Excellent drum mixes are one of the most difficult yet most desirable aspects of any audio engineer’s mixdown skillset. Let's review some good-to-know tips that will improve your drum-mixing workflow.
1. Clean up the ambience
In an ideal world, drum recordings would be free of any microphone leakage and noise. In the real world, though, both are present and prominent in virtually all drum kit recordings. Leakage and noise are audio information that you should really take into account when deciding how to process your drum kit. They pass through your dynamics processors, making them act unpredictably, distort stereo image information and raise the noise floor of your final compressed mixdown. Thankfully, there are tools that can help you deal with such annoyances with ease. Get into the habit of using them before you even start importing the audio tracks into your project and you’ll feel a lot more confident and in control as you start summing things up to further compress/EQ bus track. Not only will your track sound better, but the process of mixing the drums will be much easier as well.
Sometimes, especially in the low end of the frequency spectrum, there is an ongoing competition among your drum sounds for low-frequency energy domination. This is often caused by the drum kit being out of tune or the miking technique not working out. What you should always do first, though, is check the phase. Phasing is what makes your kick sound weak when played along with the bassline but sound just right when played solo. Inverting the phase will usually fix this and bring both elements into equal position in the mix. Even if you think that everything seems okay in the low end, it’s worth switching the phase of the low-end elements just to check if it gets any better.
Using EQs, parallel compression, saturators, etc. in your drum mix can introduce an increase or decrease in volume. This volume difference will instantly make the effects sound more or less impressive than they really are because your ears always perceive louder as better. Evaluate the effectiveness of your processing chain by matching the levels before and after each effect.
There are numerous compression settings and presets that many engineers swear work best, and it is wise to use these as a no-brainer while mixing drums. Truth be told, though, every single drum sound requires different settings. Things like threshold and make-up gain are completely relative to the drum element volume you apply compression to. Time settings like attack and release are really bound to the tempo of the song and the performance of the drummer. You should always aim to adjust them as tightly as possible while making sure that the compression on the signal is minimal before the next transient hits the input stage.
Stacking different layers of drum sounds is the key to a great-sounding drum kit. Acoustic and electronic drum kits greatly benefit from this technique, and a lot of professionals use it extensively. Most commercial sample libraries have a set of single hit sounds and a bunch of premade groove loops that are waiting for you to chop them up and use them in your productions. You can extract individual sounds by cutting them out from the audio file if they’re playing on their own, or dig deeper with Regroover to extract and reuse sounds even if they overlap with other elements in the source file. Effectively layering drum sounds requires extra caution and effort as you have to EQ certain frequency areas for each layer to make sure there are no overlaps between them. It's definitely worth it, though!
That’s all for now; hope we’ve helped you define your drum-mixing goals!