How a Solid Drum Foundation Will Make You a Killer Mix
Yesterday we talked about the overall process for mixing drums, in my post: How to Make an Exciting Drum Mix in 9 Simple Steps.
Today we’re going to dive deep into the fundamentals of making the foundation of your drum mix rock solid.
Rock solid. Foundation. Bedrock. Solid like a cliff? Get it? Heh…I make ALL the analogies!
Anyways….this is the stuff that people tend to skip over because they’re so excited about tweaking their EQ and slamming their compressors.
Unfortunately, slapping plug-ins on a foundation that isn’t solid won’t get you the best results. Therefore, I want to make sure that you’re aware of every little thing you can do to your drums to get them sounding as good as possible before you start tweaking your plug-ins.
This is a loooong post so you might want to grab a cup of coffee and sit down for this. It’s another excerpt from my Drum Mix Toolkit so it’s in-depth and thorough, with plenty of practical advice you can use right away.
You can look at the drum sound as the foundation of your entire mix. It’s the bed which the rest of the instruments lie on, both rhythmically and in frequency response. Therefore, getting a good drum mix is crucial for laying a solid foundation for the rest of the song.
Let’s talk about how to lay that foundation and how to get started with a great drum mix by thinking about the balance, the potential polarity issues and how to make your life easier with simplification.
If I’m looking to go with a more natural drum sound I tend to accent the overheads and I let the room mics sit very present in the mix. You can almost look at a room mic as just a reverb mic that makes the drums larger or smaller depending on how loud they are.
Conversely, if you want a tight kick and snare kind of mix it’s a matter of pulling the overheads down and letting the kick and snare do most of the talking. You can get even more detailed if you have multiple tracks of each individual drum.
For example, if you have an over and an under-snare microphone.
Want a snare sound that’s heavy on the snare rattles? Then just make the under snare microphone louder. Want more attack? Accent the top mic.
A hybrid approach and one I take often is to push all the drum faders up to where they’re hitting about -10 dB. From there I just massage them into place.
If it’s a punchy rock song I’ll pull the overheads and room mics down a bit and focus on making the kick and snare lead the parade. If I’m looking for a big sound and the drum kit happens to come with big sounding room mics then I’ll push them up to get a better sound from the drum kit as a whole.
The overheads also play into the width of your mix.
If you want a wide mix you should pan your overheads hard left and right.
If you want to keep the drum mix more centered, a narrower overhead pan will help you do that.
That’s really more of a taste issue than a hard rule, so feel free to experiment as you like. I’ve heard all sorts of different drum sounds, from open and wide to completely panned to the right (hi there Beatles!).
One of the things I often struggle with is the level of the toms.
You want them to really ring through whenever the drummer does a fill but you don’t want them to sound detached from the rest of the drum sound. A right combination of overhead sound and individual tom balance is important to achieve this, but if you’re not focusing on the overheads that much it might be necessary to add depth to the toms with reverb, as well as keeping them consistent in the drum mix with compression.
When you’ve got a good drum balance in the context of the rest of the instruments you can move on to make the rest of the tracks fit.
Whichever way you choose to start, make sure you spend some time on the balance of the drum kit, both in solo and in the context of your rough mix. In solo, you might feel like everything is really balanced, but some parts might get drowned out when you turn on the rest of the mix.
Try your best to fix this problem with volume before you start cranking up the EQ. You’ll inevitably clean things up with EQ later down the line, but having the discipline to spend time balancing will yield dividends in the long run.
When you’re dealing with acoustic drums recorded with multiple mics, sooner or later you’ll run into phase issues. Let’s face it, you’re never going to get perfectly recorded drum tracks every time so knowing how to check the phase of the drums can take your drums from weak and thin to punchy and strong.
Let’s face it, you’re never going to get perfectly recorded drum tracks every time so knowing how to check the phase of the drums can take your drums from weak and thin to punchy and strong.
As a technical note: I say phase a lot but what I really mean is polarity because phase is dependent on both time and frequency whereas polarity is just the difference between the amplitude of the signal.
Stay with me here, I’ve spent years trying not to make this shit too boring. I’m gonna anger the engineering gods and say that in the context of this type of mixing,
I’m gonna anger the engineering gods and say that in the context of this type of mixing, phase is irrelevant. All we want to know is about polarity, namely whether the waveforms of the drums are all positive at the same time.
Luckily, this is easy to see by zooming in on the waveforms.
For example, if you have two different snare mics (an over and under usually), and you zoom in on the waveform, you want the waveforms to follow each other. So when one goes up, the other one goes up as well.
If you have an under-snare mic whose waveform is going in the opposite direction (which is common if you record without a phase/polarity switch) then you’ll be canceling out a lot of the signal, leaving you with that previously mentioned thin snare sound.
So….what all that technobabble means is that you need to align your drum tracks so that all the tracks are “in polarity” with each other.
Of course, you should always strive to have a good recording where everything was recorded properly in phase with everything else, but let’s assume you received your drum tracks from someone who didn’t exactly know what they were doing.
In addition, since overhead and room microphones are further away from the close-miked drums it takes longer for the sound to reach the overheads. Even with a difference of an inch here and there, you’ll find that the polarity could be reversed on the waveform.
However, due to the negligible time difference of the waveform going from positive to negative you can usually move the tracks so that all the mics are in polarity with each other without making the interplay between the close mics and the overhead and room mics sound “out of time.”
The best way to do this is to align each track so that the tops of the waveform all align with each other.
Don’t do this haphazardly though.
Find a rhythmic anchor so that you’re not moving all the drum tracks out of time with the rest of the song. That would be a big mistake. Since the snare is usually the backbone of the rhythm try to anchor everything to the snare.
If you have an undersnare mic that’s out of polarity with the oversnare, flip it over first. Then check the kick drum and do the same if you have multiple kick drum mics. If the overheads look out of polarity with the snare mic you can nudge them so that all the waveforms match the snare without creating time differences. The same goes for the rest of the drum tracks, room mics and toms.
Grouping your tracks is my #1 recommendation when it comes to simplifying your mix.
It helps you organize your tracks better, it cuts your track count down and it simply makes for an easier mixing experience.
When should you subgroup?
From the start.
If you start your session off by grouping everything together and making it simpler, you’ll be surprised at how much easier mixing will become.
Here are a few ways you can group your drum tracks together.
- All drums together – Simple and easy. Makes for an easy mixing job on the drum bus but doesn’t have a lot of flexibility.
- Separate Kick and Snare Routed to a SubGroup – This is when you have multiple kick and snare mics, an inside/outside and over/under respectively. You route them separately to their own bus but then route those busses to the drum group/bus. This allows you the flexibility of mixing the kick and snare mostly on their own while still being controlled by the overall drum group.
- Separate Kick, Snare and “Other Drums” Group – Use this when you don’t want the kick or snare to be affected by whatever processing you’re using on the drum group. For instance, say you’re using a lot of compression on the kick and you don’t want to run it through the drum group processor as well. That’s when you leave them separate. It’s very flexible, but less efficient since you end up with three busses.
- No Groups at All – If you don’t want to do any group processing you don’t have to. Like I said at the beginning, there is no one way to mix drums. I can only give you guidelines. Sometimes the drums are just so simple that it takes more time than it’s worth just to route and group your drum tracks.
However you choose to group your drums will be up to your taste, the complexity of the song and your needs when it comes to mixing. Sometimes all you’ll need is a drum group, but other times you really need that added flexibility of additional busses.
Sometimes all you’ll need is a drum group, but other times you really need that added flexibility of additional busses.
That flexibility becomes apparent, and necessary when you start adding reverb. Grouping the entire drum kit together is great for easy level changes using one fader, but when you send the entire drum group into a reverb you might get some messy low-end clutter.
At that point there are 3 things you can do:
- Don’t group the kick – If you exclude the kick drum from the drum group you can add whatever processing you desire without having to worry about the kick drum. This is easy enough to do but you just have to remember to pay attention to the kick drum by itself. It’s a little extra work but sometimes it’s better to have individual control over the kick drum.
- Send your individual tracks to the reverb – Instead of sending the drum group/bus to the reverb, individually sending each track to the reverb might be better. It allows you to vary the send amount and reverb level from track to track but the downside is that you bypass any processing you’ve done on the group bus before it hits the reverb.
- EQ your reverbs – I think this is my favorite solution. Just send everything, kick included, to an aux track that has your reverb on it and slap an EQ on the track before the reverb. Then use a high-pass filter to cut out the lows from the kick before they ever reach the reverb. You’ll get a nice, full reverb sound for your drums without the clutter from the kick drum.
Want more EQ tips?
Once you’ve got the building blocks in place you’re ready to start building. From there you can start adding the rest of the tracks, potentially starting with the bass guitar or even trying to get the vocal to shine before you start adding more instruments to the mix.
While the drums are your foundation, they should never get in the way of what the lead instruments are doing, such as your lead vocals. However you do it, just make sure that foundation is built and the low end is rock-steady.
Everything after that is just decorating!