Growing up in Miami, FL, in the 1980s and ’90s, I was exposed to a great deal of the Roland TR-808 sound. Found in roller skating rinks, and cars with “tricked out” systems across the city, the window-shaking, bone-shattering Miami Bass sound was literally inescapable. The other-worldly 808, with its long and resonant kick drums and toms, crispy snares and claps, and lighting fast hi hats was so pervasive, even my parents knew what an 808 was.
I fell in love with the futuristic bounce of the 808, and it was a big part of what inspired me to want to make records myself. What I didn’t know at the time was how much frustration this would cause me in my early 20s, trying to figure out how to mix the darn things.
I remember the first track I finished that featured an 808 drum kit. I thought it sounded great in my studio monitors, and in my headphones, so I burned it on a CD so I could put it to the ultimate test—the car stereo. To my dismay, when I popped it in the CD player and cranked it up, the low end sounded downright awful. The speakers were buzzing, rattling, and distorting, and the sound bore little resemblance to the classic 808 sound I was going for. Why did the track sound great in my home studio, but terrible in the car?
Things Are Not as They Seem: The Importance of Accurate Monitoring
One reason the tremendous 808 kick is so tricky to tame is that most smaller speaker systems (like headphones) simply do not have a low enough frequency response to accurately reproduce its sub bass. You can’t correct what you can’t hear. So first and foremost, to monitor the bass and sub bass frequencies accurately when mixing, you really need a pair of near-field studio monitors along with a subwoofer. The JBL LSR308 2-Way Powered Studio Monitor Kit with Subwoofer is a great package with which to start. Once you’ve got yourself a studio setup that allows you to properly monitor the sub bass frequencies, you’ll be able to observe the overpowering low-end frequencies you would hear on a good car stereo, or a larger system, in your home studio. Now that you can hear the problems, you can start eliminating them.
Trim the Fat: Cleaning Up the Low End
When I’m mixing a track that uses 808s—or one without 808s, for that matter—I always try to tackle problems in the low-frequency elements first, which normally lie in the kick and the bass. If there’s an 808 kick with a long decay, as a rule of thumb, I start with a relatively steep high-pass filter anywhere between 20 and 40 Hz, depending on how the 808 is tuned. The goal here is to attenuate some of the ultra-low frequency content that isn’t doing anything to help the sound, and will just end up causing problems with speaker rattle, and distortion. Also, the long 808 kick generally doesn’t have much useful frequency information any higher than 200 Hz, so I usually also instantiate a low-pass filter at 200 Hz or even lower. This helps create room in the mix for the rest of the instruments in your mix.
The Boom versus The Knock
A common technique for helping to achieve the signature 808 “boom” and “knock” simultaneously is to use two 808 kick drums, each with different ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) envelope settings, and different mix processing, at the same time. The idea here is to gain independent control over these two elements in the mix.
The first step in designing this kind of kick sound is to pull up a long resonant 808 kick in your drum sampler and to lengthen the attack using the ADSR controls, effectively adding a slight “fade-in” to the kick each time it happens. Now, you can layer a second short 808 kick with a quick decay on top of the long resonant 808 kick, without the attacks of the two sounds stepping on each other’s toes. Plus, you’ll be able to process the two sounds separately, using discrete EQ and compression settings.
The Rest of The Kit
While the 808’s extraordinary low end is by far the trickiest element to get sounding right, cleaning up the rest of the sounds in the kit will help clarify your mix in the upper midrange and high end, and help make room for the massive bottom. I generally high-pass the 808 hi hats and cymbals somewhere between 6-9 kHz, and sometimes even higher, depending on the rest of the mix. For the snare and clap, I start with a high pass between 300-500 Hz. I may also make various high-end boosts and add reverb to these elements for added presence, depending on the sound I’m going for, but this is a good place to start.
Use Great Sounds
Unless you start with great drum samples, none of the tips above will do you much good. Native Instruments BATTERY 4 is a module within its KOMPLETE 11 suite that comes with some excellent 808 samples, and is also a powerful drum sampler. If you want to synthesize your 808 sounds from scratch like they did in the old days, the Roland TR-08 is a compact recreation of the original TR-808. The TR-08 features the same front-panel layout and user interface as the original and is powered by Roland's Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) technology, which delivers the same skull-crushing bass.
I hope this article has been helpful for you, and I encourage you to leave any thoughts or questions you may have in the Comments section, below.