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Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 5: It’s All In the Mix


Here's the last part of my series on drum recording, but this time it's about what might be the most important topics of all - drum balance and that elusive relationship between the bass and drums.

Also available in this series:

  1. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 1
  2. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 2
  3. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 3
  4. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 4
  5. Recording The Drums – The Song’s Heartbeat – Part 5: It’s All In the Mix

Drum Balance

The act of balancing the level of the individual drums is many times taken for granted, but it shouldn't be. Here's how important drum balance is - if your kit isn't properly balanced, you can never be sure if it's sounding good while you're recording. You can really have the sounds dialed but it they're out of proportion to one another, how can you ever know?

A common drum recording flaw that I frequently see is an engineer working harder and harder on the kick drum sound, EQing, compressing, adding multiple mics, yet never taking into account how it relates to the rest of the drum kit. That's why I think it's imperative that every engineer do two things before any serious drum miking begins:

Go out into the room, stand in front of the kick, and listen to it with the drummer playing a beat from the song you're about to record (that's important, because you might be deceived if it's another song or just random playing). Listen for the balance of the kit and the tone of the individual drums.

Place a single mic where you were standing (using the single mic technique from Part 4 of this series) and record a couple of minutes of the drummer playing the song, then listen to a playback in the control room.

Listening to the drums in the room will give you a reference point to the way they really sound and how they're balanced. Having a recording will give you something to always compare to later if needed.

The Drum Mix

The drum mix is all about balance - balance between all the drum mics and then balance of the drum mix itself against the rest of the band. The best way to approach getting a drum sound is to think of the drum kit as one instrument, instead of 7 or 8 separate pieces, then make sure that no one drum stands out from the rest. Hearing a "lead hi-hat" or "lead tom" can suck the groove right out of a song if you're not careful.

That's why it's so important that you listen to the drum kit for a while in the room. You'll hear the real balance of the kit, then all you'll have to do is emulate it instead of guess at the correct levels.

Understand that it's possible that the acoustic balance of the kit isn't that great to begin with. Sometimes the snare is a lot louder than the rest of the kit (a common occurrence). Sometimes the cymbals have different thicknesses so one is louder than the others. Sometimes the ride cymbal is so quiet that it's nowhere to be found, or slices right through everything else like it's the feature of the kit. Sometimes the toms are like shrinking violets against the kick and snare and have no projection at all. That's all OK. If you're aware of those problems, you can compensate for them, but first you have to listen in the room to find those things out.

Where To Start From?

There are several schools of thought on where to start your mix from. Many engineers always start from the kick first, although some engineers start from the overheads and some start from the toms. Wherever you start from, the idea is exactly the same - to blend all the different drum mics into a single cohesive drum sound. Let's look at each different starting place separately.

Drum Kit Balance Technique #1

If the kit was recorded with the overheads miking the cymbals instead of miking the entire kit, it's the perfect setup to use the kick drum as your starting place in the mix.

Bring up the fader of the kick so that the meter reads about -3 on the stereo buss meter on the peaks. At this point, you might want to add a little compression (just a dB or so) to even out the peaks. If you want a more aggressive sound you can add more compression later after the entire kit is balanced. Try to refrain from adding any EQ at this time since this is another thing best left until you have the whole kit balanced. It's possible that the other drums will fill in the frequencies that you think might be missing. Keep in mind that -3 is more or less arbitrary in that it's a good starting point because it's easy to see on the meters, but you can just as easily pick -5 or -6 just as well. If the drum kit is assigned to a stereo subgroup, that makes balancing against the rest of the instruments and leaving some headroom on the stereo buss pretty easy.

Bring up the snare until the level is about the same as the kick. Again, you can add a little compression to even things out a bit, but don't hit it too hard just yet if that's the sound you're going for.

Bring up the hat and toms to a level that matches what you heard in the room. Be careful that the level is the same on each tom in a drum fill. You might have to automate some of the fills later to even things out, which is pretty common. Not many drummers play their fills evenly and many drum kits have certain toms that are louder than others.

Next, bring the overhead levels up until you just hear them. You want to make sure that the cymbals are not overpowering the rest of the kit, but the only way to be sure is to have all the drums in the mix since they'll each have a little of the cymbals in them (which is normal).

Lastly, bring up the room mics, again to the point where you can just hear them. This will fill in any holes in the sound and glue the kit balance together. It's popular in rock music to heavily compress the room mics but you should be careful about doing this without considering the sound of the room, since massive room mic compression only works when the room itself sounds great to begin with. Heavy compression also changes the balance as a lot as the cymbals come to the forefront and usually become too loud as a result.

Now is the time to add the EQ. Only add EQ if you feel you need a little more definition (see the EQ tips and tricks later in the article) after all the drums are added to the mix.

If you want to hear a really good drum sound and balance, check out my Big Picture blog to hear Neil Pert's isolated drums on Rush's "Tom Sawyer."

Drum Kit Balance Technique #2

If your overheads are in an XY or ORTF configuration as discussed in Part 4, then you might have to approach the mix a little differently since this is where the main sound of the kit is coming from.

First, bring up the faders on the overheads so that the meters read about -6dBFS at the peaks. This should give you a pretty even sounding drum kit already.

Now bring up each drum track until you can just hear it. The idea is to fill in the sound and add some punch. When you add the rest of the instruments to the mix, you'll probably have to add a bit more of some of the drums.

Now add EQ and compression as in technique #1.

Drum Kit Balance Technique #3

This technique is used when you want the tom fills and sound to be very prominent in the song.

Start with the toms by bringing the faders up until the meters read about -6dBFS at the peaks. Make sure that the sound of all of the toms is pretty much the same by EQing and balancing as required. You should go through the song to make sure that every fill is balanced, automating a tom that's too loud or too quiet as needed.
Build the mix around the toms, starting from whichever drum that you're comfortable. Add EQ and compression as in the previous techniques.

This method makes sure that your toms are always in the forefront of the song.

The Crucial Drums And Bass Relationship

Perhaps the most difficult task of a mixing engineer is balancing the bass and drums (especially the bass and kick). Nothing can make or break a mix faster than the way these instruments work together. It's not uncommon for a mixer to spend hours on this balance (both level and frequency) because if the relationship isn't correct, then the song will just never sound big and punchy.

So how do you get this mysterious balance?

In order to have the impact and punch that most modern mixes exhibit, you have to make a space in your mix for both of these instruments so they won't fight each other and turn into a muddy mess. While simply EQing your bass high and your kick low (or the other way around), might work at it's simplest, it's best to have a more in-depth strategy. Try the following:

EQ the kick drum between 60 to 120Hz as this will allow it to be heard on smaller speakers. For more attack and beater click add between 1k to 4kHz. You may also want to dip some of the boxiness between 300-600Hz. EQing in the 30-60Hz range will produce a kick that you can feel, but it may also sound thin on smaller speakers and probably won't translate well to a variety of speaker systems. Most 22" kick drums are centered somewhere around 80Hz anyway.

Bring up the bass with the kick. The kick and bass should occupy slightly different frequency spaces. The kick will usually be in the 60 to 80Hz range whereas the bass will emphasize higher frequencies anywhere from 80 to 250Hz (although sometimes the two are reversed depending upon the song). Shelve out any unnecessary bass frequencies (below 30Hz on kick and below 50Hz on the bass, although the frequency for both may be as high as 60Hz according to style of the song and your taste) so they're not boomy or muddy. There should be a driving, foundational quality to the combination of these two together.
A common mistake is to emphasize the kick with either too much level or EQ, while not featuring enough of the bass guitar. This gives you the illusion that your mix is bottom light, because what you're doing is shortening the duration of the low frequency envelope in your mix. Since the kick tends to be more transient than the bass guitar, this gives you the idea that the low frequency content of your mix is inconsistent. For Pop music, it is best to have the kick provide the percussive nature of the bottom while the bass fills out the sustain and musical parts.

Make sure that the snare is strong, otherwise the song will lose its drive when the other instruments are added in. This usually calls for at least some compression. You may need a small EQ boost at 1kHz for attack, 120 to 240Hz for fullness, and 10k for snap. As you bring in the other drums and cymbals, you might want to dip a little of 1kHz on these to make room for the snare. Also make sure that the toms aren't too boomy (if so, shelve out the frequencies below 60 Hz).

If you're having trouble with the mix because it's sounding cloudy and muddy on the bottom end, mute both the kick drum and bass to determine what else might be in the way in the low end. You might not realize that there are some frequencies in the mix that aren't really musically necessary. With piano or guitar, you're mainly looking for the mids and top end to cut through, while the low-end is just getting in the way, so it's best to clear some of that out with a hi-pass filter. When soloed, the instrument might sound too thin, but with the rest of the mix the low-end will now sound so much better and you won't be missing that low end from the other instruments. Now the mix sounds louder, clearer, and fuller. Be careful not to cut too much from the other instruments, as you might loose the warmth of the mix.

For Dance music, be aware of kick drum to bass melody dissonance. The bass line over the huge sound systems in today's clubs is very important and needs to work very well with the kick drum. But if your kick is centered around an A note and the bass line is tuned to A#, it's going to clash. Tune your kick samples to the bass lines (or vice versa) where needed.

EQ Tips And Tricks

Here are a few EQ tips and tricks that can help you get a better kick and snare sound.

For Snare

To find the "point" on the snare, boost the upper midrange starting at about +5 or 6dB at 2kHz or so. Open up the bandwidth (if that parameter is available) until you get the snare to jump out, then tighten the bandwidth until you get only the part of the snare sound that you want most. Fine-tune the frequency until you need the least amount of boost in order to make it jump out of the mix.

Add some 10kHz to give the top end some snap, and 125Hz on the bottom of the snare to fill it out a little.

For Kick

Try to boost 4kHz, cut 250 to 300Hz, then boost the low frequency around 60 to 100Hz to find the drum's resonance.

One fairly common effect used in R&B is to bring a 32Hz sine wave tone back to a different channel, gate it and trigger the gate from the kick. Blend and compress both the original kick and 32Hz tone to taste.

For that Metal kick drum sound, boost 2.8kHz or so on the kick drum to function as the "nail in the paddle."

For a kick meant for a club, emphasize the 200-300Hz range without the extreme low end. The club system makes up the difference so if you mix the bottom of it the way you like to hear it in a club, you're probably going to overload the house system.

If your bass is very pure sine wave-like and your kick is an 808, they may mask each other. If the kick is lower sounding than the bass, add a sample with some mid or top punch. If the kick is higher than the bass, you can add some distortion or use something like a MaxxBass plug-in to add higher harmonics to the bass. Make sure you check both on small speakers.

If any of the drums sound boxy (especially the kick), attenuate in the 4-500Hz range.

For Bass

Add about 50 Hz in conjunction with a limiter so it'll stay tight but still give it a big bottom. Add a little 7k if you want a bit of the string sound, and between 1.5 and 3k to give it some snap.

If the bass isn't distinct from the bass, boost the bass frequencies starting at about +5 or 6dB and sweep the frequencies between 80 to 300Hz until you hear the bass speak more distinctly from the kick. Open up the bandwidth (if that parameter is available) until you get the bass to jump out, then fine-tune the frequency until you need the least amount of boost in order to make it jump out of the mix.

The New York Compression Trick (Parallel Compression)

One of the little tricks that seem to set New York mixers apart from everyone else is something I call the "New York Compression Trick," although it's really only another name for parallel compression. It seems like every mixer who's ever mixed in New York City learns this maneuver, but it's definitely one worth noting even if you never plan on setting foot in the place. Once you try it you just might find yourself using this trick all the time since it is indeed a useful method to make a rhythm section rock.

Here's the trick:

Buss the drums, and sometimes even the bass, to a stereo compressor on a separate channel. You can use an aux send as long as the send level is the same for every drum.

Hit the compressor fairly hard so it attenuates at least 10dB or even more if it sounds good.

Return the output of the compressor to two additional channels in your DAW or to a pair of fader inputs on the console.

Add a fair amount of high end (6 to 10dB at 10kHz or so) and low end (6 to 10dB at 100Hz or so) to the compressed signal (in other words, EQ the compressed channel).

Now bring the fader levels of the compressor up until it's tucked just under the present rhythm section mix and you can just hear it.

The rhythm section will now sound bigger and more controlled without sounding overly compressed. It's a great trick and thoroughly addicting since it's hard to get the same sound any other way.

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