A Powerful Guide to Mixing Killer Drums in 6 Simple Steps
Mixing drums correctly 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 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 an excellent job recording the drum kit, then mixing your drums can only be a pleasurable experience.
Let’s go through the drums one by one and give you some simple and practical tips you can use right away.
1. 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 wrong, 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 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 with 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 as opposed to a narrower boost at around 4 kHz, which results in a Hardcore Metal type snap.
When mixing drums, along with everything else, using compression is a personal 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 six 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 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 with getting 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 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 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. By timing the attack and release, I can get a nice steady snare sound that breathes with each hit. I generally 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 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 so that you can create the sound that you want.
You can create an entirely 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 particular room mode like a small room sound? If you are in a particularly adventurous mood, you can try adding some gated reverb to your snare.
3. 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 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 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.
The same rule of subtle compression applies as well 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. 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 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 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 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 as well as a significant amount of the reverb of the room. Depending on the sound of the room, 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 so many different 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 how to put 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
The following is an excerpt from the Drum Mix Toolkit. Today we’ll talk about the important fundamentals of getting a great drum mix
Here’s how you’ll learn to mix drums with the Drum Mix Toolkit. I’ll start by giving you a quick start guide that covers the entire process from beginning to end.
Then we’ll expand on each part as necessary in the following chapters. 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 really have a lot of 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 keep in mind as you’re doing your initial balance.
Step 2 – Check Polarity/Phase
It is incredibly important to make sure your drum tracks are in “phase”. This can make the difference between a weak kick and a powerful one; it can change your snare from thin and weak to punchy and tight.
Usually, you’ll have a “phase” plug-in or an EQ that has a polarity switch which 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. We’ll talk about this in more detail later on in the Drum Mix Toolkit.
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, there are multiple ways you can simplify your drum mix. We’ll talk about that in more detail later.
Step 4 – Bus Processing
Once you’ve grouped your instruments you can start adding 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 as a whole through your bus processing it’s time to move on down to the individual tracks themselves. This is as good a time as any to make sure 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 are sounding really good to you already then you might not even 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 using 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 as well as 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 make sure you always go back and forth and rebalance as necessary.
Step 8 – Reverb
At this point, you should have a pretty killer drum sound, 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 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 make sure 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.
Get My Best Drum Mixing Content With the Drum Mix Toolkit
If you don’t know all the tools you have at your disposal, I’ve put together a package that includes all the tricks and techniques I’ve learned in the last decade of mixing drums.
It’s called the Drum Mix Toolkit, and it’s designed to transform your drums from weak and thin to powerful and punchy.
Here are some techniques you’ll discover when you get your copy:
- How to Use Bus Processing and Parallel Compression to Glue Your Drum Sound Together
- How to Blend Multiple Reverbs Together in Your Drum Mix, Making the Drums Sound Larger than Life
- How to Fit the Kick Drum and Bass Guitar Together in the Low End
- How to Take Full Advantage of the Phase Relationship Between Your Tracks to Make Every Track Sound Tighter
- What Processing to Use When You Don’t Have Drum Replacement or Transient Designers at Your Disposal
- Where to EQ Drums to Get Rid of Boxiness, Muddiness, and Harshness
- Your 6 Step Process for Using Drum Compression for Tighter Drums
- A Behind the Scenes Look at How the Ratio of Your Compressor Affects Your Drum Sound
- How to Use Multi-Band Compression for a Tighter, Yet MORE Dynamic Drum Sound
- How to Use Gates to Get a Cleaner Drum Sound
- Why You Should Use Analog Summing and Saturation to Add More Warmth and Depth to Your Drums
- Why Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” is the Reason I Use This One Plug-in on ALL My Mixes
- The Difference Between a Drastic and Subtle Overhead EQ (And When to Choose Which)
- Adding Space to Your Drum Mix Without Making Your Drums Sound Distant
- How to Use Gated Reverbs Without Sounding Like You’re an 80’s Cover Band
Hit the link to take your home recordings to the next level.
Mixing Drums, Music Mixing