There are 16 distinct sounds that can be generated with the 808 drum machine. These sounds can be divided into three broad frequency ranges:
Low Frequency: Bass drum, low tom, mid tom, low conga
Mid Frequency: Snare drum, hi tom, rim shot, mid conga
High Frequency: Hand clap, cowbell cymbal, open hi hat, closed hi hat, hi conga, claves, maracas
When thinking about mixing 808 sounds, it’s important consider the sound’s placement and purpose in a mix. Is it filling up the low end? Cutting through the high end? The answer will determine how to mix it. Here are four tips that cover mixing challenges across the 808’s frequency extremes.
Tackle the low end with a gate
We all know how subby 808 bass drums can be. That sound is iconic and helped define early hip hop and solidify the 808’s place in music history. But that sound is also pesky for mixing engineers. Sub frequencies take up a lot of -- often, an unnecessary amount of -- headroom in a mix. One way around this? Use a gate to control the sustain of the bass drum. With a gate controlling the low end, you free up extra headroom and can push that 808 bass drum louder in the mix. But don’t set the attack and the release of the gate to be too fast, or you’ll risk getting unpleasant ‘gate-clicking’ noises.
Tackle harshness using a de-esser
The 808’s high end sounds -- like the cowbell, claves, and hi hats -- can be piercing if they’re not processed correctly. Using a frequency specific compressor such as a de-esser can help tame that high end harshness. When you want those hi hats to really cut through the mix, push the volume on the 808, but put a de-esser at around 2 - 3khz to tone down the frequencies that the human ears are most sensitive to.
Add presence and punch using an amp simulator
When you have a busy mix with many layers, it can be hard to hear the low frequency sounds of the 808. One way to solve this mixing challenge is to send your 808 bass drum or low tom to an amp simulator like Guitar Rig, Amplitube or UAD’s ENGL Amp. Buss it as an auxiliary send, blending the wet and dry signal together. The amp simulator will give you the sizzle that lets 808 instruments stick out in the mix. It will also give you the intelligibility you need when playing your mixes on speakers that can’t reproduce much bass.
Extend the low end using a sonic enhancer
When mixing a song with a sparse arrangement, you may find yourself with some sonic space to fill. Maybe you don’t want to push that 808 kick louder, but you want it to occupy more space in the mix. A sonic enhancer such as Waves Renaissance Bass can help by adding that extra layer of bottom you need to achieve the deep resonating 808 bass drum you hear on a lot of records. It might be useful to use the gate approach mentioned above to control the tail of the subby low end after you’ve processed it with the sonic enhancer so you keep your low frequencies under control.
Reuben Raman is Splice’s in-house audio specialist and the founder of SoundFarm, a music production studio in Singapore.