How to mix drums (Cheat Sheet)

If you've ever listened to an urban track and wondered how the drums punch through the mix so distinctly, you're in the right place. Crafting that full, hard-hitting drum sound is a combination of different techniques, which I will show you in this article.

How to mix drums: The Basics

To make sure you're getting the most out of all the specific techniques on how to mix drums, let's quickly cover 7 basics which will help you getting a solid foundation for your drum mix.

  1. Balance is Key: Before diving into effects and processing, it's crucial to set the right balance. This often involves adjusting levels and pan positions to ensure each drum element has its place in the mix.
  2. Layering Sounds: Layering can help fill gaps in the sonic spectrum. For instance, if a snare lacks body, it might be layered with a sample that adds weight.
  3. Selective EQ: Rather than boosting frequencies right away, consider carving out unwanted frequencies first. This can bring clarity to drums and make them stand out without becoming too overpowering.
  4. Dynamic EQ: Dynamic EQs can be helpful in taming harsh resonances that occur only when a drum is hit hard or in specific contexts. This is also helpful for the harsh frequency ranges of a snare drum.
  5. Tuned Kick and Bass: Ensuring that the kick drum and sub bass (or bass guitar) are tuned to the key of the song can bring harmony and tightness to the low end.
  6. Know When to Be Minimal: Sometimes, the best mix decision is to do nothing or very little. Not every drum element needs a ton of processing.
  7. Always Reference: Top mix engineers often have reference tracks they compare their mixes to. It helps ensure that the mix translates well across various systems.

Parallel Compression on drums

How it Works: In parallel compression, you're essentially duplicating your drum track (or creating an aux track). One track remains untouched (dynamic and transient-rich), while the other is heavily compressed. By blending the compressed signal with the original, you get the punch and sustain from the compressed track combined with the dynamics of the original. This results in a drum sound that is both punchy and dynamic.

Plugin Recommendations:

Drum Bus Compression: Make your drums glue together

How it Works: When multiple drum elements (kick, snare, hi-hat, etc.) are grouped or "bussed" together, a bus compressor processes them as a single entity. The idea is to achieve a sense of cohesion and glue between these elements. As the compressor gets sounds "closer" to each other, the drum sound as a whole seems fuller.

Plugin Recommendations:

Coloring EQ: Shape your drums

How it Works: Unlike modern digital EQs that aim for transparency, coloring EQs are designed to impart a specific sonic signature or color. By boosting or cutting frequencies with these EQs, you don't just change the frequency balance, but you also introduce harmonics and character specific to the EQ model, such as the Pultec EQP-1A.

UAD Pultec EQP-1A (or Waves PuigTec EQP1A): Boost around 60Hz for kick fullness and cut slightly above it to reduce muddiness. For snare presence, try a boost around 3kHz.

How to mix drums - Coloring EQ - Universal Audio UAD Pultec EQP-1A

Saturation: adding warmth and presence

How it Works: Saturation originally refers to pushing analog equipment to its limits, causing it to naturally compress and introduce harmonics (or harmonic distortion). In the digital realm, saturation plugins emulate this behavior. It results in a warmth, presence, and slight compression that can make drums sound fuller and richer in the mix.

Plugin Recommendations:

Special Saturation: Analog warmth

Tape Saturation: Emulates the behavior of analog tape machines. When you recorded hot onto tape, the tape would naturally compress and introduce a specific type of saturation known for warmth and pleasant harmonics. Waves tape plugins can be used for this, such as the Kramer Master Tape or the Abbey Road J37 Tape. Get a 10% discount at Waves with my referral link.
How to mix drums - Tape Saturation - Kramer Master Tape

Waves NLS: Emulates the saturation characteristics of different famous mixing consoles. Each console imparts its unique character, harmonics, and coloration to signals that pass through it. Get a 10% discount at Waves with my referral link.
How to mix drums - Analog Saturation - Waves NLS

Soft Clipping: perceived loudness

How it Works: Soft clipping is a form of waveform distortion, similar to saturation. Instead of allowing a waveform to exceed a set threshold (and clip harshly), soft clipping gradually rounds off the waveform, resulting in a warmer and more controlled distortion. This can increase perceived loudness without the harsh artifacts of hard clipping.

StandardClip: Adjust the threshold until you see mild clipping. Use the output gain to reach the same level as the previous peaks. This will make your drums louder without increasing their peak levels. Make sure to check the effect on different systems, if possible โ€” such as headphones and a second pair of monitors โ€” to spot any unwanted distortion.

How to mix drums - Soft Clipping - SIR Audio Tools Standard Clip


Stereo Widening: big sounding drums

How it Works: By grouping the percussive elements together and applying subtle stereo widening, you can make the drums feel bigger without losing any punch.

Waves S1: Increase the stereo width slowly and adjust to taste. Don't overdo it, as you still need some space for the instruments and background vocals. Get a 10% discount at Waves with my referral link.
How to mix drums - Stereo Widening - Waves S1 Stereo Imager

When mixing, remember that context is everything. When applying these techniques, always check how they sound within the full mix. The magic happens when you blend these techniques, catering to the mix. Every song and mix is unique, so not every one of these techniques will be needed every time.

Now that you know how to get your drums right, do you want to make your vocals sit just right in the mix? You'll find all the tricks for that in this article.

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