A review of Kick 2, an audio plugin primarily used to make kick drums, bass and percussion sounds.
Requires a minimum Intel Core Duo or AMD Athlon 64 X2 or better and at least 512MB of RAM.
Runs on Windows 7, 8, 10 and Mac OSX 10.7+.
Kick 2 is available in several different 32/64-bit plugin formats:
- Avid Audio Extension (AAX)
- Steinberg Virtual Studio Technology (VST)
- Apple Audio Unit (AU)
After playing with Kick 2 for a bit, I decided to come up with a conceptual design of what I imagine are the components. Please realize that this may be far from actual implementation and just a visual guide.
What I imagine Kick 2 to be is a synthesizer/sampler built on top of audio oscillators. When a note is pressed on your MIDI controller, it consists of the actual note designation, the MIDI note number, and the frequency. This note gets sent to Kick 2 where it maps it to the current preset and refers to an existing audio sample (like a tom, TRS 808 kick, trap sound, etc.).
Presets from global (a Kick Preset), pitch curve, EQ, sub control, and click samples are taken into account. All are fed into a signal processing pipeline that does compression, limiting, equalization, and other effects.
Nice GUI Look
Kick 2 is one of the better looking VST plugins I’ve used. It is clean, well laid out, and professional looking.
Synthesizers and the Parts of Sound
Unlike a physical drum where you hit it with a stick to make sound, Kick 2 is a sound engine geared towards making percussion sounds. It isn’t an instrument, but rather a software synthesis tool.
Before jumping in and using it, it is best to go back to the basics of what is sound and how is it made. Why? Because either you will learn nothing and just use Presets or really learn something and understand whats under the hood. Being a geek, I like to know a little bit of whats going on in the framework of synthentic audio and music making.
There are several different ways to create sound:
- Physical sound
- Analog electronic synthesis
- Digital electronic synthesis
To create physical sound, you need vibration to move air particles. If you pound your hand on the desk, you are creating air vibrations from hitting the desk. There you go, you just made real sound. But if you want a drum kick, that ain’t gonna work.
Analog electronic sound synthesis is the process of using electronics via alternating current (AC). To simulate vibration, you do this through changing voltage input levels. This is done using a circuit called a voltage controlled oscillator (VCO). A VCO creates negative and positive voltage in the form of pulses that are shaped in waves. Common voltage waves created by a VCO are in the patterns of sine, saw, triangle, and square.
In the application of using VCOs for music synthesis, different wave patterns create different timbres (tone color). For example, the timbre of a flute is different than a saxophone through using a different wave pattern. Filtering and modifying the signal is how one can create different sounds. Lets look at the different properties of voltage generated waves that can be applied in making synthetic sound:
- The general wave shape – The wave pattern; sine, saw, triangle, square, etc
- The wave length – The amount of time to complete one wave cycle
- The frequency – The number of waves that cycle within 1 second (Hertz)
- The amplitude – The height of a wave (decibels); loudness and volume
If you take a violin and look at its oscillations, its in general a sine shape. It won’t match perfectly as there will be jaggedness between the peaks and valleys. But in general, its a sine wave form. To mimic instruments in both analog and digital forms, the properties of a voltage wave can be applied.
To create the pitch of an instrument for a note, the frequency of the synthetic oscillator is adjusted. The frequency is measured in how many waves oscillate within a second of time (dubbed Hertz). A higher frequency results in a higher pitch tone while a lower frequency creates a lower pitch tone. All musical notes are related to a frequency. For example, a C4 under the equal tempered scale model is associated with 261.63hZ.
Sine waves can be used to create waves using Fourier Transforms. The square, saw, and triangle waves can be created from several sine waves.
To create loudness in volume, amplifier circuits are used to increase the voltage level of a signal. An attenuator does the opposite and decrease voltage in the signal. In both cases, the wave shape generally stays the same, but the voltage levels are modified by a multiple.
Harmonics is a frequency that repeats itself within a vibrated sound. These are the sounds that the ear picks up and focuses on. The frequencies that fall outside harmonics are those that don’t repeat and are non-regular. They are created by taking a multiple of a base frequency (i.e. 2x, 3x, 4x, etc.)
All VCO components and properties can be simulated in software. Some sound algorithmically, and some through sound samples. This is what Kick 2 does to create percussion sounds.
Presets To Get Up and Running Fast
After installing Kick 2, all the presets are stored in Microsoft Windows in the C:\ProgData\Sonic Academy\Kick 2.
There are many different kinds of presets the plugin stores:
- Kick – Global settings per each Kick setup
- Curve – Frequency pitch curve settings
- EQ – Equalizer curve settings
- Sub – Sub harmonic oscillator control settings
You can use a text editor to change the factory defaults (make a copy first and rename). The files are in XML format.
For each different type of preset, each is broken up into three groups:
- Factory – Default presets
- User – Your custom saved presets
- DLC – Third party downloadable presets
This is smart top level categorization, because it lets you save the originals as templates to modify and rename to create your own custom preset. This way you don’t intermingle custom presets with the originals.
Kick 2 comes with a rich set of over 230 Kick global presets catering to many different musical styles like:
- Drum and Bass
By choosing a global Kick Preset, you set the overall environment for your Kick. The control knobs will set appropriately to the unique musical style. If you want to tweak the parameters, you can and then save them off as a new Kick Preset to your user folder.
Several frequency curve presets are available:
These are used in the Pitch editor to correlate musical note to frequency. You can create your own curves too and save them to disk for recall.
The frequency range is your standard 20Hz to 20000 kHz. You can move the pitch vertical slider up and down to change note/frequency range and the length slider to change the range in time.
Sub Control Presets
The harmonic sub control has the following presets:
- Waves (Sine, Saw, Square, Triangle)
Documentation and Tutorials
The product comes with a 16 page PDF file that briefly mentions each feature. There is a video tutorial that walks you through as well.
To be honest, both fall short on information and I’ve found cases of misspellings and missed features not talked about in the documentation. The video tutorial should be broken up into separate videos discussing each section of the plugin thoroughly. The tutorial is ok, but assumes you know about the low level details of how to make synthetic sounds.
In addition, there should be an architectural flow diagram showing the components and how they fit together. There is no such thing. That only makes it difficult to see where each component falls in the signal processing pipeline. Information regarding the various XML preset formats is needed as well.
Documentation and the video tutorials can be improved upon.
Kick 2 Features
Let’s go through each feature that Kick 2 provides.
This is a 8 part frequency dividable oscillator. By choosing a Sub preset, the frequency domain bars will set to the appropriately level. You cannot to create your own Sub presets as only Factory Sub presets can be loaded.
Sub oscillators derive their frequency from the main oscillator and generally are one octave lower. This changes the depth of sound to be more beefier. You do not have to use the sub oscillator if you don’t want to. You can turn volume all the way down and mute it.
You can do the following adjustments:
- Track by incoming MIDI key note, invert by phase, mute, and solo
- Choose among many different oscillation presets
- Change the pitch relative to the pitch nodes in the Sub view
- Change the volume level of each harmonic via its frequency domain meter
- Control the harmonic volume of each part
- Choose a different harmonic preset by clicking on the left and right arrows
- Control overall volume and pan
One of the best features is being able to use a MIDI controller to play by key. Simply enable the MIDI key button on the Sub Control and bang away.
Graphical Editor and View Mode
There are five buttons that control the view mode of the graphic display:
- Pitch – shows the sub obsillator control’s pitch envelope
- Amp – shows the sub oscillator control’s amplitude envelope
- Click 1 – shows the click sample 1 amplitude envelope
- Click 2 – shows the click sample 2 amplitude envelope
- Click 3 – shows the click sample 3 amplitude envelope
To add a node, double click near the x/y point where you want it placed.
To delete, double click on the node.
To bend the curve, click on a node and hold and drag with the mouse. Use ALT to draw a straight line.
Enable Snap to snap to semitones.
Enable Tags to turn on tags in the graph.
Enable Gate to play a MIDI note as long as it is held. Off, its only one note.
You can create different Kick sounds by using audio samples. The Clicks can be obtained from two sources:
- Kick factory samples
- Your AIFF or WAV files
Audio files can be dragged and dropped from your file manager into each Click panel. In addition, you can load audio files by clicking on the Load button.
For the factory samples, a nice feature is the Kick browser which arranges samples in a categorical drop down list. You can choose your Click sample from a category list (Factory, User, or DLC) and move through each category quickly with left and right keyboard arrows.
Inside each Click panel, you can do the following adjustments:
- Low or High pass filtering
- Fine tune pitch adjustment
- Track by incoming MIDI key note, invert by phase, mute, and solo
- Control overall volume and pan
Clicks are not sent through to the sub oscillator. They essentially are just audio tracks mixed in to add more character to the kick sound. You may be wondering why even include this kind of feature inside a plugin. Isn’t that the purpose of a DAW? Yes, but its a nice feature to be able to mix a custom Kick within one tool.
You can change the pitch curve through choosing a curve preset. There are several Curve categories available:
In the Pitch editor, you can change the pitch range and length of a note through scroll bar sliders. Each note and its associated frequency can be modified as well by clicking on a node. For ultimate flexibility, you can create your own pitch structure by saving to your user library for reuse.
Seeing note structure presented this way is quite fascinating. This, as opposed to looking at sheet music.
Kick 2 has a four band equalizer. To see it, you can toggle on and off by hitting the Edit button.
There are EQ presets available in the drop down. You can save your own and reset back to factory default.
Each of the four bands can be controlled by frequency, gain, and Q. You can turn on and off each band.
You can adjust each band by placing EQ nodes in the display:
- Gain – move node up or down
- Frequency – left/right
- Q – left/right/up/down
The gain to the equalizer can be turned on or off to bypass. There are four knobs that allow you to adjust the tones:
- Low mid
- High mid
Three types of distortion generation is available:
There is a low pass/high pass knob, wet/dry mix knob, and distortion gain knob. You can have the distortion affect only the Sub, Clicks, both, or none by using the C and S buttons.
You can turn distortion on or off.
This knob controls the amount of overdrive and exists for backward compatibility with Kick 1.
Kick 2 has a compressor that lets you squash the dynamic range. You can turn it on or off.
The threshold ranges from -40dB to 0. There are ratio (1:1 to 20:1), attack (0 to 500ms), makeup (0 to 40dB), and release (100 to 4000ms) knobs to control the compression.
Kick 2 has a built in limiter to control the level of output from all the clicks and sub control. You can also turn the limiter on and off.
The limiter has a range from -60dB to 0dB. Drag and drop the blue arrow to the level you want.
Velocity and Portamento
You can change the velocity (in percentage) of how much the kick volume will be affected by the MIDI velocity.
To control the slide, you can turn it on or off. If off, notes need to overlap to slide pitch. If on, they will slide pitch without overlap.
A portamento time knob can be turned to set how fast or slow it takes to slide to another pitch.
Shows the output of the kick in its own display. Click the Generate button to take all settings and create the final kick. This will be created on disk in a local cache. The files will build up so you will need to go to the Settings panel and clear the cache to reclaim disk space.
You can change the key it is played in, the amount of velocity, and save as a AIFF or WAV file depending on operating system platform.
You also can drag and drop from the render display into an Ableton Live track as well as export as a file for later reuse.
Getting Hands On
Sound has properties consisting of:
- Volume (Amplitude)
- Pitch (Frequency)
Assume speed is the speed of sound, the direction and pressure is constant. This leaves us with Volume and Pitch. With Kick 2, we have all the tools available to change the characteristic of Amplitude and Pitch.
To create custom Kicks, you do this:
- Choose a Global Kick Preset and modify it. You need to do this to get an existing oscillating wave structure to use
- Change the pitch by setting Pitch nodes in the Pitch editor. These semitones play over the length of the oscillating wave
- Change the volume by setting Amp nodes in the Amp editor
- Add up to three audio samples (clicks)
- Use the Sub control to add a sub oscillator
Playing With Amplitude (Volume)
Lets first play with Amplitude. We can do this by going into Amp view. Inside the Amp editor, we can change the volume characteristics of the Preset’s oscillation wave at various points in time by fiddling with Bezier nodes. These are rendered as small circles with amplitude numbers that range from 0.00 to 1.00. If you don’t see them, click the Tags button.
Lets practice by taking the Bass 03 preset. By default, its Amp chart looks like this:
Use your mouse and set all the nodes to 0.00. This makes all the amplitudes of the wave to have no height. That effectively makes it have no signal and therefore, no sound. For Bezier curved nodes, double click to delete or move them next to another node to flatten them out because you will have a small gain at the curved value you don’t want included. If you press your MIDI controller and hear a poofy sound, its the FM 2 click. Mute it. You should also not be generating any sound from the Sub oscillator either. Mute that too.
Now do the opposite and set all the Amp nodes to 1.00 to maximum gain. You can turn on the Click and Sub Control. Notice that the amplitudes of the oscillating wave stretch out to maximum height. Play the kick on your MIDI controller and notice how loud it is.
Adjust the time length by moving the time slider and tweak the pitch by moving the pitch slider. Notice the shape of the oscillation wave stays the same but may grow/shrink in amplitude and in wave lengths. This is how you change many of the relationships like pitch to loudness, pitch to time, and amplitude to time.
Playing With Pitch (Frequency)
Lets choose the TR909 01 Preset for this next exercise. Click the Pitch button to bring up the Pitch view. You should see this:
This is going to be a little tricky if we are focusing on the pitch of a wave. As we know, this is the frequency of wave cycles.
First notice there are four semitones on the chart (D#10, C#4, G1, and F#1). Each semitone is associated with a frequency. It should be noted that if Snap is on, the semitone designation and Hertz figure should be exact according to equal temperament note tables. If Snap is turned off, there is some “fuzziness” that comes into play and Kick 2 rounds up or down to the appropriate semitone note. The frequency numbers are not accurate to decimal places so be aware of this.
These semitones get played through the oscillation over time. Hit your MIDI keyboard and listen to the sound. Compare that if you moved the C#4 note up and over to the right, say at 2K frequency and 1.1.2 seconds. Continue to press the MIDI key and move the note to that position. You should hear the note pitch up in a squeaky sort of sound. As you move the semitone, the amplitude of the oscillation wave grows or shrinks and the wavelength between cycles adjust as well.
Do a test by moving all the semitones to be A5. If you do it right, it sounds like a pong. Change the pitch slider and listen. Do the same for changing the time.
Saving Your Custom Kick
If you like any of the kicks you created, you can reuse them. You do this by clicking on the Render tab.
You can change the Kick to a semitone key and the velocity. By clicking the Generate button, you create the data that can be dragged and dropped into your DAW. You can also save by exporting to a WAV file.
Also, if you like the Preset of your Kick and want to reuse it later, click the Save As button at the top of the global presets and give it a name. It will be saved in the User Presets category.
With the exception of documentation and video tutorials that need improvement, Kick 2 is a very good plugin and one of the best one’s I own. By just playing around with it, you can learn quite a bit about audio oscillators. It has a clean GUI design and an attractive, clean layout. The rich assortment of presets can get you up and running fast and it plays well with my DAW of choice, Ableton Live.