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  • Writer's pictureSteven Meloney

How to Mix Big Punchy Sounding Rock Drums

You’ve finishing recording your drums and now you’re in the mix phase. Your goal is to get your raw drum tracks to boom, crack, punch, and thump through your mix. You want them to have power and definition, with clear highs and focused bottom end. You understand how crucial this is in rock music, since the drums make up such a huge portion of the overall sonic imprint of your song.


In this article, we will explore how to build an awesome sounding drum mix from the ground up, following these 6 steps:



Lastly we’ll discuss some Additional Tricks such as how to reduce bleed, how to make the snare sound huge with gated reverb, and how to infuse the drum kit with energy using parallel compression.


There is no right or wrong way to mix drums. This approach is one of many. At the very least I hope I can offer a helpful guideline, and show you some useful techniques.


Before we begin, it’s worth acknowledging that if your drums don't sound decent to begin with, no amount of mixing magic can save them - as we say in the biz, you can’t polish a turd. Check out my article How to Record Awesome Drums At Home for a comprehensive breakdown of the drum tracking process.


Also feel free to download The Step by Step Guide to Professional Recording at Home here, which is applicable to any instrument!


Let’s get some meters bouncing.


 

Step 1: Drum Mix Prep


Start With A Clean Slate


If you already started mixing, remove any plug-ins and automation from your drum tracks. If you’ve got some processing on your drums that you don't want to lose, select "file > save as" and save a new version of your project. Now you’ll be free to make changes while always having the option to return to the original version.


Prepare Auxiliary Tracks


Next we are going to create some auxiliary tracks for subgrouping so we can process multiple sound sources at once. Here’s what we need:


  • Overheads on one channel - If your overheads are on separate mono channels, route them to a single stereo aux channel for processing, or drag the regions onto a single stereo audio track.


  • Multi-mic'd drums on one channel - Have a snare top and bottom mic? Route them to a single mono aux track for processing. Do the same for any individual drums that have more than one mic on them.


  • Drum submix - A stereo aux channel that all the drum tracks output to, so we can control and process the kit as a whole.

Subgrouping drum tracks for mixing

Note: It is crucial to use the output of your tracks to do this routing, NOT the sends. This is because we want to completely re-route the tracks, not duplicate their signals.



Identify Reference Tracks


The last thing we’ll need is to select a decent reference track. Pick one or two tracks that have a drum sound you’d like to achieve, and keep them handy to reference as you mix. If possible, import them into your project. After your drum tracks are prepped and before you begin to mix, listen to your reference tracks. Note their tonal and dynamic characteristics. This sets your ears straight so you have an idea of what things should sound like before you start.



Step 2: Initial Balance


Before we can really evaluate our drum sound and make mix processing decisions, we need to build an initial balance between all the different mics. I recommend doing this as quickly as possible for two reasons: One, it keeps your ears fresh, and two, you will be rebalancing again later after we have shaped and sculpted our drum tones anyway.


To build your initial balance, start with the faders all the way down. Since the overheads are usually the only mics that have captured the entire kit, bring these up first. Then bring each track up one at a time in order of importance - usually kick and snare are next, followed by hat and toms. As you bring each fader up, note the position you land on, then continue to push the fader up until it’s too loud. Bring it back down and note the new position you land on. Somewhere in between those two positions is going to be your sweet spot.



Step 3: Kick and Snare


This is rock music. We want to feel attacked when the kick thumps and the snare cracks, and we expect the kick and snare to carry much of the rhythm in our song. This importance is a clear indicator that we should start here.


Listen


Loop the chorus or a climactic section of the song. Listen to the kick and snare in context with the song. Don’t solo them - ultimately they will only be heard in context with the rest of the song, and so this is how they should be evaluated. If you need to hear them more clearly, turn them up instead of soloing.


The main thing we want to note is the consistency of the volume level of each hit. If the volume is fairly consistent then we won’t need much compression (and you should thank your drummer), but if some hits are much quieter or louder than others we’ll need more compression to even them out. Also listen to the frequency responses - do they have too much or too little low end? Do they have any annoying resonances or frequencies that poke out? Do they overpower any other instrument in the mix? Are they overpowered by another instrument in the mix?


Compress


The first use of compression is for leveling inconsistent volume levels - skip this if you don't hear these issues! By using fast attack and slow release times, we can even out the volume of drum hits without altering their tonal character. Once attack and release times are set, use the threshold setting to adjust the amount of compression. Exact attack, release, and ratio settings will be different for every drum, so you’ll need to use your ears!


Pro Tip: Drum transients typically last anywhere from 5 to 50 ms.


The second use of compression is to shape the envelope of the drum. By adjusting attack and release times appropriately, we can change the volume relationship between the transient and sustain of each hit.


  • A slow attack and slow release will lower the volume of the sustain, accentuating the transient, and yielding more spit and spank.

  • A fast attack and fast release will lower the volume of the transient, accentuating the sustain, and yielding fatness and girth.

Effects of compression attack and release times on snare drum

EQ


Just like compression, the first use of equalizers should always be to correct problems you’ve identified, and second to make creative changes to the sound.


  • Use shelving filters to fix general frequency imbalances between high and lows

  • Cut any mud or annoying resonant frequencies with peak filters

  • Boost any key features of the sound that you want to accentuate

  • Always EQ in context of the mix


A Note About Processing: Generally, humans think things sound better just because they are louder. For this reason, it is very important to use the output gain of your plug-in to match the level of your instrument when the plug-in is bypassed. This way when you turn the plug-in on and off to compare before and after, you will be judging only the plug-in’s sonic effect, and your perception won’t be skewed due to a difference in volume.



Step 4: Overheads


After kick and snare, the overheads are next most important to the sound of the drums. They are the only mics that have captured a well balanced sound for the entire drum kit at once, making them particularly important.


Listen


Listen to the overheads for any obvious issues such as volume inconsistencies, and frequency imbalances like harshness or dullness in the high end, and boxiness or thinness in the midrange. Use what you hear to guide your decisions for setting compression and eq.


Compress


When compressing drum overheads we have to be careful to pay attention to the cymbals. We want our overheads to sound natural, clear, and articulate, while also being punchy and present. But they are often the main source of the cymbals, and a compressor can easily destroy the integrity of the cymbal decay. Check crash cymbal hits when dialing in overhead compression, paying special attention to release times.


  • Start with a gentle ratio, and a threshold setting that gives a consistent 3-6dB of gain reduction. Then adjust attack and release times to taste.


EQ


Always EQ in context of the mix, if you need to hear the overheads more clearly, turn them up instead of soloing, then rebalance them after EQing.


  • Cut low end rumble with a high pass filter to make room for the kick mic and tighten up the low end.

  • Use the midrange to shape snare if necessary

  • Use the high end to blend the cymbals into the track appropriately



Step 5: The Room Mic


The room mic is the secret sauce to making drums sound fat and explosive. Process the room mic well, and when you fade it up the drums will come alive. There are two main things to do when processing the room mic.


Room Mic Processing


  1. Compress Heavily - Use an aggressive ratio, fast attack, and fast release. Adjust the threshold until the drums sound trashy, boomy, and fat.

  2. EQ Out Lows and Highs - Use gently sloped high pass and low pass filters. The idea here is to make room in the mix for the high end of the overheads and low end of the kick mic to be heard most prominently.


But what if I don’t have a room mic?


We can simulate one by using another aux track and a reverb plug-in. Here’s how:


Create an Artificial Room Mic


  1. Create a mono or stereo aux track with input set to a “room bus” and output set to the “drum bus.” Go stereo if you want to create a wider sound. Go mono for increased punch and focus.

  2. Use a send to route signals from each of the original drum tracks to the room bus.

  3. Add a reverb plug-in with a very short, room-like setting on the aux track and make sure the dry/wet controls are set to 100% wet and 0% dry.

  4. Process just the same as if it were a real room mic.


Occasionally, I’ll create this artificial room track even if I already have a real room mic recorded. It can be a great way to add excitement and a sense of space to your drums.


Rebalance


Now that we've dialed in the basic kick, snare, overhead, and room mic sounds, we can reassess their fader positions. I like to start with my overheads at unity gain, and fade the close mics in one at a time starting with kick and snare. If you have hi-hat or tom mics, now is the time to fade them up as well. As you fade up and set the level for each new mic, listen to how it adds to the overall sound of the drums, make eq and compression changes as needed to fix any problems that arise.



Step 6: Drum Bus Processing


At this point we have processed and balanced all our individual drum tracks, and things should be sounding pretty good. In fact, some of you may even be able to to skip this step altogether, but for most of us the drums can still benefit from further processing.


Compare your mix with your reference tracks. Listen for overall dynamic consistency and balance between lows mids and highs. This will inform us about what kinds of processing we might want to try on the drum bus.


The actual processing decisions you make will be based on what you hear in your comparisons. I recommend making smaller and more broad changes, and avoiding drastic ones since we are now affecting the entire drum kit at once rather than just a single piece of it. If you are experimenting or just not sure what to try, consider these options:


  • Use subtractive EQ to carve out room for other instruments such as vocals and guitars in the frequency spectrum, as necessary.

  • Use a bus-style compressor to “glue” the drums together

  • Send the entire kit to a reverb track

  • EQ using peak filters and shelves to blend and shape the overall drum sound with the rest of the song


Additional Tricks


This article has been focused on the things that are most important to the sonic character of a huge, punchy sounding drum kit. But we haven’t covered everything you can do to make your drums sound awesome. Here are a few more techniques you might try to further enhance the sound of your drums.


Reduce Bleed on Close Mics with a Gate


This is particularly useful for toms, but is just as effective on kick and snare. It’s often ideal to place the gate before any compression in the signal chain - it will usually be more effective on a signal with more dynamic range


Make Snare Hits Super Fat with Gated Reverb

  1. Create a new aux track with a big fat reverb followed by a gate

  2. Send the snare to the aux track

  3. Adjust the gate so that it closes shortly after the reverb begins

  4. Mix this in with the rest of your drum sound to taste


Add Energy to the Drums with Parallel Compression

  1. Create a new stereo aux track and put a compressor on it

  2. Send the drum submix to the new aux track

  3. Punish the drums with the compressor

  4. Mix the compressed drum track with the original drum submix to taste


Note: If you have a compressor plug-in with a mix knob or wet/dry control, you can do this without creating another track!

Tame Wild Cymbals with Multi-Band Compression or a Frequency-Selective Dynamics Processor


Some compressors allow us the option to affect only a selected frequency range of the sound. These types of processors are great for controlling low end or annoying mid-range frequencies that are only a problem at certain points in the song.



Summary


In rock and all of its many sub-genres, the drum kit is a huge portion of the overall sonic imprint of a song. The kick, snare, overheads, and room mic are the most important tracks for heavy sounding rock drums. With a little compression, EQ, and reverb, we can shape the drum sound and therefore shape the sonic foundation of our song. Our compression, EQ, and reverb choices are made easier, faster, and more effective if we create the aux tracks and routing connections for subgroups before we start mixing. We can also make the most objective decisions if we prepare our ears with well-chosen reference tracks.


 

It is my goal to help you create the best sounding music possible. I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments please drop me a line! I’m even happy to listen to your mix and provide some feedback.


Don’t forget to read How to Record Awesome Drums At Home for a comprehensive breakdown of the drum tracking process. Getting awesome tones during tracking makes mixing easier, more fun, and yields a far better result!


Lastly, download The Step by Step Guide to Professional Recording at Home for a practical recording guide that can be used over and over again for any instrument!

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I help artists capture pro-sounding recordings, mix and master them to commercial release quality, and make a meaningful impact on their listeners. People work with me because I understand the musical process from writing to recording to promotion to release (I’m a musician too!). Along the way I offer my 20 years of experience, access to professional studios and equipment, and my network of music industry pros to help you record and release awesome tracks, and further your development as an artist.

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