The drums are the foundation of a great mix. You can be adventurous with the guitars, making them sound off the wall and unnatural, but if the drum sound strays too far off the path of punchiness, you'll end up with a lackluster mix.
There are certain things that need to be present in a great drum mix, and similarly, certain things that need to be taken out. With a few simple tricks that I swear by I'll teach you to get a tight and punchy drum sound. Anytime you start mixing drums you can try these tricks to instantly make your drums sound better.
Given that we know how to mix levels and pan the drums, there are really only three things you need for a great drum sound: EQ, compression and reverb, but the ways that you use these three processors is what shapes your drum sound.
Trick 1 – Steady with Compression
Problem: Drummers don't hit the drums equally hard. But the listener wants consistency in the drum sound. Solution: Using compression to steady each hit so that every drum hit is more or less at the same volume.
A good starting point on most drums is a compressor that's compressing just a few dBs, with a medium attack and a release in time with the song. Start with a ratio of 4:1, you still want some dynamics but you also want consistency in the hits.
- Kick Drums – In rock and pop you want real consistency in your kick drum. I recommend a starting ratio of around 6:1.
- Thundering Toms - Heavy tom hits can benefit from a higher ratio, especially if you let the initial attack through with a medium attack.
Also, using different compression models can result in different sounds. Switching between a slow optical compressor and a fast VCA model can make a lot of difference to the overall sound of the drum. If you have different compression plug-ins, take them all for a spin and see which one you like the most. One isn't necessarily better than the other, they just sound different.
Trick 2 – Clean Up with EQ
There are three simple steps to EQing a great drum sound.
- Step 1 – Cut the mids
- Step 2 – Boost the lows for power
- Step 3 – Boost the high-mids for point
Drums can sound inherently boxy. Annoyingly even. And those boxy frequencies reside in the mids, around 400 Hz or so. Maybe a little lower, maybe a little higher. But if you boost the mids, scan the spectrum and cut when the boxiness pops out, you've immediately made your drums sound better. Just by cutting the mids you've subjectively boosted the lows and highs, since the spectrum now looks like it has more lows and highs than it does mids.
If you still need extra power or point to the drum, keep following the steps. Point is what's sometimes called attack on toms, click on bass drum or crack on snare. It's the high-end of the drum that compliments the low-end power of the drum.
- Kick – The beater is found around 2–4 kHz, and the boosts depend on the type of “click” you want in your kick drum.
- Toms – The lower the tom, the lower the point is found. A 10” tom will have its attack at a higher frequency than a 16” floor tom.
- Snare - Search around 3 kHz for the crack of the snares. Beware of cutting too much low end from the snare because the fundamental frequencies are found around 500 Hz. Therefore, use narrower cuts on the mids than you would on the kick or toms.
Similarly, the low-end follows the same path. The lower the drums, the lower the “power” frequency of the drum is.
- Kick – Real, punch-in-your-gut power is down there in the 50-60 Hz range. You should also focus on the 80-100 Hz range because those lower frequencies can't really be heard on most consumer speaker systems. But if you want that real power, check out a good artificial way to get a 50 Hz boost in your kick drum with my tutorial: Enhancing the Kick Drum with Sine Waves.
- Floor Toms – A similar fullness and power is found in the 80 Hz range. If you have a hard hitting tom part where the floor tom plays a big part, boosting the 80 Hz can give the part much more power.
- Snare – You can actually filter the snare drum up to around 100 Hz without compromising the quality of the drum. But the body and weight of the snare can be found in the 150 Hz region. If you want a thicker snare, boosting around 150 Hz will give you a meatier snare.
Step 3 - Use a Master Reverb
A master reverb on all tracks is a great way to give the drum kit some depth and space. Send all of your drums to the same reverb, and use the sends to balance the amount you want for each drum.
Leave the kick drum relatively dry, but add more reverb to the toms for instance. Which type of reverb you choose depends on the song you're working on, but I've found a nice drum room patch always gives me just the right amount of depth without cluttering up the mix itself.
Trick 4 - Parallel Compression for Punchiness
Lastly, if you find your drum sound lacking a little punch, parallel compression is the way to go. Parallel compression is just another way to use your compressor. Now, instead of connecting it to every separate drum track you're creating a punchier sub group that you mix in with your clean drums.
There was a really great quick tip on parallel compression a while back, Punchier Drums with the New York Compression Trick so I won't go into the details. But rest assures, parallel compression is the #1 trick to solve any punchiness problems.
Following these simple steps, compressing the individual drums, EQ'ing the lows, mids, and highs, and adding the drum group to a reverb as well as a parallel compressor I've created a tighter, and punchier drum mix.
Listen to the unprocessed drum tracks first:
And then listen to finished product here:
Follow these simple tips whenever you're mixing drums and you'll get an amazing drum mix every time.
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