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A Step-by-Step Guide to Mixing Drums

The drum kit is one of the most complex elements in modern music. As the primary rhythmic instrument, drums are the foundation of most songs. And with multiple drums and cymbals that span the entire frequency spectrum, drum kits take up a huge part of the mix. 

That’s why it’s so important to nail the drum sound from the start—otherwise, you'll spend hours mixing and remixing your track. Keep reading to learn how to dial in the perfect drum sound with our step-by-step guide to mixing drums.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Mixing Drums

Balance

The first step to getting a solid drum sound is finding the right balance—not just between each element of the kit, but between the drums and the other instruments as well.

Start by listening to the drum kit and making sure you can hear each element clearly. The snare is typically the loudest element in the kit, followed by the kick and toms. Use the overhead and room mics to her create a space for the drums and make all of the close mics sound cohesive.

Even when you know what to listen for, it can be tricky to know when you’ve struck the right balance. That’s why I always use reference mixes to make sure I’m staying on track.

REFERENCE makes it easy to quickly compare your track to your favorite mixes. Drag your reference mixes into the Wave Transport, engage the Level Match feature, and press play.

Toggle back and forth between your mix and the references and listen carefully to the balance between each element in the mix. Then tweak the levels of each drum until you get the balance right. 

You can also check the Trinity Display at the bottom to see how the frequency balance, stereo width and punch of your track compares to your reference. Make note of any issues and tackle them as you work your way through the mix, starting with EQ.

Balance

EQ

When EQing drums, it’s important that you always listen in context. Using the solo button to hear an instrument more clearly may seem like a good idea, but you won’t be getting the full picture. You may be tempted to add more of a certain frequency that’s already abundant in the overhead mics, and so on.

Of course, every drum mix is unique, but here are a few key frequencies I always pay special attention to for each drum.

Kick

  • Remove any low-end rumble using a high-pass filter, up to 50 Hz depending on the mix

  • Boost the fundamental frequency of the kick, typically between 60 and 120 Hz (or cut if there’s too much)

  • Remove any mud in the low-mids, typically around 250 Hz

  • Remove any boxiness or excessive room tone in the midrange, typically between 250 Hz and 1 kHz

  • Boost the 1 - 5 kHz range to bring out the snap and attack of the beater (if needed)

Snare

  • Remove any low-end rumble using a high-pass filter, up to 100 Hz depending on the mix

  • Boost the fundamental frequency of the snare, typically between 150 and 250 Hz (or cut if there’s too much)

  • Remove any muddiness or boxiness in the low-mids, typically between 250 - 500 Hz

  • Remove any ringing in the snare drum with a narrow band, typically between 500 Hz and 1.5 kHz

  • Boost 3 - 5 kHz to add snap and attack if needed

  • Boost 8 kHz and above with a high shelf to add sizzle and air

Toms

  • Remove any low-end rumble using a high-pass filter, up to 100 Hz depending on the mix

  • Boost the fundamental frequency of the tom, typically between 80 and 200 Hz (or cut if there’s too much)

  • Remove any mud in the low-mids, typically around 250 Hz

  • Remove any boxiness or excessive room tone in the midrange, typically between 250 Hz and 1 kHz

  • Boost the 1 - 5 kHz range to add snap and attack (if needed)

Cymbals and Overheads

  • Make room for other low-end instruments by high-passing close-mic’d cymbals up to 300 Hz

  • Remove any mud in the low-mids, typically around 250 Hz

  • Remove any boxiness or excessive room tone in the midrange, typically between 250 Hz and 1 kHz

  • Carve out space for the vocal by making a small cut around 5 kHz, if needed

  • Boost above 8 kHz with a high-shelf to add sparkle and glimmer 

After dialing in your drum mix, add BASSROOM to the drum bus and use the target presets to make sure your low-end is in check. This can be a great way to quickly improve your drum mix without having to make EQ tweaks on each track.

EQ

Noise Gate / Transient Enhancement

Live drum recordings always suffer from noise bleed, or sound that picks up in multiple microphones. Not only does this make it tough to mix, it can make your drum tracks sound sloppy.

That’s why many engineers choose to use noise gates to remove drum bleed from the kick, snare and tom mics. Of course, this only works when dealing with close-mics. Using noise gates on the overhead mics makes it sound like someone keeps opening and closing the door to the recording studio. 

Add a noise gate to your drum track and set the threshold so that the gate is closed whenever the drum isn’t playing. Then, when the drum is hit and the signal exceeds the threshold, the gate is opened and you can hear the drum again. As soon as the signal falls back below the threshold, the gate is closed, removing any unwanted drum bleed.

However, this approach can sometimes make drum recordings sound sterile or choppy. For a more natural-sounding solution, try using PUNCH. PUNCH is a dynamic transient enhancement plug-in that can be used to accentuate the attack of a drum without muting the room tone for a more organic sound.

Noise Gate / Transient Enhancement

Compression

Compressors are powerful tools that allow you to control the dynamic response of a drum kit. They can be used to enhance the attack of each drum, create a more controlled sound, or help glue the whole mix together.

In many genres, it’s common to compress each drum channel individually. Although the settings may vary greatly, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Slow attack times allow the full impact of the drum to pass through and then clamp down on the sustain portion of the sound, helping the transients cut through the mix. But if the attack time is too slow, the compressor may not be fast enough to catch each transient.

Fast attack times shave off the initial transient of the hit, which can be great for adding control. But if the attack time is too fast, it sucks all of the impact out of the drum and pushes it further back in the mix.

When working with drums, it’s best to use moderate to fast release times. Fast release times can help add excitement and perceived loudness—but too fast can cause unwanted pumping sounds.

When setting attack and release times for drums, I like to start with the slowest attack time and fastest release time, then adjust to taste. I increase the attack time until I start to lose too much of the initial transient, then back off a bit. 

Then I slowly decrease the release time to make the compressor “breathe” in time with the tempo of the song. I want to see the needle moving 3-6 dB each time the drum hits and returning back to 0 just before the next hit.

I typically start with the ratio around 4:1 and increase it for a more aggressive sound, or decrease it for a more gentle sound, like for overheads and cymbal mics.

Except when it comes to parallel compression—then I crank the ratio as high as it will go. Some engineers will use parallel compression on the whole drum bus, but I find it makes the cymbals sound rather noisy. 

I typically send kick, snare and toms to an aux bus, smash them to smithereens, and gently blend them back in to help beef up the sound. Using heavy compression on the room mics creates an exciting, energetic sound that’s great for some tracks too.

Compression

Reverb

When you listen to a drum kit, you listen to the whole thing. You don’t listen with your ear three inches from the snare drum. That’s why a drum mix with all close mics sounds claustrophobic. Reverb is a great tool for adding depth and space to any drum mix.

Depending on the genre, you may choose a small room. Something bright and echoing like a garage, or something smooth and warm like a wooden recording studio.

Hall reverbs are also a common choice when working with drums. Perfect for more “live” sounding material, hall reverbs capture the sound of drums being played in a live music venue.

If you’re looking for something dark, moody and ambient, try a plate reverb. These classic reverbs give your drums a cool metallic sound that’s great for adding space by smearing the sound.

Reverb

Bus Processing

Finally, I always like to apply a round of bus processing as the cherry on top. 

First, I start with a colorful shelf EQ to help add a little thump in the lows and sparkle in the highs.

Then I use a fast-acting compressor (preferably with a side-chain filter and an automatic release) to glue the mix together with a little bus compression.

Depending on the mix, I may use a stereo enhancement tool like GROW to help add excitement—especially in the high frequencies above 8 or 10 kHz.

And last but not least, I always like to top off my drum mix with a little saturation. Personally, I like using a tape machine emulation plug-in to help give my drum mix that final coat of polish. 

Not only does it add harmonics, which helps the drums cut through the mix, it also rolls-off the highs and fattens up the low-mids with a compression-like effect.

Bus Processing

Recap

That was a lot to take in, right? Let’s have a quick recap:

  • Use reference mixes to help you balance each element of the drum kit

  • Use EQ to cut problem frequencies and enhance what you like about each drum

  • Use noise gates or transient enhancement to make help reduce drum bleed

  • Use compression to add attack, tighten up the performance, and make the drums breathe in time with the tempo of the track

  • Use room, hall or plate reverb to create a space and add depth to your drums

  • Use bus processing to apply the final coat of polish that takes your mix over the top

Follow these simple steps and you’ll be well on your way to professional-sounding drum mixes! 

SHOP MASTERING THE MIX PLUGINS

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REFERENCE | Mixing and mastering utility plugin

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