How to do a great drum mix


Updated 22 February 2020

I’ve created this detailed guide to help you produce a great drum mix

I started drumming on things before I could read – my parents finally caved in and sent me to drumming lessons when I was 8 years old and I’ve never looked back!

I start my mixes with drums – they build a solid foundation for the whole song. It’s important to get the drums sounding punchy and tight before adding other instruments to the mix. 

In this article, I’ll cover the following steps that I use to edit and mix drums.

  1. Labeling and Grouping
  2. Punch in the best parts from multiple takes
  3. Edits and Timing Adjustments
  4. Removing Ambient Noise
  5. Gating
  6. Equalization (EQ)
  7. Compression
  8. Replacement
  9. Automation

Labeling and Groups

The first thing I like to do is make sure every track is labeled clearly so you can see at a glance which track you’re working on. Secondly, it’s good to set up a drum group for edits. This means we can make changes to the whole group of tracks together and keep the edits consistent across all the tracks. This is important – otherwise, you may get artifacts bleeding through from different mics (like the overheads) that could be slightly out of time with your main kick and snare tracks. I like to work in Pro Tools, so this workflow that I’ll talk you through is based on grouping in Pro Tools – the principles apply to other DAWs too. 

To create a group, select all your drum tracks then hit Command-G (Mac) or Ctrl-G (PC). Make sure you set up the group with the ‘edit’ box ticked. When you’ve got the group enabled, edit changes that you make to waveforms – like shifting, splicing and lining up different takes.

Takes

Let’s assume you have a couple of good takes you’re working with – you need to splice a couple of sections together from each take. (Maybe the drummer rushed one of the fills). I like to use markers – first listen through each take and tap the enter key on the numeric keypad – usually on the far bottom-right corner of your keyboard. This will add a marker in a spot as you’re listening – this saves stopping and starting and trying to click on the marker track in the right spot. The marker will be placed in exactly the spot where you hit the enter key. 

So, make sure your click track is enabled then play through each take and listen for sections that are out of time that need fixing, or for sections that are really tight that you want to use. Place the markers as you’re listening through

Once you’ve completed that, you can begin to consolidate your perfect drum track by taking the best sections from each take. In Pro Tools, you can use the Playlist function for takes. If you do this, everything is already lined up in the correct place. You can use the Split command (Command-E/Ctrl-E) to create a cut, then drag a new section in from another take. (A reminder again to make sure your edit group is enabled so all your drum tracks move together).

Once you’ve completed this, you’ll have all the best sections from all the takes consolidated together.

Edits and Timing

The next thing to do is to get transitions between edits sounding smooth. This may mean moving the punch in and punch out placements so you’re not getting unnatural transitions. Things to listen out for are particularly the cymbals. If you’ve punched in in the wrong place, you’ll hear the cymbal suddenly sound like it’s cut off unnaturally.

Once your transitions are sounding smooth, then you want to crossfade. In Pro Tools I like to use the multi-edit tool which means I can highlight the end of a waveform, hover over the bottom corner of the edge of the waveform and see the crossfade icon appear. Then I can quickly drag to create a fade between 2 sections which then joins the whole thing up so it sounds seamless and natural.

Timing Adjustments

So now we have the best sections of takes spliced and joined together, we want to work on the overall timing of all the drum tracks. With the click track enabled, listen through again.

Your audio editing software or DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) will have some tools for making timing edits to make the performance tighter. Pro Tools has the ‘Elastic Time’ function and Logic Pro has a similar function called ‘Flex Time’. You can read more about the features in all the popular DAWs in my article – The Easiest DAW for beginners.

Although we spent time in the previous section getting the best sections spliced together – there will still be some parts that aren’t perfect. Many drummers speed up or rush going into a fast or complicated fill. Some drummers naturally push the tempo a bit too far – so you’ll want to align everything to the grid so you can get the whole song sounding tight and fat and locking in with other instruments. Invest some time now on tidying up the timing – it will help you later on.

If we zoom right in on the grid here, you can see the waveform of the snare hit is significantly early compared with the grid, which means the drummer was rushing in this section of the song. It’s not just a matter of moving one snare hit, we have to work on the whole section so it sounds natural. The lead up to this section should feel consistent, then getting back into the groove should flow nicely too.

The best way to do this is to find a section just before this part – where the timing was more accurate to the grid. This will be your starting point where you start your timing edits. A couple of bars back, the snare hits are close to the grid line – meaning the drummer was syncing well with the click. 

We’ll manually move each beat slightly forward to get rid of that rushed feeling of this section of the song. Make sure you edit grouping is turned on so any edit on the snare track will apply to all the drum tracks.

Once you’ve completed all the timing edits throughout the song, we can move onto the next part. Just a side note here, while you are doing these timing edits, you should only be listening to the drum tracks and the click track. If you have any other scratch guitar or bass tracks, mute these so you can focus on the drums.

OK, once you’ve done that, the drum timing through the whole song should feel like it’s flowing in time with the click, grooving naturally, not rushing, speeding up or dragging in any sections of the song. 

It’s even more ideal if you can get the drummer to play perfectly in time with the click, but that doesn’t always happen! 

One of the joys of editing is bringing to life the ideas and creative work that a drummer has and making it sound as good as it possibly can! This role of editing as being important – not taking away from the art and creativity of a musician, but adding to it bringing out the best of the ideas.

Removing Ambient Noise

The next thing to work on is removing ambient noise in some tracks. What you’ll find is that tom mics and sometimes other mics will pick up lots of bleed from cymbals or other drums. Tom mics, in particular, are a classic one for this. This is a big opportunity to tighten up your mixes even more and get them sounding fat.

Let’s start with Tom 1. If we zoom in on a Tom track, you can see there are only a few sections where the drummer was actually playing this tom. These are clearly seen by the larger waveform. There are lots of little audio artefacts that are bleeding from other drums and cymbals throughout the entire song. Later on when EQing these tom tracks, you don’t want these strange sounding cymbal artefacts or snare hits interfering with your mix. There are a couple of ways you can approach removing these – 1. You can do it manually, or 2 you can use a noise gate.

For the toms, I prefer to do the edits manually. Usually, there’s not heaps of tom work in a song, which means you can easily do manual edits to delete sections fo the waveform where the drummer is not actually playing that tom.

Here’s a screenshot of a tom track showing just a couple of sections where the tom is actually active – the rest has just been deleted.

I approach snare and kick a bit differently. Because generally the kick and snare are played consistently throughout the song, it’s not usually possible to delete big sections of the waveform from the song. That’s where a noise gate comes in.

Gating on drums

Once you’ve edited out sections from your waveform where there is no useful audio, you may still want to add a noise gate to help filter out more ambient noises. A noise gate attenuates (reduces in volume) any signal below the threshold that you set. So if you set a threshold at -20db, the gate will stay closed until some audio above -20db hits it.

Gating can be challenging on drums because the variation in velocity makes it difficult to get the threshold setting just right. Here’s a trick to get around this – duplicate the track that you want to gate – then run them through a trigger plugin (Slate Digital’s Trigger is a good one) – replace the output with a click sample that has consistent velocity. You can then feed that into the sidechain input of the gate for the track you’re working on. 

To make it work even better – you can nudge the clicks back slightly so that the gate will open just before the transient.

It’s hard to say exactly what settings you should start with for your tracks as every project is different. Here are some defaults I have saved, but you’ll want to tweak them for your tracks

Noise Gate settings for Snare

  • Threshold: -18db
  • Reduction: -25db
  • Attack: 1-3ms
  • Hold: 100-150ms
  • Release time: 40ms

Noise Gate settings for Kick Drum

  • Threshold: -15db
  • Reduction: -30db
  • Attack: 1-2ms
  • Hold: 80-120ms
  • Release time: 20-40ms

Noise gate settings for toms

  • Threshold: -15db
  • Reduction: -30db
  • Attack: 1-2ms
  • Hold: 80-120ms
  • Release time: 20-40ms

You don’t need to gate your overhead mics though – you’ll want your overhead tracks to provide an overall picture of the whole drum kit. Gating them would have them cutting in and out and you’d lose a lot of the cymbal decay and ambient room noise that you want from overheads.

We’ve now made some great progress on cleaning up our drum tracks. The next step is EQ.

Do you use compression or EQ first?

My preference is to put EQ first – so when I compress, I’ll be emphasizing the sound that I already have EQ’d. Some people have other views on this so experiment and see what works best for you!

EQ Settings for kick

I like to give the Kick a little 3db boost at around 100hz and a 3db cut at 80hz. Use a parametric EQ with a tight Q setting. The reason for this – for most kick drums, 100hz seems to emphasize the punch that comes around 100hz and remove some of the low-end rumble that starts to appear at 80hz. I’ll do the opposite on the bass guitar (or synth bass) track. Then the two instruments are working together to fill up the bottom end of the mix, rather than fighting for space in the 80-100hz range.

I usually find there is a bit of mud in the kick drum track around 300-400hz. This depends on the kick drum itself and the mic placement, but generally, I’ll do a small cut around these frequencies.

I like to do a boost around 4Khz which emphasizes definition and the ‘click’ of the kick drum. This works well for a range of styles but particularly for rock and metal where you really want the kick to cut through.

EQ Settings for Snare Drum

Most of the time, roll-off everything on the snare tracks under 150hz. Everything under that frequency is interfering with the sound of the low frequency instruments like kick and bass. It gets a bit muddy down there.

Add a small boost between 180-220hz – where the warmth and body of the snare is. There is often a nasty resonance or ping on snare drums around 200-300hz, so I’ll scoop that out slightly.

It’s nice to get some of the mids from the snare which cut through the mix around 1khz and some definition around 3khz.

Saturation on Snare

There’s an interesting plugin which you can use on snare called PSP MixSaturator. The “warmth” control is designed to simulate the distinctive low frequency that tape machines have. If you add 10% “warmth” at around 200-300Hz you can create a massive thud that brings a lot of body to the snare. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but try it and see what you think! Put this in your signal path before the compressor and it drastically alters the way the compressor interacts with the snare transient. The resulting snare sound is a big wide “dooff” sound – that works well for sound styles of music.

EQ settings for Toms

Each tom will be different depending on its size, tuning and the actual sound you’re going for. There are some general rules of thumb.

I like to roll everything off below 150hz, so you’re not interfering with kick or bass guitar.

Do a small cut around 400-500hz to get rid of any annoying resonance or pingy noise. (The exact frequency will depend on the size of your tom and it’s tuning). To find the resonance on a parametric EQ, set one of your frequency bands around 300hz to a small Q value, boost it by 10db and then drag it left and right to find where the resonance is the nastiest to your ears. Then reduce the gain to -3db so you’re cutting that frequency down. Then if you need to you can widen the Q value slightly.

You can do a small boost around 1.5khz to 2khz to bring some definition.

EQ Settings for Hi-hats

The next thing I like to work on EQing is the hi hat mic.I like a really crisp sizzly hi-hat sound that sounds like it’s really sparkling through the top of the mix. To get this, you’re going to want the high frequencies to be clear and defined. I recommend a boost around 8khz to 10khz which is where that sparkle starts to appear.

You want to roll off a fairly decent chunk from the bottom of the hihat mic, because you’ll normally get a lot of bleed from your snare drum and some from the kick too. You want to play with your High pass filter so the roll off is just below the tone of the body of the hi-hats. In my experience this is around 250hz.

You also get a nasty sort of resonant noise around the 500hz range so I suggest notching -3db with a small Q around there. You want some energy and body from the hihats to come through around 1khz – so you can try a small boost there.

EQ Settings for Overhead mics

You want the overheads to be complementing all your other EQ choices. Primarily your overhead mic will be brining forward cymbals in your mix – crash, ride and maybe a china. If you weren’t close miking the drums, you’d leave more of them coming through, but assuming you have dedicated mics on snare and toms, I suggest a pretty dramatic roll off the bottom of the overheads. Listen out for resonance around 300-400hz range and do a small cut there. Like we did with the hihats, to get the cymbals sparkling in the top end, try a small boost around 8-khz to 9khz.

Compression on Drums

The next thing in the signal path should be compression. 

In a nutshell, compression helps even out the volume of the audio. Take a snare drum hit for example – in the screenshot below you can see quite a variation in volume in these snare hits. Drummers usually have variation in where they hit the drum and how hard they hit it, depending on if they’re playing a faster or slower beat, whether they are adding ghost notes.

Compression can reduce the volume of the louder sections to more closely match the quieter sections resulting in the overall levels being more consistent. 

Compression settings for Snare Drum

  • Threshold: -30db
  • Attack 1ms 
  • Ratio: 4:1 
  • Release: 80-100 ms 
  • Gain: 3db – 5db

The settings above are my ‘go-to’ starting settings, but each project is slightly different so you’ll need to tweak it a bit to get it to work

A snare drum has a very loud ‘attack’ or ‘crack’ and then a fast decay – the transient is much quieter than the hit. So we want a very fast attack sound usually 1ms or less.

To get the attack time right – there’s a simple trick to this. Lower the threshold all the way to it’s lowest possible setting so it’s working on everything, then increase the ratio to it’s highest possible setting. What you’ll hear now is a very heavily compressed sound – it’s not usable at this point, but from here we can set the attack time correctly. To do this, lower the attack time to it’s shortest possible time (10us in my example). You’ll probably hear nothing at this point!

Now you can slowly creep the attack time up until you start to hear the ‘click’ of the attack. This will be the correct attack time. I usually find this sits around 1ms for snare.

Now you can reduce the ratio to something more reasonable like 4:1.  Gradually adjust the threshold back to a level where the drum starts to come to life – for snare this is usually about -30db or -25db.

The last thing to adjust is the release time – for snare this should be around 80-100ms, depending on the tempo of your song and how busy the snare part is. You want the compressor to close again after the end of the snare transient has finished.

After you’ve applied compression to your track, the resulting output is often quieter than the input. The gain or ‘makeup gain’ setting on the output allows you to boost the signal back to the level it was at on the input.

Here’s the screenshot of my final snare compression settings on a track I’m working on.

For even more detail about snare drum compression read: How to compress a snare drum for rock music.

Note there are some other settings that we haven’t covered in this like Knee and Sidechain – don’t worry too much about these if you’re starting out. The most important things to learn are Attack, Ratio, Release and Threshold.

So we’ve got these 2 hits here, one is sitting at approx -5db, this one is down at -25db. What we can do with compression is say – any hit below -10db, we are going to increase the volume by a 4:1 ratio. The compression is going to open and operate for 100ms – this gives it time to process the transient audio as well as the attack

Advanced tip:

If you want to get clever, you can feed the sidechain of the compressor with the kick track (if it’s playing a simple straight pattern) – which opens up the compressor before the snare attack hits.

Compression settings for Kick Drum

  • Threshold: -10db
  • Attack: 5ms
  • Ratio 5:1
  • Release: 100ms

Compression settings for Toms

  • Threshold: -10db
  • Attack: 5ms
  • Ratio: 4:1
  • Release: 100ms

Replacement

Depending on the style of music you are working on, you may decide to replace some of the drum sounds, or augment them with samples. This enables you to get more consistent dynamics which will cut through – particularly useful for snare and kick in heavier music like rock and metal. 

I really like Slate’s Trigger software for doing this.

Automation

If you do end up replacing the drums, I recommend automating the velocity of the sample so it matches the song dynamics and feels natural. In quieter sections of the song like a verse, you can bring everything back a bit so it feels more mellow, then build up the intensity for the bigger chorus and bridge sections of the song. 

You could even set up a separate sample for different sections of the song to emulate more naturally how a drummer would play – more laid back in verses and quieter sections and with more energy and bigger hits in the climatic parts of the song.

Mix bus compression

If you’ve come this far, the final step is to set up a mix bus for drums and add a small amount of compression over the entire drum mix. The general idea is to get your drums fitting nicely into the mix – so they’re not overbearing. Just a very gentle amount of compression can help this. Don’t use too much, as the master limiting or compression will also do some of this.

If you’ve got a simple ‘4 on the floor’ kick pattern, you can feed the mix bus compressor’s sidechain with the kick – this can get a subtle ‘pumping’ rhythm which lets the whole drum kit breath with the rhythm of the song. This is a classic technique used in electronic music like House and Trance, but it can work in other styles too.

Well, that’s an overview of some techniques to get your drums sounding great in the mix. Feel free to experiment and have fun!

Remember, a great drum sound starts with a great recording. If you haven’t already, make sure you check out our other articles on recording drums. If you’re just starting out on a limited budget, one of our most popular articles on recording drums is this one: How to record drums with only 2 mics.

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