Description of the modern kick drum
The kick or bass drum has a cylindrical shell, normally made of maple wood or fiberglass, with two heads (the batter head which is struck and the resonating head) fixed on either side of the shell. The kick drum generates a low, resonant sound which can vary from a soft muted pulsing to a booming stomp.
The History of a deep toned membranophone
The bass or kick drum you find in a standard drum kit has its roots in the bass drum used by early orchestras of Europe which were influenced by the music and large bass drum used for marching by the Turkish Janissary. This double headed drum can be found as far back as 14th century Europe and was called the Turkish drum. It had a smaller shell and a larger head then modern day bass drums and was played with mallets. There was another Turkish single headed long drum that had a long wooden shell and smaller head. Eventually that long drum would adopt a bronze shell and shorten the length of its head. The two of them changed over the years and both of them influenced the design and evolution of the modern kick drum.
The style and use of the bass drum and drum kit we are familiar with today took shape with the advent of jazz music in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century. Percussion from the marching bands in New Orleans was being integrated into the stage performances of the new improvisational music being made. In 1909 inventor and drummer, William Ludwig invented a kick pedal that was far superior to other kick pedals available at the time because it used a spring to bring the beater back after it struck the head of the drum. Before this a pedal that required you use both your toe and heel to strike and recoil the beater was used. The foot pedal, patented in the 1890s, introduced the idea of the kick but Ludwigs pedal allowed the drummer to play faster more complicated bass drum patterns. Before this it was common to have two drummers on stage, one would play the bass drum, the other the snare, with Ludwigs pedal less effort was required and the drummer could play both elements with greater ease.
Two major changes in the construction of the bass drum have occurred in the past hundred years, the materials of the head and the size of the shell. In the beginning of the 20th century the bass drums were larger and didn't really follow a standard sizing scheme. As jazz and popular music evolved and splintered off different sizes became standards for different genres of music. For instance be-bop drummers were using smaller heads that were 18 inches and a funk drummer might prefer a 20 inch head. With rock and roll, and the introduction of the electric guitar, the bass drum needed to become louder and its head began to increase in size with many 60s and 70s drummers using 26 inch heads. The material used for heads in the 40s, 50s and 60s was calf skin molded to the hoop. The disadvantage of calf skin was that it came out of tune easily (if the skin got cold you had to wait for it to warm up before playing). Now heads are made of Mylar and plastic and are far easier to maintain and replace.
Bass Drum in Modern music
The bass drum has played a big part in popular music in the past 100 years and thanks to Ludwigs pedal we have tasty syncopation and offbeats. Though early jazz type experiments kicked off innovation, the bass drum is not as integral a part of the jazz rhythm as the hihats and ride. The kick and snare serve, more often then not, as an accent to the pushing triplet swing of the ride. Generally in Reggae, Hip-Hop and Jungle the bass drum is concentrated on the One with standard accent drops on the '2 and' and the '3 and'. Reggae often breaks this rule with the 3 being emphasized by the bass drum sometimes even more then the 1.
With non-dance pop and rock the focus is on a balanced mix with a slightly emphasized snare (unless its 80s pop then its all about snare), here the drums swing less and standard 4/4 timing is normally used with the kick on the 1 and 3 and the snare on 2 and 4 and the hi hats doing 16ths. With dance music and all its sub genres the bass drum is king, and the birth of Rolands drum machines, the Tr-808 and Tr-909, changed everything for dance music (there is really no distinction between house, techno and nrg in terms of the fundamentals). The heavy processed bass drum is on every "on beat", 1,2,3,4, and because of this the music is all lumped together as four on the floor when studying its rhythm patterns. To break the monotony kick drum accents are normally found on the '4 and' or as a soft hit a sixteenth before or after any on beat.
The introduction of samplers, drum machines and subtractive synthesis have drastically changed the sound of the bass drum, for good and bad. The overwhelming good is that you have far greater control over the sound you are trying to achieve and can do things that are sonically impossible for non-digital instruments. This is great not only for the wide range of timbres now available but also for the rhythmic variations available when you have control of the attack and decay of an instrument. The big drawback is that once something is brought into the digital realm all the natural variations that occur when playing a real bass drum (changes in velocity, increases in speed coming up to and during choruses, subtle shifts in timing from bar to bar) must be recreated digitally which means patterns and repetition which the human brain is very good at picking out and gives the whole rhythm a mechanical feel, which is a plus for some, and is something to overcome (and it can be overcome), for others.
guy from the music store