We all have our favorite compressors and equalizers for processing drum tracks. But even the best of those tools can’t pull off certain creative applications or solve complex problems that have frustrated engineers for ages. Fortunately, a few truly groundbreaking products allow us to now do what was once impossible.
This article will teach you how to use three real-time plug-ins to rebalance discretely the relative levels of different kit pieces on a stereo track, stem, or subgroup; sculpt the sound of individual drum tracks in unimaginable ways; and boost or attenuate the level of drums in a baked-in mix without affecting the mix’s pitched instruments and vocals.
SOUND RADIX DRUM LEVELER
Drum Leveler is an upward and downward compressor/expander for drums, but with a major twist: It processes only those beats that fall between two thresholds you set. Using this amazing plug-in, you can boost weak snare hits on a mono track without making loud hits, grace notes and mic bleed any louder—in real time.
Fig. 1. Sound Radix Drum Leveler’s processing can change the levels of select kit pieces on a stereo drum track. Here, weak kick and tom hits are boosted on a stereo track for drum-room mics, while excessively loud snare hits are attenuated.
But that’s not all. Incredibly, you can even reach into a stereo track for drum-room mics and change the levels for different kit pieces without affecting others. Check out Figure 1 as I describe how to do this. The two horizontal, blue lines in the waveform display at the center of the GUI represent the plug-in’s high and low thresholds, between which processing occurs. The horizontal, orange line between the two thresholds is the Target Level. If you set the Compression control to 100.0% as I did in my example, all drum hits with levels lower than the high threshold but above the Target level will be downwardly compressed exactly to the Target Level, and all drum hits with levels higher than the low threshold but below the Target Level will be upwardly compressed to the Target Level.
Gray waveform shading represents signal levels before processing. You can see in the display that weak kick and tom hits (waveform peaks colored bright orange on top, and orange over gray below) have been upwardly compressed to peak at the Target Level with processing. Two blue-colored peaks with thin, gray tops—showing excessively loud snare hits—have been downwardly compressed to the Target Level. Because I set a bandpass filter in Drum Leveler’s internal sidechain to pass only low bass frequencies (causing only the traps’ shell resonances to trigger processing), the plug-in ignored cymbals ringing in the track, leaving their levels virtually unchanged.
SONNOX OXFORD ENVOLUTION
Envolution is an envelope shaper like no other. It sounds amazing on all types of tracks, including drums. Unlike other envelope shapers that simply let you boost or cut the amplitude of the transient and sustain portions of a sound (some on a frequency-dependent basis), Envolution lets you adjust the timing of those level changes using independent attack, hold and release controls.
Fig. 2. Sonnox Oxford Envolution is used here to make snare wires seem to rattle longer and louder than on the original snare drum track.
For example, you can raise the Transient Hold and Release controls to, in effect, increase how long snare wires will rattle on the underside of a snare drum (see Figure 2). It’s like using a time machine to make the drummer loosen the snares on a recording that’s already been completed! Use any of several supplied filters to winnow out low frequencies in Envolution’s transients detector, so that only the transients’ high frequencies are elongated. Raising Envolution’s Warmth control enhances the snare wires’ sizzle by adding harmonic saturation at the plug-in’s output.
Envolution can also be used on tom tracks to make them sound like the drummer used larger sticks. By raising the Transient Hold and Release controls and using the Transient section’s filters to fashion an upper-bass peak, you can make stick hits produce a beefier thwack. Unlike using blanket EQ or simply boosting the level of transients, what you’re doing is slightly increasing the duration of the stick hits, primarily in their upper-bass range. It’s a different sound, and it’s positively brawny.
Unmix::Drums lets you boost or attenuate drums in a baked-in mix or master without affecting pitched instruments and vocals. It can’t completely eliminate drums from a stereo mix, but it can come mighty close. What’s more, its frequency-dependent processing lets you boost or cut some drums more than others.
The GUI has three views, which all include three basic controls: Drum Level adjusts the amount of boost or attenuation of drums, Threshold sets the level above which transients will be processed, and Release adjusts how long processing of drum levels will last after it’s triggered.
To get really transparent results, you’ll likely need to work a bit in the GUI’s Fine-Tune view, which adds more controls. If you find that boosting drums in a mix also results in vocals being boosted, lower the Detection Density slider and Attack control to respectively remove pitched components from the processor’s detector and focus the processing more exclusively on sharp transients. When lowering drums in a mix, you may need to reduce the Unmix Feather setting to avoid also attenuating non-drum sounds.
Fig. 3. Zynaptiq Unmix::Drums can be used to boost or attenuate drums on a full mix without affecting pitched instruments and vocals. Here, the kick and snare are boosted more than cymbals.
Figure 3 shows how I used the plug-in’s Curves view to boost the kick and snare drum more than cymbals on a full mix. I lowered breakpoints on the yellow Threshold curve between roughly 75 and 250 Hz to lower the threshold for processing in that range, and I raised the breakpoints on the pink Drum Level curve in the same frequency range to increase how much the kick drum would be boosted. (The breakpoints only show on the currently active curve.) To boost the snare drum, I applied similar treatments between roughly 3 and 6 kHz. The trick was to narrow the edited breakpoints’ frequency range enough for the snare drum so that vocal sibilance wasn’t also boosted.
Whether you’re working with mono or stereo tracks, stems, subgroups, full mixes or masters, perfect drum sounds are more attainable than ever before. Sound Radix Drum Leveler, Sonnox Oxford Envolution and Zynaptiq Unmix::Drums let you mix drums in ways no other plug-ins can touch.