Your drum sound is one of the most important aspects of your mix. Mixing drums is therefore a number one priority for laying that solid foundation to your tracks, guaranteeing you a solid rhythm section.
Drums can be one of the most problematic instruments to get right in a mix.
If you did a great job recording the drum kit, then mixing your drums can only be a pleasurable experience.
BUT WHERE TO START?
Kick Drum Sound
Mixing drums starts with the foundation of the kick drum. The sound of the kick drum, along with the snare will be the defining factors of your drum sound. If you leave the kick drum sounding bad, the whole foundation of the song will lose its footing. The kick drum needs to be tight and punchy, with enough low end to fill up the bass range and enough mids to cut through the mix.
It’s important to emphasize the low end of the kick with EQ. If you feel there isn’t enough bass to your kick drum, a low shelving boost around 80 – 100 Hz normally does the trick.
A boomy kick drum can also cloud up the clarity of your kick drum sound, so it’s normally a good idea to cut around 200 – 250 Hz if you feel there is too much muddiness in your kick drum sound. A boxy kick drum sound is also a common nuisance, which can be fixed with Eq’ing out the boxiness that resides in the aread around 300 – 600Hz or so.
If your kick drum is all thump and no snap then we need to bring out the sound of the beater. We can usually find it around the 2 – 4 Khz area. Depending on the genre of the song, and the type of beater used, different frequency boosts in the beater area generate different sounds. A boost at 2.5 Khz is more of a typical rock sound as opposed to a narrower boost at around 4 Khz, which results in a Hardcore Metal type snap.
EQ is very important to me, which is why I spend a considerable time educating my email subscribers on the topic. From getting rid of muddiness to EQ’ing your kick and snare effectively, my newsletter subscribers get exclusive articles that help them get better at using EQ to create separation in your mixes. Take a quick second to subscribe right here.
When mixing drums, along with everything else, using compression is a subjective subject and everyone has an opinion on how things should be compressed. That said, there are a few guidelines you can follow to get a steadier kick drum sound.
How much gain reduction you want from the compressor depends on the genre, the steadiness of the drummer and the feel of the song. I usually start with a ratio of 4:1 or 6:1 and lower the threshold down until I’m compressing around 6 dBs.
Then I adjust the attack and release depending on what sort of sound I want. A fast attack clamps down on the transient of the kick drum, dulling the initial attack down somewhat, but a slower attack lets the attack of the beater break through before the compressor starts working.
I try to time the release in time with the beat, so that the compressor has stopped compressing before the next hit. It’s easy to do this in modern DAWs because you are able to see the gain reduction meter working, enabling you to tweak the release perfectly in sync with the song.
EQ and Compression are the fundamental processors for any mix session. If you understand how these two processors work, then you’ve solved at least 80% of your mixing problems.
Snare Drum Sound
Partner in crime with the kick drum, the snare drum is the other defining rhythmic factor to the song. “It’s all about the snare” an experienced engineer once told me, because it’s what supplies the song with that steady backbeat. Since it’s such an important aspect of mixing drums, there needs to be a lot of care taken with getting the best sound possible.
EQ-wise, there is not an awful lot you need below 100 Hz, so you can start by high-pass filtering all the low end away.
The body of the snare can be brought forward with a little boost at around 150Hz, if you feel like it’s lacking some thickness.
I like thick snares so I often catch myself adding a little weight to the snare around that area.
If your snare has ringing frequencies that you find annoying you can try pinpointing them by boosting a specific frequency band with a high Q and sweeping the spectrum until they pop out. I find that sometimes the snare needs a little cut in the mids, either resulting from boxiness at 500 – 800 Hz or too much of a nasally attack from the area around 1 Khz. Enhance the attack of the snare with a broad boost around 2 – 4 Khz and search for the sizzle of the snares in the higher frequencies.
Like I do with the bass drum, I try to make the snare compress in time with the song. By timing the attack and release I can get a nice steady snare sound that breathes with each hit. I normally leave the attack at a medium to slow setting so that the snap of the snare is unaffected, and time the release so that it stops compressing just in time for the next hit.
I start with a ratio of 3:1, often going way higher as it depends on the genre how hard I want the compressor to be pumping. You can adjust the threshold so that it is only lightly compressing the peaks for a subtle sound, or you can push the threshold down harder for a heavily compressed sound.
Snare compression is perhaps one of the most argued about subjects in audio production. Every engineer has a certain method to mixing drums, and I think it’s up to you to experiment and get acquainted with the knobs and sliders on your audio compressor so that you can create the sound that you want.
You can create a completely different snare sound by just applying an interesting reverb to it. Whether that’s a rock arena reverb, subdued room or even a spring reverb, different reverbs can transform the sound of your snare drum.
Go through your reverbs and see what type of reverb sounds best with the song you’re mixing. Are you going to add a bright plate reverb to make it stand out, or will you be mixing it into a specific room with a small room sound? If you are in a particularly adventurous mood, you can try adding some gated reverb to your snare.
Mixing the Toms
If the toms are playing a big part in your drum sound, mixing them so that they sound punchy and powerful is crucial to a great drum sound.
Get them punchy with EQ. The best way to EQ toms is to find the unflattering frequencies with your equalizer. Normally, these are the middle frequencies, from 300 – 800 Khz or so.
Find the boxy and unwanted frequencies, cut them out and then add low end power and high end punch as needed.
When mixing drums like toms, sometimes you need to finely cut a few adjacent frequencies instead of scooping out a big portion of the frequency spectrum.
By adding a generous amount of compression to your toms you can get a larger than life sound out of them. You can fatten them up considerably with some tight compression, and with the addition of a little reverb you can make them sound huge and powerful. If that’s what you want to go for.
The same rule of subtle compression applies as well to toms if you only want to control the peaks and lightly color their signal.
The overheads might be the most important microphones on the kit. The overheads are the microphones that are supposed to pick up every drum and give a complete sound to your drum kit.
There are two ways of mixing drums with the overheads; you can either use them as the primary sound, sculpting every drum around the overhead sound or you can use them to primarily accent the cymbals and air around the kit.
By adding the overheads to the mix early on, you can get a better sense of the full sound of the kit, making your drum mixing easier.
Just notice how different a snare drum microphone sounds compared to a snare that’s coming from the overhead mics.
By adjusting the overheads with the rest of the close miked drums you can get a different sound.
By focusing on the overheads you can get a roomier sound, but if you want a close in-your-face drum sound you would rather use the overheads as complimentary to the rest of the drums, mainly using them to accent the cymbal sounds.
Mixing drums is a selective process, meaning that certain elements of the drum-kit only need specific frequency ranges.
You only need a specific frequency range from the hi-hat. Considering that the hi-hat microphone is probably picking up a lot of bleed from other drums, some heavy high-pass filtering is in order. Filter up to 250 Hz at least, even higher if you feel that you aren’t losing anything from the hi-hat sound with higher filtering.
Now if you feel that there is something lacking from the hi-hat, or that you want to bring out the gong sound, you can find it in the 200 Hz area. So if your hi-hat needs a little more gong to it, you will have to sacrifice that aggressive filtering. Like everything else, just filter until you start hearing the sound becoming compromised and then back off a little bit.
Cutting at 1Khz can reduce the cheap jangly sound from the hi-hat, but you can enhance and give it some sparkle with a boost from 7 Khz or so. Use a high shelving EQ if you want to enhance the high end with some air, but a parametric bell EQ if you just want to accent a specific frequency area.
Room microphones give a different sound to the drum kit than the regular overhead mics.
Due to the distant miking technique most room mics are recorded with, we get a full sound of the drum-kit as well as a great amount of the reverb of the room it was recorded in. Which, depending on the sound of the room, can either sound amazing or horrible.
Mixing Drums With a Roomy Sound
But let’s assume our recording room is great. With a nice room mic picking up the complete kit we can try a few different techniques. We can apply some heavy compression to the room mics to get an even punchier sound.
We can EQ the kit as to draw out the most important elements, such as kick and snare and we can add it underneath an already great drum sound for that final touch.
Mixing Drums Into a Room
If the drums weren’t recorded in a nice sounding room and sound quite dead when they come from the recording stage, it’s time to add some space to our drum tracks.
A good way to add some ambience to our drum tracks is to add a 0.5 second drum room reverb. You can add a a nice amount to the overhead tracks, and maybe even a slightly different reverb to the snare to make it stand out. Go through your reverbs to try to find the best sound to your particular track.
I actually want to stop the article here and give it up for my buddy David Glenn of David Glenn Recording. He has a really cool video on mixing acoustic drums, especially when it comes to creating space and reverb using some nice plug-ins:
He actually has a cool video series on Mixing Drums if you want a complete, 7 hour in-depth tutorial on the matter.
Mixing drums is a challenging but enjoyable aspect of audio production. Since there are so many different ways of getting the drums to sound with EQ, compression and other mixing tricks there is no actual right way of mixing drums.
The only solid piece of advice I can give you for mixing drums is to experiment with all the tools you have on hand. Get every element to sound as good as possible and then try to mold them together to make them sound like a complete whole.
As always, there are trends in the music industry as to what sounds good right now, but being able to get whatever sound you want, whether it’s huge 80’s toms or a 90’s arena rock snare is an important aspect of being a well rounded mixing engineer.