Drums are the foundation of a song, and one of the easiest ways to tell a professional mix from an amateur one.
There are four important elements to master when it comes to mixing drums: balance, aux, snare and kick. I’ll be covering these four elements in this article today.
But before I go into more detail – and before you apply these techniques yourself – you need to organize your tracks first.
If you have multiple kick or snare overhead mics, you need to route each to their own instrument bus. Otherwise, each mic will have to be mixed separately which not only takes up processing power but time too.
Getting the volume balance right is a crucial first step.
First, solo your drum bus and turn all your mics all the way down, then bring up the most important elements individually. The most important elements to your song will be up to you, but they will usually be the kick or the snare.
Then gradually bring in everything else. Balance each drum together until the whole drum set sounds natural.
Once the drum set is balanced, you need to balance the drums with the rest of the mix. Unsolo your drum bus, turn the volume all the way down and slowly mix it in.
A handy tip is to make sure you’re doing this during the loudest part of the song. Drums balanced in an aggressive section are more likely to be balanced in the rest of the song too.
Next, focus on the aux track that you’ve routed your drum bus to.
Aux EQ: Reference tracks not only make your mixes sound more professional, consistent, and balanced but also ensure they sound good in all types of speakers.
If you haven’t been using reference tracks throughout your mix, then take some time to pick a few. Select songs that have the ‘sound’ you need for your mix.
Then, once you’ve picked them (and matched their volume to the volume of your mix), listen to their drums and pay attention to the tone, low end, and compression. Then, listen to your own drum set and see if you can spot any major differences.
This is where the EQ will come in. Feel free to make any broad cuts or boosts that you find necessary.
This may seem pretty obvious, but really listen when using reference tracks. The more you use them, the more you’ll be able to tell what’s sounding off in your kit, rather than your references.
Aux Compression: Adding some compression will help your drums sound more defined and controlled.
Ideally, use a compressor that has a mix knob. This lets you mix in the compressed sound with the original sound.
If you’re using a compression plug-in without a mix knob, then parallel compression will do. Set up a send on the drum bus and add your compressor to that new aux track.
You can mix it into the original sound once the compression sounds the way you want.
Aux Saturation: Finally, it may be worth adding a little saturation to your drum bus. Of course, it all depends on what sound you’re going for, but some saturation could bring out a little extra brightness or warmth.
To hear the sound of the saturation, turn the drive all the way up. Then, dial in the tone knob so you can get the sound you’re looking for, before turning the drive down until you find the right amount of aggression.
There are a couple of things to consider when it comes to snare. Where does it need to go? And does it need to be brighter, or warmer, or punchier?
What you decide will affect what processing you choose. Make sure to listen to the references again, and compare their snares to yours. Once you’ve identified any issues, you can go about fixing them.
Snare EQ: Firstly, turn up the volume of the snare. You want to be able to hear enough detail of the snare without taking it out of the context of the mix.
I recommend adding a gain plug-in at the end of your plug-in chain and turning up the volume by 5dB.
Once you’re done mixing the snare, you can bypass this plug-in.
After the gain plug-in is on, you can use a high pass filter on your EQ to cut out any unnecessary low end. Once your filter is set up, remember to leave space for other instruments like the guitars or the vocals.
Snare Compression: Now that the tone is shaped, it’s time for compression.
For a more aggressive sound, try using 5-19dB of gain reduction with a high ratio.
Meanwhile, for attack time, consider if you want the snare to sound punchy or thick. For a thicker sound go with a fast attack time, and for a punchier sound go for a medium or slow attack time.
You can use your regular compression settings to achieve this.
The kick drum is the foundation of the drumset and needs to be treated with care when mixing. The key to mixing the kick drum is balancing it with the bass.
The two low-end instruments in most songs are the kick and the bass. If not treated with care, they do not complement each other at all.
Before you focus on the tone of the kick drum, you need to get your low-end to sit better.
Pocket EQ: Firstly, you’ll need to create a pocket for the kick to go, and also consider what’s covering the low-end in your song. Is it the kick or the bass? Generally, for rock or metal, it’s the bass, and for pop or EDM songs it’s the kick.
Kick EQ: To clean up the sub-bass, I recommend using a high-pass filter. You may be confused at this point. Why would I filter the low-end on my main low-end instrument?
Well, unless the kick is an electronic sample it’s probably not particularly useful in the deep sub-bass. It’s just rumble and room noise that could muddy the mix.
Turn on the filter and slowly move it up until the ‘thump’ becomes dull, then back off a little bit.
Kick Compression: Low-end instruments are often heavily compressed. A consistent low-end is crucial for a professional-level mix.
Like with the snare, opt for a fast attack time for a thicker sound, and a medium/slow attack time for a punchier sound.