Learn how to mix drums from start to finish, from setting compression and EQ to correcting phase problems and manipulating transients. Then, finalize your drum mix with parallel compression, and add depth and dimension with reverb.
Step 1: Fine tuning
Although drums aren’t intrinsically melodic instruments, they do exert a pitch, and it's important to make sure that they are in tune. The Torque plugin is specifically designed to alter the root note of a drum sound. When possible, try to tune kick and snare drums to the root note or the fifth in the key of the song.
Toms are typically tuned to different intervals within a key, depending on how many drums you have. The fewer toms, the larger the intervals. For instance, with 3 toms it’s common to tune them to perfect fourth intervals, or sometimes major third intervals. Some players and producers even tune them to voice a chord within the song.
The fine detail of getting pitches in sync with the melodic elements of the track can go a very long way in tightening up the overall sound.
Step 2: Correct phase problems
After adjusting the tuning of your drums, it’s important to make sure the phase relationship between the various tracks is intact. When tracks are out of phase, it may cause phase cancellation, which causes certain frequencies to sound unbalanced or disappear altogether.
To understand why phase incoherence is so common with drums, think of the physical distances between pieces of the drum kit and the microphones used to capture it. As the sound moves outward with each crack of the snare (often the loudest and most distinct part of the kit), the close mic at the snare's position will be the first to capture the sound. The overheads, and any room mics spaced farther away from the kit, will capture the sound at a small, but significant delay in time.
Since all channels are recorded and played back simultaneously, but at varying distances from the snare, the raw tracks will be made up of several captures of the snare at cascaded times and distances. When listening to all mic channels together, they will play back some phase variance and ‘blurriness’ in the sound. To correct this, it is customary to align overheads and other distance mics to the snare, to get the overall kit's sound as clean as it can be.
In this video, hear mixer Michael White tighten up the sound by aligning his drum tracks with InPhase. He’ll start with aligning the overhead mics to one another, and then the pair of overheads to the snare:
Step 3: Add a gate and shape transients
Some engineers like to apply dynamics processing before equalization, while others like to apply it afterwards. Either is fine, just be aware that each method sounds different. Experiment with which method works best for your workflow.
If you’re working with recorded drums, you’re almost certainly going to have drum bleed — where the sound of the other drums “bleed” through to nearby mics. To regain maximum control over each individual sound, engineers use gates and expanders. These help immensely in getting clean kick and snare sounds, and being able to manipulate them freely without much interference from neighboring drums and cymbals.
Adding a gate cleans up the sound by bringing the level down to zero until it becomes loud enough to cross the threshold, thus opening the gate and allowing the audio to pass. Gates are often included in channel strip plugins, like the Scheps Omni Channel, or in the SSL E-Channel and G-Channel plugins.
Put the processor on a drum channel with offending bleed, then reduce the threshold until the bleed is muted; only the desired sound should be poking through, or opening the gate. Adjust the attack time to (how quickly the gate opens) to affect the ‘pop,’ or the transient of the sound, and adjust the release time so that the gate closes as the sound decays. You could also use the expander function, setting the range so that the bleed is reduced by a defined amount, instead of muting it altogether.
Oftentimes with toms, engineers will edit the tracks in their DAW, deleting the drum bleed while the toms aren’t playing. Make the cut right up against the transient as the tom is struck, and then apply a fade as the drum decays, so that it enters and exits the sound of the kit in a natural way.
Another way to affect the drums' attack and decay is with a specifically-designed transient-shaping tool, like Smack Attack. In this video, see how it's used on drum samples for anything from adding a touch of extra bite to going extreme with creative effects:
Step 4: Subtractive EQ
Typically, subtractive EQ is done with parametric EQs like the SSL E-Channel and G-Channel equalizers. Try to use narrow bands with high Q values to pinpoint problem areas in your recordings. If you’re having trouble identifying the offending frequencies (like a stubborn resonance in the body of a snare) try using the sweeping technique:
- Turn the Q up on one of the EQ bands so it’s pretty narrow
- Increase the gain on that band as high as it will go
- Slowly sweep through the available frequencies on that band
- When you hear a particularly offensive frequency, stop!
- Now, instead of boosting that frequency, reduce the gain so you’re attenuating it
- You may want to adjust the Q value to smooth out the EQ adjustment
Step 5: Additive EQ
Additive EQ is typically done with broader, more colorful EQs. Some prefer the sound of API consoles featured on the API 550 and 560. Others prefer the 'sound of rock' found on the Scheps 73 (modeled after a vintage Neve 1073 unit). And some like the old-school sound of the RS56 or PuigTec EQs.
Here are some of the most common frequency areas to focus on when EQing each drum in the kit:
Lows: 50Hz - 100Hz — Great for adding power, but too much can cause boominess
Low mids: 100Hz - 250Hz — Great for adding fatness, but too much can cause muddiness
Midrange: 400Hz - 800Hz — Too much can cause boxiness
High mids: 3kHz - 5kHz — Great for adding snap, attack, and beater noise; too much can be harsh
Low mids: 100Hz - 250Hz — Great for adding fatness, but too much can cause muddiness
Midrange: 400Hz - 1kHz — Usually where the fundamental ring can be found; too much can cause boxiness
High mids: 3kHz - 5kHz — Great for adding snap and attack, too much can be harsh
Highs: 10kHz — Great for adding 'air' and 'buzz,' too much can be shrill
Lows: 65Hz - 100Hz — Great for adding power to floor toms, but too much can cause boominess
Low mids: 100Hz - 200Hz — Great for adding power to rack toms, but too much can cause muddiness
Mids: 400Hz - 800Hz — Too much can cause boxiness
High mids: 5kHz - 7kHz — Great for adding snap and attack; too much can be harsh
Low mids: 200Hz - 500Hz — Great for adding “meat” to cymbals, but too much can be muddy or boxy
High mids: 3kHz - 5kHz — Great for adding presence, but too much can be harsh and fight with the vocal
Highs: 7kHz - 12kHz — Great for adding ‘air;’ too much can be shrill
Step 6: Compress
Once you’ve got the frequency spectrum balanced and the drum bleed under control, it’s time to focus on dynamics. Compression can be tricky, but it’s one of the keys to achieving a modern drum sound.
It’s common to apply between 3-6 dB of gain reduction to the kick and snare. Toms sometimes get compressed as well, but it depends on how often they’re used in a song. Cymbals, overheads, and room mics run the gamut from ‘not-compressed-at-all jazz records’ to ‘smashed-to-smithereens rock.’
Equally as important as the amount of compression are the time settings of the compression.
Slow attack times allow the initial impact to pass through before being compressed, but setting it too slow may cause your compressor to miss some drum hits altogether.
Fast attack times help tighten up a performance by diluting the initial transient of the hit, which can be great for adding control, but setting it too fast can suck the life out of a track and push it further back in the mix.
Relatively fast release times can help increase perceived loudness and push drums up ‘in your face,’ but too fast can cause an unnatural pumping sound.
Many engineers set their drum compression to allow some of the initial transient’s attack through, and the release to make the drums' decay more audible, increasing perceived energy. A/B the compressor on and off, to see that the added dynamics processing has helped.
An easy way to find the most appropriate attack and release times is to start with the slowest attack and fastest release. Slowly decrease the attack time until you start to lose the impact of the initial transient, then back off. Then, slowly increase the release time until the compressor starts to “breathe” in time with the song. The needle should bounce up 3-6 dB when the drum is hit, then just before it returns to 0, the next drum hit pushes the needle back up 3-6 dB.
When done correctly, this causes the drums to feel alive, and allows for a more musically dynamic mix. Some common compressors used with drums are found on the SSL E-Channel and G-Channel strips, V-Comp, and API 2500.
Step 7: Reverb
To help add a sense of depth, engineers send the individual drum tracks on an aux send to a reverb. The specific settings of the reverb will depend on the song, but the length should often be correlated to the tempo.
For instance, most often, when the snare hits you should clearly hear the reverb tail decay until just before the next snare hit. Although this is to taste, there’s a good chance that if the reverb tail doesn’t fade out before the next snare hit, it’s too long.
Then, blend the reverb effect in with the dry tracks to create the desired space. Unless using extreme creative effects, a good rule of thumb is to have the reverb channel just loud enough that you miss it when it’s muted, but not so loud that it sticks out much or demands focus when it's there.
In this video, producer/engineer Billy Bush (Garbage, Jake Bugg) shows how he’s set up his session with the Abbey Road Reverb Plates, creating a large sense of space with each hit of the snare to complement the space of the track:
MIX HACK: Signature Series plugins
Applying EQ, compression, dynamics processing and effects for drum mics can be a lot of work. Thankfully, seasoned mixers Chris Lord-Alge (Green Day, Muse), Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin), Jack Joseph Puig (John Mayer, Lady Gaga), and Tony Maserati (Beyoncé, Jay Z) have helped put together plugins featuring easy access to their tried-and-true processing chains.
The Signature Series plugins offer unique combinations of EQ, compression, reverb, and dynamics processing for kick, snare, toms, overheads, and room mics. Each plugin comes with a variety of presets to help you achieve your best drum tones quickly.
Step 8: Set parallel compression
To thicken and liven up the sound of the drums, it's very common to add parallel compression. This is done by setting up an aux track where you'll send various channels from the drum kit to be processed, then blended in parallel with the rest of the drums. Depending on the sound you're going for, maybe you'll send just the snare and some hi hat to the parallel buss, or maybe you'll add the overheads with a touch of toms too. Then, you can send the parallel channel along with the rest of the drums to the drum buss.
In this video, Grammy-winning mixer Tony Maserati (Beyoncé, Jay Z) shows how he decidedly sends drum channels to his parallel compression buss, and how he carefully sets compression using the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor:
If you add further processing like saturation to the parallel channel, you may be on your way to huge-sounding drums! Some engineers will set their parallel drums to sound completely squashed, saturated and 'trashy' (think 10:1 ratio) – not necessarily a sound that you'd want on its own. However, when blended back in with the dry drums, the sound may add that extra bit of 'umph' that supports the drum kit in an important way.
Step 9: Apply buss compression
Buss compression is typically more subtle than the compression applied to individual channels, and helps to ‘glue’ the drum kit together.
Ratios are typically kept low, around 2:1. Attack times are generally slow to allow the transients of the kit to punch through. Release times can vary depending on the tempo of the track, but it’s not uncommon to use the auto release function found on many compressors like the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor.
Some compressors have very helpful features for working with drums. For instance, the API 2500 includes a unique "thrust" filter on its threshold detector, which prevents low frequencies (like those from the kick) from triggering the compressor too aggressively. This is helpful, since the added sound energy in the low end will more readily trigger the compressor, dragging the cymbals and top end down along with it.
Multiband compressors like the C4 offer even more control on the drum buss, as they allow sections within the frequency spectrum to be processed completely independently of one another.
Step 10: Add beef and aggression with distortion
At this point your drums should be sounding pretty close and “mixed.” They’re sitting nicely in the track from a tonal and dynamics perspective, not getting in the way of the vocal. But what if you want to bring them over the edge, add some aggression, and, depending on the genre, hit the listener a bit harder? Add some parallel distortion. This will allow your drums to “make a statement” in the mix.
Try opening up the MDMX Overdrive on an aux send and routing a bit of drum bus signal to this parallel drive channel. There should be an immediate sense of thickness and color added to the drums. Play around with the two distortion shapes and gain knob to get the right sound for the song, and you can even mess with the compression settings on the plugin to change the dynamic character of the distortion. Shaping the EQ on MDMX Overdrive will also allow you to fine-tune a specific frequency area you may want to “speak” louder in the mix, and the amount of signal you send to the bus will control just how over the top this effect will sound.
Step 11: Set automation
Every DAW allows you to write volume automation, which is a very simple and effective way to bring your drum tracks to life. For instance, after your mix is well-set, take a fine listen to each drum channel throughout the song. You may find that the hi hat's level is great in the verse groove, but that needs to come down a touch at other times – or that bumping it 1 dB in a certain section makes it have that much more impact.
Towards the end of the mix process, setting minute details with automation can further tighten up the way the drums sound in the mix, and the way that the overall arrangement is driven home to the listener.
In the end, you should have a kick that punches, a snare that cracks, toms that thunder, and cymbals that shimmer. Just remember, these guidelines are only a starting point. Be sure to listen, serve the sound of the drums and the arrangement, and don’t be afraid to tweak knobs and get creative!
Want to dive deeper into your parallel drum buss? Watch mixer Tony Maserati show advanced tips for refining parallel drums.
Do you have any drum tips that we missed? Let us know in the comments below.
Originally published on April 5, 2018