In addition to the main components of your drum kit — the kick, the snare, and the toms — there are two other elements that need dialed in: the overheads and the room mics.
Each of these parts are important, and they demand individual treatment. Even if your main components are dialled in to perfection, fine-tuning your overheads and room mics is still paramount to achieving a pro-level drum mix (whether you use samples or recorded audio).
Knowing when to use — and how much to use — compression are two of the most significant skills you’ll need to master in order to put the final touches on your drums. It’s what will transform an acceptable, yet tame-sounding, drum mix into a serious fire-breather.
In this post, we’ll delve into the correct way to compress these elements of your drum mix. Well also explain the other steps you’ll need to take to take your drums to the top.
Get a Great Recording First
Before you even think about piling plug-ins onto your drums, you need to evaluate the raw tracks. Solo each element, one by one, and give them an honest listen.
If your overheads and room mics sound bad, compressing them will highlight their worst characteristics. Thus, compression will make your drum mix sound worse, not better.
Anytime you’re dealing with poor-sounding drum tracks, you should re-record them if possible. And because overheads and room mics are extremely susceptible to bad acoustics, you should capture the drums in an acoustically treated room.
We can’t emphasize this enough: nothing screams “amateur recording” louder than drums captured in a nasty-sounding garage or basement. Of all the instruments in a contemporary rock mix, drums will benefit the most from a pro-studio recording environment.
If you’re unable to re-record the drums (for example, you’re mixing somebody else’s project), there are workarounds, however.
Instead of using the existing room mics, try running the overheads and close-miked drum tracks through a convolution reverb loaded with a high-quality room IR (impulse response) and print the result to a new stereo track. Then, when you’re working on your mix, substitute the new stereo track for the original drum room tracks.
After that, try augmenting the existing overheads track by blending in a bit of the close-miked drums and the same IR used above. Again, print the result to a new stereo track and substitute it for the original overheads track.
The result will sound like the drums were captured in a studio-quality drum room instead of a garage or basement.
Once you get your overheads and room mics squared away, you’ll be ready to move onto the next step.
Clean Up Your Low End
Overheads and room mics with excessive low frequencies are a guaranteed way to muddy up your drum mix. That’s why it’s very important to eliminate low-frequency mud and unwanted resonances from these tracks.
A highpass filter is your weapon of choice for eliminating unwanted low frequencies from your tracks. So, fire up your favorite parametric EQ plug-in, and cut the unwanted low-end.
Overheads can be employed in two ways: as the foundation for your drum mix, or as a supplement to your drum mix.
If overheads are the foundation of your drums, you’ll bring them up to level and use your close-miked tracks to fill in the gaps. If overheads are a supplement, you’ll bring your close-miked tracks up to level then increase the level of your overheads until your cymbals are at the correct volume.
For foundational overheads, start with a cutoff frequency around 30Hz and a slope around 12dB. Increase the cutoff frequency until your drums sound too thin, then decrease the frequency until it sounds right.
For supplemental overheads, you can get by with less low-frequency content, so start with a cutoff frequency around 80Hz and work from there.
For best results, make these adjustments in the context of a full drum mix, or even a full mix with all your project’s tracks playing.
You’ll also want to resolve any unpleasant resonances in your overheads and room mics. Resonances are out-of-control frequencies that not only rob your tracks of dynamics and headroom, but they also lend unsettling sonic artifacts to your track.
Our RESO plug-in is an easy-to-use solution for eradicating unwanted resonances — automatically.
Just place it on your tracks, click the Calculate Targets button, and RESO will take care of business. It not only provides you with Target Nodes for eliminating the resonances, but it also gives you useful setting suggestions for achieving resonance-free tracks.
Slamming Your Drums: Where to Start
Now it’s time to start crushing your drums. So, deploy your compressor of choice, and let’s get to work!
It doesn’t matter if you’re using a plug-in or hardware, the principles of using a compressor are the same. We’re going to give you a sensible starting point, after which you can continue adjusting your compressor until you achieve the sound you’re aiming for.
Most full-featured compressor plug-ins will deliver the result you’re hearing in your head. If you’re using hardware or analog-modeled software, 1176-style compressors are a great choice for overheads, by virtue of their fast attack time.
In the majority of cases, overheads don’t need a great deal of compression. Rather than using a compressor for obvious character, you’ll be using it to rein in dynamic peaks.
Start with your compressor set at a 4:1 ratio with a relatively fast attack, and time your release so that it blends musically with the rest of your mix.
Next, adjust the threshold until your overheads’ peaks begin to tickle the gain reduction meter. Try not to exceed 1dB–3dB of gain reduction.
That said, use your ears! If your overheads need more gain reduction, adjust accordingly.
Room mics, conversely, love compression. In fact, there are few mix elements that get crushed as mercilessly as a drum room.
If you’re using hardware or an analog emulation plug-in, FET-style compressors are magic on room mics.
A tried-and-true setting for room mics is the “all-buttons-in” or “nuke mode” on an 1176. This setting creates an ultra-high ratio that smashes your signal in a brutal manner.
Start with a medium attack, then time your release so that it sounds good with the rest of your mix. You can dial in 10dB — or more — of gain reduction on room mics if you like the sound you’re getting.
Room mics can also benefit from parallel compression if you want to retain a bit of their uncompressed character.
Regardless of what type of compressor you use, refrain from using plug-in presets. The preset creator has never heard your mix; therefore, they don’t know what settings will sound best — your ears will always offer better insight than somebody else’s generic preset.
Fix Skewed Frequencies
Like any other track in your mix, you’ll likely need to use creative EQ-ing to fix off-kilter frequencies on your overheads and room mics.
Key frequencies for overheads used in a foundational way are: 8kHz–15kHz for room sound and cymbals, 5kHz–7kHz for snare crack and tom attack, 300Hz for resonance, and 100Hz for body.
Key frequencies for overheads used in a supplemental way are: 10kHz–12kHz for high-frequency sizzle and 3kHz–5kHz for (possibly unwanted) harshness.
Key frequencies for room mics are: 15kHz for sheen and 200Hz for (possibly unwanted) resonance.
Any EQ plug-in will work for this application, but if you’re sick and tired of guesswork, give our MIXROOM plug-in a try. MIXROOM is an intuitive EQ that supplies you with application-specific presets and target frequencies based on a reference track.
Just place it on your drum tracks, choose an applicable channel preset, or create a custom target value with the Target icon on the bottom left corner of the plug-in’s interface and import a reference track.
MIXROOM’s Target EQ Curve lets you dial in a pro sound, all while skipping the usual tedious trial and error. What’s more, you can use the Add Smart Bands button to create EQ bands that match the Target EQ Curve.
Anyone who wants an intelligent starting point for EQ-ing their drum tracks (or anything else) will appreciate MIXROOM.
A Reference Track is Essential
Anytime you work on a mix for a long period of time, you’re going to lose perspective — it’s the nature of the beast. That’s why you need a well-chosen reference track.
A reference track is a professionally mixed and mastered song that you use as a real-world reality check. This will restore your perspective, and it will ensure that your drums sound as great as — or even better — than the next song on your listener’s playlist.
If you want an easy way to use reference tracks, take our REFERENCE plug-in for a test drive. To use it, you simply import a reference track in the same genre as your project.
After that, listen to the reference track’s drums and use them as a guide for how yours should sound. This will help you with levels, it will make EQ decisions easier, and it will help you attain the right sound and behavior for your compressors.
The proper application of compression is vital to achieving pro-quality overheads and room mic tracks. And knowing how much squashing to apply is one of the skills that separates an amateur from a professional.
Applying our mixing tips and tricks — and our plug-ins — is a great way to elevate the quality of your mixes.