Home Recording Basics: How to Mix Drums in Your DAW

The last few installments of this recording series covered the tools we use for mixing — EQ, compression, and effects — so now it's time to delve into how to go about mixing each instrument. This week, we’re starting with the foundation: drums.

Before we get into it, it should be noted that mixing is not a linear process. You can’t be sure that the drums sound right until you see how they work with the bass, but the bass has an important relationship with the guitars, which directly affects the vocals, which also affects the drums, and so on.

That said, the order in which we cover each instrument doesn’t have to be the order that you do your own mixing in. If you’d rather start with guitar or vocals, that’s totally fine. Do what makes you most comfortable. What matters most is how each piece fits together in the end. If you're just starting to get your drum track recorded, you can check out some tips and tricks here.

Balance

It all starts with balance. All it takes is one instrument that’s too loud or quiet to make a mix feel really awkward. Similarly, if something is panned to a strange place, it can distract the listener.

Some mix engineers choose to mix “LCR,” which stands for left-center-right, meaning every channel is either panned hard-left, hard-right, or center. This method can be particularly helpful in creating a wide stereo image with a drum kit, but it can be difficult to achieve separation with the rest of the instruments.

All it takes is one instrument that’s too loud or quiet to make a mix feel really awkward."

Other engineers choose to recreate the stereo spread of the drum kit in one of three ways: drummer’s perspective, audience perspective, or no perspective, meaning that they pan the drums however they want.

Drummer’s perspective pans the instruments on a drum kit where the are from the drummer’s perspective. With a right-handed drummer, kick and snare are in the center (although some engineers choose to pan the snare slightly to the left to more closely mimic the spacing on a kit). The hi-hat is panned to the left, and the toms are spread out across the stereo spectrum, with the highest a little left-of-center and the lowest panned to the right. Mono overheads and room mics are left in the center, and stereo mics are panned hard-left and right.

Audience perspective is panned from the perspective of the audience looking at the kit, which is a direct mirror of drummer’s perspective.

In terms of levels, the snare is usually the loudest part of the drum kit, followed by the kick, although some hip-hop tracks go the other way around. Toms can be loud if they’re used sparingly and don’t have a lot of bleed, but otherwise, leave them low in the mix, and automate their volume up when needed.

Overhead and room mic levels vary greatly depending on the genre and style. Some overhead recordings are very cymbal-heavy, which means that they can make a mix sound harsh if they’re too loud. Others are a balanced representation of the kit and are sometimes the loudest or even the only drum mics being used.

Equalization

It’s important to say straight out up top that no EQ settings are going to work the same way twice.

Every recording is different. EQ should always be reactive to the needs of each recording. There is no one-size-fits-all EQ setting. There’s no preset that’s always going to make your kick drum sound good. You have to use your ears, identify what frequencies are causing problems, and correct them.

Having said that, you’ve got to start somewhere.

Kick

  • Bottom: 50Hz - 100Hz (too much is boomy)
  • Fatness: 100Hz - 250Hz (too much is muddy)
  • Boxiness: 400Hz - 800Hz
  • Attack: 3kHz - 5kHz

Snare

  • Fatness: 120Hz - 240Hz (too much is muddy)
  • Ring: 800Hz - 1kHz (not enough is hollow)
  • Attack: 2.5kHz - 5kHz
  • Snap: 10kHz

Toms

  • Floor Tom Fatness: 80Hz - 120Hz (too much is muddy)
  • Rack Tom Fatness: 240Hz - 400Hz (too much is muddy)
  • Boxiness: 400Hz - 800Hz
  • Attack: 5kHz - 7kHz

Cymbals / Overheads

  • Clang: 200Hz - 500Hz
  • Presence: 3kHz - 5kHz
  • Air: 7kHz - 12kHz

Dynamics Processing

After correcting any frequency problems in your drum tracks, it’s time to control the dynamics. Dynamics processing is the key to making your drums “punchy,” adding “glue,” and pretty much every other buzzword you hear engineers using.

With live drums, it’s pretty common to start with gating the kick, snare, and toms to remove bleed. Start with a moderate attack and release time, and adjust the threshold until you find the sweet spot where the drum is only opening the gate when it’s hit.

From there, adjust the attack and release times to make it feel more natural. Too fast tends to make things sound choppy and too slow can miss some of the transients altogether. Kick and snare tend to have faster release times, while toms ring out a bit longer. Either way, try to time the release of the gate to the tempo of the track.

Compression

Up next is compression, which can also vary greatly depending on the recording and genre — especially the amount of compression.

Kick drums tend to benefit from slower attack times and faster release times. The slow attack times lets the full punch of the low-end frequencies through, and the fast release times add excitement. If you’re looking to tighten up a performance, try using a faster attack time.

If you’re looking to tighten up a performance, try using a faster attack time."

Snare drums also feel punchier with slow attack times and tighter with fast attack times. It’s important to time the release with the ring of the snare so the compressor can breathe in time with the track. Slower release times will help add sustain, while faster release times will help add punch.

Tom drums are kind of a combination of kick and snare. A common rule to follow is that the bigger the drum, the slower the attack time. The release time should be used to adjust the length of the ring to match the tempo of the track.

It’s not uncommon to see 3-6dB of compression at 3:1, 4:1, or even 8:1 on close mic’d drum recordings.

Some engineers also use parallel compression for additional punch, which you can read more about here. Kick, snare, and room mics all really benefit from a good crushing.

Finally, many engineers like to glue the kit together by using bus compression. Simply route all of your drum tracks to a stereo bus, and moderately apply compression at a low ratio (usually 1-3dB at ~2:1).

Effects Processing

After getting the kit balance with panning, EQ, and compression, it’s time to add the final coat of polish — effects processing.

Arguably, the most important effect for drums is reverb. Aside from reggae, it’s not very common to add any kind of delay to the drums. And while things like tape emulation and distortion are objectively awesome, they won’t benefit every genre the way reverb does.*

Most engineers try to build a realistic space for their drums to occupy. It can be confusing to the listener if your kick is in one space, the snare and toms in another, and the overheads and rooms in a third. Usually, the most convincing way to build a space for your drums is with a room-type reverb. Just make sure that it doesn’t conflict with ant natural reverb captured in the recordings.

If you’re not going for the kit-in-a-room sound, plate reverbs are commonly used to give snare drums depth in a mix.

Some engineers warn against adding reverb to kick or even floor toms because the low frequencies cause muddiness. This is true, but you can always roll off the low end to let the attack reverberate. This is a great way to make a kick drum feel big without muddying up your mix.

*Note: Drums really do benefit from tape emulation and distortion — especially kick drums. The added harmonics help cut through small speakers and stand out in a mix. Oftentimes, distortion is applied in parallel, but tape can be applied either per-channel or on the drum bus.

Plugging the Leak

Now that you’ve made a lap around the drums with panning, EQ, gates, compression, reverb, and effects, it’s time to do it again. See how all of those moves affected the others, and try to correct any new problems that sprang up. After all, next week we’ll cover bass, and you’ll have a whole new set of problems to fix.

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