Basic Approaches to Mixing Drums

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Get it right at the source. Before jumping too far into mixing a drum kit, make sure they sound great in the room. Once you’ve placed mics around the kit and they’re sounding good to your ears, mixing will be become much easier.

As a drummer, I love mixing drums. When it’s your instrument, mixing what you know the best is simply more fun. However, when I first started mixing drums I remember staring into the computer screen like a deer in a headlight. After some trial (and a lot of error), here are a few basic ways I’ve found to approach mixing the drum kit.

Snare and Overheads on Solo

When you are sound checking and getting those levels dialed in before recording, make sure you’re not recording too hot. Nothing will frustrate you more than trying to mix really hot tracks. Once all of my drum tracks ARE recorded, I always start with the snare drum (top) and overheads on solo.

There are two primary reasons for this:

  • First, the snare drum and overheads are the most important aspect of a great sounding drum mix. When I listen to the two blended together before anything else, this gives me an accurate picture of what the entire kit should sound like.
  • Second, when these two tracks are playing back, it allows me to set my monitor levels correctly. If your monitor levels are too low, a common mistake is to start throwing gain, compression, etc on the tracks. When in reality, you just needed to turn your speakers or headphones up!

Treat all Drums Tracks as One

Once the monitor levels are up and you have a nice sounding drum kit with just the overheads and snare mic, un-solo these two and listen to the entire kit as one instrument. A lot of times it’s very tempting to hit the solo button for the kick, then the toms and so on, mixing the crap out of these things until they sound awesome.

Trust me, this type of mixing practice is a waste of time. Instead of checking each instrument on solo, I like to sit back and listen to the whole. As I’m listening (with all levels at a zero starting position), I’m simply adjusting the remaining track levels to blend nicely with each other.

No Plug-ins…YET!

The first mistake I made early on when mixing drums was adding EQ, compression and reverb to the tracks right away. Without even listening back yet, I thought you had to do these things. Remember the saying: “Less is more”? That is exactly how you should approach mixing the drums.

When drum tracks are manipulated in a way that takes away the natural, acoustic elements of their great sound, it defeats the purpose. All of the tuning, head choice and careful mic placement was a complete waste of time if you start adding plug-ins to the tracks without listening first.

When in Doubt, Listen

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to using these tools. Mixing and editing drums is an art form that can definitely help improve the sound. What I’m saying is take more time listening to the drums first. Listen for what kind of nuances and musicality the drummer was shooting for during the performance. Think about how the drum tracks are supposed to fit in with the rest of the instruments.

If you ever doubt the next step to take, just listen. In my opinion, the raw drum tracks straight from your microphones to your workstation should already sound awesome. If they DO, then why mess with it? Adding some EQ and other plug-ins and techniques is great.

Bottom line: Make sure you're improving the sound of the entire kit and not making things worse.