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In this series of articles we’ve created a short guide to help you mix a killer drum track!

In a recent blog post, Drum Recording Tips, we gave a few tips to help you get started with recording your drum track. Now that you’ve setup the mics and the drummer has nailed his/her part it’s your job as a sound engineer to make them sound awesome!!

There’s really no magic formula to it and the truth is the more you mix drums the better you’ll get.  Over time you’ll develop a natural instinct for what’s going to work and more importantly – what to  listen out for.

Drums are a tough instrument to mix so here’s a few suggestions that you can put into practice right away – whether you’re a new sound engineer or have some experience in this field.

Let’s start the drum roll……

Serve the Song

First off, it’s best to consider the whole song and how you want the drum track to sound within it. Imagine the sound you’re going for – perhaps the drums need to be full and punchy or more subtle, adding atmosphere to support the lyrics of the song.

Setup – Grouping Tracks

At the outset, a lot of sound engineers will set up groups for their drum tracks. They might set up a group for all drum tracks under one group and call it ‘Drums’. Also, they might group different mics together, for example if there was 2 mics on a snare or 2 on a kick drum these could be grouped as one.

This allows the engineer to work more efficiently – they can quickly mute or solo the entire drum track or individual drums etc as they go.

Kick Drum

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In many ways the kick and snare typically becomes the foundation of the drum track. If the kick is wrong, it will probably let the rest of the track down. In most cases it needs to sound punchy and have enough low end to fill up the bass spectrum but with enough mid-range to cut through the rest of the mix.

Compression can be used on the kick, but it tends to be more of a personal choice as to how much or what way to apply it. How much gain reduction will depend on the steadiness and consistency of the drummer’s foot. More experienced drummers are extremely precise and little work from the compressor will be needed.

Adjusting the attack and release will change the sound of the drum quite a bit so you can feel free to experiment.

Working with EQ on the kick can have a very big impact. There’s plenty of character from a nice bass drum and what the engineer chooses to highlight can define the sound. Taking out different frequencies can make the kick much punchier or highlighting them can make the sound much rounder.

But don’t separate your work from the whole picture – always consider the song and how the drums  support the final mix.

Snare Drum

Next up is the snare drum. Together with the kick the snare is a main feature of the drums so again you’ll need to give it some extra attention in the mix.

Like the kick drum – the more experienced the drummer; the steadier the snare track will be. Using the compressor and timing the attack and release will help steady the ship if needed and tighten up the sound. As a starting place try setting the attack from slow to medium letting the snap of the drum ring out and then set the release to stop compressing just before the next drum strike.

Adding compression tends to a hotly disputed topic between audio engineers who all have their own favourite approach!!

You can also mix in a bit of reverb to the snare to add a bit of colour. A good Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) will have plenty of plugin options to play around with. It’s very easy to apply default settings to make the snare sound like it’s in a big stadium or a small room with the click of a button.

You can also create your own settings and save your favourites to quickly apply them again for your next mix.

Up Next….

That’s it for part one, hopefully some ideas for you to try out in the studio!

In Part 2 we’re going to cover mixing the toms, overheads, hi-hats and room mics.

If you want to learn more about audio engineering or have a look around the iconic Windmill Lane Recording Studios where we are based – pop along to an open day….

Read Part 2