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How To Mix Drums and get a Killer Drum Sound - Part 2
Gavin Hardcastle - April 2011
This is the second article in a two part series of detailed articles focusing on how to get the best possible drum sound during recording and mixing of your drum tracks. For part one click here.
This article focuses on how to process and mix your multitrack recorded drum tracks. To make this easier to follow I've put together a small download pack for you to load into your DAW and try the methods illustrated in this article. It doesn't matter which DAW you use as the same principals apply regardless of your software.
I'm going to show you how I acheived our top notch live drum sound while recording and mixing our best selling Soul Drum Loops sample packs. I'd like you to listen to the same take before and after mixing. Hear any differences?
You'd be forgiven for thinking that the 'Before Mixing' take has a 'make it sound like crap' plugin applied to it, but you'd be wrong. This take is the clean and raw unprocessed mix with no EQ or compression. Amazing what a little bit of tweaking can do isn't it? Let me explain how I acheived this huge 'After Mixing' sound. To see my exact channel strip settings download the Channel strip image files above.
Step 1 - Set your playback mix levels.
Assuming that you've already spent plenty of time making sure that the recording levels were nice and loud but also as clean as possible, we'll proceed as if you've laid down 8 tracks of audio using a multitrack audio interface.
Download, unzip and then import the WAVE files included in our download example. You can load these into your DAW in whatever order you like but it makes sense to group them together neatly. I tend to record and mix live drums in this configuration if I only have two toms:
Track 1 - Kick Drum
Track 2 - Snare
Track 3 - Under Snare
Track 4 - Mid Tom
Track 5 - Low Tom
Track 6 - Hi-Hat
Track 7 - Overhead Left
Track 8 - Overhead Right
This configuration should suite most uses but is only a suggestion. If you use this setup to import our demo files this should work well in any DAW. In your mixer window adjust the playback levels for each track so that each part of the kit sits nicely in the mix. You don't want any one part of the kit to take over the mix.
Step 2 - Set your pan positions
Since stereo panning became an option on mixing consoles back in the stone age, mixing engineers have been playing around with the pan settings for every part of the mix. There are no rules, do whatever you think sounds coolest. George Martin used to pan the drum tracks from The Beatles into one side of the stereo mix. While that was cool back in the early days of stereo, these days it can sound a little feeble, especially when you can use that stereo soundscape to make your drums sound so HUGE.
What I like to do is get as natural a stereo effect as possible but I'll usually pan the toms hard left to right simply because this sounds really cool when a drummer works his way across the toms during a fill. It's not original but it still sounds good.
I'll often pan my hi-hat about 30% to the left and pan the overheads fairly wide and equal, not full hard left and right but about three quarters of the way there.
I like my kick and snare always to be central as these are the main foundations of your groove and need to have maximum punch in the mix but remember, there are no rules.
Step 3 - Using Noise Gates
In case you don't already know, noise gates are typically used to filter out sounds that fall below a certain volume level. Gates can be very useful when processing live drums as they can limit the amount of mic spill from other parts of the kit. For example, tom mics always pick up the snare drum, so by adding a fairly aggressive noise gate you can mute the track at all times except for when the drummer hits the tom. At that point the gate will open and allow the tom track to be heard. It will then close again when the track falls below a certain volume (when the tom is not being hit).
Step 4 - Using EQ
You may have heard production snobs say that using EQ on drums should not be necessary. That's all well and good if you have the best sound recording equipment that money can buy but in the real world EQ can make the difference between an average sounding mix and an excellent sounding mix.
In addition to this you may sometimes want a drum sound that isn't entirely 'natural' so EQ (equalization) can come in really handy. For example, if you're recording some death metal drums and you need a really clicky kick drum you'll find that most of the lower mid range frequencies of your kick drum are useless. By adding some presence in the 3kHz region you'll bring out the clicky attack of the kick drum which will help the kick to come forward when mixed with distorted guitars. It really depends on what type of drum sound you are trying to achieve.
For this example we are trying to achieve an authentic Soul drum sound with a big natural tone with lots of room ambience and not too much eq on the toms. We want a natural sounding kit that has that large room vibe which gives us a sense of grandeur.
When I started putting this article together my plan was to write down each frequency setting that I used for each part of the kit. This resulted in me losing the will to live so I decided it would be easier and more useful for you if I simply provided screen grabs of my channel strip settings which give you a clear visual display of what I did to each track. I work in Ableton but the settings used for EQ, gate and compression should be pretty universal.
Click here to download the channel strip settings that I used for this drum mix.
Step 5 - Compression
I'll often use EQ first and then apply compression is this seems to be the more widely accepted practice however in reality I've found that I can get really good results regardless of which order I use these two vital tools. The most important thing when using compression is not to overdo it (unless that's the sound your after).
The best advice I can offer when applying compresson or EQ is to constantly A/B your track. By that I mean always compare the raw track to the processed track by periodically switching off your processing. If it sounds better raw, you've clearly overcooked your processing.
Step 6 - A/B comping while in 'The Mix'
Much like A/B comping of a processed channel you should also do the same thing when your track is in the mix. Switch the channel processing on and off while listening to the entire drum mix as well as when in solo mode. This gives you a clear idea how well your processing works in terms of the overall kit.
For example, in the channel strip images I provided with this article you'll see that the hi-hat track has a massive bass boost in the 264 kHz region which is normally the exact opposite of what I would do to a hat track. Usually I would filter out as much bass as possible on the hi-hat track but the type of sound I'm after for this session called for a loose and live kit sound and I did'nt want to 'close mic' the hi-hat.
When micing the hi-hat for this session I placed the mic about a foot away from the hat which ofcourse results in a lot of bleed from the rest of the kit. By boosting the bass frequencies I found that the hi-hat mic picked up a really good overal kit sound which rivalled the over head mics. This is great but now you've got to keep an eye on your panning, pan that hat too far left and the snare bleed will make the snare too wide and less centre focused.
My Secret Weapon
I really can't believe I'm telling you this. I might just put myself out of business here but my secret weapon when it comes to mixing anything (especially drums), is the D82 Sonic Maximizer plugin by Nomad Factory. A word of warning however, with great power comes great responsibility. Use it sparingly and keep an eye on the red line.
Add this baby to snare drums and they will POP like you wouldn't believe.
There are a few other plugins out there which do a similar thing but this plugin stays very true to the hardware version and gives me instant results as you can hear on the finished 'After Mixing' version at the top of this page.
Final Mix Compression
The final step when you've fixed your levels, pan, EQ and compression is to cement the entire drum mix with and nice compressor/limiter on your drum sub mix. Don't confuse this with mastering. This is simply a mild compression that your going to add to your drum sub mix. By that I mean you can route each drum track to a stereo pair of faders in your mixer and then add compresson to that stereo sub mix. If you want to get really posh you could add a multi-band compressor to really even out the sound. Try it out with some guitars and bass added to your mix to see if the drums need any further processing.
There you go, that's pretty much how we do it hear at Silicon Beats. I personally really enjoy recording and mixing drums because it's a very creative process. You get out what you put in and if you spend the time getting things right at the source you'll be amazed at the final results. There's nothign quite like hearing that polished drum mix thundering out of the studio speakers cranked to all the way to eleven at 3 o'clock in the morning, OOF.
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