Are you wondering how to mix drums as a beginner?
Don't worry, we've got you covered!
In this beginners guide you will learn:
- What Are The Key Terms For Mixing Drums?
- How Do I Mix My Drums? (Step By Step Guide)
- What Are Some Tips And Tricks To Improve My Drum Mix?
And Much More!
If you’re new to the world of recording then getting into mixing can seem like an incredibly overwhelming and complicated task.
There are hundreds of instructional articles and videos with people talking about seemingly complicated techniques such as ‘parallel compression’ and ‘parametric equalizers’...it’s enough to make your head spin!
Don’t worry! in this article, I’m going to take you through all the fundamental skills to get a great drum mix.
I find that when you’re starting out, often the best method is to keep things simple.
Focusing on the key fundamentals, and how to use them to get a good solid drum sound, is essential before moving on to some more technical and specific techniques.
What Are The Key Terms For Mixing Drums?
Whether you’re using Logic, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, or even free software such as Garageband or Cakewalk, they all have these essential plugins and features that you need to get familiar with to make your drums sound huge.
Here are some key terms that you need to know before we move onto mixing your recorded drum tracks:
When you listen to your favorite music on headphones, you’ll notice that some elements of the music are more prominent in one ear than another. For example, you may only hear a tambourine in your left ear, or the backing vocals are way off to the right side.
This distribution of sounds between the left and right ‘stereo field’ is called panning.
On every track you create in your DAW, there will be a pan ‘knob’ which allows you to send more of that track to the right or left, or keep it central to have that sound played equally between both speakers.
Panning is an essential tool in mixing as it allows you to create a wider mix that sounds more detailed and full.
For drum mixing, it also means that you can get a big sound that sounds just like you’re sitting behind the drums (or in the audience depending on your preference), by panning the individual mics as if you were sitting behind the kit (hi-hat to the left, floor tom to the right, etc).
Short for Equalization, EQ is an absolutely essential tool for any type of mixing. EQ is essentially a way that you can modify the volume of specific frequencies within a recorded sound.
For example, if you have a bass drum that sounds a bit muddy and dull, you can boost the low frequencies to add punch, whilst removing some muddy midrange frequencies and boosting a little of the high frequencies for added clarity and attack.
This will help remove any boxiness to the overall sound.
In drum mixing, EQ is also a great way to get rid of nasty overtones from toms and cymbals.
Standard EQ plugins that come with your DAW, usually have a line with dots or ‘nodes’ running along it.
At the bottom will be the frequency range, going from very low (30Hz) to incredibly high (20kHz).
To boost or reduce certain frequencies, you just drag the node to the desired frequency area and raise it or lower it to either boost or reduce that frequency.
Compression is the process of reducing the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of an audio signal. Essentially it’s a way of boosting the quieter signals and reducing the louder signals, meaning that fluctuations in the maximum levels are controlled as well as making quieter details more audible in the overall mix.
Adding compression to a snare drum, for example, will make it more consistent volume-wise in the overall mix, as well as allowing less of the finer ghost notes and expression to be lost.
However, you have to be careful not to overcompress your tracks as this can lead to a harsh and dynamically lifeless sound.
Within every compressor, there are some controls that will shape the type of compression for your track. Here’s a great guide, outlining the specifics of compression and how it’s used.
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Phase is the relationship of one sound wave to another.
If soundwaves are ‘in-phase’, it means that the peaks and troughs of the wave signal are pretty much in the same place.
If waves are ‘out of phase’ it means that the soundwaves are out of sync.
When this happens it’s called ‘destructive superposition’, which results in the waves effectively fighting each other (phase cancellation), making the sounds much quieter, thinner, and generally just bad!
So how does this relate to mixing drums?
Imagine a drum kit with all its individual components close mic’d as well as a pair of overheads and a room mic further out.
When you hit the snare drum, the sound will reach the close mic first, followed by the overheads and finally the room mic.
When you playback all these microphones at the same time, that small time difference between mics can make your overall drum mix sound audibly blurry and weak.
To correct this you will need to align your overheads and room mic signals with your close mic’d snare drum signal.
You can either do this by hand, dragging the individual signals in line or use a plugin such as InPhase by Waves.
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How Do I Mix My Drums? (Step By Step Guide)
There are many different ways to mix a drum kit as it varies from person to person as well as what music the drum mix is intended for.
For example if you’re looking for a huge aggressive drum sound for a metal track you’re going to process the drums in a completely different way to a lounge jazz song!
In this step by step guide, I’m simply going to show you how I get a basic drum mix that will work with most common music genres (such as pop, rock, and indie).
Remember this is just my way of doing things and by no means the only way to mix, it’s a very good place to start if you’re new to mixing however over time you’ll most likely experiment with your own ways of doing things…
I’m going to using a pretty basic example of a mic’d up drum kit which includes:
Channel 1 - Kick Close Mic
Channel 2 - Snare Top Close Mic
Channel 3 - Snare Bottom Close Mic
Channel 4 - Rack Tom Close Mic
Channel 5 - Floor Tom Close Mic
Channel 6 - Overhead Mic (Left)
Channel 7 - Overhead Mic (Right)
Channel 8 - Room Mic
The main areas we’re going to cover are:
Once you’ve imported your individual drum mic tracks into your DAW, before getting into the effects processing stages, it’s time for what I like to call ‘housekeeping’. Housekeeping involves organizing your tracks so they’re ready to be processed with effects and EQ.
This includes balancing the tracks, making sure they’re in phase as well as creating a drum bus so you can affect the overall drum sound as a whole.
Step 1 - Balance And Panning
Import your individual mic tracks into your DAW.
All of your mics should be imported onto ‘mono’ tracks, including the pair of overheads. Some people like to combine both overhead mics onto a stereo track and process them together, however, I prefer to have complete control over the level of each overhead mic.
Now you need to balance the mics so you have a very basic overall drum sound.
I tend to use the overheads as my main sound, then blend in the close mics until the kit sounds balanced, without one instrument overpowering the rest.
Once you’re balanced, it’s time to deal with panning.
At this point, you need to decide on whether you want the panning of the kit to be from the drummer’s perspective or from the audience’s perspective.
I like to mix from the drummers perspective (right-handed with the hi-hat on the left), so I will be using that for this guide.
There should be a ‘Pan’ knob above the fader on each track in your mixer.
Starting with the overheads, pan your left overhead mic fully to the left, and do the same for the right overhead, panning to the right.
I would leave the kick and snare dead center, as they are going to be at the core of your drum kit sound.
However, to get some space for fills I would pan your rack tom around 30-40 degrees to the left and then pan the floor tom the same amount of degrees to the right.
If you pan the toms too hard left and right it sounds a little unnatural as fills suddenly jump from one ear to the other!
Step 2 - Phase
Now it’s time to phase align your tracks.
Zoom into the waveforms of your top snare drum track. If possible in your DAW, make a marker for exactly where one of the snare transients (hits) starts.
All you need to do now is drag the overheads and room mic tracks so the same snare hit is exactly aligned with the transient that you marked on the close mic snare track.
This can take a little bit of trial and error doing it by hand.
Make sure that you listen to the tracks once you’ve moved them to make sure they sound ok. Once moved everything should sound clearer and more focused.
A plugin such as InPhase by waves can help by delaying the sound of an individual track, meaning you don’t have to mess around doing it by hand!
Snare Close Mic Phase
If you have two mics on a snare drum, one above and the other below, these mics will be naturally out of phase with each other as they are pointing directly at one another.
This means you will need to completely flip the phase on one of the microphones so the microphones match up and are ‘in phase’.
To do this, simply open an EQ plugin on your snare bottom mic channel. There should be a button that has what looks like an 0 with a diagonal line running through it. Press that and it will completely reverse the phase on that mic.
Step 3 - Drum Bus
A ‘bus’ in mixing terms, is simply a track that has the signal of many other audio tracks sent to it.
This allows you to group the sounds of multiple channels into one handy ‘Bus’ channel.
This is super useful if you want to affect the whole sound of a horn section, or backing vocalists for example, or in this case a whole drum kit!
Create a stereo ‘Aux track’. Rename it as ‘Drum Bus’. Set it’s output to the master fader.
Now set the ‘output’ of each individual mic channel to go to the ‘drum bus’. This will now send the signal from each track to the drum bus, which then sends the overall drum sound to the main output (master).
If done correctly the drum bus fader should control the overall volume of the drum kit (with nothing heard if you turn down to zero).
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Step 4 - Overheads
Now we can get into the processing of individual tracks.
Personally, I get the majority of my drum sound from my overheads. Then I use the individual close mics to boost the individual elements I want to hear more of.
Set up a parametric EQ on your overhead tracks. In general, I tend to roll off pretty much everything below 30-50Hz to get rid of any unwanted low-end rumble.
Then I might have a small reduction in mid-range frequencies with a little boost of the hi-end so the cymbals come through a bit more.
However, if you have very bright cymbals you may actually want to tame some of that harsh hi-end instead.
The key here is to ‘USE YOUR EARS’, experiment with different EQ patterns until it sounds good to you. However, with the overheads don’t go too crazy boosting frequencies as you’re going to blend in close mics to help with that.
Similarly, I will probably use a very gentle amount of compression on the overheads (if any), as too much compression can make the cymbals sound very harsh and aggressive.
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Step 5 - Kick
Combined with the snare drum, the kick is a very important core part of your drum kit’s overall sound.
Set up an EQ. Now ‘solo’ your Kick drum track.
As a general guide for a close mic’d kick drum, I tend to boost the low frequencies between 30-110Hz, this adds more oomph to the low end.
Then I’ll reduce some of the mid-range frequencies roughly between 500Hz - 2KHz, to get rid of any muddy/wooliness. Finally, I’ll add some high-end frequencies to add more ‘click’ and definition to the sound.
Then I’ll add some compression. As a basic place to start, set it with a slow attack with a fast release at a ratio of 4:1. Take some time to tweak to taste.
The key is to always refer back to what the kick sounds like in combination with the overheads.
Continually go back and forth between just the kick channel and kick + overheads, until the kick sounds full and punchy without being too ‘wooly’ or ‘clicky’.
Step 6 - Snare
In my example, I’ve got two snare mics, one that’s on the top ‘batter’ head and one on the bottom ‘snare side’ or resonant head.
The top mic gives you the main ‘body’ of the snare, whereas blending in a bottom mic adds a little extra snare snap and rattle.
Take both mics down to zero and just bring up the top snare mic channel.
Follow the same steps as the kick drum in setting up the EQ. However, I tend to remove all the low end below around 100Hz as you don’t want any low end bleed from the kick muddling your sound.
Here you really need to use your ears for your own snare sound and preference.
If it’s too harsh, bring some hi frequencies down, if it’s kind of boxy and lifeless try removing some mids. Just experiment until you get a sound you like.
Now add some compression. I don’t like to over compress the snare.
Try starting with these settings: Ratio 4:1, Attack 4ms, Release: 200ms with the threshold to give you a 3-6dB gain reduction.
Remember always check it in context with the overheads.
Now you’re happy with your top snare channel, gradually blend in the bottom head mic channel to add some more of the snappy snare wire sound.
It should be at a much lower level than the top mic, just enough so it thickens out your snare sound without sounding overpowering.
I don’t process the under snare mic much, possibly just some EQ to cut out any frequencies below 100Hz.
Step 7 - Toms
By now you’re probably getting the gist of adding EQ and compression to individual channels to boost their sound.
The same applies for toms. Think about what kind of sound you want out of your toms and use your EQ to help sculpt it. If you want more attack; add high frequencies, or add more lows and mids for a rounded more full-bodied sound.
There’s no right or wrong here, just use your ears and make sure to check it in context with the other mics.
If you have a tom that is extra ringy, or you want to make the toms sound ‘quicker’ and punchier, you can add a Gate plugin. Gating a track simply shuts off the sound after a certain amount of time after the initial drum hit.
Set a Gate plugin on your toms.
Experiment with setting the threshold (how loud it needs to be to open the gate and allow sound through) as well as attack and release (how quickly it opens/closes) to get the desired amount of ‘decay’ from your toms (it also works well on kicks and snares if necessary).
Step 8 - Room Mic (if applicable)
Having a room mic can really add a nice ambiance and ‘airy’ quality to your drum sound. It can also add a whole load of punch and ‘fullness’ to your drum sound.
I tend to compress my room mic quite heavily, to the point where it sounds a bit too harsh and aggressive. (this is often called a ‘Smashed’ sound). A high ratio of 8:1 with a quick attack and slow release should get you started.
It may sound harsh on its own, but gently blend that track into your overall drum mix and it’ll work wonders I promise...don’t overdo it though!
Step 9 - Final Mixing
Great, so now you should have each individual mic sounding pretty good to your tastes. Now is your chance to make sure all the individual components work together, giving you a balanced drum mix.
Really use your ears and try to make sure no one instrument is too overpowering or sounding off. If anything sticks out, try adjusting levels or EQ to remedy the problem.
If you want a more ambient and ‘roomy’ drum sound, experiment with adding a reverb plugin to the overheads and possibly the snare and toms (avoid the kick). This will give a sense of the drums being in a larger room.
Now comes the moment where you need to play your drum mix in context with the other instruments in your track.
At first listen it may seem like your drums lose a lot of their clarity and punch, this is due to the other instruments interfering with the frequencies of different parts of the kit.
The next stage is to adjust the drum sound whilst the music is playing. This may require you to bring up the kick and snare levels for example, or back off the toms as the fills are too prominent.
Again USE YOUR EARS. Your final isolated drum mix may sound overly harsh or too aggressive on its own but works perfectly in context with the rest of the song.
Don't be afraid to experiment!
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What Are Some Tips And Tricks To Improve My Drum Mix?
Get the source right
Unfortunately, there’s no remedy for a badly tuned drum kit! There’s only so much you can do to fix bad sounding drums in the mix phase.
With all recording, I find the more time you spent getting the instrument to sound great the less time you spend mixing.
Spend time really working on mic placement and drum tuning in the recording phase and it’ll pay massive dividends later on I promise.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Presets
There are so many ‘all in one’ EQ, Effects, and Compression solutions out there that are specifically designed for drums.
They allow you to slap an overall preset onto a kick drum channel and away you go! However, they often need a little tweaking to get your desired sound.
I use the JJP drums plugin on loads of my mixes, and with a little tweaking, it sounds amazing!
Purists will say it’s cheating, but if it gets the sound you’re after then who cares!
The whole point of recording and mixing is that it’s supposed to be a creative and personal process.
Don’t be afraid to try things and break the ‘rules’ to chase a sound. Remember nobody is going to mark your mix in the end, it’s about what sounds good to you.
Experiment, experiment, experiment…
And remember, if it sounds good...IT IS GOOD!
Final Thoughts On Mixing Drums
Getting good at mixing drums is just like learning to play the drum kit. It takes dedicated time, practice, and a load of patience.
You probably won’t get it perfect right away, but just keep trying different ways of getting your desired sound and always be open to learning new techniques. It’ll get easier the more you do it!
So there you have it! My ultimate beginner’s guide to the world of mixing drums.