· By Jan Branicki
Mixing Drums: Tips and Techniques for a Professional Sound
“Crazy Train” by Ozzy; “Tom Sawyer” by Rush; “Hot For Teacher” by Van Halen — what do all those, plus millions more, have in common? Oh, and let’s not forget “Ballroom Blitz.” A killer drum beat. And all of them were mixed, in a way, during and post-production. Drum mixing is an essential part of creating a powerful and impactful sound that supports the rhythm and energy of a song. Whether you're mixing drums for a live performance or a studio recording, understanding the key drum mixing techniques can help you achieve a polished and dynamic sound. In this article, we will explore the beating heart of your songs, as well as some of the most important drum mixing techniques out there. Let’s get our groove on and get “Jiggy wit’ it.”
What is drum mixing?
Whether it’s live drum mixing or not there’s a method to the madness — drum mixing, in a quick soundbite, is a process in music production where the levels, tonal balance, and spatial positioning of the individual drum tracks are adjusted, and balanced to create a cohesive and impactful drum sound. The beat of the whole track — the Tell-Tale Heart of it. This process is typically done during the mixing phase of music production, where the engineer uses various tools such as EQ, compression, and reverb to enhance, punch-up, and make more dynamic the sound of the drums and make them fit well in the overall mix. The goal of drum mixing is to achieve a powerful, clear, and balanced drum sound that supports and drives the rhythm of the music. To give the Conga, according to Gloria Estefan: “It's the rhythm of the island, and like the sugar cane so sweet. If you want to do the conga, you've got to listen to the beat."
Let’s break down the power of those drums and why they matter:
- Drums are the foundation of most modern music, and they set the rhythm and groove of the song. They give it its magic, that thing you feel in your hips. By starting with the drums, you can establish a solid foundation for the mix and build the other elements around it.
- The sound of the drums can also inform the overall tonal balance of the mix. For example, if the kick drum has a lot of low-end, you may need to adjust the bass and other low-frequency instruments to prevent them from clashing with the kick and causing a muddy mix.
- By getting the drums sounding great early on, you can also help the rest of the mix fall into place more easily. Once the drums are well-balanced and sitting nicely in the mix, you can begin to add other elements such as guitars, vocals, and keyboards, knowing that they will be able to fit around the drums without causing any sonic conflicts.
But this is all conjecture and speculative fiction — let’s look at a case study of how to mix drums and why you should.
Suppose you are mixing a song for a rock band, and you have recorded separate tracks for the kick drum, snare drum, hi-hat, toms, overheads, and room mics.
Here's a step-by-step example of how you might approach mixing the drums, the whole enchilada:
- Start by soloing the kick drum track and adjusting the EQ to bring out the desired amount of low-end thump and midrange attack. You may also apply some compression to tighten up the sound and add sustain.
- Next, solo the snare drum track and adjust the EQ to emphasize the desired frequency range - usually around 200-400 Hz for the body and 5-7 kHz for the snap. You may also apply some compression to even out the volume and add sustain.
- Move on to the hi-hat and toms, adjusting the EQ to bring out their respective frequencies and panning them to the desired positions in the stereo field.
- Bring in the overheads and adjust the EQ and balance to capture a good overall sound of the kit. Use panning and volume adjustments to create a sense of space and depth.
- Finally, blend in the room mics to add some natural ambience and depth to the overall drum sound. Adjust the EQ and balance to create a sense of space and dimensionality.
Throughout this whole topsy-turvy highly technical process, you would be listening to the drums in the context of the rest of the mix, and making adjustments as needed to ensure that they fit well with the other instruments and vocals. It’s a living process and you’ll know you have a hit, when you know you have a hit. It’s instinctual.
Key elements of a drum kit as well as the function of each element in a mix
Here is a checklist of the key elements of a typical drum kit and their functions in a mix:
Provides the low-end thump and drives the rhythm of the song. In a mix, it often occupies the lower frequencies of the spectrum and can create a foundation for the other instruments to build upon.
Provides the backbone of the beat and adds a sense of urgency and drive to the song. In a mix, it occupies the midrange frequencies and can help to cut through the mix and provide a sense of forward motion.
Amps up the rhythmic pulse of the song and can add a sense of excitement and urgency. In a drum mix, it occupies the higher frequencies and can help to fill out the top end of the mix and add a sense of air and openness.
Gives the whole production fills and accents and can add a sense of dynamics and movement to the song. In a mix, they occupy the midrange frequencies and can help to create a sense of space and dimensionality.
Punches it up — accents and fills and can add a sense of excitement and energy to the song. In a mix, they occupy the higher frequencies and can help to fill out the top end of the mix and add a sense of brightness and shimmer.
Most common mistakes when mixing drums
Let’s break down some of the most common mistakes when mixing drums. Everyone does them — just check out some of Queen's outtakes.
Applying too much EQ, compression, or other effects can lead to a flat and lifeless drum sound.
Failing to balance the individual elements of the drum kit can result in a muddy or uneven mix.
Ignoring phase issues
Phase cancellation can occur when multiple microphones are used to capture the same drum sound, resulting in a weak and thin sound.
Lack of attention to dynamics
Neglecting to adjust the dynamics of the drums can lead to a static and unexciting sound.
Lack of attention to timing
Failing to align the timing of the individual drum tracks can result in a sloppy and inconsistent sound.
Drum Mixing Tips and Techniques
Now, let’s get into the meat of our little symphony of how to drum mix — into the magic ingredients that were sampled to create such classic as “funky Drummer” by James Brown, and that 16th note masterpiece loaded with ghost notes, a killer hi-hat opening, and a breakneck - almost whimsical - syncopated bass drum stroke.
Balancing levels and panning
Start by balancing the levels of each drum track to create a cohesive and balanced drum sound. Consider panning individual tracks to create a sense of space and dimensionality.
EQ and frequency management
Use EQ to shape the tone and character of each drum track. Consider using high-pass filters to remove low-frequency rumble and low-pass filters to remove high-frequency noise.
Noise Gate / Transient Enhancement
Consider using noise gates to remove unwanted noise or bleed from other tracks. Transient enhancement can be used to emphasize the attack and impact of each drum hit.
Compression and transient shaping
Use compression to even out the volume and add sustain to the drums. Transient shaping can be used to enhance the attack and impact of each drum hit.
Reverb and spatial effects
Use reverb and other spatial effects to create a sense of space and dimensionality in the mix. Consider using different types of reverb for different drums to create a sense of depth and separation.
Think about grouping the drums into a bus and applying processing such as EQ, compression, or saturation to create a cohesive and consistent drum sound. This can also help to free up processing power and improve the overall mix.
Importance of experimentation and practice to help achieve a polished and dynamic drum mix
Did you know that one day, Stevie Wonder was grooving with none other than Jeff Beck, a mythical jam session? Suddenly, while working and poking around in the studio Beck goes and swings a rather cool little beat. A 16th-note beat. Stevie goes bananas, that beat stays with him through the months, stuck in his head, and then one day he starts to experiment with it. A couple of weeks later, BOOM, “Superstition” was born. The same thing happened, with other artists and people experimenting and fooling around birthing such classics as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Experimentation and practice are crucial for achieving a polished and dynamic drum mix. As with any skill, mixing drums requires time and effort to develop a mastery of the techniques and tools available. By experimenting with different approaches and techniques, you can discover new ways to shape the drum sound and create a unique and powerful mix — you need to play with your beats.