Lesson 61

Mixing Drums

Drums are one of the most challenging instruments to mix, due to bleed into the mics, and phase anomalies. with skill you can use the same drum recording to get a variety of different sounds and musical styles, and with sample replacing you can reduce bleed and phase issues, and clean up poorly recorded parts

First, when recording drums, I like to record a shot on each drum, one at a time. This is for later when I’m mixing, I can time align, or phase align each part to match the overheads. Now let’s zoom right in to the wave form. If you recall from lesson 1.3.2 where we explain phase, this step will minimize phase issues, and therefore it will sound better.
Usually when I’m done mixing the drums, about 50%, maybe even more, of the overall sound comes from the overheads, and the other 50% from the spot mics. My goal is for the overheads to define the sound, and the spot mics to complement it, while adding a level of control to that individual part. 

I like to start with the kick drum, because its usually the single loudest part of a song. I wish I could just say... ok.. here’s how you mix a kick drum, but honestly, it depends on the sound of the kick recording, and how it fits with the rest of the song.

As we learned in lesson 4.3, using eq, we can only really have one really low frequency at a time. Since both kick drum, and the bass part occupy this area, they fight each other for space, and we need to make room for both of them to co exist without killing each other.

There’s a few ways of doing this. One common technique is to use a compressor on the bass side chained to the kick. Check out lesson 4.15 on side chaining if you don’t know what that is. So you will adjust the compressor on the bass so it lowers the volume of the bass by 5-10 dB when the kick drum hits. Use fast attack/release settings. Here’s how it looks in action, and here’s how it sounds. If I mute the kick, but still have the compressor kicking in, you can hear the bass part pumping out when the kick would have been there, but when the kick is added in, you can’t hear the bass’ volume throbbing anymore, it sounds natural and it gives the kick a little more punch.

Another consideration when balancing the kick with the bass is to place the kick up, bass down, kick down bass up, or put them both in the same spot. This depends on the style of music, and the feel you are aiming to achieve. To deliberately mix them out of the way of each other can also help prevent them from interfering each other.

Another common technique to give a kick more punch is to use a compressor on it. This needs to be done with finesse or else you could just end up making it sound sloppy. Let’s see how it sounds as I dial in some compression. If you are using a sampled kick drum, adding compression might not have the desired effect, because the samples have often already been processed with compression to make them as punchy as possible.

A kick can be eq’d in a variety of different ways, to suit the style of music, but it should still sound like a kick. You want it to have have a full sound with lows, mids and even a bit of highs. There should be a bit of a click, that gives the kick more punch and presence. You can certainly EQ to taste, and to suit the style of music, however, you probably don’t want to remove too much of a certain frequency range, or it won’t sound like a kick drum anymore. A common mistake is to remove too much of the high frequencies, and and the kick sounds woofy. Try to imagine what you want your kick to sound like, or find a song that has a kick sound which you are trying to achieve, and work at it until you get the sound you want.

One thing that I will do quite often is dip out a bit of the lower mids with a bell EQ, like from about 100 hz up to about 300 hz, centres at about 200hz. I do this because that’s the mid range, and I take as much out as I can on a lot of parts in that range. 
If you are on a crusade to make the kick as absolutely punchy as possible, here’s a couple things that can help.
1st- try a plugin that allows control of transients. Here, I have transient control by Metric Halo. This plugin analyses the income waveform and makes the attacks and releases steeper, and more sudden.
And if all else fails, and you still need a snappier kick, you can do this. 
Make a copy of the kick track and copy it into a new track. Now, you have 2 kick tracks that are identical. Put a low cut filter on the top track, around 70 or 80 hz, and a low pass filter on the bottom track, also around 70 or 80 hz. Now, you’ve separated the kick so you can control the low bass separate from the rest of it. When you play back both tracks together, it should sound the same as the original kick. But, here’s what we do to get that snap. We’re gonna work on the low bass track by itself. Go ahead and add compression to taste, and some transient plugin too if you want. Once it’s about as snappy as you can get it... here’s the magic trick.... drag the track ahead in the timeline by about 10-20 milliseconds. It’s a bit tricky to get just the right amount...use your ears, and use your eyes to compare where it is in reference to the other kick track that you didn’t move.
And of course, you can sample replace the kick, and do the same thing of separating the kick into 2 tracks, one for the main sound, and one for the lows. Use the original recording for the main track, and use the sample replaced sound for the low’s... same idea. 

Alright, let’s check out the snare. First of all... low cut filter at about 100 hz. Always. Then, let’s take a listen. There’s 4 things I’m listing for. The treble, which gives it crack, the mids which give it body, the attack which gives it punch, and the trail off which gives it depth.

It doesn’t hurt to play with the EQ’s settings while it’s soloed, so that you can get a clearer mental image of the desired sound, as long as you know these EQ settings will change in the mix in order to maintain that desired sound. Remember, the close mic sound is meant to complement the overheads.
Let’s try some drastic adjustments, and cut the bass and boost the treble. Ok.... that sounds thin. Let’s do the opposite and crank up the mids...ok, that’s got some body, but for this song it’s not the sound we want. Let’s work on getting a nice balance... there we go, I like that. Now, let’s put a compressor on it. That’s going to make the attack snappier. This is a little tricky to get the settings right, and it’s easy to wreck the sound of the snare if you get it wrong, so be subtle. Another tool that can help with this is a plugin that allows you to modify transients. Here I have transient control by Metric Halo. 
Now let’s look at the trail off. Using this, you can make the snare sound big, or small. You can use a transient plugin, short delay, reverb and sample replacing. Now let’s play with these effects to see how we can make this snare last a little longer.

Something I like to do sometimes to add vibe to a song is to put 1/4 note delay on the snare. Try it on an upbeat song.

Now let’s take a look at the toms. I usually don’t do too much with these, other than low cut filter around 100 hz on the low Tom, and around 200 on the high tom. I also like to gate the toms, because most songs have long breaks without any toms, then they get a few whacks, then a long break again. I want to eliminate the Tom mic bleed when they’re not being played. The rest of the settings are basically done to taste within the mix, and they’re usually subtle. 

And finally the overheads. As with many parts, low cut filter around 200 hz. I like a litttle compression to soften the hits, and bring out the resonance. and a little reverb. Nothing fancy here, I want them to sound as natural as possible. 

Now that all the individual parts have been tweaked to our liking, here’s how the whole kit sounds, and here it is in the mix.
Wham bam... that’s how I mix drums!