A Powerful Guide to Mixing Punchy Drums
Mixing drums is one of the hardest things you do in your mix.
But it’s crucial to get it right because a tight drum sound is one of the most important elements of creating a solid foundation in your mix.
A weak drum sound kills the rest of the mix and makes everything else suffer.
Therefore, mixing drums is your number one priority for laying that solid foundation for 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 an excellent job recording the drum kit, mixing your drums should only be a pleasurable experience.
In this guide on mixing drums, we’ll go through the following:
- EQ’ing your kick drum
- Compressing your kick drum
- EQ’ing your snare drum
- Compressing your snare drum
- Making a powerful tom sound
- Mixing your overhead mics
- Considerations for mixing the hi-hat and room microphones
- Your 9-step process for easily mixing powerful drums in your home studio
- 6 tips for fixing common drum mixing problems
- The one trick for making your drums more powerful that works every time
- The two secret weapons for better drum mixes when all else fails
Let’s go through the drums individually and give you some simple and practical tips you can use immediately.
1. Kick Drum Sound
Mixing drums starts with the foundation of the kick drum. The sound of the kick drum and the snare will be the defining factors of your drum sound. If you leave the kick drum sounding wrong, the whole foundation of the song will lose its footing. The kick drum must be tight and punchy, with enough low end to fill 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 usually 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 by Eq’ing out the boxiness that resides in the area around 300 – 600Hz or so.
I talk a lot about how to get a good-sounding kick drum inside my Drum Mix Toolkit. If you want some of my best advice to get killer drum mixes from my decade of experience mixing drums, check out the Drum Mix Tools here.
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 than a narrower boost at around 4 kHz, which results in a Hardcore Metal type snap.
71 Free Shortcuts to Easy Separation and Balance in Your Mixes
If you’ve been struggling to hear all the instruments in a mix, my EQ cheatsheet will help you out.
- Learn to clean up your low-end, reduce bleed in your drums and eliminate annoying resonant frequencies from your recordings.
- Get rid of muddiness in your low-mids, tame the harshness in your mix, and get rid of your boxy sounding drums.
- Learn where to add presence to your vocals, brilliance to your acoustic guitars, thickness to your keyboards or weight to your bass. These tips are broken down by instrument and help you fix your frequency problems with simple solutions that you can use right away.
When mixing drums, along with everything else, using compression is a personal subject, and everyone has an opinion on how things should be compressed. Even so, you can follow a few guidelines 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 until I’m compressing around six dBs.
Then I adjust the attack and release depending on what sort of sound I want. A fast attack clamps down on the kick drum transient, dulling the initial attack down somewhat, but a slower attack lets the beater breakthrough 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 can see the gain reduction meter working, enabling you to tweak the release perfectly in sync with the song.
EQ and Compression are the first processors for any mix session. If you understand how these two processors work, then you’ve solved at least 80% of your mixing problems.
2. 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 to get the best sound possible.
EQ-wise, there is not an awful lot you need below 100 Hz so that 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 lacks some thickness.
I like thick snares, so I often add 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 particular 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 nasal 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. I can get a nice steady snare sound that breathes with each hit by timing the attack and release. I generally leave the attack at a medium to slow setting so that the snap of the snare is unaffected and time the release to stop 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 and how hard I want the compressor to be pumping. You can adjust the threshold so that it only lightly compresses the peaks for a subtle sound or push it 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 particular 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 to create the sound you want.
You can create an entirely different snare sound by applying an interesting reverb. 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. Will you add a bright plate reverb to make it stand out, or will you mix it into a particular room mode like a small room sound? If you are in a particularly adventurous mood, add some gated reverb to your snare.
3. Mixing the Toms
If the toms are playing a big part in your drum sound, mixing them to sound punchy and powerful is crucial to creating 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 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.
The same rule of subtle compression also applies to toms if you only want to control the peaks and lightly color their signal.
- Read more here: How To Get a Powerful Tom Sound in 3 Easy Steps
The overheads might be the most valuable microphones on the kit. The overheads 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 use them as the primary sound, sculpting every drum around the overhead sound, or you can use them to 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 complementary to the rest of the drums, mainly using them to accent the cymbal sounds.
5. The Hi-Hat
Mixing drums is a selective process, meaning that individual elements of the drum kit only need specific frequency ranges.
You only need a particular frequency range from the hi-hat. The hi-hat microphone is probably picking up a lot of bleed from other drums, so 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 greater filtering.
Now if you think something is lacking from the hi-hat, or that you want to bring out the sound of the bell, you can find it in the 200 Hz area. So if your hi-hat needs a little more bto it, you will have to sacrifice that aggressive filtering. Like everything else, just filter until you hear the sound becoming compromised and then back off slightly.
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 area.
6. Room Mics
Room microphones give a different sound to the drum kit than the regular overhead mics.
Most room mics are recorded at a fair distance, so we get a full sound of the drum kit and a significant amount of the room’s reverb. Depending on the room’s sound, these room mics 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 ambiance to our drum tracks is to add a 0.5-second drum room reverb. You can add 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.
There’s No One Way to Mix Drums
Mixing drums is a challenging but enjoyable aspect of audio production. You can make your drums sound good in many ways depending on how you use your EQ, compression and other mixing processors. Because of this, there is no actual one right way of mixing drums.
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.
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.
Now that you know how to process the drums, let’s talk about putting it all together with a step-by-step process to create an exciting drum mix.
How to Make an Exciting Drum Mix in 9 Simple Steps
Let’s talk about the important fundamentals of getting a great drum mix.
I’ll start by giving you a quick start guide that covers the entire process from beginning to end.
That way you’ll get a broad overview if you want to get started right away on your own, but you’ll be able to refer to the in-depth materials later on if you get stuck.
Sound good? All right, let’s go.
Step 1 – Start Your Initial Balance
The drum track you start with is dependent on two things:
- How many drum tracks do you actually have?
- What kind of feel do you want out of the song?
If your drums were recorded with one microphone, you don’t have many options. You can go nuts trying to add samples that match up with the kick and snare but that’s a bit beyond what I’ll be talking about today. Since the drum kit generally requires a combination of several different microphones, it can give you multiple options (or headaches!) depending on what kind of sound you’re looking for.
If the song is a folky ballad, you’ll probably approach the initial balance differently than if it were a heavy metal song. The natural sound of the folk song might lend itself well to start with the overheads, whereas metal is all kick and snare to start.
- Listen to the beat and have it tell you what the most important part is.
- Is it a simple kick/snare beat or is there lots of cymbal work?
- Does the drummer play the toms a lot or barely do a fill?
- How does that play into the rest of the arrangement of the song?
These are all questions to remember as you do your initial balance.
Step 2 – Check Polarity/Phase
It is important to ensure your drum tracks are in “phase”. This can make the difference between a weak kick and a powerful one, changing your snare from thin and weak to punchy and tight.
Usually, you’ll have a “polarity” plug-in or an EQ with a polarity switch that you can press. If you press it and the drums suddenly become thicker, then you’ll know there were some polarity problems in your tracks.
Step 3 – Group
You’ll want to simplify your drum mix if you have a lot of microphones on the drum kit itself. It’ll make it easier and more efficient to mix later on.
Grouping the drums together is crucial to achieving this and depending on how complex the drum tracks are, you can simplify your drum mix in multiple ways. We’ll talk about that in more detail later.
Step 4 – Bus Processing
Once you’ve grouped your instruments, you can add plug-ins and processing to your mix. You should have a fairly balanced drum kit where everything sounds natural and one drum doesn’t overpower another.
Add in EQ, compression, saturation, analog summing or any other processor you’d like to use to sculpt the overall drum sound of the bus.
You can also add parallel processing at this point if you’d like. We’ll talk about bus processing and parallel compression in detail later.
Step 5 – Sample Replacement if Needed
Once the drums are sounding decent through your bus processing, it’s time to move on to the individual tracks themselves. This is as good a time as any to ensure your kick and snare are up to snuff.
If you’re a fan of sample replacement, you can start switching out the kick and the snare for something more powerful. You can also layer the samples with the original drums, giving you the best of both worlds.
Step 6 – Individual Processing
At this point, it’s time to enhance each track as needed. If the drums sound really good to you already, you might not need much processing here. Maybe just a little EQ to cut out some unwanted frequencies, some compression to thicken things up, and experiment with something new, like adding saturation for instance.
Also, depending on how much bleed you’re getting through the individual mics, you might want to gate the drums. You don’t want the EQ and crunchy compression you’re using on the kick drum to affect the snare drum when it bleeds through to the kick drum mic. Therefore, gating can be a really effective way to clean up your drum sound.
Still a bit confused about EQ? I put together an online course to share more in-depth techniques to improve your mixes to start getting cleaner and fuller output from your recordings.
Step 7 – Rebalancing
Rebalancing is key. Throughout your mixing process, you’ll constantly keep pushing the faders up and down depending on what processing you’re doing. Even if you manage to gain-stage your plug-ins correctly, you’ll probably need to add or subtract some volume to rebalance your drum tracks, both with each other and with the rest of the mix.
This is especially true if you work on the drum bus first and then add individual track processing later. The individual track processing will inevitably change how the group processing works, so always go back and forth and rebalance as necessary.
Step 8 – Add Reverb to Your Drum Mix
You should have a pretty killer drum sound at this point, but it might be sounding a bit dry. If you have room mics from a big room then you might already have a natural reverb. Depending on the style of the song, this might be enough for you.
If you don’t have any space on your drums, you’ll have to send your drums to a reverb. When choosing your reverb, you need to think about the genre of the song, the BPM (things can get cluttered fast with a big reverb and a fast song) and the overall style that you’d like.
Step 9 – Blend With the Rest of the Drum Mix
Congratulations! You’re mostly done.
The only thing left to do is to add any sweetening with other effects if you’d like. From there, you need to ensure the balance fits with the rest of the instruments and the drums aren’t clashing with any other instrument in the mix, i.e., the kick and bass are sitting well together, and the drums aren’t overpowering everything else.
How To Mix Your Drums Into the Rest of the Production
Let’s put it all together so you can see it on video.
Here’s what we’ll cover in the video:
- How to add thickness in the lows with EQ
- How to add air and width with parallel processing
- How to use reverb to add ambience without washing out the drum
In this video, I’ll go over how I mix the drums on a hip-hop production to create a solid beat that works together.
6 Fixes for Common Drum Mixing Problems
Throughout the years, I’ve developed an extensive set of techniques to shape my drum sounds based on some very common problems you may face. Here are a few quick techniques you can use if you run into any of these problems when you’re mixing your drums.
Kick Drum Not Cutting Through?
If the kick isn’t cutting through the mix, here are two things to try:
- Boost the high-mids around 1.2 kHz up to 3 kHz to enhance the sound of the beater.
- If that doesn’t work, try using a transient designer to shape the attack of the drum envelope. This is often better than a high-mid boost because it’s just shaping the initial transient of the signal and not changing the frequency response of the kick drum as a whole.
Is Your Snare Too Thin?
If your snare is weak and lacking in the mix, try these things:
- Add gentle saturation, like a tape or a tube emulation, to warm it in the low-mids.
- Use a snare-stretch reverb to add bigness to your snare without creating additional space or reverb in your drum sound
Are the Overheads Too Harsh?
If your cymbals are too bright and harsh, do this:
- Add multi-band compression to tame the high-mid frequencies. This works especially well if you only have a stereo drum track and you don’t want to affect the kick and snare with too much compression.
- Use the search and destroy method to find the harshest frequencies in the high-mids with an EQ and cut it out with a broad cut. This works better if you have individual control over just the cymbals.
If your drum mix sounds too thin, here are a few ways to beef them up.
- Less low-end filtering – If you’re filtering or cutting too much in the low-end or low-mids, you’ll eventually take all the power and punch out of the drums. Make sure you’re not taking anything out with unnecessary filtering.
- Not enough low-end – Adding more lows and low-mids to a drum sound will make it thicker and more powerful. Start in the below 100 Hz range and if that’s not enough, maybe adding some weight and warmth between 160 Hz and 250 Hz may add some thickness. However, make sure this doesn’t make everything muddy because the low-mids will also have plenty of energy from the bass guitar and acoustic guitar.
- Parallel compression – Dial in some sweet parallel compression to add power to your drums. This is always a good trick to lean on so make sure you add it to your workflow. Even if you think you’re working in a genre that doesn’t deserve heavy processing (like folk or jazz), a touch of parallel compression can still add the necessary thickness that you may want.
The One Trick To Make Your Drums More Powerful Every Time
Mixing powerful and punchy drums is a big challenge, but there’s one thing that can always make your drums hit harder.
Parallel Compression for Powerful Drums
I have a permanent Parallel Drums Bus in my mixing template because I use it so often.
Routing your drums to a fast FET compressor like the 1176 can really increase the power of your drum sound. Add a little EQ after the compressor to sculpt your compressed drums a bit and you’ll have a huge drum sound in no time.
Watch how much bigger your drums can sound when you add parallel compression to your drums.
How to Mix Powerful Drums With These 2 Secret Weapons
If you’re wondering about how to mix drums from your home studio and NOT let them end up as weak and wimpy, then I’ve got a couple of secret weapons for you.
In the last few years, I’ve become obsessed with these two mix processors that help me shape and transform my home-recorded drums into something much more powerful and professional.
I’m talking about transient designers and drum replacement.
How To Mix Drums: Advanced Foundation Building
Using drum replacement has completely revolutionized how I approach drum mixing. There are some purists out there who will argue (fruitlessly because I’m not listening) that you should just get a great drum recording and then it’ll sound great. Of course, that’s ideal but oftentimes highly unrealistic.
What if you get recordings from someone else who recorded them badly?
You still want the job, so you can’t exactly ask them to re-record the drums up to your standard. You can’t ignore the problem or demand that it be fixed. You’ll never get any clients (or make any friends) by being such a curmudgeon and a Luddite.
Embrace technology and learn to use everything you have to solve your problems.
That’s why sample replacement has become so important for me. I don’t always have the best drum sounds because of the typical home studio problems:
- Small rooms
- Inadequate acoustic treatment
- Random resonances from reflections
Being able to layer the drum recordings with kick-ass samples just makes my drums sound that much better.
It solves my problems without making the drums sound fake. Drum replacement software has come such a long way that you can’t really hear when a sample is being used, especially when it’s layered over a real performance done by a real drummer.
Step By Step Replacement
Here’s a quick process that you can use when you’re doing drum replacement:
- Decide if the drums need replacing. If the drums sound killer already you might not need to add any samples to your drum sound. But if you think you can add more depth, punch, or character to the drum sound, there’s no harm in checking it out.
- Go through the samples you have. Not every sample will sound great so make sure to go through all the samples you have and listen to the drum sound both in solo as well as in the context of the mix.
- Decide what level of blend you need. If the drum recordings sound like shit you might want to completely replace the sounds of your close-mic drum tracks, leaving the only evidence of the original sound coming through the overheads (that you might high-pass filter anyway to just get the sounds of the cymbals). However, if the drums already sound great but just need a little help in certain areas you might want to layer the samples in with the original drum tracks to taste. Again, analyze in solo but make your final decisions in the context of the mix.
There are a lot of different sample replacement tools available out there, like Drumagog, Superior Drummer, Slate’s Trigger, and SPL Drum XChanger to name a few.
When the recordings are really bad, it’s good to slap the drum replacement software on there and quickly create the drum sound you want. However, a good way to get the best of both worlds is to layer the samples in with the original drums.
For instance, if you have a nice beefy kick drum but you can’t get the beater to cut through the mix, it’s nice to add a secondary kick track that has a sample with a lot of top-end click from the beater. Blend that underneath the original kick and you’ll get the natural-sounding beefiness of the recording (that you’ll be able to feel in the mix), and the punch from the beater in the sample.
A word of warning though, if you’re completely replacing your drums make sure the performance is played in such a way that the drum replacement software accurately replaces the drums.
I’ve had instances where I couldn’t use Drumagog because the player was playing a really fast double-kick. The software couldn’t keep up with the replacement so I had to scrap the idea altogether.
Most drum replacement software comes with a library of samples to choose from. They’ll include a variety of different drum sounds modeled from a lot of different-sounding drums. This is the beauty of sample replacement because it allows you access to iconic drum sounds that can take your drum mix to the next level.
For instance, if you’re working on an 80’s metal song the drummer’s drum kit might not have that big, iconic feel. But if you can layer the kick and snare with a sample from a Tama drum kit you’ll instantly transform your drum sound into something much better than the home recording you started with.
It’s a good idea to take your time to go through all the samples you have in your library. If you have a huge sample library, this might take some time, but think of the time you’ll save in the long run.
You don’t have to spend it tweaking the sound with plug-ins like EQ and compression. If you find a sample that’s Pre-EQ’d and already cuts through the mix, you’ll have to do less to the track later on.
Sample replacement is an incredibly valuable tool to make your drum mix stand out. It’ll help you transform average drum sounds into killer drum mixes. Some might think it’s cheating, but I say it’s simply using all the tools at your disposal in order to get the best-sounding mix of your music or your client.
When you can’t use drum replacement and the drums still leave a lot to be desired, it’s time to see how you can sculpt them with a transient designer. Transient designers can shape the waveform of the drum, increasing or decreasing both the attack and the release of the drum.
Practical Applications Relevant to Transient Design
Transient designers only manipulate the Attack and Release so I’ll spend a bit more time giving you some handy practical tips to shape your drum sounds.
Attack in Transient Design
Manipulating the attack in a transient designer will help you make your drums sound punchier. If your snare is sounding kind of dull, or the beater of the kick drum won’t cut through the mix no matter how much you EQ, increasing the attack with a transient designer will help your drums cut through.
The opposite is also true. Say you have a very “clicky” kick drum or an acoustic guitar that’s just a little bit too strummy. Then you can decrease the attack of the waveform to blend the instrument into the mix.
Release in Transient Design
Your transient designer actually has a bit of a superpower when it comes to home-recorded drums. Chances are you might have some unwanted room reverb in some of your mics. Using a transient designer, you can clean up the room sound by reducing the release.
That means you’ll hear more of the initial transient and full power of the signal playing while eliminating the room sound that gets blended in as the signal gets softer.
The opposite also works if you want to really push the “bigness” of your drums. Increasing the release usually gives you a pumping effect similar to when you’re over-compressing. This can be cool on drum loops or groups, and depending on the feel you’re going for, it could be just the trick to creating a killer drum mix.
Mixing Drums is Hard…
…but when those drums hit hard, it’s so worth it to know that your efforts have paid off!
For further reading on related subjects, check out these articles:
- How To Make Programmed Drums Sound Exciting (and more human)
- 8 Tips to Create Great Sounding MIDI Drums
- Guitar Mixing Tips – Complete Guide for Bass and Acoustic Guitars
I hope this guide has helped you get better drum mixes, and if you want more from me please subscribe to the newsletter below and share this guide with whoever you think needs to read it.
Mixing Drums, Music Mixing