Mixing Drums – 6 Tips for Getting a Solid Foundation Sound

While I write this, I’m browsing Spotify for different drum sounds. Take the new Lamb of God album, You Got Me from The Roots and Get Lucky by Daft Punk. All of them feature incredible drum mixes and all of them have a completely different sound. This alone makes it pretty clear that this blog could never provide a one-size-fits-all manual to mixing drums. What it can do is offer a few tips and techniques to help you lay down a good and solid drum sound that can work as a foundation for your unique mix.

#1. How Many Microphones Do You Need to Mike-Up the Drums?

Most of the time, you’ll be recording the drum kit using multiple microphones. In this blog, I’ll stick to the standard setup of a pair of stereo overhead microphones for capturing the total image of the drums coupled with a few close mics for the individual drums to give the recording the extra power it needs. The more microphones you use, the more work you might have to do to balance all of the tracks and make sure that the sound of one microphone isn’t getting in the way of another. Find out more about recording a full drum kit in our other blog, Recording Drums: A Specialised Skill.

#2. Check the Phase

Because you’re usually recording the drums with multiple microphones, you’ll often get phase issues, which you can find out more about in this blog. It’s important to isolate and solve any possible phase issues as early in the recording process as possible, because phase simply can’t be fixed using equalizers and compressors later. When looking for any phase and correcting it, it’s best to start with the overheads, since they capture the total sound of the kit.

  • Start by isolating the overheads.
  • Then push up the fader for the bass drum track so that the kick is a little bit louder. Now, invert the bass drum track via the phase switch. Some DAWs have a phase switch on every channel as standard, otherwise, there’ll always be a plugin you can use. Does the bass drum sound more full as soon as you hit the phase switch? Then leave it like that. Otherwise switch the phase switch off again.
  • Now, push the fader for the snare drum track up a touch and repeat the process. If you’ve set up a microphone underneath the snare drum to capture the snare wires, you can be almost certain that the phase will need to be inverted, since the bottom microphone is usually rotated by around 180° in relation to the upper microphone.
  • Finally, repeat the same steps that you went through for the kick and snare for the toms.

#3. Gate: Add Some Flavour

As well as the drums they’re actually pointed at, the close-microphones also pick up the sound of the rest of the kit (the technical term for this phenomenon is ‘crosstalk’), which can also lead to phase problems. Also, the cymbals can have a really ‘trashy’ sound because they’re not only picked up by the overheads, but the dynamic snare and tom microphones. With the help of a gate, most of this crosstalk can be removed from the recording.

  • Set the threshold of the gate so that the strikes of the drum you’re working on rise above it but the rest don’t.
  • Make the attack as short as possible. This will ensure that none of the punch of your drum sound is lost.
  • Now you can set the release time to determine how long the drum strike is sustained for.

It can be a bit tricky to set up a gate, especially when working on the snare drum, and if you don’t watch out, you can end up getting rid of all the little ghost notes the drummer has played in. It’s also worth remembering that you won’t always need to use a gate. If there’s no problem, then there’s nothing to solve, right? Above all, a little bit of crosstalk in your drum sound can really help pack everything with character.

#4. The Role of Your Overheads

Overheads are microphones that are literally set up ‘over the head’ of the drummer and drum kit. Most of the time, this will be a stereo pair set up to capture the total sound of the kit. The role that your overheads will play in the final mix will differ depending on the genre.

  • In acoustic jazz, the drum sound is almost entirely made up of the overheads. The kick drum, snare and toms are (at most) only exaggerated a tiny bit by close-mics. This gives the drums a really natural sound, where the space in which the drum kit was recorded has a really big influence over the feel.
  • In metal, the approach is completely different. Here, the overheads are used almost exclusively to capture the cymbals. All of the low and mid-range frequencies are filtered out, leaving the higher frequencies of the crashes, the ride, the chinas and the hi-hat. The sound of the kick drum, snare and toms is determined by the close-mics and later, might even be replaced by samples. We’ll talk more about this method in a bit. The aim here is maximum control, simply because this level of control is needed to create a real ‘in-your-face’ drum sound.

Of course, acoustic jazz and metal are two very different extremes. Before you even start, it’s well worth taking the time to figure out what kind of drum sound you want: whether you want to keep things really natural or really sharp and processed, or get something that sits somewhere in between.

#5. Compression & BUS Compression

Using compression, you can make the drums sound more consistent so they sit perfectly in the mix at every given moment, since the job of a compressor is basically to reduce the volume differences between quieter and louder parts. Here, we’ll look at both extremes again.

Jazz drummers usually have a really dynamic and expressive approach to playing, so you need to avoid obliterating all of that nuance. When it comes to metal, the aim is to literally make the drums sound like a machine, so a little heavy-handed compression is actually necessary. You can also use compression to emphasise the dynamic transition of the strikes. So a slow attack can give the strike more punch, while a fast release will give the strike a longer sustain. This means that, even if you’re recording a drummer who plays really consistently, a compressor can still add something.

It can also be really useful to send all of the drum tracks to a bus and then apply the compressor there. Essentially, this has a different effect than applying compression to every individual track since it’s going to respond to every bit of the kit and apply compression to everything all at once. Here, the kick drum will have an effect on the sound of the cymbals, giving the kit a more whole and cohesive sound. This approach to compression is also referred to as the ‘glue’. For more on mixing using buses, see our dedicated blog on the subject.

#6. Samples

In a lot of modern music, the drums are often thickened up with samples. With almost every DAW under the sun you’ll be able to place a kick, snare or tom on a MIDI track. Then, your DAW will recognise the peaks and can place a MIDI note at every one of those peaks. This way, you can do things like add a bass drum sample on top of every bass drum strike, essentially doubling it – or even replacing it. If you do this, make sure to use samples that really add something. If your original kick drum sound lacks a sub-layer, then you could add a kick sound that has it in spades, like a TR 808-kick. And, to make absolutely sure that your DAW is only generating MIDI notes from the drum track you want, I really recommend cleaning up the original track with a little gate, as mentioned above.

See also…

» DAW Software
» Effect Plugins
» Instrument Plugins
» Drum Microphone Sets
» Overhead Microphones
» Snare & Tom Microphones
» Bass Drum Microphones
» Overhead Microphone Stands
» Instrument Microphone Stands
» Drum Microphone Clips
» Drum Shields
» XLR Cables
» Audio Interfaces
» Mixers
» All Drum Gear
» All Studio & Recording Gear

» Recording Drums: A Specialised Skill
» Studio Subwoofers – The What & Why
» Should You Mix with Headphones?
» 5 Ways to Make Your Mix Sound Louder
» How to Prevent or Fix Phase Issues in the Studio
» What is an Equaliser and What Is It Used For?
» Mixing Flawless Vocals in 5 Steps
» Mixing with the Mix Bus
» Get the Best Out of Your Studio Monitors with Absorbers & Diffusers
» Mixing with Inserts & AUX Sends
» DIY Mastering: 5 Tips for Better Results
» The Finer Points of Studio Monitor Placement

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