In today’s tutorial I want to talk about how to mix drums to make sure that they’re punchy and they cut through the mix. At the end of this blog post you’ll realize that mixing drums shouldn’t be complicated at all.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy though, but by following these guidelines you’ll have a better chance of getting a perfect drum mix for your songs.
The goal of creating this complete guide is to help you avoid guess work when mixing drums and never get stuck. The problem I had when I was starting out is that I would try everything but my drums couldn't compete with other commercial songs.
So I’ve been in your shoes and I know what is stopping you from achieving the drum sound that you desire. With this guide I want to help you mix drums like a PRO.
It is important that you know your software and your favorite plugins very well. This a concise guide, which means these techniques can be applied using any DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or plugin manufacturer.
It doesn’t matter if you’re mixing drums in cubase, fl studio, pro tools or any software. If you know your software well then you should be able to apply these techniques. So make sure that you read the manual for your DAW and plugins.
With that said, let’s get into it then.
1. Fine Tune Your Drums
Before you can start getting into mixing there are a couple of things that you need to do to avoid pitfalls. The first thing that you need to do is to Tune your drums to the key of the song.
If you’re recording your drums live then you should get the tuning right even before you hit the record button. Since this guide is all about mixing I’m not going to talk about how to tune your drums.
If you’re using samples then there are many ways you can tune your drums to the key of the song by using samplers, vst drum machines, pitch shifting tools or a tuner that comes built-in with your DAW.
I’m not going to show you how but just make sure that you get this step right because if your drums are not well tuned then no matter what you do to them you’ll never get them to sound professional or PHAT.
Like I said before, you should know your software very well in a way that this process should be a breeze.
2. Check Phase/Polarity
Another thing that you need to do before jumping into mixing is to make sure that you check the phase or polarity. If you have phase issues in your drums then they’ll never knock or become punchy, no matter what you do to them.
Sometimes all you need to do to get a drum sound to cut through a mix is to simply press the phase button. Some software like Cubase have a phase button, while in other DAWs you’ll need to add a plugin that has the phase invert feature.
When your tracks are out of phase you can boost 10dBs on a snare and it will make no difference because phase cancellation causes certain frequencies to sound unbalanced and they disappear altogether.
To make sure that your drums sound as clean as possible you have to make sure that they’re well aligned that will avoid any phase cancellation issues. Flip the phase in and out to test which sounds better.
Phase aligning a drum kit can be done in many different ways or plugins, simply choose your preferred way to make sure that you don’t have any phase issues.
Even though this is mainly caused by the distance between microphones when recording drums it doesn’t mean that it only affects live drums only. Even when you’re using samples, you might face phase issues when layering different sounds.
To avoid phase issues when using samples, simply make sure that your samples are well aligned and use EQ to make sure that your samples don’t fight for the same frequencies.
3. Add a Gate and Clean Your Drums
The next step after tuning and fixing phase cancellation is to clean your drums by using Gates and Expanders.
The reason you might want to use dynamic processors such as gates or expanders is if the microphone bleed is overpowering the original signal. For instance, if the snare drum is too loud in your kick track.
You don’t want to take out the mic bleed completely because gates tend to mess up the transients or attack of a sound. So you need to be careful when you’re using gate effects.
When you’re using gates, I recommend that you choose a gate effect that has a look-ahead feature so that you don’t mess up the transients of your sounds. My go-to-gate plugin is the FabFilter Pro-G.
This will also depend on the genre you’re working on. In jazz records the mic bleed is not removed to get an organic feel. In some cases you want the bleed to be there so that the listener can hear that the entire band was playing together at once during recording.
It all depends on what you want to achieve and your end goal.
You might also want to manually remove the silent parts in some of your tracks, especially on the toms if they don’t play throughout the whole song. You can use a gate effect or manually delete the silent parts and use cross-fades to avoid clicks.
Skipping these first 3 steps (tuning, fixing phase and using gates) could be what is preventing you from getting a professional sound. Think of it like cleaning a house, you first remove the mess to get everything in proper order then you start cleaning.
The same process applies to mixing drums, you first have to make sure that everything is in order before you can start adding any processing tools.
A lot of people don’t know this, but balance is 80% of the entire mixing process. Balance is the most important part of your mixing stage.
A rule I would give you when you’re balancing your sounds in a mix is to first decrease the sounds that are preventing you from hearing your main sounds. This will give you more headroom as compared to increasing your main sounds so that you can be able to hear them.
I would also recommend you to go to the loudest part of your song and loop it, play everything then decrease sounds till your main sounds are audible, clear and upfront. This approach will help you avoid clipping.
You can bring all your faders down and bring things up one by one, but I don’t use that approach I prefer to balance the mix while listening to everything at the same time.
While you’re busy working on your volume balance also work on your panning at the same time. Now when it comes to panning drums, I use the drummers perspective as opposed to the audience perspective.
This is just a matter of preference, I just don’t want the drummer to hear the hi-hat on his right ear on the headphones while he is hitting it on the left. That will affect his performance during recording or on stage.
If you’re working on the balance during the mixing stage then listen to the overheads to determine the panning. You don’t want those to clash, make sure that if the hi-hat is panned left on the overheards you also pan it to the left.
If you’re confused about how to pan your drums then simply open a picture of a drum kit to see how it is setup then pan according to how the drum kit is setup.
Sounds that you can leave in the center are your kick and snare drum to make sure that they’re punchy and they don’t disappear when your mix is played in mono, on a smart speaker, smartphone or any sound device that uses a single speaker that doesn’t have left and right channels.
Unfortunately there's no formula for balancing drums, you just have to rely on your ears and it also depends on the genre you're working on or even taste. So pull up some of your favorite songs to check how they balance their drums.
5. Drum Buss
In step five we’ll start adding plugins and processing the drums. The first thing you need to do is to add all your drums into a Drum Buss or Group channel so that you can make them one instrument.
You have to stop thinking of drums as different instruments (kick, snare, hi-hat etc.). Instead think about one musician playing the same instrument or kit, so think of it as one instrument.
That’s why it’s important to send them to a Group channel. There are a lot of benefits for sending your drums to a group. One of them is bus compression.
The benefits of a buss compressor is that it will expose anything that is loud. So that makes it a bit easier to find the right balance for your drums in the mix. Another reason is that a buss compressor will glue your drums together to make them sound as one.
It is also important to compress in stages, instead of compressing 8dBs on a kick or snare you’ll compress 3dBs on the actual kick track, 2dB on the drum group channel and another 3dB on the 2 buss (mix buss).
This way your compression becomes more transparent because your compressors are not overworking. Compressors distort when they are overworking. You also get to keep a good dynamic range for your song.
This also applies to EQ as well. When you EQ in stages you get to keep your sound punchy and avoid making them sound too thin. So use your EQ in stages as well when you’re mixing drums, percussion or any other sounds in the mix.
If you’re mixing in the box (using digital software) then add analog emulation tools to make sure that your drums don’t sound too clean or too digital. Use analog emulation tools to add character and warmth to your drums.
Now I want to show you the power of treating your drums as one instrument. Below I have 2 audio tracks, the first one is just the drums raw and the 2nd one has a compressor, EQ and a tape emulation plugin.
I want you to listen to the before and after.
All I did was to use a buss compressor (SSL Compressor), EQ (API 550B) and the Abbey Roads J37 tape emulation plugin. The compressor is only compressing around 2dB of gain reduction.
The SSL compressor has a ratio of 2:1, slow attack to let the transient in without affecting the attack. A fast release so that the compressor doesn’t make the drums quieter or increase the decay of the drum kit.
This glues the entire drum kit to make it sounds as one.
The EQ has a low shelf boost at 50Hz to add some weight, a cut at 500Hz to remove muddy frequencies, a boost at 5kHz to bring up the presence and finally a boost at 10kHz to add some sparkle to the drums.
I also decreased the output level so that I can have a fair comparison of the before and after without getting fooled by volume change.
Sometimes you might think you’ve improved things with EQ only to find that you just increased volume so it’s really important to level match the before and after.
The Abbey Roads J37 tape emulation plugin is there to add warmth to the drum sounds to make sure they don’t sound too digital.
So just 3 plugins, huge difference. Now all I’m going to do to the individual drum sounds is to polish them, remove resonance, boxiness and muddy frequencies wherever necessary.
6. Mixing Kick Drum
The tricky part of mixing a kick drum is getting it to translate well in all sound devices. A lot of audio engineers struggle to move with the times. Music in the 80s was midrange heavy because the speakers didn’t produce a lot of bass.
Then home theater systems came along and everyone wanted more bass and less midrange.
While engineers were focusing on mixing for home theater systems then earbuds became popular. Now bluetooth and smart speakers are the most selling audio output devices.
So as a mixing engineer it’s very important to not only move with the times but to have these devices so that you can test your mixes on all of them. Then you can mix your kick drums to translate well in all these devices.
The question you might be asking yourself is; “so how does one mix a kick for smart speakers and phones?”
That’s a good question and a very simple one to answer. If you check the frequency response of the 2 most popular smart speakers you’ll see that they produce sounds from around 80Hz up to 17kHz.
However, you also have to remember that your song will also be played in cars, maybe in a club and many other sound devices. Now let’s look at how you can EQ your kick to make sure that it sounds great in all these sound devices.
How to EQ a Kick Drum
The first thing that you need to determine is whether your song is kick heavy or is it bass heavy.
First determine what will dominate the sub frequencies (20Hz - 60Hz) and what will dominate the bass frequencies (60Hz - 200Hz).
Once you have determined that then you can start equalizing your kick.
If your kick is dominating the sub frequencies then you’ll need to add a harmonic bass plugin such as RBass by waves or any other plugin to make sure that it’s audible in small speakers and earbuds.
For the drums I’m working on, I won’t need a harmonic enhancement plugin because the kick drum was recorded using 3 different microphones (kick-in, kick-out and kick sub). So I have all the frequencies covered.
But if you’re using a sampled kick or only used 1 mic for your kick then you will need to use a harmonic enhancement plugin if your song is kick heavy. If your song is bass heavy then your kick’s fundamental frequencies will be peaking at a good frequency that small speakers will pickup.
For my current situation I have the sub kick taking care of the subs, the kick-out taking care of the lower bass frequencies and the kick-in taking care of the upper frequencies that the bluetooth speakers will pickup.
So I have all the frequencies covered, now I can start equalizing the kicks.
Here are my EQ settings for each kick drum.
Kick-In: Low Shelf Boost at 50Hz (Adds Weight), High Shelf Boost at 6kHz (High-End Presence)
Kick-Out: Low Shelf Boost at 43Hz (Adds Weight), Cut at 500Hz (Removes Mud), Boost at 820Hz (Emphasizes the Click), High Shelf Boost at 6kHz (Adds High-End Presence)
Kick-Sub: Low Shelf Boost at 30Hz (To Shake the Floor, just kidding it adds weight), Cut at 500Hz (Removes Mud), Boost at 820Hz (Emphasizes the Click), Low Pass Filter at 3kHz (Remove any mic bleed and keep the kick subby)
If you’re working with a sampled kick drum then I would EQ it more like I did with the kick-in but with a shelf boost at around 4kHz instead of 6kHz. Then I would remove the muddy frequencies or boxiness around 250Hz to 450Hz.
Now that I'm happy with the EQ I need to compress the kick drums.
Compressing a Kick Drum
There’s 3 reasons I want to compress these kick drum sounds.
Firstly, the kick was played live so it’s not consistent in volume.
Secondly, I created crazy amounts of boosts so I need to tame and control them.
Thirdly, I want to increase the attack on the kick-in then increase the decay on the kick-out and kick-sub.
To achieve this I’m going to use a slow attack with a fast release on the kick-in to bring up the attack to make it punchy. The kick-in I’m working on has a longer decay for my liking so that’s why I want to make it shorter.
To achieve the opposite for the kick-out and kick-sub, then I’m going to use a fast attack with a slow release. That will increase the decay for both kicks.
When compressing a kick drum always start with a ratio of 4:1 up to 6:1 those usually work great for kicks. I’ll be using the 1176 emulation by CLA on the kick-out and kick-sub so I’ll be using 4:1 ratio.
For the kick-in I’ll use the dbx-160 since it’s perfect for adding punch to a kick.
Here’s are the results before compression and after the processing:
Now that I’m happy with the compression we can move on to the snare.
Check out this complete guide about how to mix drums like PRO. No stone is left unturned, learn everything about mixing drums from kick, snare, toms, ove...
7. Mixing a Snare Drum
Mixing a snare drum shouldn’t be complicated at all.
However, this depends on how the snare was recorded and your goal for the snare drum on the song you’re mixing. The goal is usually to get it punchy and upfront especially in popular music.
In this section of the guide I’m going to show you how to EQ, Compress and add reverb the right way to preserve punch.
Let’s start with the EQ.
How to EQ a Snare Drum
For the project I’m using as an example for this guide I have 2 different snare drums, the Top mic snare and the Bottom mic snare.
How you EQ the snare will depend on how the snare was recorded or if you’re using samples. But I’ll give you a few guidelines that will help you achieve your desired goal. Even though there are thousands of different snare sounds, these guidelines should work on most (if not all).
Here are the EQ settings I used for the project I’m currently working on and using as an example for this guideline:
Snare Top: High Shelf Boost at 8kHz (Adds Ringing and Air), Boost at 172Hz (Adds Body)
Snare Bottom: High Shelf Boost at 8kHz (Adds Ringing and Air), Boost at 3.1kHz (Adds Attack)
These are the EQ settings that worked well for this project. As you can see I equalized them differently so that I can cover different parts of the frequency spectrum.
Now let me give you a guide that will help you mix different snare drums.
If your drums are recorded in a small room or the mic placement was trash then you’ll get some resonance frequencies around 210Hz. It will sound something like Wuuuuuuu every time the snare hits. You’ll need to cut that out.
In some cases you’ll find that the snare sounds boxy or muddy then you must check frequencies from 250Hz up to 800Hz and make a cut. If your snare sounds too thin then a boost around 150Hz to 200Hz should do the job.
Sometimes the snare mic can pick up a lot of mic bleed from the hi-hat. So use a high shelf cut at 10kHz to bring down the hi-hat. If your snare ends up sounding too dark or dull after doing that then you’ll need to bring up its attack by boosting around 2.5kHz to 3.5kHz.
If there’s too much kick drum bleed then create a high pass filter around 80Hz.
If I had a sampled snare for this project then I would create a high shelf boost at 6.5kHz to add ringing and air, then create another boost around 2.5kHz to 3.5kHz to bring up the attack which will help the snare to cut through and stay upfront in the mix.
Those are a few guidelines that should help you reach your targeted sound.
Now let’s talk about compression.
Compressing a Snare Drum
When it comes to compressing a snare you’ve got to have an end goal in mind.
You have to be able to hear the final results even before you add the compressor. That means you can’t just insert a compressor plugin and hope for the best.
When it comes to snare compression I really like the ratio to be somewhere from 3:1 up to 5:1, I find that works in most cases and it’s a sweet spot.
My goal in this case is to control the levels of the snare for both mics since they’re not consistent in volume. I want the snare top to be punchy so I’ll go with the dbx-160. For the bottom snare I want to add more decay so I’ll use the 1176 emulation by CLA.
Here’s the secret that a lot of beginners don’t know. The thing that makes a snare sound live is the ringing so if you bring that up it makes it sound real, that’s why I need to use the compressor to emphasize the decay on the bottom snare.
If you’re working with a sampled snare, I would be careful about compressing it because it was probably compressed a million times before you got it.
Here are the final results of the snare before and after all the processing:
Adding Reverb to a Snare
This is something that I avoid by any means necessary.
I know to some people this might sound weird but I don’t add reverb to a snare drum. The problem with reverb is that it pushes sounds at the back of a mix and I want my snare to always be in your face.
So what I do is to add reverb on the room microphones and not directly to the snare.
If I’m working on a project that doesn’t have room mics or there’s only sampled drums then I’ll use a short room reverb with crazy high and low pass filters. Maybe even add a cut at 3kHz so that the reverb signal doesn’t mess up the attack of the snare.
I’ll even a compressor the reverb effect just to make sure that it stays controlled.
So since the project I’m using for this guide has room mics I won’t add reverb on the snare, I’ll do that later when we process the room mics.
Now that we got the snare EQ setting, they’re compressed and ringing then let’s check out the toms.
Here's a video I created that I believe will help you understand how to mix your kick and snare the right way.
Mixing Kick and Snare (REAL PRO SECRET)
8. How to Mix Tom Drums
Toms can be a great way to add texture to a song and create awesome transitions between different sections of an arrangement.
Mixing Toms is a tricky situation, especially when it comes to compressing the toms. So it’s really important to get them to sound right from the source.
If you’re recording Toms live then your mic placement has to be on point, if you’re using samples then choose the best. Fixing them in the mix will be a disaster.
The reason is because they don’t need to be too processed. Too much processing will ruin the timbre and natural sound. If they have too little of processing it will be hard to get them to sit well in the mix.
That’s why most of the time I just use the CLA Drums plugin and call it a day.
But let’s see how I would mix toms if I didn’t have the CLA Drums plugin.
Equalizing Tom Drums
If your Toms lack punch or what is also known as thump then a boost around 120Hz to 250Hz should do the trick. If your toms are not cutting through the mix then a boost around 5kHz will bring up the attack to help them cut through.
300Hz to 500Hz is usually the muddy area so I wouldn’t boost these frequencies nor cut them, unless necessary. The area around 6kHz to 10kHz will bring up the click and add some air if needed.
Now here’s how I used EQ for the project I’m using for this guide:
Tom EQ: Cut at 500Hz (Removes Mud), Boost at 1.5kHz (Adds Attack), High Shelf Boost at 1.6kHz (Adds Stick/Click), Low Pass Filter at 4.4kHz to make space for other sounds that will need frequencies that are above 4kHz.
Tom Drums Compression
This is the tricky part because you have to determine if you want the ringing of the toms or not. In my case I want the ringing because the toms only play in the drum fill.
It’s only one hit on the rack and one hit on the floor tom so there’s not much going on.
My goal is to add the ringing and increase the decay of the tom by using a slow release so that they can ring long enough to introduce the next section of the song since there’s not much instrumentation during the drum fill.
If the toms are part of your groove then you’ll need to take a different approach to make them punchy and decrease the ringing. To achieve that you’ll need to use a slow attack with a fast release.
Adding Reverb to Toms
To put the toms in a space and help them fit well in the mix I need to add some reverb to them. I will also EQ the reverb so that the reverb doesn’t add any muddiness.
I used the Valhalla reverb in this case. It's a short room reverb to keep them punchy without pushing them at the back of the mix.
Here are the results for the tom drums before any processing and after all the processing:
9. How to Mix Hi-Hats
The key to getting a good hi-hat mix is all about getting the right EQ settings. Mixing hi-hats shouldn’t be complicated at all.
If you’re still struggling to mix your hi-hats and cymbals then simply check out my tutorial which is dedicated to mixing hi-hats on the link below:
You'll also find a video which will show you how to EQ the perfect hi-hat. These are the same techniques I used on the drums that I'm using as demonstration for this guide.
Another trick I would give you that I didn't use this time is adding a ping pong delay to add some ear candy to your hi-hats which will also give you great width.
Here's the hi-hat with and without the EQ:
10. Mixing Overheads
When it comes to mixing overheads it really depends on what purpose they’re serving for the song. They could be just recording the entire drum kit. While on the other hand they will be used mainly to capture the cymbal, crash and ride.
So the EQ will depend on the purpose the overhead drums are serving.
I usually boost around 100Hz to add more weight to the entire drum kit. Create a narrow cut at 7kHz to remove any piercing sound from the cymbals, crash and ride.
If you don’t remove this frequency the overheads high frequencies will cause ear fatigue.
Finally I’ll add some shine by creating a high shelf boost at 8kHz to bring back the brightness that will be taken away by the cut at 7kHz.
For compression, I simply use a fast attack and fast release to tame out any loud peaks. A gain reduction of about 6dBs always work well for my liking. This also keeps them in control.
If I just want to save time I simply insert the CLA Drum Plugin, switch it to overheards, remove the gate, create a low-end boost, increase the roof and finally give it some hard compression.
Use the CLA Drum Plugin and call it a day hehe 😀
Here are the overheads with and without the EQ settings I mentioned above and compression.
11. Mixing Room Mics
Mixing the room microphones is all about EQ, I don’t use any compression on the room microphones.
The EQ settings for room mics are really simple.
All you need to do is to create a cut around 2kHz to 3kHz if you don’t do this your drums will sound harsh. A narrow cut at 7kHz to remove any frequencies that will cause ear fatigue in the high frequencies.
A high shelf boost at 10kHz to add some brightness and a low shelf boost at 130Hz to bring up the toms and add weight to your kick drums.
They’re also important for me because this is where I’m going to add the snare reverb. So they’re going to have a good amount of reverb in order to push them further at the back of the mix and remain in the background.
I'm not saying drown them in reverb, a good short room should do the job.
Here's the before and after all the processing (EQ and reverb)
And that’s it, that’s how you mix drums. I hope you found the tutorial valuable, if you have any questions then leave a comment below and I’ll definitely get back to you.
If you're more of a visual person like me then I highly recommend that you watch the video below. You'll be able to see all the plugins used and more.
If you found value in the tutorial please share that will be very helpful for me and my blog. For now, take good care and we’ll speak again soon. Here’s the before an after of everything.