How to Pump Up Your Toms with Compression
Toms are arguably the most musical component of your drum kit. They're what transform a purely rhythmic instrument into a melodic one.
If you want your toms to deliver a huge, pumped-up sound, you'll need to inflate them with a compressor. Dynamic compression — more than any other effect — is the secret sauce for punchy, hard-hitting toms.
In this post, we'll walk you through tried-and-true methods for compressing toms. If you've struggled to achieve solid-sounding toms, the tips and tricks in this post are guaranteed to yank you out of your rut.
You Can't Polish a Turd
Inexperienced mix engineers have a tendency to stack plug-ins onto a track in an effort to achieve a studio-quality sound — even if the original track was recorded poorly.
This is a mistake, however. If a track sounds bad without processing, adding compression and other effects to it will likely make it sound worse.
Rather than trying to cover up a track's imperfections with plug-ins, try re-recording it instead. If re-recording the track isn't possible, such as when you're mixing somebody else's project, a sample replacement plug-in is the way to go.
Sample replacement plug-ins do exactly what their name suggests: they replace a subpar sound with a high-quality, studio-produced sound. This will enable you to give your toms a recorded-in-a-world-class-studio quality that's guaranteed to elevate your production.
You don't need to go all out, of course. If your toms sound limp, yet passable, try blending just enough of the samples to reinforce the original sound; if your toms are completely unusable, replace the original sound entirely.
After you get your toms sounding great without processing, then you'll be ready to go onto the next step.
A Word About Tuning
Since toms are melodic percussion instruments, tuning them to the key of your song will oftentimes make them sit in your mix better.
While this isn't essential, tuning your toms to the key of your song will avoid dissonant frequency collisions and weird oscillations — often perceived as an unpleasant ringing — especially when you're playing two toms at once. It will also allow you to let the toms ring out — you won't feel as compelled to dampen them.
Many tone aficionados feel that the tonic and dominant notes — the first and fifth degrees of the scale — are the best notes to aim for when tuning toms. Regardless, choose notes that are within the scale that corresponds to the key of your song.
It's also important to note that different tom sizes possess different optimal tuning ranges, so you should choose notes that are inside of this range. This will ensure that the tom not only sounds great in the context of your song, but also in isolation.
Remove Unwanted Resonances
Toms, like every other track in your mix, are prone to unwanted frequency buildups. Also known as resonances, these frequency pileups not only deplete dynamics and headroom, but they'll also hamper your ability to mix the track.
Historically, you'd get rid of unwanted resonance by instantiating a dynamic EQ plug-in on the offending track, creating a large boost with a narrow-Q bandwidth, then sweeping around the frequency spectrum to reveal any troublesome frequencies. You'd then lower the gain on the bad-sounding frequency band until the unwanted artifacts disappear.
Here at Mastering The Mix, we have a better solution: RESO. This indispensable plug-in is an effective solution for eradicating unwanted resonances. And it does it automatically — no tedious EQ sweeps required!
RESO really is a breeze to use — simply instantiate it on your tom tracks, click the Calculate Targets button, and RESO does the rest. RESO not only gives you Target Nodes for getting rid of the resonances, but it also supplies helpful setting suggestions for optimal results.
Inflating Your Toms: Where to Start
Alright, now that you've got tuned, clean, resonance-free tom tracks, it's time to deploy your favorite compressor. If you're a plug-in user, most full-featured compressor plugs will get the job done. Hardware compressors and analog-modeled plug-ins, such as SSL-, dbx 160-, and 1176-style compressors are also common picks in professional circles.
Whether you use a plug-in or hardware, the principles of using a compressor are the same. So, use our guide as a starting point, then tweak your tracks until you get the sound you're striving for.
Step one is to place a compressor either on each individual tom track, or on a stereo toms bus. Individual compressors will give you more control, while a stereo bus will yield a more cohesive sound.
As for compression settings, a 4:1 ratio, with a slow attack, and a release setting that blends musically with the rest of your mix, is an ideal place to start. After that, adjust the compressor's threshold until you achieve 2dB–6dB of gain reduction.
These settings should net you clear, punchy toms that really smack. If that's not the case, keep adjusting your compressor's ratio, attack, and release controls until you like what you hear.
A word of advice: don't use your plug-in's factory presets. It doesn't matter who programmed the presets, they're not listening to your mix — you are!
There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all compressor setting. That's why it's best to start from scratch and tweak the compressor using your ears.
Troubleshooting Tips for Toms
My Toms Sound Muddy
A muddy tom track (or several muddy tom tracks) is a surefire path to a muddy-sounding mix. Hence, you should eliminate low-frequency mud before you start compressing your snare track.
Lower-pitched drums, such as floor toms, contain more low-frequency information than higher-pitched drums, such as rack toms. Thus, you'll want to listen to — and tweak — each individual drum separately, if possible.
To eliminate low-frequency mud, fire up your favorite EQ plug-in and apply a highpass filter to each of your toms.
For floor toms, begin with a cutoff frequency around 10Hz and a slope around 12dB. Increase the cutoff frequency until the drum sounds too thin, then decrease the frequency until it sounds right.
For rack toms, start with a cutoff frequency around 30Hz and a slope around 12dB. Similar to floor toms, you'll increase the cutoff frequency until the drum sounds thin, then you'll decrease the frequency until you get the sound you're aiming for.
My Toms Sound Muffled and Distant
If your toms take on a muffled or distant quality after you apply compression, try using a slower attack setting. Most likely, your compressor is muting your drum's transients.
Adjust the compressor's attack time so the transient pokes through before the gain reduction kicks in. This will maximize both the tom's attack and add the desired level of punchiness.
My Toms Sound Unbalanced
If your toms contain out-of-whack frequencies, you'll need to reach for an equalizer. To start with, create a 100Hz boost for body and a subtle 7–8kHz boost for definition.
If you want modern, transparent-sounding toms, boost around 3kHz. If you want a more natural, classic sound, try boosting in the 500Hz range.
There's no reason to get heavy-handed with EQ boosts. If your toms need excessive EQ-ing, try re-recording them or using sample replacement.
You can use any EQ for this purpose, but if you're tired of all the time-consuming guesswork, take our MIXROOM plug-in for a test drive. MIXROOM is an intuitive EQ that arms you with application-specific presets and target frequencies based on a reference track.
It's a cinch to use — simply instantiate it on an individual tom track or on a stereo bus, choose an applicable channel preset, or create a custom target value with the Target icon on the bottom left corner of the plug-in's interface and import a reference track.
MIXROOM's Target EQ Curve allows you to achieve a pro-level sound without any mind-numbing trial and error. What's more, you can use the Add Smart Bands button to deploy EQ bands matching the Target EQ Curve.
MIXROOM is a major time saver, even for experienced mix engineers. After all, who wouldn't benefit from having intelligent EQ starting points right at their fingertips?
My Toms Sound Boring
If your toms are missing that certain something, a character compressor can inject it with the right level of bite and color to make it pop within the context of your mix.
Probably the number one tried-and-true character compressor is a Distressor-style comp. Distressors can deliver both 1176- and LA-2A-style compression, plus they include a built-in saturation circuit for adding grit to your track.
You can also use 1176-style comps, SSL-style comps, and API-style comps for adding character. These studio classics have been used by engineers for decades for their ear-grabbing sonic coloration.
Take It the Rest of the Way With a Reference Track
When you mix for a long period of time, it's easy to lose perspective — especially if you don't rest your ears. This type of ear fatigue is common, even among seasoned professionals.
That's why experienced mix engineers use reference tracks. Reference tracks are professionally mixed and mastered songs that you use for a periodic reality check, and they're vital to achieving a balanced mix that translates well to other playback systems.
Our REFERENCE plug-in makes using reference tracks super-easy. All you need to do is import a reference track you'd like to emulate, preferably within the same genre you're working on, then use the reference track's toms as a benchmark for how yours should sound.
Reference tracks will help keep levels in check, it will make EQ decisions easier, and it will assist you in getting the right sound and behavior out of your tom's compressor.
Simply put, a reference track will ensure that the toms in your song sounds as good as — or better — than everything else in your listener's queue.
It's a hard fact: if you want punchy-sounding toms, you need well-tweaked compression. Following our mixing tips and tricks is an easy — and effective — way to take your mixes to the next level.