Music Production in your Bedroom – Home Recording – Part 2A – Mixing Drums

This post is continued as part of the “Music Production in your Bedroom” series. Last week, I covered tracking your instruments effectively in the bedroom. That post can be found here.

Punch!

Got Punch?

As you would have guessed, the drums are pretty much the single most important thing laying down the ‘punch‘ in the track. Sure, a lot of other factors contribute too, but with a weak drum sound, everything’s sitting on thin ice. So how do you get that monster drum sound? Let’s take it one step at a time. I personally use Superior Drummer 2.0 for my songs since it’s just easy (i’m lazy, I told you that), though I have mixed plenty of live drum sounds as well. Most of this post will definitely be biased towards sampled drums however, as they are what’s used in the bedroom context.

There are a few core components that are important across the drum bus and they are:

1) Gating

2) Compression

  • Individual Compression
  • Whole Bus Compression
  • Sidechain Compression

3) Stereo Imaging and Room

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With Superior Drummer, or any good drum machine for that matter, options and FX are so easy to implement and fool around with. Controlling the bleed is just a matter of riding a knob, but in the live drums scenario things are a lot more complicated than that. However, drum machines provide a great platform to learn and tweak some concepts. Other good drum machines are – Steven Slate Drums, Addictive Drums, and the gazillion expansions to Superior Drummer 2.0, etc.

I’m assuming that you guys know how to program in a basic drum beat using either the Piano Roll in Cubase, or any MIDI editor of your choice. If not I highly recommend you go to youtube and learn it – it’s not that hard, really :)

1) Gating

What is gating? Just like the real meaning of the word, a gate is something that opens and closes according to specific instructions that are provided by you. What is the use of gating in drum sounds, you ask? It is simply to reduce the bleed noise picked up by the microphones and to add ‘crispness’ to your sound. Bear in mind, bleed is not a bad thing at all – in fact, you want to become a good drum engineer? Start loving bleed and use it smartly.

Back to gating – for example, the microphones on the toms might have captured the snare and you need to get rid of those background snare noises from the mics. How do you remove it without affecting the sound of the toms? Gate it. One can go on endlessly about gating, right from introductory to advanced concepts, but I’ll leave that to you. There are good tutorials here, here and here.

For starters, try loading up a gate (most DAWs come with inbuilt vsts) on guitar tracks/drum tracks/vocal tracks – and fool around with the parameters and observe the results. The most important parameters on the gate are – Threshold, Attack, and Hold time. Threshold will affect how often the gate is called to action, attack determines how fast the gate affects the signal. Hold time is generally to prevent non-musical results from coming up from excessive gating – gates can behave like bitcrushers if overdone. Try changing it up.

Good gating and a clean signal is crucial before going to the next step, or else it will end up sounding like chaos after processing. However, gating is far less important when you’re dealing with sampled/programmed drums. Okay, now you have the MIDI drums programmed in and all good to go, and everything sounds good individually but the whole kit still sounds weak?! What is that magical component that gives the drums that WHOOPAH punch?

Answer – Compression.

2) Compression

If you asked me what was the single most concept that is crucial to getting mixes to sound good (assuming good tracking), I would say its compression. Although they are straightforward audio-processing units, they are the hardest to master. Even the pros handle compressors with care, although using it generously on their mixes. The holy grail of compression is to compress it as much as you can without audible differences in the signal, unless you have other reasons to do so.

What does a compressor do? As the name implies, it compresses the signal, based on a set of instructions you give it. Most important parameters – Threshold, Attack Time, Release Time, Ratio.The drums are very impulse-oriented instruments, in the sense that it is almost completely transient based. A compressor, on it’s best day will do so much as to tame those rapid transient peaks, while still maintaining the natural timbre of the instrument. That is what you should be aiming for.

Threshold – This determines how much of the original signal will be affected by the compressor. The lower the threshold, the more the compressor will be in action.
Attack – The time it takes for the compressor to kick in. For example, if you have a high attack time like 200ms on a kick drum say, then, most of the kick transient will go through uncompressed, but the tail of the kick will be compressed. If you have a very low attack time like 1ms, the whole transient will be compressed.
Release – The time it takes for the compressor to stop working after it started. If you have a fast release, compressor will release the signal back quickly, a slow release generally means the compressor is on for a longer time.
Ratio - Almost like the ‘Strength’ of a compressor, a high ratio like 10:1 means that the compressor compresses 10dB to 1dB. Pretty straightforward.

It’s harder to understand these concepts from just text, again, I’d suggest you fire up your DAW and a kick/snare track, and see how the different settings affect the drum sound. Now, on to the real deal !

Individual Compression - Try to keep the holy grail of compression rule here – “compress it as much as you can without audible differences in the signal, unless you have other reasons to do so.” Sure, kick and snare will need a lot more compression than the others, since you’re searching for that elusive punch. A good ratio for them would be 4:1 or 6:1, with an attack time of about 10ms and release of 70-100ms. Tweak the attack times until you get the right amount of punch, bite, thickness with the natural timbre of the instrument shining through (Don’t forget the holy grail of compression!)

Group Compression - This is very useful to tame the overheads and ambient mics from getting too loud and overpowering the mix. Recommended settings, Ratio 5:1, Attack 1ms, Release 100ms. Threshold to taste. A subtle compressor, maybe 2:1 applied across the whole drum bus has made it sit better in the mix for me, in previous sessions. This is completely one’s preference and not necessary sometimes. Remember, that if you have a compressor across the drum bus – it will work to fight against your faders, which means, if you boost your snare in the mixer, the compressor will act to bring the level of the snare down in relation to the others. Just be aware of this and you’ll be good to go.

SideChain Compression - Sidechain your kick to the bass guitar to give it a nice ‘pumping’ effect, and also to duck away the bass when the kick is dominant and vice versa. It lets you increase the bass guitar a bit more without getting the mix to become woofy and bassy. This is again a lengthy subject and I will not get into the details, there is a lot of good reading material on Sidechain compression here, here and here.

The key to master compression, as with all things mixing is – EXPERIMENT! Also, you would definitely want to EQ different parts of the kit to taste, try experimenting with the compressor before the EQ, or vice versa and observe the results. There are a lot of other plugins that do ‘Transient Shaping’ etc. but these are all pretty much derivatives of the compressor.

3) Stereo Imaging and Room

Stereo imaging – Pretty straightforward, make sure your drums are spread across the stereo spectrum to suit your song. You could either go with Hats on the left, Ride on the right, or the opposite setup based on what you like. Toms are a lot more tricky, make sure you pan it just nicely – too much panning could prove distracting and confusing for the listener. Try to picture a real drummer playing in front of you, how would you hear it? Try to recreate as much of that setup in your mix.

Drum Room
This is something that is a lot more personal, and harder to give ‘rules’, simply because there aren’t any. Do not confuse this with snare-room, that would be part of the stereo imaging process. Room is something that makes the drum track really come to life, and/or sit well in a mix.

Generally, I’m quite generous with reverb on the drum bus, on a slower track. For a mid-tempo yet hard hitting metal track, I like to have a pretty long reverb tail on the snare to give it that SMASH sound – the breakdown on Pantera’s Domination – now didn’t that just blow your head away when you heard it. On faster thrashy songs, I go easy on the snare reverb, but still add a suitable reverb across the entire drum track to make it sit better in the mix. Be careful not to wash out your drum sound – too much reverb, and bye bye punch!

Tip: When you add drum reverb, the overheads are rather accentuated since most reverbs amplify the highs. Make sure you cut the highs with an EQ on the reverb FX channel.

Other tips on Drum Mixing

1) I use a high-pass filter on my overheads and ambient mics around 500Hz, just to get rid of all the mud in that low region
2) If possible, try to use both Snare top and snare bottom tracks – you will have a lot more control on your snare sound
3) Kick – Another sneaky tip – Double the kick track – one carrying the super low end (40-60Hz), and the other carrying the mids and highs (HPF it around 500Hz) – This gives you control over both the punch of the low end, and the attack. – You can compress the hell out of the low end kick, but when you mix it in it wont be too audible :) – Result? Awesome punch.
4) By splitting your kick into two tracks, you also open options for side chaining – Try and sidechain the low end of the kick to the bass guitar.
5) Find that your ride cymbal is barely heard? Don’t increase overheads as it could kill the delicate balance of the cymbals, increase Ambient mics instead.
6) Compressing your overheads is not a bad idea to tame down the rapid transients that could potentially kill your mix if left unattended.

PHEW! That was long, and I barely even covered everything.

Please post feedback/questions/ideas if any in the comments section, and I’ll try my best to answer everything! Coming up soon – Mixing Electric and Bass Geetars!

- Sridhar

4 comments

  1. Great post! I was looking for something like this in a long time. I havent read the entire post yet coz I’m heading out. Will be back to read it. Bookmarked it! :)

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