Choose The Right 808 Samples
Grabbing an off-the-shelf 808 sample is more efficient and effective than crafting your own.
However, if you use samples that someone else created, it’s essential that you are careful with your sample selection.
Ask your favorite producer, and they’ll tell you that 90% of what it takes to get good sounding drums is selecting the best sample in the first place.
There are a lot of shitty samples out there that could ruin your tracks.
The key to choosing good 808 samples is not the ability to pick out samples that sound great on their own, but ability to pick the right sample for your track.
If you find this is something you struggle with, a quick solution is to pick 10 samples and add them to your track one-by-one, to see which one is the best fit.
This will give you a feel for how different-sounding 808s influence the feel of your track.
Pro Tip: This mindset can be duplicated in your approach of selecting drum samples as well.
Tip #2: Properly Mix Your 808 Bass and Kick Drums
Have you ever written a track only to have the low end sound super muddy after you layer your bass and your drums?
Mixing kick and bass is something a lot of producers struggle with, whether they know it or not.
It’s a key cause of muddy bass.
In a proper mix, a kick hits first, and then the 808 brings the bass right after the kick fades away. And to the listener, it sounds like one seamless bass sound.
Check out the picture below. In it, our kick and 808 are layered with no effort to blend them together. The initial hits overlap, which creates a muddy and distorted sound.
An improperly layered 808 and kick drum.
There are a few different ways to mix these two elements together:
Use track fades
To use this method, start by flattening both your kick and 808 into audio files.
Next, reduce the attack of the 808 so the kick can cleanly come through.
Then, fade in the 808 as the kick begins to decay.
It’s key to use both eyes and ears in this process to make sure the attack of the 808 is delayed long enough to allow the kick to cleanly cut through, while still blending together.
A proper fade between an 808 and a kick drum.
The benefit to this method is that it allows you to visually compare your samples’ volume levels, and create a precise mix between them.
Pro Tip: It’s better than using a sidechained compressor because you don’t have to spend a lot of time fiddling with release timing.
Use sidechain compression
While we would recommend you use audio fades when possible. However, sidechaining is also an effective tool for blending 808s and kicks.
The best way to sidechain in this way is with a ghost trigger.
You want to use a ghost trigger because directly sidechaining to your kick sends a lot of excess information to your compressor.
This leads to higher CPU loads, as well as artifacts and imperfections in the 808, even after rendering the track.
To set up a ghost trigger, add a hi hat over your kick, and sidechain the 808 to the hi hat. This creates a shorter input into the sidechain compressor, making it easier for us to dial in our compressor settings.
The basic setup for a ghost trigger.
Next, let’s dial in the settings on our sidechain compressor:
Good-looking sidechain compression with a ghost trigger.
Now, whenever the kick hits, the ghost trigger will cause the 808 to duck down, and then fade back in quickly right after.
Tip #3: Properly Mix Your 808 Bass and Snare Drums
The relationship between your 808 and your snare can be just as important as your 808 and your kick drum. Just as 808s and kicks battle for attention, so do 808s and snares.
Thus, it’s important to duck the 808 anytime the snare hits.
One way to do this is using an envelope shaper, which we’ll explain below.
For this, we’ll use Xfer Records’ LFO Tool to duck the volume of the 808 whenever the snare hits.
Check the image below. It’s a basic drum loop, where the snare hits over the 808.
The 808 and snare overlap in this track.
Start by adding the LFO Tool onto your 808 channel.
LFO Tool is an envelope shaper that allows us to create rhythmic (i.e. looped) volume automation, among other things.
In this example, our LFO rate is set to a ½ bar, so the envelope shape will repeat every 2 notes.
Halfway through our cycle, we’ve ducked down the volume, as you can see above.
With this in place, our 808 no longer conflicts with the snare, allowing for the snare to clearly punch through the mix.
Tip #4: Make Sure to Tune Your 808s
When using 808’s, it’s important to make sure they are in-key. This especially applies to off-the-shelf samples without any key or note markings.
If your DAW has a built in tuner (like Ableton does), we can use it to identify the note of the 808.
Using Ableton’s tuner to find the note of an 808.
Otherwise, we can use a spectrum analyzer to identify the key of the note.
To do this, add a spectrum analyzer to an audio track with your 808 sample.
The lowest peak is the root note of your 808. In the example below, the lowest peak is identified as a C0 at 32.2 Hz in the small window at the bottom right of the spectrum analyzer.
Spectrum analysis of a C0 808 sample.
One other thing to consider is the “melodic” aspect of our 808s.
An 808 bassline is an instrument, just like any other in a track.
When writing 808s bass lines, we should treat them just as we would writing a melody line or a chord progression.
This is especially important in genres where the lead isn’t melodic, and the 808s need to carry the weight of melodic development.
Knowing/choosing a key is a great way to keep melodic lines with 808s coherent.
It can be difficult to hear whether or not an 808 melodically clashes with the lead instruments in a song.
So, a great way to fix this is to transpose the 808 sample up an octave, then reference your melody from there.
For example, let’s say our 808 sample is in F, and we can’t decide whether F or F# sounds better in a track.
By transposing our 808 up an octave, the tonality of the sample becomes more prevalent, making it easier to decide which note will fit.
Transposing an 808 sample up an octave.
Tip #5: Use Multiband Processing On Your 808 Samples
If you’ve looked at mixing tutorials online before, it’s likely that you’ve heard the common creed: keep your low end mono.
Although this rule can be broken, if you want your music to be played in clubs and concert venues, make sure to keep your bass mono.
So, what is multiband processing?
Multiband processing is a way to give character to 808s while keeping their low-frequency image clean. This is accomplished by splitting up the frequency bands of your 808 sample or synth, and only applying distortion to the upper frequencies.
That way, we can have a powerful sub that translates to mono systems, as well as interesting harmonics that help define the character of a track.
Fabfilter Saturn, a multiband distortion plugin.
In Ableton, you can set up a multiband saturator with stock plugins. Below is an excerpt from our upcoming “Ableton Workflow Guide”, detailing how to set up a frequency-dependent processing rack in Ableton:
* Expert-Level Pro Tip: How to Create A Native Multiband Split Rack in Ableton *
Beyond the classic example of multiband compressor, multiband processing is an useful technique to gain further control over the shape and dynamics of your sound. Multiband distortion is popular application of this, as is multiband imaging. We can set up a “Multiband Chain” in Ableton to use multiband processing using only Ableton effects.
To set this up, we’ll load Multiband Dynamics onto an empty audio track. Next, group the device, and open your chain list on the audio effect rack.
Next, we’ll duplicate our chain twice. Name the chains High Band, Mid Band, and Low Band.
Then, we’ll go into our High Band chain and solo the High Band. We’ll do this for the rest of the chains, solo’ing the Mid Band on the Mid Band and the Low Band on the Low Band.
Lastly, fold all of the Multiband Dynamics, name the rack, then save it to your user library. Now, we’ve created a custom multiband split rack. If we want to process a specific frequency band, all we have to do drag the audio effect onto the corresponding chain. Say, for example, we wanted to add saturation to only the High Band. We’d simply drag a Saturator to the High Band, and it will only affect frequencies above our cutoff, which by default is 2.50 khz.
Tip #6: Never Warp Your 808s
Most DAWs offer the ability to “warp” audio, which allows to you play audio samples at the same speed, regardless of their pitch.
While this function is very useful, it is sonically “imperfect”.
Warping adds artifacts to sounds.
When dealing with 808s, whenever possible, you should leave your 808s unwarped.
As explained in the section above, keeping your low end clear is extremely important, and added artifacts through warping compromises the quality of your 808s.
The one exception to the rule is if you use pitch bend effects, but even then we highly recommend keeping your 808s unwarped.
Tip #7: Use Fades to Lock in the Rhythm
Part of what makes bass essential in electronic music is that it sets the groove for the track (along with the drums).
Thus, it’s essential to lock in the rhythm of 808s in a track. This means carefully controlling 808 volume envelopes to shape the groove.
Let’s take a look at an example:
Below, we’ve got a basic drum loop, with an 808, kick, and snare. Currently, the 808s are back to back, playing for nearly the entirety of the drum loop.
A basic drum loop. Note the fades on the 808 where the kick hits.
As you can see, the 808 is present at all times in this loop.
With an 808 like this, our ears quickly get used to the sound of it, making it less interesting.
So what will we do about this?
Well, using fades in Ableton, we can shorten the length of the 808s, helping to let the low end breath a little bit.
Fades give space to the 808s in this drum loop.
With these fades, our drum loop not only has more space, but it also has an added rhythm that gives the track a stronger groove and swing.
Tip #8: Set Gain Staging on Your 808s
When processing 808s, we need to be careful about perceived loudness versus actual loudness.
Actual loudness is the literal loudness of an audio track, as determined by its peak level.
Perceived loudness is the relative loudness of the track, in comparison to other elements in the arrangement. It’s related to the concept of increasing the perception of how loud a sound is, without actually turning up the volume.
How does this apply to our 808s?
Well, with any effect we apply it’s important to make sure we are not just turning the sample up, increasing it’s volume (actual loudness). Producers often turn up the actual loudness to make 808s hit harder.
However, it’s better to change the perceived loudness and maintain the dynamics of the track.
The way we do this is by carefully monitoring the peak level of the sample.
Peak level measures the peak of the incoming signal, i.e. the loudest volume the sample reaches.
Ableton’s mixer has a built in peak meter, directly to the left of the volume fader.
Note the peak meter at -0.84, above the pan dial and to the left of the volume fader.
Alternatively, there are a host of 3rd party metering plugins, such as the Voxengo Span, a free plugin.
The peak metering in Voxengo’s SPAN is located in the middle bottom section under “metering”
Alternatively, most limiters also offer basic metering capabilities, such as Izotope’s Ozone 7 Maximizer. Peak metering is located on the top right section of the plugin.
Izotope’s Ozone 7 Maximizer offers peak metering ion the top right.
Tip #9: Create a Basic 808 Using Synthesizers
Synthesizing 808s is a fundamental concept that all producers should have in their arsenal.
It’s pretty easy to create 808s in nearly every synthesizer with just a few steps.
To illustrate this, we’re going to create an 808 in Xfer Records’ Serum.
To get started, let’s load a sine wave into OSC A. We can find the Sine wavetable in Serum under “Analog -> Basic Shapes”.
Loading a sine wave into Xfer Records’ Serum.
The basic “structure” of an 808 is a sine wave with a fast envelope assigned to the pitch.
The envelope quickly pitches the wav down to its original pitch and adds a “punch” the 808.
Let’s look at how to set this up.
First, we’ll want to set up an envelope with a fast attack and fast decay. We used envelope 2, as shown below.
Adding an envelope to a sine wave in Serum.
In Serum, Envelope 1 is automatically assigned to the ADSR.
For an 808 we’ll need a fast attack, with a medium amount of decay and release.
This allows the sub to ring out after the note is released.
An 808 envelope with ADSR settings.
Next, we’ll need to assign this to the pitch of our oscillator.
We can do this by switching over to the MATRIX tab in Serum.
Choose ENV 2 as the source, and Mast. Tun as the destination.
What this modulation does is a “pitch drop”, which means anytime we hit a note, the pitch will rapidly fall down to the root pitch.
Finally, drag the AMOUNT fader the the right, dialing in the parameter to taste.
The further right we drag it, the more prevalent the knock will be.
A basic 808 matrix in Serum.
This is a “clean” 808 sample, that’s a good starting point for creating more colorful 808s.
In part two of our series on how to make kick-ass 808s, we take a look at the many different ways to process basic 808s into more interesting samples. These are advanced techniques that take your game to the next level, now that you’ve mastered the basics!