You’ve been given a track to mix. Where to begin? While there are many ways to approach a mix, starting with the drums can allow you to get right into creating the sonic environment for your track.
So, first things first. Drums are the most important instrument.
Okay – full disclosure, I’m a drummer. Yeah, alright… the vocals are important too (fine, they’re usually more important). Bias aside though, getting the drums to sound right for the song is crucial. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the important questions you should ask yourself before diving too deep into that mix.
The best engineers will have a ‘vision’ for the final sound right from the get-go. Through your understanding of the genre, consultation with the artist and your own taste and experience, you should be able to imagine roughly how the end result will sound. This will influence the mixing decisions you make along the way. If you don’t have a vision, you’ll just waste time pushing around faders and knobs.
Do you want the listener to visualise the musicians as if they’re performing in a room, a concert hall or an other-worldly space? Clean and pristine or grungy attitude? Should it sound like a real drummer or a drum machine? The earlier these decisions are made in the production process (ideally they were considered prior to hitting record), the better.
If you’re going for a ‘real’ drum sound, a good place to start your drum mix is with the overheads. Turn them up and pan them out if they’re recorded in stereo – are we there yet? Probably not, but well recorded overhead tracks can get you a long way to a well-rounded drum sound. Gradually bringing in spot mics for kick and snare will add clarity and definition. Introduce toms and hats, and pan to taste. Some EQ and compression will further shape and clean up your tone, remembering that there will inevitably be a fair bit of spill from the other mics to battle with. It may be appropriate to blend in some drum samples for more punch and consistency.
Try sending all the drum tracks through a subgroup Aux track, which will allow you to process the kit as a whole with broad strokes before tweaking individual elements. This won’t only save time, but sometimes it’s good to treat the kit as one instrument rather than a whole heap of individual elements. This is known as sub-mixing.
Various styles of compression on the room mics can give you many different ‘environment’ options. Artificial reverb can expand the palette, allowing you to really customise the acoustic space. Often the snare drum will require its own flavour of reverb. Try playing around with the pre-delay setting on the snare reverb until it sits well. A lame sounding snare drum can make an entire track sound lacklustre.
Some genres might call for a more artificial drum sound, particularly in pop and electronic genres, in which case programmed drums or samples may dominate the drum sound. This will come down to the vision for the track. Be sure not to lose sight of that vision – if it’s meant to sound like a real band is playing the music, a fake sounding drum mix can make the track seem lifeless and sterile.
One more thing. If no one’s told you this before, distortion is your friend and it’s not just for guitars! Distort things (snare drum… wink wink). Turn up the knobs. See what happens! It will be fun and you’ll probably learn some stuff. Remember that distortion causes signal compression, so will alter the dynamics of the source material (which may be a good thing).
Remember that drums are one of the only instruments that take up the entire frequency spectrum. From the low end of the kick and toms right up to the sandy tops of the snare and the shimmer of the cymbals, the drums are everywhere. Knowing this, it’s important to remember that they aren’t always meant to be the focus of attention, and once you’ve placed your other instruments into their virtual space, you may need to do some tweaking to help give those instruments their own positions in the track.
If you boost the top end of the cymbals and hats, they might sound more ‘hi-fi’ by themselves, but you may be killing the vocal clarity. Harsh cymbals and hats may interfere with the high-midrange of your guitar tone. Toms and kick need to be assessed alongside the bass guitar to make sure everyone is mates down that end too. Using automation and making smart complimentary EQ moves can help you avoid masking issues, resulting in a clearer mix overall.
There’s an endless wealth of technical information available online regarding specific mixing techniques for drums, however maintaining a holistic view and having a good think about your approach before you start twiddling too many knobs can go a long way!