How to Make Your Drum Tracks Snap with Two-Stage Parallel Compression

Drums can always be tricky when it comes to mixing music. They can turn mushy and disappear in the mix as easily as they can stick too far out to sound natural to the listener.

Mixing drums has the same challenges regardless of whether they’re acoustic or electronic. Getting them to sit well in a mix while retaining punch, attack transients, and the sonic characteristics of the drum sounds is a big task.

This is where compression comes in handy. There are a few tried and true techniques for getting that gelled drum sound that still has all of its character:

  • Compress each drum track: This is a great way to preserve transients on individual drums and bring out their individual character.

  • Two–Stage Compression: First, you compress each individual drum track, then you send all of those channels into a bus channel that is also compressed.

  • Parallel Compression: Compressed drums are mixed alongside uncompressed drums.

These all work well, but you can make your drums sound bigger than ever by combining these simple techniques in a compression style I call Two–Stage Parallel Compression. Let’s dive into it.

A Quick Explainer on Parallel Compression

Parallel compression, sometimes referred to as New York Compression, is one of the most powerful mixing techniques available come time to work with drums. This technique can also be used on vocals and many other elements in a mix.

Essentially, instead of putting compressors directly onto drum tracks, those uncompressed drum tracks are routed to a bus that has a single compressor on it. This way, you can mix the uncompressed drums alongside a signal that has compression applied to all of those drums at once. Here, the dry and wet signals are running in parallel to each other.

Alternately, you can send your uncompressed drums to two busses — one that will remained uncompressed and one that has a compressor put on it. I’ll cover these routing options a bit later on. Regardless, parallel compression requires a mix of drums without compression alongside a mix of drums with compression.

Waves API 2500 Compressor

Parallel compression allows us to retain attack transients thanks to those dry drum tracks, and yet compresses and evens out the levels of those drums via the wet, compressed bus channel. Your dynamic range is reduced so the drums sit better in the mix, but their attack characteristics remain and help them to pop out just as much as they need to.

You can then EQ the different signals and set levels to taste in order to get a compact drum sound.

You will want to use a very fast–acting, heavy compressor for the wet channel, such as the API2500 or any other VCA compressor.

The Difference Between Two–Stage and Parallel Compression

Some people actually say parallel compression is a type of two–stage compression, but this isn't entirely accurate.

Two–stage compression (sometimes referred to as serial compression) is the technique you’d be using if, for instance, you compressed bass and snare drums on individual channels and then sent both of those to your drum bus where you applied another compressor.

Parallel Compression

Contrast this with parallel compression, in which you absolutely must be running both an uncompressed and compressed (or, in other words, dry and wet) signal in parallel. In two–stage, there is no uncompressed drum signal.

How to Route Signals for Parallel Compression

Before getting into how to combine the two–stage and parallel compression techniques, it’s worth discussing how to route a traditional parallel compression. There are a few ways to do it.

You can simply have all of your uncompressed drum tracks in the mix and send them to a Send or Aux channel with a compressor on it. The individual drum tracks will sound at the same time as your single compressed channel. This isn’t an ideal way to routing parallel compression, though, since you’ll have to adjust every fader on your independent dry tracks when it comes time to mix your uncompressed and compressed signals.

Generally, you want to send those individual drums to two individual busses. The easiest way to do this is to direct the outs of all your drum tracks to two individual tracks that will be the only ones heard. You’ll send your individual tracks to an uncompressed output bus and to a send channel bus that has a compressor on it.

If you’re using an API 2500 emulator, use these settings:

  • Attack: FASTEST .03
  • Release: Variable set to fastest 50ms
  • Ratio: 10:1
  • Tone: Hard and Loud
  • (feed forward style compressor)
  • Link: HP (High Pass) 100%

If you’re using an API 2500 emulator, use these settings:

  • Attack: FASTEST .03
  • Release: Variable set to fastest 50ms
  • Ratio: 10:1
  • Tone: Hard and Loud (feed forward style compressor)
  • Link: HP (High Pass) 100%

This way, you’ll be able to mix the single, uncompressed output bus channel alongside the compressed send channel.

On that compressed send channel, you’ll want a compressor with a very fast attack, a medial release time, and a high ratio. Compressing drums this much is usually not desirable, since it kills those attack transients and any dynamic nuance, but here it’s perfect because we’ll get all those transients and nuance from the uncompressed drum track.

Make sure you do some EQing and set levels on those individual drum channels before sending them through this bus configuration because you’ll want to be working with the best drum mix possible before compressing, and therefore altering, the sounds.

Let’s go through an example of this routing process using Pro Tools.

You can select all of your drums (kick, snare, hats, toms, etc.) and send them to stereo output bus ½ and then also send the same audio channels to stereo bus send ¾.

If using Pro Tools on Mac, select all drum channels and then hold ALT+SHIFT while you select your bus routings. It will auto assign all channels highlighted once you select the send.

Simply leave stereo output bus ½ uncompressed and put a compressor on the stereo bus send ¾.

Parallel Compression Routing in Pro Tools

You can also set up parallel compression in Ableton Live. Create a new audio track and toggle the Audio To menus on all of your individual drum tracks to run into that new audio track. Label the track with all of the individual drum tracks going into it something like “Uncompressed Drums.”

Next, set up one of your send tracks so that it has a compressor on it. Ableton’s default puts reverb and delay on send tracks, but those effects are easy enough to delete and replace. Once that send with a compressor is set up, simply turn the corresponding send dial on your “Uncompressed Drums” track all the way. Now you have your uncompressed bus playing alongside your compressed send bus.

It’s always worth noting that Ableton Live’s Compressor and Glue Compressor effects both have Dry/Wet dials. Since parallel compression mixes a dry, uncompressed signal with a wet, compressed signal, simply dialing in your compression on these effects and playing with the dial accomplishes the exact same effect as parallel compression.

In this case, simply put one of those compressors on that single track that all the drums are being fed into, set your desired compression settings, and toggle that Dry/Wet dial to taste.

Setting Up Two–Stage Parallel Compression

As quick recap, two–stage compression is the process of compressing individual drum tracks and then routing them all into a single track that also has a compressor on it.

The two–stage parallel compression technique builds on this in a simple way. Instead of simply compressing drums at two stages, we’re using parallel compression in two stages. You run parallel compression once and then run it again.

If you want to dial in the settings on the Pro C2 yourself try:

  • Attack: Slower than API - 2 to 4 ms
  • Release: Faster Than API - 150ms
  • Ratio: 10:1
  • Style: Classic (which is a feedback style compressor)
  • Knee: middle between hard and soft
  • *Sidechain Function enabled (sit right above kick; audition to listen)

If you want to dial in the settings on the Pro C2 yourself try:

  • Attack: Slower than API - 2 to 4 ms
  • Release: Faster Than API - 150ms
  • Ratio: 10:1
  • Style: Classic (which is a feedback style compressor)
  • Knee: middle between hard and soft
  • *Sidechain Function enabled (sit right above kick; audition to listen)

I’ll start with an example in Pro Tools again.

In this situation, we’ll want to create a third routing channel, which we’ll dub the “Drum Group.” Send your uncompressed stereo output bus and your compressed send bus to this new Drum Group, and you’ll have all of your parallel compression now sitting in one track.

As I mentioned above in reference to Ableton Live, using the Dry/Wet dial on a compressor plugin accomplishes the exact same thing as parallel compression. To run the second stage of parallel compression, simply put a compressor VST with a Dry/Wet feature on your new Drum Group track and adjust that dial to taste.

I think the perfect VST for the job is Fab Filter Pro C2. A good starting point is using a preset called “Parallel Compression.” With this plugin, it’s easy to beef up and round out your drum sounds during the second stage of this two–stage parallel compression process.

Fab Filter Pro C2 Threshold

The main thing you need to keep your eye on is the threshold. You will want to pull this back until it is slightly tapping into the transients of the drums as it plays through. Once that’s set, start playing with the attack to make sure those transients are really coming through.

And there you have it — a nuanced yet powerful drum mix that is simply derived from applying parallel compression twice.

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