How would you like the drums you mix in your home studio to sound as good as anything streaming from your Spotify playlist? Are you interested in discovering the advanced drum mixing techniques employed by the most successful mixers in the world?
That would be pretty bad ass right?
Well, it’s entirely possible and in this special drum mixing how-to guide, I’m going to show you exactly how the pros go about mixing drums.
Don’t worry. I won’t be wasting your time talking about the one or two drum mixing tricks everyone seems to be regurgitating on YouTube. I’m going to show you how to mix drums that have all the air and punch you can handle by giving you a system that works with the tools you already have in your arsenal.
Ready to jump in? Let’s go!
Drum Mixing Part 1: Maximizing Phase Relationships
Have you ever had the problem while mixing drums where you couldn’t get certain parts of the drum kit to pop through the speakers? Maybe you had a snare drum that was big and fat when soloed, but sounded thin and lifeless in the mix… or maybe you’ve had toms that refused to properly voice themselves through your wall of layered guitars. There is a very likely chance that your problem was caused by drum tracks that were not fully in phase.
How do I know? In nearly every multitrack session I receive to mix, the drums have phase relationship problems.
Drum mixing magic can not happen if you have phase problems!
In Part 1, we will address the phase relationship between the multiple drum microphones in your recording. By the end of this section, you will have all the knowledge you need to utilize the powerful harmonic content available in your drum recordings and start mixing drums that slam through the speakers!
Working In The Real World
First off, if you are unfamiliar with phase, here is an overview video by Lynda.com that summarizes what it is and why it is critical to understand for music production.
In a perfect world, your drums would be recorded in a great sounding recording studio. Inside the great sounding studio would be a professional recording engineer. The recording engineer would take the time before the drum recording started to measure the distance from the area the drummer strikes the snare drum to each overhead microphone, balance the distance of the room microphones between the kick and snare and so on.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. Which means that many of the drum recordings I receive to mix do not have the necessary setup required to reach their full potential. So it falls on me (and you), the mixing engineer to get the tracks into proper shape before moving forward with any real drum mixing tasks.
Stereo Pairs and Multi-Microphone Sources
The first thing we need to do is get any stereo pairs of audio in phase. The majority of the time this includes overhead and room microphone tracks.
Let’s start with the overhead microphone tracks. Using the edit window, find an uncluttered snare strike inside the overhead tracks. Again, depending on how much care the tracking engineer put into recording these two microphones in-phase, they may be perfectly in, out, or in-between phase. I suggest skipping the easy way out (hitting the phase button on one side to find the best sounding setting). This will not achieve the desired effect of getting the overhead microphones to be as perfect a phase relationship as possible.
Instead, just drag the side that is behind (if there is one), forward in time, making each side of the stereo pair perfectly in (or out of) phase. It is possible during the tracking stage that the phase button was pressed on one side of the stereo pair, in that case, you would now need to reverse this action by inverting the phase so the waveforms of both tracks go up and down at the same time. I prefer using a destructive method for this and fixing the problem once and for all.
Repeat the process above for each of the stereo or multi-microphone drum tracks in your session. This will most likely include room microphones, multiple microphones used to record the kick drum, snare drum, and so on.
Relative Phase Between All Drum Microphones
Now that the stereo and multi-microphone instrument tracks are in phase, we need to get all the drum tracks in phase relative to one another. This part can get a little tricky and it is best to have a solid game plan and stick to it before you start to move audio tracks around.
We will start with the relationship between the snare drum and drum overhead tracks. Go ahead and drag them next to each other in your session. This will make them easy to reference visually against one another. Locate a solid snare drum strike and move the stereo overhead track forward in time to match the snare drum’s transient. Now observe the phase relationship between the snare drum and the overhead audio tracks. The snare drum track should be perfectly aligned (the waveforms should go up and down at the same time) with the overhead tracks. Also, while listening to the snare drum and overhead tracks together in solo, you should hear a nice, fat, airy snare drum sound.
You will notice, that by pulling the overhead track up and down in volume against the snare drum track, that none of the snare drum’s tonal properties are lost as the overhead track is pulled up in volume. You should only gain the tonality and width that the overhead microphones are adding to the sound.
To experiment with this, you can throw the overhead track out of phase against the snare and observe the difference in clarity as you bring the overhead microphones up and down in volume.
It may be, that by aligning the overhead microphones with the snare drum microphones, you lost too much “space” around the sound. If this is the case, you can move the overheads back in time to match the second cycle of the waveform (making the overheads now out of phase with the snare drum microphones), or possibly the third cycle (now the peak of the multiple waveforms would again match and the overhead microphones would be back in phase with the snare drum microphones). This will bring in a little more space to the sound without losing the punch.
Regardless of where you move the overhead microphones in time (further back in time brings more “space”), be sure to invert the phase of the overhead microphones accordingly if need be.
Now that we have the overhead and snare drum microphones sounding great, we will check the phase relationship between the overhead microphones and the kick drum microphone/s. Drag the overhead audio track next to the kick drum audio track. Now locate a kick drum beater strike and magnify it. Now, move the kick drum audio track in time so that the kick drum transient is perfectly aligned with the transient in the overhead audio tracks. Now, flip the phase on the kick drum microphone/s as necessary so that the waveforms of both kick and overhead microphones go up and down at the same time.
You can continue with this method for the tom tracks and any additional mono room microphone tracks you may want to use in your mix session.
Stubborn Mono Drum Room Microphones
A word of caution in regards to mono room microphones (sometimes called “crush” tracks). These are some of the most problematic audio tracks I have had to deal with as a mixer. During the tracking stage, if a microphone was placed in an inappropriate position, you can never really get both the kick drum and the snare drum to both be in a proper phase relationship with the room microphone. Once you get the mono room microphone in phase with the snare, it becomes out of phase with the kick and vise versa.
There is a little trick to get around this. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s worth a try.
Align the room track to your snare drum tracks. Use a high pass filter to remove the low frequencies in the mono room microphone track. Now solo it against the kick and snare drum. Does the mono room track still add to the snare drum sound? Does is not cause the low end of the kick drum to be disrupted? If so, keep it. But, if it jeopardizes your kick drum sound in any way, toss it. That mono room microphone will be nothing but problems for you in your drum mixing efforts.
Note: The only reason I would keep a problematic mono room track around is if I plan to use it on its own as an effect during a certain section of the song, with all the other drum tracks muted.
Drum Mixing Part 1 Recap:
We live in the real world, and in that world, it is common for drums to be recorded with many microphones, all with imperfect phase relationships.
Great drum mixing requires perfected phase relationships.
By following the steps listed in this above you can correct the errors of even the most negligent recording engineer.
In Part 2 of this drum mixing guide, we will discuss cleaning up the noise inside our drum tracks as well as blending the different multi-microphone and relative stereo microphone sources.
Drum Mixing Part 2: Blending Microphones
Now that we have perfected the phase of our drum multitrack recording, we are going to adjust the overall microphone blends and bounce a few tracks down to make them easier to deal with inside of a full mix.
Cleaning Up The Noise in Your Session
The first part of this process is taking the time to clean up all the unnecessary noise. This will help us later in the drum mixing process when our equalizers and compressors are set to stun (which raises the noise floor).
Listen to your song from beginning to end, note sections of the song’s arrangement where the drums are silent or may need to fade out quicker and then the crash cymbal may allow.
Start by trimming the audio regions at the beginning of the song to the point of the first drum transient. Check your region trimming (you don’t want to go too far) by listening to the entrance of the drums in isolation (without the other instruments in the recording).
Move onto the next section of silence. This could be a section where the drums take a break going into the b-section for instance. Are the cymbals ringing a little too long over a soft acoustic guitar or piano bridge? If so, clip the region and fade the drums out a little earlier.
Continue this cleaning and fading until the end of the song.
Working With Tom Bleed
Now let’s look at the bleed from the tom microphones. Depending on the song and vibe you are going for, you may not want to cut all the bleed out of the toms. So, utilize the following information on a case by case basis.
In my experience, a dense musical arrangement requires the bleed to be completely removed. By removing the bleed between tom strikes, you allow space and headroom for other instruments to voice themselves through the mix. With the bleed removed we can push the tom tracks a little further with our mix processing without causing any nasty side effects to the other elements of the drum sound. This processing (which we will go into detail later) allows each tom strike to come through clearly in the mix.
But how much bleed do you remove? Well, I have found (assuming a decent tom recording was achieved) that when a single tom strike is made, all the tom microphone channels should “stay open.” For example, say two toms were recorded onto two different audio tracks. If a drum fill utilizes only one of those toms, you would still leave both channels uncut, allowing the bleed from the other tom microphone to enter the mix. This will leave you with a natural sounding drum mix.
The exception to leaving all tom channels open during a tom fill is when the drummer had bad cymbal etiquette (playing too hard) or the engineer misplaced a tom microphone. In both cases, the bleed will become distracting and should be cut.
When you are trimming the tom track’s audio regions, try to fade the audio out before the next cymbal or hi-hat strike. This may mean that you cut the sound before the sustain of the drum has finished. Don’t worry, your overhead microphones will take over that part of the equation. What we really care about most are those initial transients.
If the arrangement is sparse, then the bleed can really add to the tonal space of the drum kit in the mix. In that case, It may be appropriate to keep the bleed intact to support the drum kit as a whole sonically.
Warning: Remember to check the phase relationship of the tom microphone bleed. If the bleed is not in phase, it is going to hurt your drum mix more than help.
Let’s assume for the rest of the article, that you have decided to remove the bleed. With that being said, after you have cut each region to voice only in the sections in which the tom toms are played, we want to adjust the level of each hit on each tom track to the same peak level. I go about this by using the Defaulter plugin by Quiet Art Ltd. The Defaulter plugin allows me to normalize the peaks of multiple audio regions and tracks with ease using the non-destructive clip gain feature in Pro Tools. The end result is that each tom strike has the same peak level.
Why Bounce Down Audio… My DAW Has Like a Jillion Tracks
Now that are drum tracks are free of excess noise, let’s print blends of any multi-microphone sources. Multi-microphone means any individual part of the drum kit that was recorded with more than one microphone. Normally, that entails kick drums, snare drums, and room microphones.
Why do we want to do this? Because most modern productions contain a very large number of drum tracks to mix. It’s counter productive to be worrying about the multiple kick drum, snare drum, tom and room microphones when there is no need to adjust their balance once it has been properly set.
Bouncing all the microphone sources to a single mono or stereo track relative to the instrument or microphone position can be a helpful way to organize your mix session. This also opens the door for more sonic fun once we start to process the drums in the mix.
Start With A Balance
Start by getting a rough balance of the drums. Bring up your kick drum, snare drum, overhead, and tom microphones. Your room channels can stay down for the moment.
While listening back to your tracks, adjust the levels of the sources mentioned above to get an acceptable balance. Once you have a balance you’re happy with, commit and bounce (record) those multi-microphone sources to single tracks (mono or stereo depending on the source).
Kick Drum Microphones
If a kick drum was recorded with both an inner and outer microphone, then it would be bounced down to a single kick drum track. I label this track “KD”
Snare Drum Microphones
In regards to the snare drum, I will usually leave the bottom microphone track separate. This allows the snare’s bottom microphone to be processed differently in the mix in comparison to the snare’s top microphones. So, after bouncing the multiple microphones that were placed above the snare drum to a single track (I label the fader “SD-T”), I leave the microphone that recorded the bottom of the snare alone. I label the fader of the bottom snare drum mic “SD-B”
Moving onto the tom microphones. I will pan them appropriately around the stereo image. I do this by following the perspective (drummer or audience) as recorded by the overhead microphones.
If there were less than two toms recorded on separate audio tracks, the task of building a stereo tom track is simple. For two tom audio tracks, one track will go on the left side of a stereo track, the other on the right side. Simple, and you can always separate them later if needed.
On the other hand, if there are more than two tom microphones, you’ll need to use your ears and adjust the pan settings against the rest of the drum kit.
Once you are happy with your panning arrangement, set all the tom faders to the same volume. Paying special attention that when they all play together, they do not clip the new audio track you are bouncing to. Now print all your tom microphones to a single stereo track. I name this fader “TOM”
It has become a common practice to have two or more pairs of room microphones recorded during tracking. When dealing with these multiple stereo drum room tracks we will be adding a variation to the process.
Depending on the placement of the microphones in the room, there will be varying amounts of delay to the sound recorded by the room microphones from the sound recorded by the close microphones. The further back the microphones were placed from the drum kit, the more delay will be introduced.
We want to accomplish two big things with the multiple room microphone pairs.
We want the delay of the snare drum transient (between the room microphones and the snare drum close microphones) to work with the tempo of the song.
- We want a solid tonal balance between the multiple stereo pairs that support the drum sound as a whole.
Typically, we will use the room microphones placed closer to the drum kit to obtain the “tone” of the room. Far room microphones can be very useful to add size and depth to the overall drum sound.
If you followed along in part 1, you will have already aligned the transients and corrected the phase relationships of the various stereo room microphones in your session. If not, you will need to do that step first.
Moving on, we now adjust the room microphones in the timeline to obtain the desired depth or decay. The further back these are pushed, the larger the perceived space will be. Pull them forward in time and the space the drums are in will shrink. Think of the distance between the initial strike as recorded by the close microphones and the strike as it appears in the room microphone channels as the pre-delay setting of a reverb device.
After adjusting the room microphones to your desired position in the timeline (setting your pre-delay), go ahead and adjust the final balance of the room microphones against the rest of the drum kit. Once satisfied, bounce the tracks down to a single stereo drum room track. I call this stereo fader “RM”
What Your Mixer Looks Like Once You’re Done
When I finish this process, I am usually left with the following drum tracks in my mix session:
|Fader Description||Fader Name||Track Type||Mono or Stereo|
|Snare Drum Top||SD-T||Audio||Mono|
|Snare Drum Bottom||SD-B||Audio||Mono|
Drum Mixing Part 2 Recap:
Hopefully after reading up to this section you have a firm idea of getting live drum recordings in phase, free from excess noise, and bounced to a manageable number of tracks.
Drum Mixing Part 3: Adding Kick and Snare Samples
With a clear picture of the drum sound as it was recorded, we can now assess the individual drums for any tonal weak spots.
By the end of this part, you will have a clear understanding of why you would want to use a drum sample, what type of sample your drum sound requires, and how to find the right drum sample for your song.
Analyze The Drum Recording You Are Working With
Ask yourself a few questions regarding the drums themselves. Was the snare drum used in the recording right for the song? Was the kick drum tuned properly against the bass guitar and tempo of the track?
Now focus in on the drummer. Listen for any inconsistencies or variation in the drummer’s playing. For instance, how consistent was the drummer in their attack and striking position on the snare drum. Now, what about the kick drum dynamic? Is it sloppy or authoritative?
Take notes on your observations after listening to the drums from top to bottom a few times. Try and focus on one or two elements at a time as you listen. Avoid the scatterbrain syndrome of giving too many elements your attention and losing your concentration.
After making your notes, you may feel your natural drum sound is hopeless, but this is not true. If you have followed the steps in Parts 1 and 2, there most definitely is usable harmonic content. We just need to add proper support in the right frequencies and voicing to bring the drum sound to its full potential.
Use Samples as Team Players, Not The Star of the Show
As a rule, I find it is best to never completely replace a snare drum or tom-tom with a sample. Although in regards to the kick drum, it is sometimes necessary.
When mixing drums, it is not just about getting the close microphones sounding great on their own. By the time we are done with our mix, at least half of the tone of each drum is going to come from the overhead and room microphones working in harmony with your close microphones. The sum is greater than the parts.
Completely replacing the snare drum or the toms with a sample takes away this harmonic relationship, and what we are left with is a bunch of parts that fail to create something much larger than themselves by working together.
Snare Drum Samples Can Serve Multiple Purposes
When building a sample “support group” for your snare drum, we should look at two elements, voicing, and tone. I often use a unique sample for each, but you may get lucky and only need one sample for both jobs.
I can recommend my friend Steven Slate’s Slate Digital Trigger 2 plugin for this purpose, as it has the ability to load multiple samples at once and balance them to get the best combination to a single output.
So what are we looking for in each sample? I like to start with the voicing sample. Our goal is to have our snare drum punch through the mix with clarity, without having to be mixed too loud or treated with equalizer settings that rob the tone of the snare drum.
You should not have applied any equalization or compression at this stage. The goal is for the sample to give us what we need without the use of compression or equalization. We are adding to the “raw” drum sound here.
Finding The Right Snare Drum Samples
To find the right sample, click through your sample library while in solo and make notes on a couple different samples that you think could do the job. Now, un-solo your snare sample track and listen to the song from top to bottom. Try out the different samples listed in your notes and pick the one that voices itself and sits best IN THE MIX. If none of them fit correctly in the mix, then go through the above process again.
Now that we have a “voicing” sample in place, the snare drum should have no problem “voicing” itself clearly in the dry mix.
For the “tone” sample, we will repeat the process above. But this time around, we will be sure to pick out samples that fill the “body” of the original snare drum sound.
Before you begin your search for appropriate samples, identify what is missing in the snare drum sound as it is. It is a bad idea to just start listening to samples without knowing what you are looking for in the first place.
Again, don’t make the mistake of picking the “best sounding sample.” It is all about the sample that compliments the original sound in the best way. This means your “tone” sample should not overpower or overlap your original snare drum recording. It should support it.
Adjusting Pitch and Release Time of Drum Samples
Now that you have selected your “voicing” and “tone” snare drum samples, we are going to make sure they are resonating in harmony. Use the pitch control inside your drum sample replacement software to adjust each sample. Your aim is to make the pitch of the support samples symbiotic with the original snare drum recording.
You can also adjust the release of the ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) to get the desired length (assuming your sample replacement plugin has one). For me, the length I set for my snare drum samples is usually dictated by the tempo and arrangement of the song.
A slower song, with a sparse arrangement, can handle a more sustained snare drum. A quicker, or more densely packed musical arrangement often needs a snare drum that can cut through it. In this case, samples that are shorter in duration are a better bet.
The Kick Drum Is A Unique Beast
Kick drums behave in a totally different way than snare drums do, specifically in regards to layering samples over a live recording.
Almost any kick drum recorded with a microphone near or inside the physical drum will contain enough natural harmonics to voice itself through the mix. All it takes is a little presence EQ boost. That means a “voicing” sample is usually not necessary. “Tone” on the other hand can sometimes be hard to come by with the live recorded drum.
While you can go through the same routine with the kick drum as you did with the snare drum to find a supporting “tone” sample, a majority of the time you end up with a “floppy” sound once the sample is combined with the microphone recording. Basically, those big low-frequency waveforms don’t play well with each other.
Finding The Right Kick Drum Sample
Sometimes, you are better off completely replacing the original recording of the kick drum with a sample.
Start by listening to the sample against the playback of the whole track (not in solo). This is the only way to know if your low-end is correctly balanced and the attack of the drum is suitable for the song. Continue through your sample library until you find a kick drum sample that seems to fit like a glove. It will be obvious once it is right.
Consider the following while looking for a kick drum sample. If the tempo of the song is fast and aggressive, choose a sample that has a tight bottom and a solid, well-defined attack. If the tempo is slower, you may have more time available between strikes for the sound to come together and can choose a sample with a bigger bottom and smoother, non-abrasive attack. Again, resist the temptation of choosing the biggest and best (to you) sounding sample. Choose the one that works best in the mix. A soloed kick drum never sold a record.
Similar to the snare drum samples, experiment with the pitch and release controls built into your sample replacement plugin to find the most natural setting. If you are completely replacing your kick drum recording with a sample, use the full song playback as you reference for pitch and release time. I find that pitch and release settings are reactive to one another. I start with setting the correct pitch and then go for adjusting the release control so the drum sits perfectly inside the musical arrangement.
Quick Review Of Our Current Drum Mixing Setup
Here’s a chart of how your drum fader layout should look once we have added the drum sample audio tracks:
|Fader Description||Fader Name||Track Type||Mono or Stereo|
|Snare Drum Top||SD-T||Audio||Mono|
|Snare Drum Bottom||SD-B||Audio||Mono|
|Snare Drum Sample||SD-S||Audio||Mono|
Drum Mixing Part 3 Recap:
Not all drum recordings are created equal.
Some will require a bit of help.
In this section, we have discussed the reasons you would want to use a drum sample, the different types of drum samples, and how to find the right ones to complement your drum sound.
Part 4 will discuss bussing and the assignment of our drums to create a manageable drum mix.
Drum Mixing Part 4: Bussing, Parallel Buses, & VCA Groups
In Part 4 we will outline the process of setting up both group and parallel busses for your kick drum and snare drum tracks. Once you have finished the steps outlined in this post, you will have a simple way to control and process your kick drum and snare drum. We’re getting into the technical side of drum mixing here, so hold on to your butts!
A few things before we start: Avoid the urge to apply any equalization or compression during this stage. Also, double check that any tracks with hard stereo panning, such as overheads or stereo room microphones, are arranged as a stereo track, not two mono sources panned hard left and right. I know this goes against some popular beliefs, but through my extensive tests that take into account both sound quality and utility, a single stereo hard panned channel beats out two mono channels hard panned left and right.
I know this goes against some popular beliefs, but through my extensive tests that take into account both sound quality and utility, a single stereo hard panned channel beats out two mono channels hard panned left and right for drum mixing.
Snare Drum Bus
Let’s start with the snare drum. If you used the techniques described in the previous sections of this article, you should have three snare drum tracks:
- Snare drum top (SD-T)
- Snare drum bottom (SD-B)
- Snare drum sample (SD-S)
Balance these three faders to taste and assign their outputs to a single mono bus. Create a new AUX fader and assign the input to the same bus the snare drum tracks are set to output to. I’ll call this fader “SD-G,” an abbreviation for Snare Drum Group. Solo isolate your “SD-G” fader and assign its output to your master stereo bus.
All three tracks will now be treated as a single sound. Be sure to double check that the input into your new “SD-G” fader is not clipping. I tend to assign all three tracks to a fader group in Pro Tools so their volume can be adjusted together, relative to the initial balance I set. This will keep the blend from changing if you need to make a volume adjustment later in the mix.
Snare Drum Parallel Bus
After you have an appropriate balance feeding into your “SD-G” fader, create a second AUX fader with the same input source as the “SD-G” fader. This will be your parallel snare drum fader. I label the fader “SD-P”, an abbreviation for Snare Drum Parallel. Solo isolate your “SD-P” fader and assign its output to your master stereo bus.
Later we will add signal processing like compression and equalization to the “SD-P” channel to make the snare drum POP! But for now, just leave the “SD-P” fader muted.
Kick Drum Bus
If you have followed along, you should have up to two kick drum audio tracks:
- Your recorded kick drum (KD)
- Your kick drum sample (KD-S).
If you are using both the recorded kick drum track as well as a supporting sample, balance the two faders to taste and assign their outputs to a single mono bus. Create a new AUX fader and assign the input to the same bus the kick drum tracks are set to output to. I’ll call this fader “KD-G”, an abbreviation for Kick Drum Group. Solo isolate your “KD-G” fader and assign its output to your master stereo bus.
Kick Drum Parallel Bus
Next, to your “KD” fader, create a new AUX fader. I’ll call this new AUX fader “KD-P”, an abbreviation for Kick Drum Parallel. Solo isolate your “KD-P” fader and assign its output to your master stereo bus.
Just like the snare drum, we will add processing like compression and equalization to the “KD-P” later. But for now, just leave the “KD-P” fader muted.
Send It All To The Master Stereo Bus
So, to recap. You should have up to three snare drum tracks (SD-T, SD-B, SD-S) feeding two newly created AUX faders (SD-G and SD-P), two kick drum tracks (KD, KD-S), feeding two newly created AUX faders (KD-G and KD-P).
SD-G, SD-P, KD-G, & KD-P should all be set to output directly to the stereo bus along with all the other drum faders that are not bussed to a special AUX fader.
Drum Faders, Bus Faders, and Parallel Faders Feeding the Stereo Bus
Creating A Stereo Parallel Drum Bus
Now that all the routing is correct for our individual drum channels, let’s create a stereo parallel drum bus. Start by creating a new stereo AUX channel. I like to call this fader “RYM-P” an abbreviated title for “Rhythm Parallel.” I use “rhythm” instead of “drum” in the title because later in the mix you will have the option of sending the bass guitar to this parallel bus as well.
Next, select the audio bus you would like to use for the input of the new “RYM-P” AUX channel. We will use this audio bus to create sends from the drum faders we wish to include in our parallel bus processing. The “RYM-P” fader should be solo isolated and set to output to your master stereo bus.
Create a new send that outputs to your “RYM-P” input across all the drum faders currently set to output directly to your master stereo bus. Your send should be post fader and set to unity (fader set to 0.0). Now you have the appropriate drum faders being sent to the master stereo bus as a well as a parallel drum bus simultaneously.
VCA Group Faders
Now that we have all the audio from the drums going to the right places, let’s take complete control over our faders. We’re talking about utilizing VCA Group Faders!
Being a Pro Tools HD user, I have had access to VCA Fader groups for quite some time, but with Pro Tools 12 all Pro Tools users now have access to VCA faders. Outside of Pro Tools, Cubase and Logic both feature the ability to utilize VCA Fader Groups within your sessions.
We will be creating three VCA faders to control the entirety of our drum kit. These include: a “Kick” VCA, a “Snare” VCA, and a “Drums” VCA. Go ahead and create the three VCA Faders and label them Kick, Snare, and Drums respectively. Label the faders before you start your fader group assignments.
Now, let’s group the “KD” and “KD-P” faders together and assign the new group to our “Kick” VCA. This allows you to balance both your kick drum fader and your kick drum parallel fader at the same time through the use of the “Kick” VCA Fader while you mix.
Moving on to the snare drum faders that are feeding into the stereo bus. These are the “SD” and “SD-P” faders. We will group them together and assign the group to the “Snare” VCA. Now we are able to balance both our snare drum fader and our snare drum parallel fader at the same time while we mix through the adjustment of the “Snare” VCA Fader.
Finally, we will group all the drum faders that output to the stereo bus together and then assign that group to the third VCA fader we labeled “Drums.”
Drum Mixing Part 4 Recap:
We have reviewed the easy way to create audio busses and aux channels to process both kick drum and snare drum tracks, as well as a parallel drum bus for each. We have also created a new stereo aux channel that will act as a drum parallel bus for the additional parallel processing of all our drum channels. Lastly, we discussed taking control over all our drum faders with the use of a few simple VCA faders and track groups.
In the next part of this drum mixing guide, we will put all these new buses to use, especially the stereo drum parallel bus. This will allow us to add heavy processing to our drums without negatively affecting the transients that enable the drums to translate inside the whole mix.
I realize that we have been getting into some pretty advanced drum mixing concepts over the past few parts of this article. So if you need some extra guidance, let me know where you’re stuck by leaving a comment below.
Drum Mixing Part 5: Equalization & Compression
So, after four parts, you’ve made it to the juicy stuff: drum equalization and compression! We’ll take it one piece of the drum kit at a time, wrapping it up with some larger thoughts.
A Few General Concepts For Drum Processing
- We’re placing equalization before compression. There are a few places where the order of the two flips around, but this will not be the case for the majority of the tracks.
- Any instrument that is not carrying useful low-frequency information will have a high-pass filter activated to get rid of any potential rumble or out of phase information that may disrupt the tight low end of the drums.
- Fully parametric equalizers (or at least a fully parametric mid frequency band) with both frequency and bandwidth controls are much easier to work with to obtain a modern drum sound. You want to be able to tune the bandwidth of the cut or boost. A favorite of mine is the Solid State Logic 242 EQ famously called the “black knob” version. This was the analog equalizer that was fitted into the Solid State Logic 4000G in an old studio of mine. Today I use the Softube Console 1 SL4000E which has an awesome emulation of what the vintage equalizer sounded like when it was being pushed hard.
- It may seem crazy, but different equalizers cutting at the same frequency will sound different. There are a number of technical reasons for this (a topic for another day). With that said, forget about any specific frequencies listed below and use your ears.
- Wherever possible, avoid smashing the drum transients by over compressing. Over-compressed drums may sound exciting while soloed, but in the context of a full mix they sound small and weak.
- Close microphones will use gating or expansion to give further punch to the sound as well as remove excess noise when not being struck.
Okay, let’s begin!
Before we start any creative processing with equalization or compression, we want the kick drum to be as clean as possible. This means placing a gate in the signal chain. We place it first so that none of the other processing we do down the line affects the operation of the gate. Set the gate to completely close between kick drum strikes. This will mean setting a fast attack and using your ears to adjust the release time so the kick drum decays naturally after each strike, but the gate becomes fully closed before the next snare drum strike.
With the kick drum track, we will start with an aggressive cut in the mid-range (usually between 500Hz and 700Hz).
What are we listening for?
You want to cut out any mid-frequency hollowness or boxiness. However, you do not want to cut any frequencies that may be contributing to the “voice” of the kick drum.
It may seem a bit early in the process to talk about compression. But, if you think the kick drum could benefit from a little dynamic control, place a compressor after the equalizer in the signal chain. I like to add the compressor to the signal chain before adding additional low-frequency and high-frequency equalizer boosts. Why? By adding the compressor to the signal chain before we start boosting with our equalizer, we can get the equalizer and compressor to work in harmony with each other.
I’ll use a ratio of 2:1 or lower with a fast release and medium-slow attack. When adjusting the attack time, listen to the point where the attack control starts to cut off the transient and then slow it back down until the kick drum sounds natural again but has 1db – 2db of gain reduction registering on the meter during the most aggressive strikes.
Warning: DO NOT OVER-COMPRESS YOUR KICK DRUM.
Using a decibel or two is all your kick drum will need. If light compression is not working to tame the track, it’s time to start working in a sample.
Now, back to the equalizer for some boosting. Try a medium width bell boost or shelf boost (depending on the kick drum recording) at around 5kHz and work your way up the frequency spectrum as you feel necessary. Think of the gain knob as an “attack” control. The more you boost the gain, the more the attack of the kick drum will pop through the mix.
If you added a compressor after your equalizer in the signal chain, you should see the compressor’s gain reduction meter start to dance. You should also hear the compressor start to pillow the high-end back down in a (hopefully) pleasing way.
Now balance out the presence boost you made at 5kHz or above with a low-frequency shelf (or bell) boost. Somewhere around 50Hz should bring out the tone and punch.
Depending on how the kick drum was recorded, it may have excess high-frequency information. Utilize a low-pass filter to remove any high-frequency information that does not directly contribute to the kick drum. Adjust your lowpass filter by sweeping it down and stopping at the point where you’re not losing any important information from the kick drum. Do this while also making sure all excess high-frequency bleed is filtered out.
Kick Drum Sample
If you followed the steps in Part 3, you should have a great sounding sample placed within your session. Depending on the density of the instrumental arrangement, you may need to do a little presence boost similar to the kick drum channel. Start with a medium wide shelf boost at around 5kHz and adjust from there.
No dynamic control should be necessary, so no need to use a compressor or gate.
Kick Drum Parallel
If you followed along with the bussing setup in Part 4, you should have your “KD” (recorded kick drum) and “KD-S” (kick drum sample) faders feeding into both the “KD-G” (Kick drum audio group) and “KD-P” (kick drum parallel) faders.
Adjust the level of your KD and KD-S faders to an acceptable balance. Now you’re ready to bring the KD-P fader into the mix.
Let’s add a bit of compression. We will be using a compressor or limiter with a medium attack and fast release, with a 4:1 ratio. In the analog world like to use an Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor. It really allows you to tune in exactly what you want the compressor to do. In the digital realm, I find the free (for Avid Pro Tools Users) Bomb Factory BF76 or the Waves CLA-76 more than satisfactory.
Get the compressor to cook a bit with about 5db of gain reduction. I start with the release at the fastest setting and adjust the attack control until the compressor starts to add in the element of the kick drum I am trying to accentuate (usually either length or attack).
Next, we will add some EQ to pump the sound up even further. You want to place the equalizer before the compressor in the signal chain. In the analog world, I like the Retro Instruments 2A3, which is a Pultec style equalizer with Retro’s own special line amp. It can get really aggressive sounding with larger boosts. For a plugin, I’ll go with the Waves Puig-Tec EQP-1A, which is a straight up Pultec EQP-1A emulation and sounds great.
Add a low-frequency shelf boost to bring back the body lost from the heavy compression. Start with 60Hz and boost until you “feel” the body come back into the kick drum. Now, use a wide bandwidth bell boost between 3kHz – 5kHz to increase the clarity and attack of the kick drum.
Keep in mind that the equalizer and the compressor are working as a team and should be thought of as a single unit. Changes made to your equalizer settings will affect the way the compressor reacts. When all is said and done, your compressor should be working to produce around 5db of gain reduction.
Here’s a great video from Dave Pensado detailing his version of the process.
Now blend your kick drum parallel fader with the rest of the kick drum faders. Because we already did the work of assigning them all to a VCA fader in Part 4, you can now adjust their volumes from a single fader.
The snare drum is a pretty important topic to me. When I approach a mix, the snare drum sits in the No. 2 position (right after the lead vocal) in importance. So, before we dive into my normal snare drum processing techniques, I want to make a couple notes about the general process.
Ask Yourself: “What is it going to take to get the snare drum to compete with every other element of the mix?”
Notice we didn’t ask, “What is it going to take to get the snare drum to ‘sit’ in the mix?” No, we want the snare drum to grab the listener’s attention. What is THAT going to take?
Another important thing to note is that every snare drum will have its energy focused over a slightly different frequency range, and in reality, it could be spread out over multiple frequency ranges. I’ve worked with drums that have a heavy tonality, down around 200Hz (representing the body of the snare drum), and a secondary power around 8kHz (representing the snares on the bottom of the drum). You have to acknowledge both with your processing if you plan to utilize the full power of the snare drum. The frequency where the power of the drum lies will affect the frequencies in which you choose to equalize the snare drum, as well as the compression you are able to utilize without “overcooking” it.
Snare Drum Top
In the majority of cases, it will be necessary to give the top snare drum tracks a healthy dose of high-frequency bell boost. I use 6kHz as a starting frequency, but I’ve gone down as low as 5kHz and up to 9kHz. Again, it really depends on where the snare drum’s energy is focused.
You may find the snare drum sound opens up with a 10kHz shelf boost but needs some crack to pop through the mix. If that’s the case, you can add a little medium Q bell boost at 3kHz.
With all this presence and high frequency boosting, our snare drum can sound like the body and fullness of the drum has vanished. Adding a boost around 120Hz (remember to sweep and listen) will bring that body back into the drum. You can tame any nasty low-frequency information that pops up by rolling in a high-pass filter to somewhere around 80Hz.
You will notice I am not using any subtractive equalization. Why? To me, cutting information out of the snare drum (especially mid-range information) tends to shrink the sound. So instead, we’re boosting the areas of the drum that contain the best harmonics and give the drum a commanding presence.
Depending on the tone of the drum, a compressor may or may not be needed as a direct insert on the snare track (this is actually the job of the snare parallel fader). If you do require compression, place it after any equalization. A low gain reduction ratio of 2:1 with a slowish attack and fast release tends to work best. Try not to go over 2db of gain reduction.
I think of all the different processing elements placed on any single channel as one big unit. Because of this, I like to do all my processing in a single channel strip if possible. I can then quickly switch parts of the signal in and out and quickly make adjustments like I would on my old Solid State Logic consoles. This is another reason why I love working with the Softube Console 1 interface. It contains all the elements I need for the majority of my processing and gives me a tactile control surface to get hands on with the mix.
Snare Drum Bottom
The bottom snare microphone can be a real asset to the sound of your drum mix. The goal is for the snare drum top and bottom microphone channels to feel like one complete unit.
First, in the chain, I’ll insert a compressor. I’ll go for a medium attack here, but not so fast that it cuts off the transient of the drum. A fast release time should work great. Using a gain reduction ratio between 2:1 to 4:1 should get you in the ballpark. Compared to the top microphone (where we try not to use compression at all), here, you can get the compressor working at around 3db to 4db of gain reduction. The compression will bring up the sustain of the physical snares on the bottom of the drum. This will extend the length of the snare drum a bit. More compression equals more length, so tune to taste. Again, I love the Softube Console 1 here because, on top of the wonderfully modeled Solid State Logic 4000E channel compressor, there is a control that lets me run the compressor in parallel. I can then use the “wet” knob to blend in the desired amount of compression.
After I’m happy with what the compressor is adding to the sound, I’ll insert an equalizer after the compressor in the chain. I want to grab a little of the shimmer from the physical snares with a high-frequency shelf boost at around 6kHz. If the bottom snare is brash or “honky” sounding, a slight bell dip around 2kHz can take care of that in most situations. Similarly to the top snare drum channel, a low-frequency shelf boost around 120Hz can add to the body if you need it. Because of the microphone placement, you’re going to have the kick drum show up pretty prominently with a low-frequency boost. If that low-frequency information is not in phase with the kick drum channel, you’re going to have a problem. To avoid all this mess, just use a high-pass filter rolled in at around 80Hz. Go further up the frequency spectrum if the tonality of the snare drum allows it.
Snare Drum Sample
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that we choose one or more snare drum samples that supported the voice and added to the body of the live snare drum recording. If you don’t understand what the heck I’m talking about, go back and re-read part 3.
If you followed along and have your snare drum sample or samples ready, all we need to do is add a high-frequency shelf between 6kHz – 8kHz so they can keep up with the equalization we did to the live recorded snare drum. Remember, snare drum samples are all about adding support to the live recorded snare drum, not creating a new sound. Your equalization decisions should be based on this thought process. DO NOT EQ THE SAMPLE IN SOLO! Equalize while listening to all the snare drum channels together at the same time. Only add what is needed.
If you selected the appropriate snare drum samples from the beginning you shouldn’t need any compression. If you do feel the need to compress, that is a good sign you are not working with the appropriate samples.
Snare Drum Parallel
The signal that inputs into your snare drum parallel bus should be the balance of all the snare drum audio channels together (snare drum top, snare drum bottom, and snare drum sample). Again, if you’ve followed along from the beginning of the series, the steps in part 4 should have you prepared to easily create your processing chain for a snare drum parallel bus. Sometimes I find that not sending the snare drum sample to the snare drum parallel allows the transient of the live recording to be voiced in a more powerful way. So use your ears.
Let’s throw a little slam on the snare with a compressor/limiter. I go with a medium attack (dial it down to just before the transient becomes crushed) and a fast release, with a gain reduction ration of 4:1. Allowing the compressor to give you 5db – 6db of gain reduction should get you the sound you’re going for without making the drum sound “small” (which over compression will do). In the analog world, I like the Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor or the Universal Audio 1176LN.
After the compressor, I’ll add a bit of equalization with a Pultec style equalizer. Again, just like with the kick drum parallel I use the Retro Instruments 2A3 in my studio. It has the Pultec curves that I like as well as a great sounding line amp that sounds great when driven hard. If I’m working in the digital realm I like the Waves Puig-Tec or the Native Instruments Enhanced EQ. I’ll add a bit of presence bell boost somewhere around 3kHz. I start with the bandwidth setting at 8 on the dial but sometimes work my way back as far as 5 if I want those upper midrange harmonics to really pop through.
Now blend the snare drum parallel in against the rest of the snare drum channels.
Drum Drive (Combined Kick Drum & Snare Drum Parallel Bus)
So, what in the world is a drum drive channel? Well, it is my fancy name for a mono channel that I use to add some crazy harmonic magic to the kick and snare drums. What we do is send all the kick drum and snare drum channels (at their appropriate blends) to a mono bus (or aux channel). Be careful with the level you send your kick and snare channels to the bus. Due to the nature of these instruments and their hard transient peaks, it is very easy to overload the input into the drive channel. I usually bring the send level down 6db as to not overload the bus.
What we’re going to do is insert both an equalizer and a harmonic/distortion device into the signal chain. Equalizer first then the harmonic device. We will use the equalizer to “excite” the frequencies we want to accentuate inside the harmonic device. Due to the nature of distortion, boosting high-frequency content into the front end of a distortion device doesn’t necessarily translate into an equal boost in high frequency at the output of the device. What happens more often than not is the sound of the harmonic content is shaped towards those upper frequencies and the transient becomes more compressed due to the boost in gain at those upper frequencies.
If I’ve lost you, don’t worry. All you really need to know is that the equalizer placed before the harmonic device is acting more like a general tone control rather than a precise tool. Forget about the exact settings on the equalizer (these will vary depending on the distortion device you use to add harmonic content), just focus on emphasizing the crack and presence of the kick and snare drum as a whole.
I’m usually using a medium width bell boost around 1kHz and an additional bell boost around 8kHz. But you really need to fine tune this by ear. You may even need to add a lowpass filter to reign in the upper frequencies that quickly get out of control inside the “harmonic generator.” I cut my teeth using the Solid State Logic 242 equalizer and my current favorite is the equalizer contained within the Softube Console 1 (4000E).
As for the “harmonic generator,” in the analog world, I’ll use a Thermionic Culture Vulture, Standard Audio Level-Or, or a SansAmp PSA1. It all depends on the drum and what I’m trying to accomplish. In the digital realm, I rely on the SoundToys Decapitator (it contains an emulation of the Thermionic Culture Vulture), SoundToys Devil-Loc Deluxe (emulates the original Shure Level-Loc) and the stock Avid SansAmp plugin (obviously for the SansAmp PSA1 emulation). Another free Avid plugin that is outstanding for this purpose is the Avid Lo-Fi plugin. I actually use the Avid LoFi for the drum drive channel within the Indie Rock Inc. Rock Monster Mix Template and it sounds really good! You can get a free version of the drum template containing that processing by clicking here.
How much distortion you use really depends on the unit you’re working with, which for me is dictated by the song. My go-to’s are the Thermionic Culture Vulture or SoundToys Decapitator. The sound I’m using is not supersaturated, but more like a microphone pre-amp being pushed too hard. It allows me to retain the transient and add bite to the sound at the same time. I’ll use the Standard Audio Level-Or or the Sound Toys Devil-Loc Deluxe if I want a thicker, more overdriven compressed tone. You’ll find the later boxes will add energy to the body of the drum more so than presence. And lastly, I’ll use the SansAmp when the snare drum needs to be harder in the midrange. Tom Lord-Alge taught me this a few years ago and it works well when your snare drum is having a hard time working with a huge wall of guitars.
Depending on the harmonic device you choose, and the harmonic content of your kick drum sound, you may get too much “boom” taking over your kick drum signal. To fix this, lower the level of the kick drum being feed into the drum drive channel or use a shelving cut at around 120Hz from your equalizer to reduce the low-frequency content entering the harmonic device.
Whatever route you go, it will be obvious if you’ve gotten this part right. While listening to the whole mix gradually bring up the Drum Drive Channel. It should feel like you pushed the afterburners in on a snare drum and it took off.
With our stereo tom mix cleaned and balanced, we should be able to push these tracks with equalization and light compression without any negative side effects.
Let’s start by engaging a high-pass filter and sweep up until you hear the body of the drum start to disappear. Now pull back just a bit. This will get rid of any rumble and boomy-ness. Sweep through the mid-range band and find the frequency where you can hear the “plastic” or “hollow” sound of the drum head. You’re going to find this somewhere around 500Hz. Cut that area out with a medium shallow width bell cut. Similar to the kick drum, tune the cut with your frequency and bandwidth controls so that you don’t cut too much information.
Now place a compressor after the equalizer. It will work almost like the decay setting on a drum machine. The harder you push the compressor, the longer the tom decay. We don’t want the decay to be too long because the toms will start eating up valuable space in the mix.
Start with a slow attack and sweep the knob forward until the attack of the tom pops through, but is controlled. A fast release can work great.
Start to roll in your high-frequency boost using a medium width bell boost at 5kHz as your starting place. Depending on the tom recording you can switch between shelf and bell filters and see which works best for you. Watch as the compressor starts to work and tune the equalizer and compressor to work together. Give the low end a boost using a bell filter with 60Hz as your starting place. You may find that the high-pass filter you had engaged earlier needs to be adjusted to work in harmony with your low-frequency boost.
If you have added a large low-frequency boost and you don’t feel that it is coming through the mix, this means you have gone too far. Back off the low-frequency boost and re-think your equalizer settings. In most cases, the heavy-handed low-frequency boost was working the compressor too hard. By working the compressor too hard, you remove the transient, which means your tom does not have the ability to pop through the mix and voice itself. On the other hand, if your toms lack body (containing only the attack) while listening to the mix as a whole, look to your high-frequency boost. If you pushed the high-frequency boost to hard into the compressor, it has sucked the body out of the toms.
We have an old Neve 33609 that Avedis over at Avedis Audio modified for a slower attack time. It works tremendously well on tom tracks. I use a 1:1.5 ratio and have the release time set for 100ms (the fastest setting) I set the threshold so the compressor is doing no more than 2db of gain reduction. If I’m mixing drums in the box, I’ll utilize the channel strip compressor on the Softube Console 1 or the Waves Solid State Logic 4000 with a similar setting as the Neve 33609.
If you’re having a hard time balancing the drums with your equalization boosts, try adjusting the filters of the low-frequency and high-frequency boosts between shelf and bell. You’ll find the drums will react much differently depending on the filter type being utilized.
The overhead tracks will be responsible for a LARGE part of the drum sound in the mix. Adjustments made to the overhead tracks will affect the way all the other drum tracks sound when blended together.
While a shelf boost of the low frequencies will bring out the kick drum and the body of the snare drum, I find leaving the low frequencies alone and removing the sub frequencies around 40Hz to 80Hz with a high-pass filter often works best. Of course, some overhead recordings that need a larger amount of the kick and toms in their balance can benefit from a low-frequency shelf boost. If so, try a shelf boost around 120Hz, but keep the high-pass filter engaged.
I frequently use the high-frequency shelf boost on the Softube Console 1 at around 5kHz to bring out the crack of the snare drum as well as the shimmer of the cymbals. Depending on the snare drum, the frequency may be raised. Though, I can’t think of a time where it’s been raised to over 10kHz.
I think of the snare drum as the most important part of the overhead track. If it’s not cutting through with the high-frequency shelf boost, I’ll do some more work. Specifically, I’ll use a medium width bell boost from the equalizer’s mid-band at around 3kHz. If it’s the right move, you should hear the snare drum start to push out of the mix a bit more (you are referencing the whole mix while you’re equalizing aren’t you). The harmonics should start to dance as you push the boost to the point of being harsh and then pull it back. In most cases, a mid-boost of 1db to 3db is all the track needs.
Through all of this equalization, your overhead track should never sound unnatural. Try to think of the equalizer as a “balance” control of all the elements of the drum kit captured by the overhead microphones rather than just a “frequency” control. After you’ve finished with the equalizer, take a listen to your overhead track in solo. It should have all the elements of your drum sound in perfect balance. If something sounds artificial or weird, re-visit your equalizer settings.
After you’re confident in your equalization, try adding a bit of compression. We’re going to add the compressor after the equalizer. If you recall we’re using the equalizer as a tone control, but also working to “rebalance” elements of the overhead track. And because we want the compressor to reference that corrected balance, we place the compressor after the equalizer.
In analog land, I like the Urei 1178 for this task, but if you’re working in the box the Waves CLA-76 or the free (for Pro Tools users) Bomb Factory BF76 will get you the sound. Universal Audio actually makes a stereo version of the 1176LN called the UA 2-1176, while I haven’t tried the unit, it did win a TEC Award in 2004. If anyone has one, I’d love to hear what you think about it on overheads!
I’ll use a medium attack and fast release with a 4:1 compression ratio as a starting place. Get the compressor working to take off 1db – 3db on the snare drum transients. You should have the output gain set so the compressor can be toggled in and out without a reduction to the level of the snare drum (In other words, the PEAK level should remain constant with the compressor engaged and in bypass, but as a byproduct of the compression, the RMS level will be raised). Now you can toggle the compressor in and out of bypass and see if you enjoy what the compressor brings to the table. If not, leave it in bypass.
Now on to the most misunderstood and abused group of tracks in the whole mix. Yes, if you aggressively compress your drum room microphones they go BOOM and KAPOW….. Ok, John Bonham, back to reality.
There are a few different ways you can to utilize the room microphones in the mix:
First, you can use them to “define” your drum sound, ala the famous Led Zeppelin recordings. This works when the arrangement and track count is sparse (not over 24 tracks) and the tempo is on the slower side. Why? Because there needs to be enough space in the mix for the room microphones to be loud enough to be heard, but not cause a massive amount of clutter. Also, the compressor needs time to recover. If you listen to Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” you’ll notice the drum compression seems to move in sync with the tempo of the song. Like a wave.
Secondly, you can use your room track to add ambiance, dimension, and size. Since this is the technique the majority of popular modern recordings utilize, I’ll focus on walking you through those techniques here and focus on the John Bonham sound at another time.
If you recall back in part 1, we nudged the room tracks in the timeline to reflect the size of the space we wanted our drums to be portrayed in. We will now attempt to maximize their potential with a bit of equalization and compression.
The first thing we’re going to address is the low-frequency mud that can build up in a room. It really eats up the headroom you have to work with. If left untreated, it will have a negative effect on any compression placed later in the chain. To get rid of all that useless information, dial in a high-pass filter to remove everything under 80Hz. If you really want to get detailed (which you should), solo the kick drum and the room tracks simultaneously and roll the high-pass filter in at a point where the clarity comes back in the low frequencies of the kick drum, but the body of the room ambiance is still intact.
Another positive byproduct of rolling out the ultra low frequencies from our stereo panned room channel is we can avoid sending those frequencies to the sides of the stereo spectrum. This is a good thing because low frequencies perform best in the center of the stereo spectrum, not on the sides.
The meat of your sound will be in the mid-range, so let’s start with adding a medium width bell boost around 3kHz to 6kHz. This should bring the snare drum and toms out, but leave the hi-hat, ride and crash cymbals alone. If the cymbal bleed is still distracting to the snare drum sound, you can utilize a low-pass filter to remove the upper frequencies as well. Roll the low-pass filter in until you find an agreeable compromise between the positive effect the filter has on the cymbal noise and negative effect it has on the “air” of the snare drum. I usually find this is around 10kHz. If the snare drum gets too dark, play with a high-frequency boost around 8kHz. Because there will be an interplay between the frequency bands of the equalizer, a little experimentation can go a long way. Try adjusting the boost between shelf and bell as well.
Once you have equalized the room microphones in a way that allows them to support the size of the snare drum, we can move on to compression. Insert a compressor after the equalizer in the chain. Feel free to get it to pump with a slow attack and fast release setting to around 4db of gain reduction, but avoid the temptation to smash the sound with excessive compression.
I really love the old ADR Compex limiters and recently the plugin designer Boz Digital Labs teamed up with producer David Bendeth (Paramore, Breaking Benjamin, Papa Roach) to release a plugin model. The studio recently purchased a copy and it sounds really good. In fact, the studio’s vintage Compex is in the shop and I’ve been using this in its place.
I want the compressor to work a bit to soften the attack of the transient. This goes back to the thought process of using the room microphones like a reverb. I’ll use a medium fast attack and a fast release that gets in and out very quickly. Using a ratio of 2:1 to achieve around 3db of gain reduction.
If the sound becomes “woffey”, pull back the low-frequencies with the equalizer to clear it up. Or, if your compressor has an adjustable sidechain filter, you can engage it to stop the lower frequencies from triggering the action of the compressor. The compressor will tend to darken the sound due to the fact that it is being triggered by bursts of upper mid-range information from the snare drum. Doing its job, the compressor pushes these transients down, therefore, the mid-range presence along with it. You can always add in a little extra mid-frequency boost to bring that back if you need it. Just watch the action of the compressor after the boost, as you may be pushing the gain reduction too hard.
Remember: The end goal is to get the equalizer and compressor to work as one unit.
Assuming your mono room microphone was recorded in phase with both the kick and snare drum we can proceed to use this track to fill out the center image of the drum kit. It’s always surprising to hear the amount that a properly recorded mono room microphone (complete with great transient information) can contribute to the overall drum sound.
Before we start with any processing, we need to assess the character of the track we have to work with. Is the track relatively clean sounding (with clean and strong transients) or did the engineer use heavy compression or some other form of destructive processing?
A note to all the tracking engineers out there: You don’t need to process your mono room microphone at all when you record it (maybe a high-pass filter), just get the phase relationship to work with both the kick drum and snare drum (I’m talking about microphone placement here) and record. My good drummer friend Ryan Hoyle uses a vintage AKG D19 over his shoulder that sounds excellent recorded completely flat. Once you get to the drum mixing process, you are then free to process the microphone in whatever way best suits the song.
If the track is already super compressed, try to equalize around the damage that has been done. Most likely the engineer threw a heavy limiter on it that went berserk, crushing all the kick and snare drum transients. If this is the case, pull out some low-end with a self at around 80Hz. Avoid boosting anything up top, and if possible roll in a low-pass filter to about 12kHz. Give the midrange a medium width bell boost around 2.5kHz. Hopefully, some of the transients come back out. If you take the fader down and then slowly ride it back into the mix, the kick and snare drum should take on a bit more ambiance and clarity. If the mono room channel is just adding “noise”, mute it and move on.
On the other hand, if the mono room microphone came well recorded, you have a much greater chance of making something useful out of it. I like to start by boosting the body of the track with a 50Hz medium width bell boost. I’ll then balance the low-frequency boost with a medium width bell boost at around 8kHz. This will sound a lot like the “smiley face” loudness curve on a boombox. The key is balancing the low and high-frequency boost to end up with an “enhanced” version of the original. Using a bell boost will focus the areas of boost and leave out the surrounding audio frequencies. For example, if a high-frequency shelf boost was used, you would get the crack of the snare, but also all the nasty cymbal wash. By using a bell boost we can focus on the frequency area we want to enhance. Don’t forget about adjusting the bandwidth of the filter to fine tune your equalization even further.
After we’ve got our EQ set in a way that enhances the drum sound as a whole, let’s try out some compression. Because the kick and snare transients are so important to the overall drum sound, we don’t want to add any compression that would destroy their contribution to the mix. Any “blown up” sounding compression need not apply here unless for effect purposes. What I normally end up using is a 4:1 compression ratio with a medium attack and fast release. I set it up for about 5db of gain reduction. I then toggle the compressor in and out of bypass to hear if it is having a positive or negative effect on the drum sound as a whole. Be sure that the output level of the engaged compressor is matched to the unprocessed signal. Otherwise, when you toggle the bypass in and out, you will not have a true basis for comparison.
The Empirical Labs Distressor EL8 is a favorite of mine, but if you’re working digitally, any 1176 emulation will work exceedingly well.
Hi-Hat & Ride Cymbals
Even though common practice calls for the hi-hat and ride microphones to be placed in close proximity of the actual cymbals, I don’t think of them in the same way as I would think of a snare, kick, or tom channel that utilizes the same close proximity microphone technique.
With the hi-hat and ride cymbal tracks muted, there will still be a healthy amount of their bleed in the other drums tracks. For me, that bleed makes up the majority of the sound. Because we already have that foundation, we will use the actual ride and hi-hat tracks to add some presence to put those elements in a specific location within the stereo spectrum (the pan knob will come in handy as well).
For the hi-hat, I’ll start with a high-frequency shelf boost around 6kHz. I’m looking for clarity more than brightness. I want to boost the harmonic content located in the “presence” area of the upper mid-range, not all the cymbal crispiness. I’ll roll in a highpass filter until any rumble caused by the bleed of rest of the drum kit is removed, but the snare drum remains relatively unaltered. For this to work properly the snare drum track must be in-phase with the hi-hat track. I’ll usually end up somewhere around 200Hz with the high-pass filter.
Because the majority of drummers place the ride cymbal in very close proximity to one or more crash cymbals, we’ll need to use a different equalization technique. We’re going to start with a medium-wide width bell boost around 6kHz. The bell boost will keep the high-frequency crash cymbal wash from getting out of control but will bring out the articulation in the attack of the ride cymbal. Roll in your highpass filter, but this time, you can be more aggressive. Not too aggressive that you remove the actual “note” of the ride. If you’re around 300Hz, you’re looking good.
Stereo Drum Parallel
For the final part of our drum channel processing, we’ll address the stereo drum parallel bus. This has become a sort of “cult” topic around pro audio forums and is seen by many as the fairy dust element of professional drum sounds.
Well…. Sorry to burst the bubble; the stereo drum parallel is as utilitarian and straightforward as any other part of our drum processing. There’s no magic chain (trust me, I’ve tried them all), but a little compression and equalization can go a long way.
We’re going to start with the compressor on this one. There are so many that do a great job here, both analog and digital.
In the analog world I’ve obtained great results from quite a few different compressors: Elysia MPressor (my current favorite), Empirical Labs Distressor EL8x, Solid State Logic FX384, Smart Research C2, Neve 33609, Neve 2254e, Thermionic Culture Phoenix, DBX 160, and of course the channel compressors from the Solid State Logic 4000 Series, Solid State Logic 9000 Series, and the Solid State Logic Duality. Yeah, I know, I’ve done a lot of experimenting.
In the digital realm, you have plugins that model a bunch of the analog gear mentioned above. Waves modeled the Solid State Logic FX384, Neve 2254e (V-comp), DBX 160VU, and the Solid State Logic 4000 and 9000 series channel strips. The Softube Console 1 is freaking amazing at modeling the Solid State Logic console stuff. Brianworx has a wonderful Elysia Mpressor model (this is actually what got me turned onto the analog gear). Universal Audio released models the Solid State Logic channels, Neve 33609 and DBX 160VU among others through their UAD platform…. and there’s a ton more if you keep looking.
The point is, even though I have my own favorites, any of the above (and others) will give you outstanding results if you’ve done the work to get the individual drum channels sounding great to begin with.
So, now on to actually putting the compressor to use. Throughout this series, I’ve been pretty adamant about the conservative use of compression. Well, you have a license here to explore a little further into the smashing capabilities of your gear. Just not too far! Depending on the sound I’m going for, I shoot for around 5db to 8db of gain reduction. One thing I love about the Elysia Mpressor (both plugin and analog versions) is that the unit allows you to set a maximum gain reduction amount. For instance, if the max gain reduction knob was set to 6db, no matter how low the threshold is set, the compressor will not compress more than 6db. It’s pretty useful! Using a gain reduction ratio of around 4:1 to 5:1 will do the job perfectly well. I use a fast release along with a slow attack time. Because we’re doing quite a lot of compression, the slower attack time will allow those glorious transients to come through before the compressor slams down and the fast release will allow it to be out of the way before the next transient comes. Always check your work by taking the compressor in and out of bypass. Be sure to match the input and output levels so that you have a true comparison of what the compressor is actually doing. If the transient of the snare drum gets too smashed, you will loose all the attack. This will not work for you in the mix, no matter how cool you think it sounds in solo.
After we have a satisfactory compressor setting, let’s dial in some equalization placed after the compressor. Start with a high-frequency shelf boost of 3db – 6db at 5kHz. You can balance that out with a low-frequency shelf boost at 50hz, boosting around 3db – 6db. As always, use your ears and adjust to taste. Sometimes no equalization is needed at all!
Drum Mixing Part 5 Recap:
You now have the basic building blocks of a great drum sound. Depending on the initial drum tracks you’re working with, and the drum sound you aim to obtain, you may want more or less compression or more or less equalization. I’ll leave that to your creative instincts.
Do you have a special drum mixing technique you’d like to share? Post it in the comments section, I’d love to hear it.
I know we didn’t have time to get into each and every technique ever used, and if I missed something you were looking for, I apologize.
BUT, if you leave a comment below, I’ll be sure to address your question here or possibly in a future article or video.
In the next section, we will discuss adding extras like reverb and other effects like white noise (yes, white noise) to enhance our drum sound.
Drum Mixing Part 6: Reverb and Effects
Have you ever had the problem while mixing drums where the drum reverb level feels so low in the mix you can’t even hear it working… and when you turn the reverb up a little, it floods the mix and becomes unusable? Well, you’re in luck, because in Part 6 (our final part) of this drum mixing guide we’re going to discuss all the tricks to get around this drum mixing problem, as well as some other tips to achieve drum reverb greatness.
Throughout this Rock Monster Drum Mixing post, we’ve been working hard to get all your drum tracks sounding great. Now it’s time to take them over the top. We are going to use some standard and not so standard techniques to turn your drum tracks into something really special.
It’s going to take a little work to get our drum reverb and effects to do their job without becoming overbearing. But don’t worry, we’re going to go step by step and take your drums across the finish line in style.
Before we get into the special secret sauce drum mixing techniques, let’s start with the effect everybody knows about…
Or do they?
That’s right, I’m talking about…
I use drum reverbs for two purposes in a mix.
First, I use it to put the drums in an acoustic space and second, to add some weight to the snare drum.
That’s a tall order for one reverb to do all on its own. That’s why we’ll be using multiple reverbs running in parallel with one another. In my own mix template, I have three reverbs ready to go at all times.
- Non-Linear Reverb (AMS RMX16)
- Dark Room (Bricasti M7)
- Bright Plate (Lexicon 480L)
I place an equalizer before the input of each reverb to tune the sound going into them. Because different reverbs will react differently to what’s being feed to their input, I find it necessary to be able to sculpt the sound going into each reverb individually to get the most out of it. I also send all three reverbs to an audio bus and may apply additional equalization there as well when needed.
Adding Weight To The Snare Drum
Our first task is to add weight to the snare drum. The sound we aim to accomplish is similar to that of what a compressor can do. Simply, we are using the reverb to add weight and sustain to the snare drum.
The two advantages of using a reverb over compression for this drum mixing task:
- The snare’s transient stays intact
- We can create additional “artificial” sustain that never existed in the actual recording.
When mixing drums it’s best to not limit yourself to a one or the other approach in regards to compression or reverb for extending the sustain or length of a snare drum. I find the best results are found in a tasteful combination of both for a well-rounded drum mix.
We’re now going send the snare drum to either a short Non-Linear (I prefer the AMS RMX16), Room, or Ambience algorithm. You may want to experiment with sending a snare sample to the reverb (even if you’re not using one in your mix) instead of the live snare drum recording. This will keep any washy hi-hat and cymbal bleed out of your reverb return.
If you’re short on cash, but want something incredible sounding, the Valhalla DSP VintageVerb plugin offers tremendous value and can nail the sound discussed here.
For reverb settings, I will start with:
- Pre-Delay: 20ms – 30ms
- Decay: 0.5s – 1.0s
Listen to the snare drum and tune the pre-delay, and decay so that the attack of the snare drum does not get washed out, but the length is extended in a way that adds body. Pre-delay is not often required due to the small size and short decay time of the reverb. Experimenting with longer pre-delay times (60+ ms) will allow you to create something that resembles a slap delay for a special effect.
Once you have the time factors (pre-delay and decay) working to add body while retaining the transient attack of the snare drum, it’s time to start working the pre-reverb effect equalizer settings.
I will start by using the equalizer high-pass filter or low-frequency shelf to remove just about everything below 300 Hz. You don’t want any of that low-frequency rumble affecting your headroom. It would just get washed out in the mix anyway. I will roll off the extreme high-frequencies as well with a low-pass filter. Start with a setting of around 8 kHz and move down to taste. Also, try boosting the presence frequencies to give the reverb a little life. This allows the reverb to do its job in the mix without being all “hey, look here, I added a bunch of reverb to my snare drum!” If there is any “honkiness” in the mid-range frequencies, I will go in with a bell cut and take care of it.
Now that we have added some sustain and body to the snare drum, let’s put the drum kit into an acoustic space that matches both the drum kit and the song. I prepare my mix template so I am able to easily send any combination of the snare drum, snare samples, overhead microphones, and room microphones to this drum reverb. This makes is quick and easy to compare and build the sound in I like. I also keep a few different reverbs available for this task. Typically a combination of the Lexicon 480L “Plate” and a Bricasti M7 “Room” will work great for a modern style of production. I keep a vintage plate sound ready for the vintage style rock stuff. For you, “in the box” mixers, I can recommend the Relab LX480 and the free Bricasti M7 impulse responses that are floating around the web, as well as the various Audioease Altiverb plates and the new Waves Abbey Road Reverb Plates which sound great. If you’re working in Pro Tools, Logic Pro X, or Cubase, you can download my free drum template which uses the free plugins bundled with Pro Tools, Logic Pro X, and Cubase to recreate all these sounds.
Next, we’re going to put the drums in an acoustic space.
Note: This longer reverb may be unnecessary in a song with a faster tempo and dense arrangement, so proceed with caution. You wouldn’t want to wash out your mix.
We’re going to use a longer decay time with this reverb. I adjust the decay time depending on the algorithm type and tonality of the reverb, along with the tempo of the song and the style in which the drummer is playing. Typical decay times range from 0.8 seconds to 1.2 seconds.
Similar to the shorter reverb we added previously to the snare drum, we will adjust the pre-delay time on this longer reverb so that the initial transient comes through. However, the drums still feel like they are in the same room together. Adding extra pre-delay can make the drums sound like they’re breathing, almost like you’ve squashed them with a compressor in a distant space. Not super useful, but still fun! After setting the reverb pre-delay time, you may need to shorten your decay time due to the length and separation added by the pre-delay.
On a busy mix, it may be beneficial to use mono reverbs to keep the focus of the drums and not bury other elements of the mix with your drum reverb.
If you are looking for that special 1985 snare drum sound, you can increase the decay time and insert a gate after the reverb that is triggered to open by the snare drum. This will cut off the extra reverb decay but keep the huge reverb explosion.
Secret Drum Mixing Tricks
There’s an opportunity to add more than just the standard reverb effects your drum mixing arsenal. Below are some of the lesser-known tricks that I employ on a regular basis in my drum mixes.
Specialty Tricks: These last few tips won’t be appropriate for every song, but sometimes they can be just what is needed to bring your mix to the next level.
Distortion For Clarity…. What?
I know we talked about this earlier inside the drum drive section, but I really want to drive this home because it can be such an amazing trick in a dense mix. I have played with it on a variety of drum channels, but snare drum is where the distortion really shines the brightest. Similar to the way we use samples to fill in any missing tonality of the snare drum, we can use distortion (in parallel) to add additional harmonics, aggression, life, and clarity inside a busy mix.
To start, create a new aux track. Insert a distortion plugin like the Bomb Factory Sans-amp, Sound Toys Decapitator, or really just about any other distortion plugin. Insert an equalizer before the distortion. You can now tune the frequencies the distortion is processing by adjusting the equalizer.
Send your snare drum over to the distortion channel and bring up the gain. If there are tone controls on your distortion plug-in, go ahead and experiment with them to try and complement the original snare drum sound as much as possible.
Experiment with using the equalizer to boost mid-range and upper frequencies with a medium width bell boost. Don’t forget to experiment with sending the distortion channel to your reverbs to get more dramatic effects.
Sine Wave Kick Drum Mixing Trick:
Sometimes you just need that huge low end from a kick drum to punch through the track, but every time you add more low-frequency equalization, the track turns into a mess. This is where a triggered “sub” oscillator can be handy. My definition of a “sub” oscillator in this context is basically an oscillator set to produce a sine wave of around 60Hz.
Setup is very simple, just create a new mono aux track and place any old oscillator on the first insert. Now insert a gate after the oscillator. Assign your kick drum (pre-fader) as the gate plugin’s key input source.
Tip: Mute the aux channel before you add the oscillator or you will have a very loud noise blasting out of your speakers (possibly destroying them and your ears in the process)
Now, play the track back and tune the gate’s release time to get the decay of the oscillator to match that of the kick drum. Once you have the decay/release time set, you can adjust the frequency of the oscillator for the desired result. Presto, you have a monster kick drum sound!
I find it works best when the oscillator is tuned to sit “inside” the kick drum where they sound like they are one in the same.
White Noise Snare Drum Mixing Trick:
White noise can be used to enhance the high frequencies and width of the snare drum. To utilize this technique you are going to create a new mono aux track and once again place an oscillator as the first insert. Set the oscillator to produce white noise. Now place a gate directly after the oscillator and send the snare drum (pre-fader) to the key input. Your snare drum should now be opening the gate each time it strikes and a burst of high-frequency noise should be coming through the speakers. Just like with the “sub” oscillator trick, you will want to tune the hold and release times to compliment the natural snare drum sound.
You can make the white noise play nicer with the snare drum by placing an equalizer directly after the gate. I like to lift the upper frequencies around 10 kHz to really get the air going. Depending on the sound, a lower boost of 3kHz – 6kHz can add some great presence.
After you have a nice balanced sound, experiment with placing a stereo harmonizer after the gate to add a perceived width and then send it to the same reverb you are using for the snare. I find room reverb sounds work better for placing the white noise in the same space as the actual drums.
Detuned Snare Drum Mixing Trick:
Our last drum mixing trick utilizes pitch shift to add thickness to the drums. I will try pitch shifting with the snare drum (in parallel) and with the room microphone channels (in series) when I’m looking to add more weight to the drums. Both these tricks work best on slower tempo songs with a straight ahead drum performance. Any fast 16th note drum fills will ruin the effect.
Let’s start with the snare drum process. This trick was used to produce the thick snare drum sound on the infamous AC/DC album Back In Black, produced by Mutt Lange.
First, create a mono aux track. Place a pitch plugin (I prefer the Eventide 910 Harmonizer Plugin) on the aux track’s insert and drop it six semitones. Place an equalizer directly after the pitch plugin. Now send your snare drum (pre-fader) in parallel into the input of the aux channel. Ride the aux channel up alongside your snare drum and listen as you add about 1000 pounds to the snare sound! There should be some serious weight there now. Use the equalizer you placed after the pitch plugin to sculpt the tone of the pitched down snare drum to fit in with the rest of the snare drum tracks.
After you obtain your desired blend, group the new aux channel with the rest of the snare drum channels in your previously created Snare VCA Fader so the volume will ride up and down together as one.
Detuned Drum Room Trick:
The next drum mixing trick you can accomplish with a pitch shifter is with the room microphones. Just drop a pitch shit plugin on your drum room channel insert. I go for the Eventide H3000 Factory here for a more stable pitch effect. Slowly use the pitch control to drop the pitch of the room microphones until they make the drum kit feel like it just sunk a little into the foundation of the room it was recorded in. You can also try this on the drum reverb return.
Drum Mixing Part 6 Recap:
You now have some pretty advanced drum mixing tactics for adding reverb to your drum sounds. We also discussed some unorthodox drum mixing tricks and techniques that have the ability to make your drum tracks into something extremely special and unique. Try these techniques on your own tracks and be sure to let me know how they turn out by leaving a comment below!
Drum Mixing Conclusion: Putting The Drum Mixing Pieces All Together
Congratulations! I know this was a lengthy post, but you are now ready to unleash monster drum sounds onto the world!
Your drum mix has a strong foundation of proper phase relationships and samples that fill in the missing pieces in the overall drum sound. You’ve created an easy to organize session by blending your multi-microphone sources to single aux channels and utilizing track groups and VCA faders to control all your drum channels with only three faders. You have advanced drum equalization and compression techniques to add power and punch to your drum sound and all the secret reverb and effect tricks I use to takes my drum mixes above and beyond.
How would like a free template that contains all of these processing tricks setup and ready to work for your drum mixing efforts? Well, for a limited time you can have it! Fill in your information below and get started today.