10 Steps to a Great Sounding Drum Mix

When I record drum or percussion tracks for clients, 9 times out of 10 I’m sending the RAW wav files straight from Pro Tools. Of course, my goal is to always get the best sounds that I can possibly get in the studio and at the source. However, mixing and processing the drum kit is inevitable.

In general, mixing audio is a personal art form. Everything from the style of music to the instruments chosen will determine how the mixing session will go. Because the drums are typically recorded first, it makes sense to mix the drum tracks within the context of the remaining instruments later verses starting with a processed drum mix. Of course, there are no rules here. This is just what I have found to be the most effective way to work.

That being said, I get a lot of questions from clients asking for my advice on mixing the drum kit. My only goal when mixing drums is to attempt to highlight the sounds as I hear them in the studio. Meaning, my approach is simple:

Get rid of what’s not necessary and keep what is.

Well, that’s a bit more complicated when collaborating online because no one else can hear what my drums are sounding like in the studio. Fair enough. So… I’ve compiled 10 simple steps that I take each and every time I mix drums, in order from top to bottom.

Again, there is no right or wrong. However, I hope that these steps will help clear up any confusion the next time you’re mixing those drums.

1. Create a Drums Sub Mix

Before you do anything else, create a sub mix and name it “Drums”. Then simply route each drum track to that bus. You can always add a nice analog plug-in or other processors to this mix later. Having a sub mix ready to go helps keep things clean and organized. You’ll want it at some point anyway so just as well create one right off the bat.

2. Adjust Levels

The important thing about mixing drums is to listen to the entire kit as you make decisions. A lot of huge mistakes can easily be made if the levels weren’t adjusted yet. What I like to do is start listening to the entire kit at zero db, then adjust from there. Your goal here is to create a nicely blended and natural sounding kit. Don’t start adding any plug-ins until you have a well balanced kit as this can lead to more issues later. And if you feel like you’re having trouble hearing the tracks, crank those monitors up!

3. Panning

After the levels are set, decide which panning perspective you want. I prefer panning from the the drummers perspective. (Hats on the left, Ride on the right). Panning will depend on what tracks you’re working with. However, a good rule of thumb is to keep the snare and kick in the middle. Everything else can be either be hard panned or to your taste. Panning creates instant depth and can be the missing link to an interesting drum mix.

4. Gating

When recording an acoustic drum kit, microphone bleed is going to happen. Don’t be afraid of bleed. That being said, the point of a great mix is to get rid of stuff that’s not necessary. That’s where a gate comes in. I always gate the toms first, then the kick and sometimes the snare. Pick a nice gate plug-in and loop a section where there’s a big tom fill. This will help you adjust the gate to your liking while you’re listening to those toms ring. What you’re wanting to achieve with a gate is a nice open tom sound with a natural sustain. Don’t shut it down too quickly or it’ll sound unnatural. Same goes for the kick and snare.

5. Reverb

I like to route all of the drum tracks through a reverb bus. Like the gate, too much reverb on any track can sound just weird. If done right, however, reverb can add some really nice depth and fullness to a drum track. One tip to consider is to route all mono tracks (Snare, Kick, Toms) to a mono reverb and all stereo tracks (Overheads, Room Mics) to a stereo reverb. This way you can adjust the reverb settings accordingly. Again, experiment until it starts sounding unnatural then back it off.

6. Compressing Individual Tracks

Personally, I like to compress before I start boosting or cutting EQ frequencies. There’s really no right or wrong, that’s just what I do. That said, don’t compress everything just because you can. Over compressing can easily extinguish every ounce of a drummers performance. The nuances, ghost notes and overall timbre of the drums can be lost. For me, I like to add a touch of compression to the overheads and sometimes snare. I squash the heck out of the room mic(s). That’s it.

7. Parallel Compression

An old compression trick that is still used in the digital world is the use of parallel compression. The idea here is to route one track to an aux bus and simply creating two of the same. One is the natural track and the other is compressed. I like to use parallel compression on the drums sub mix alone and blend the two to taste.

8. High Pass Filter

Back to my method of getting rid of stuff that’s not necessary, this is probably the most important factor when making EQ decisions. The subject is obviously a matter of taste, but my method of EQ’ing my drum tracks are practically the same each and every time. I use a high pass filter on every single track except for the kick drum and sometimes floor tom. Just that will sometimes be all you need to do. If necessary from here, I always cut before I boost anything.

9. Check Phasing

Checking phase last isn’t always the best option, depending on how the microphones were set up that day. However, I’ve learned to understand my set up enough to know what can get a bit off regarding phase. What I use here is the trim plug-in. You can use a phase invert on the EQ as well, however, I’ve found that using a separate plug-in for just phase can help with workflow. What you want to do is solo several tracks (overheads and snare for example) and switch the phase button on and off. If it sounds like it thins out and loses bottom end when switched on, then there’s your answer. Just listen to what sounds better to you and stick to it.

10. Bounce the Track and Listen Tomorrow

Seriously, this last step is still something that I love doing because it keeps me accountable. After you’ve breezed through the above 9 steps, bounce the track to an mp3 or wav file. By this time, your ears are getting fatigued anyway. Listen to the track tomorrow in your car, different speakers or headphones. Take notes and move on.

What about you? Do you have a tried and true method or tip? Leave your comments below.