Sizzle, Punch, and Groove

Tips and strategies from Electronic Musician for getting the most from your drum tracks in the mix. Covers subjects like planning for the mix, 3-D mixing techniques, panning strategies, equalization and compression, and more.
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Tips and strategies from Electronic Musician for getting the most from your drum tracks in the mix. Covers subjects like planning for the mix, 3-D mixing techniques, panning strategies, equalization and compression, and more.

The drum kit presents a mix engineer with a variety of tracks to deal with, but the content of those tracks is a real grab bag of sounds. Between kick, snare, toms, and cymbals, the drum set covers the entire audible frequency range, as well as extremes in dynamics. It's no wonder that drums are one of the most difficult instruments to get right in a mix.

Of course, mixing is an art, and art can't really be taught — especially within the confines of one short article. But mixing is also a trade, and as such has spawned various tricks of the trade, many of which can be taught.


A danger of talking about drum mixing as a separate topic is that the inexperienced might be seduced into thinking that a killer-sounding drum mix is an end in itself. It's not. A great drum mix is still just a part of the total mix; like any of the parts, it must be appropriate for, and supportive of, the song and arrangement.

The first step to mixing any song, then, is to familiarize yourself with it. Start by pushing up all the faders and listening to it over and over. Make the obvious level adjustments while you're listening, of course, so that the thing has the general shape of a mix. But don't start processing tracks yet — just listen. What does the song need from the drums? What is it asking for? A rock ballad, for example, might cry out for a huge backbeat and thunderous toms, whereas a jazz ballad might need only for the drums to whisper and caress. You also need to ask yourself whether the drums are going to be the focal point of the rhythm section, or whether they'll be subservient to some other element such as the rhythm guitar or bass.

It's helpful to start a mix with a clear vision of the song, a mental final mix of how you think it should sound. Only when you have some direction for the song can you properly assess the role of the drums. It's all about context.


Every great stereo mix also sounds three-dimensional — tall, deep, and wide. Tall refers to frequency range (how well all the frequencies are represented), wide to lateral positioning (where the instruments “appear” left to right across the soundstage), and deep to depth of soundstage (how close up or far away each instrument sounds in relation to the “front” of the soundstage).

Therefore, think in 3-D terms, for not only the whole mix but also for the drums. A drum kit, after all, comprises a bunch of parts spread out all over the place. Reflecting a (believable) sense of that spread-outness will deepen the dimensionality of the whole mix.

One of my personal mix tricks is to take the three dimensions one at a time: width first, height second, and depth third. That helps me focus on maximizing each dimension. Here's the strategy, laid out in that order.


Once you have the vision for the song, see how close you can get to realizing it by manipulating volume levels and pan positions only. Starting that way keeps you focused on the song as a whole and helps avoid the easy distraction of soloing and processing individual tracks, only to find that they don't work once reintroduced to the mix.

Don't worry — in the course of shaping the mix using only the tracks as they are, you will soon become aware of what's missing, what's clashing, what needs tweaking or muting, and so on.


When panning drums, envision an area on the soundstage where the kit is set up. Note that you can mix as if looking at the drums from behind or in front of the kit — there's no right or wrong here.

What's important is to choose one perspective and stick with it. To that end, make sure the panning of the overhead mics corresponds with the panned positions of the toms (assuming they are individually close-miked). Simply solo the panned overheads (during a tom-fill passage), note which direction the tom fill goes, make a mental note of where each tom hits, and then pan the individual tom tracks accordingly. This will tighten the drum mix and will help clarify the location and punch of each tom in the stereo field.

The usual goal when panning is to create an uncluttered soundstage in which each instrument can clearly be heard and its position identified. Assuming you're going for a natural drum perspective (the best place to start, usually), keep the overall “width” of the drum image consistent with the number of instruments on the soundstage. In the case of an 18-piece big band, for example, the drum kit would likely be panned into a small area (between, say, 11 and 12 o'clock), so it won't “step on” the other instruments. A power-trio mix, on the other hand, would allow for wider drum pans.


When setting pans, don't rely visually on the location of pan pots. Pan pots used in budget consoles are not very exacting, with the result that their positions on the mixer don't necessarily correspond to the position of the instrument in the stereo field. The solution is to make panning decisions based only on the sound. (I often close my eyes while panning, to better focus on what I'm hearing.)

A very useful technique is to finalize drum-pan tweaks with the mix summed to mono. That might not seem to make sense, but it works. For example, to find the best location for the hi-hats, sum to mono, turn the hi-hat pan knob slowly back and forth (in the general area where you had assigned it), and listen for a spot where the hats seem to step forward a bit or come into clearer focus. What you're doing, basically, is combing the mono sound field in search of a slice of free space.

The mono-panning technique is helpful for positioning kick and snare, too. Though it's customary to pan kick and snare drums on top of one another, typically dead center, try panning them ever so slightly apart, again while in mono, and listen for a spot where you get a sense of separation (the same as you get when listening to a live drum kit). By putting a slight bit of space between the two drums, you unmask the signals from one another, which helps clarify each in the mix.


If the tracks you're mixing include stereo overheads, make sure to check the phase relationships between the two mic signals — poor overhead-mic placement is not uncommon, and its results can ruin a mix. Sum the overhead tracks to mono and listen closely from top to bottom. If the sound collapses, loses frequency content, or in any way sounds weird, you likely have a phase problem.

In that case, there are a couple of solutions. One is to go into a DAW and manually align the stereo sound waves. If that's not feasible, the easy fix is to eliminate (mute) one of the overhead channels. You can always create a faux-stereo image later by panning an effect opposite the mono track, delaying it a bit, and equalizing it differently.

It also pays to check phase relationships between the overhead mics and any close-miked drums. Sometimes the overheads are positioned at such a height above the kit that the sound waves are practically phase-inverted when they reach the mics (in relation to the sound that's captured by the close mics).

In that case, you might find that reversing the polarity (“flipping the phase,” as it's called) on the overhead-mic signals improves the drum sound — for example, by making the kick and snare sound fuller. But before making a decision which way to go, be sure to solo all the drum-kit tracks and listen closely, in mono, throughout the song. There are often trade-offs you must make when changing phase relationships, and you should take those into account.


After levels, pans, and phase checks, the logical next step is dynamics processing. Compressors tend to alter tonality a bit, so it makes sense to compress before getting into EQ and other processing.

Typically, the most important drums in a mix are kick and snare, so it's wise to reserve your better compressors for those tracks. Unfortunately, most inexpensive compressors don't have what it takes to get awesome kick and snare sounds. This is one of those instances in which the gear can make a big difference. (This explains why so many pro mixers favor UREI 1176LN peak limiters for kick and snare — they sound marvelous.)

In my experience, the best affordable pick for kick and snare drums is a full-featured, VCA-based compressor. One midpriced unit I've had great results with, especially on kick drum, is the Aphex 661 Expressor.

For overheads, you can usually get by with a cheaper compressor (again, VCA based). Lower ratios — 1.5:1 to 3:1 — are good here, and only slight to moderate gain reduction. The goal is to bring up the low-level stuff enough to make subtleties audible, but without crushing the life out of the performance.

If you're working in a DAW-based studio, you also have the option of using one of the many plug-in compressors on the market. (This holds true for any of the compression applications discussed here.) Though in many cases I still prefer the sonic character of hardware compressors, especially when I'm going for sounds that are more radical, there are many engineers who swear by their plug-ins. The Waves Renaissance Compressor is an example of a sonically flexible and relatively inexpensive compressor plug-in. It sounds good, is easy to use, runs on Mac and PC in a variety of formats, and can be set to emulate either a VCA-based or optical-controlled compressor (see Fig. 1).

If the toms are individually miked, some form of noise gating is almost essential. In the analog realm, my favorite affordable gates are the 4-channel Drawmer MX40 Punch Gate (see Fig. 2) and those found on the Drawmer MX30 Gated/Compressor/Limiter (an excellent all-around 2-channel dynamics processor). Of course, if you're working on an automated console or a DAW (or both), you can cut or reduce noise any number of ways — with automated mutes, deletes and crossfades, noise-gate plug-ins, and so forth.


To help make the drums sound huge and extra solid without sounding overly compressed, try compressing all (or most) of the drum tracks a second time through a stereo compressor. Either bus the drums to a subgroup with a stereo compressor on the inserts or return the compressor outputs to a pair of faders, to allow for equalizing. Hit the compressor fairly hard and bring up the compressed channels just beneath the other drum tracks. Mix to taste.

I prefer photo-optical-controlled compressors for this duty. A very affordable opto unit that works remarkably well is the Joemeek MC2 (see Fig. 3). The MC2 is the least expensive unit I've found that gets close to a high-end compression sound on snare drum. Opto-controlled compressors are also great for processing room mics. Another low-cost analog compressor capable of giving near-high-end results is the FMR Audio RNC1773, better known as the Really Nice Compressor. A VCA-based stereo unit, the versatile 1773 is useful in many drum applications, including stereo overheads, kick drum, snare, and subgroups.


Back to the vision thing; it helps to know why you are equalizing a signal, or to at least know what you're going for. There are two main kinds of reasons to equalize, and both describe types of EQ: corrective and creative.

Trying to make an instrument sound clearer, better defined, better balanced, or just more natural all fall into the corrective camp. So does carving out space by juggling frequencies between competing instruments (kick and bass, for example). Creative EQ, on the other hand, moves beyond mere correction of frequency imbalances. Here, you try to make the sound into something different — bigger than life, as if recorded through a telephone, or whatever.

When applying corrective EQ, work to strike a balance between boosting and cutting; too much of either will typically make the instrument sound unnatural. The idea is to keep the envelope as linear and consistent as possible. If you must favor one or the other, favor cutting — cutting never adds noise, but boosting often does.

Bring up the entire rhythm section when dialing-in drum-kit EQ. It's fine to solo here and there from time to time in order to focus in on a particular instrument. For the most part, though, keep the bass and other rhythm instruments in there with the drums. Remember, the concept of equalization pertains to a relationship among elements. You need to balance the frequency content of the whole foundation — not of just one element. The goal is to strike a musical balance between all the elements, leaving each more audible in the mix by ensuring that it isn't fighting other elements for the same sonic territory.

Note that effects can be used to help equalize a signal. For example, if the overheads sound too bright, processing the tracks with a dark room rather than a bright one can help take some of the edge off. Better yet, route the effects returns back through spare fader channels so that you can EQ the effect.


In terms of juggling frequencies, pay particular attention to how the kick drum and bass guitar work together. Solo the two and listen closely. Which produces the predominantly lower note and which the higher?

Try accentuating this low/high relationship: carve out some space by equalizing so that like frequencies don't overlap. For example, if you boost the kick at 60 Hz, cut the bass at 60 Hz. If you cut the kick at 400 Hz (usually not a bad idea), try boosting the bass a bit in the same range. Again, the goal is to find a musical balance between the elements.


It pays to be well acquainted with your effects processors, too, as they usually play a big part in a drum mix. Keep a list of favorite drum patches handy, or save your favorite presets for your plug-ins, so that you know you can always dial up something that will work.

Drums tend to allow for more creative processing than do other instruments, however, so it's good to keep your ears (and mind) open. Sometimes the unorthodox — a lead-guitar patch on a snare drum, for instance — can be just the ticket.

Personal-studio operators are blessed these days with a plethora of first-rate effects at low prices, be they plug-ins for DAW systems or inexpensive outboard multi-effects units. My current favorite multi-effects units for drum processing are the Lexicon MPX 110 and the T.C. Electronic M300 (see Fig. 4).


Time-domain effects, such as reverb, and delay are where it's at for making a drum kit come alive in the mix. There are many ways to use such effects to create depth in a mix, but they all boil down to the same idea: positioning some instruments in the foreground, others in the background, and others in between.

Some engineers are quite finicky about this process, to the point that they calculate minutely different early-reflection (predelay) times for different ends (channels) of the same instrument. Other engineers, including moi, do it more by feel.

With multimiked drums, you might need to factor in ambient sound captured by overhead and room mics. Even leakage between close-miked drums can affect drum ambience. The trick is integrating the natural ambiences with any artificial ones you dial in.

One thing I like to play with that can enhance drum-kit dimensionality is the amount of effect in each channel. After all, the wetter the signal, the farther back it tends to sound. Even using only a single effect, you can help dimensionalize a kit simply by varying the amount of effect returning to the different channels. Try, for example, putting no effect on the kick, just a bit on the hats, a moderate amount on the overheads, even more on the toms, and the most on the snare.


Any tricks of the trade that help with mixing in general will help with mixing drums. Those tricks include honoring Fletcher and Munson by monitoring at different levels, employing multiple monitors (including a cheapie system such as a boom box), and remembering to check things in mono from time to time.

I'll close with the most important trick for those who are serious about improving their drum-mixing chops: compare your mixes with those of the masters. When your drum mixes can hold a candle to those of seasoned pros such as Elliot Scheiner, Frank Filipetti, and Bob Clearmountain (to name just a few), you can put the reference discs away. Until then, keep 'em spinning. They will keep you honest.

Brian Knaveis a former senior associate editor atEM.He lives in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, where the drums never stop.