The Music Espionage

Drum Kits

We have looked at mixing the many different elements of kit and some of the fundamental aspects to remember. This last page is a simple checklist for some of the important features to remember and ultimately get those drums sounding amazing.

No matter what you have recorded, there is one big question every producer will ask themselves when they finally settle down to mix the track, ‘Where to start’? The most common method is starting in the low frequencies and gradually working your way through to the higher range. This is also true for the drums. It is very common to begin with the kick, then follow with the snare, toms and cymbals (overheads). With consideration this makes sense, firstly it gives you a good orientation, not only where to start, but how the mix will move and be structured from very low into the high regions.

So we have a basic order to follow, with this in mind we can use the main components and techniques of all mixing to apply to each element of the drum kit. These are Dynamics, Stereo Field, Depth and Tonal balance. Dynamics relates to the relative volume levels of each instrument. Stereo field relates to whether a sound is coming from the left or on the right side. To give this impression you use panning. Depth relates to the perceived distance from the listener of each instrument. This is achieved by adding reverb. Tonal balance relates to the range of frequencies in the track, or in other words, low frequencies (Bass), high frequencies (Treble) and all in between (Mid).

Right! Lets get started.

The beating heart of the drums. A limp, lifeless kick will absolutely spoil the rest. A cloudy mix will lose its fundamental punch and that imperative foot-tapping goodness.

Dynamics: Gating is often the first dynamic effect employed here. The common close/spot microphone technique does regularly include spill from other elements of the kit, so using a gate will clean it up. The percussive nature of the drums means a fast attach is a must. Make sure it opens as suddenly and abruptly as the beat and be careful to map the envelope of the sound. Start with the Threshold high and slowly bring it down until the unwanted background noise is removed. In addition to this you may want to use compression this will emphasise the much-wanted punchy sound.

Stereo Field: Remember to imagine where the listener will be picturing the sound of kit, from the front, the audience’s point of view. Or from where the drummer is sitting. Whatever, you choose the kick will normally end up dead-centre, the phantom middle.

EQ: The real weight and boomy bass lives around 80 to 100Hz, this will add a deep boost to the sound. Moving further up the frequencies into the mid-low, this area will often retain much of the kick’s muddy murkiness, so is common to cut around 200 – 350 Hz. This can often bring the kick sound forward in the mix. The beater snappy attach sound is higher, in the realm of 2 – 4KHz. The snapshot below should help when trying to get the perfect sound.

More than any other part of the kit the snare is always one of the loudest and loves to cut through the rest. The snare provides the phrases of the rhythm, the catchy progressions we love to tap on the tabletop or slap on our thigh. As Martin Hannett once said, ‘It’s the essence of rock ‘n’ roll, playing the off beats with a good deal of vigor’.

Dynamics: One of the main dynamic effects used on the snare is compression. This will smooth out the performance and make sure any accidental soft hits are brought forward and rounding off the one or two really hard hits. A fast Attack in the region of 1 – 5ms will preserve the early envelope, however a really fast attack will flatten the sound resulting in it being unnatural. With Release, a setting of ‘Auto’ will take care of the tail end. Ratio and Gain are again subjective and naturally will need a little adjusting. Try between 5 – 10:1 as a staring point and approximately 5 – 15dB for the Gain.

Stereo Field: Again, you must consider how you are going to portray your ‘imagine’ of the drums. Like the kick, normally the snare will stay close to the centre, often moved slightly left or right to balance again the kick drum.

Depth and Tonal Balance: Depending on where you want the snare in the balance of the mix will absolutely change the amount of reverb and how forward you bring it in the mix to affect the depth. You can create a completely different snare sound by just applying an interesting reverb to it. You need to carefully consider the EQ, taking into account masking with other elements. Anything below 150Hz is normally unusable, so it is customary to apply a high-pass filter removing this. The deep thump of the sound is between 150 – 250Hz, this area will add thickness and body to the blend. 500 – 800 Hz often holds a boxy, closed in sound so you may wish to slightly cut this area. At around 1500 – 2500 KHz is the attack, punch of the snare and from here sizzle, airy tones that carry-on up the frequency spectrum.

Depending on the drummer and the track, Toms may be used for nothing more than one or two fancy fills or really drive and steer the rhythm throughout the song.

Dynamics: Two of the main dynamics plug-ins may be used on the Toms. If the toms are driving the force, you will need to focus upon this. A Noise Gate will clean up expected still and bleeding from other elements of the kit and give you a more unsoiled track to EQ and manipulate. You may also want to a use a compressor. This will smooth out the performance, making it more uniformed throughout. Also with a little gain, will bring in forward and draw the listener’s attenuation.

Stereo Field: The Tom drums depend greatly on how you want to create an image of the kit, mixing from the drummer’s perspective behind the kit or the audience in front. A good method to consider is panning through the Overheads. The overheads will create a natural picture of the kit, so panning the individual elements to follow this will make it sound balanced and way more natural. Listen carefully to the overhead tracks and try to depict where each Tom is placed in the stereo-field. Remember this and pan the individual tracks to shadow these positions.

Depth and Tonal Balance: Again, how the Toms are used throughout the track will greatly affect their presence in the mix. When the toms are driving the rhythm you want them close and powerful. If they just perform one or two fills, just make sure they stand out at that point. Obvious really!

Hi-Hat/Over Heads and all the Rest:

Songs where the Hi-Hat is strong, for example playing quavers and semiquavers during the verse of a Rock or Hip-Hop track, you will need to make sure these stand out clearly. EQ is really important here. A high-pass filter will remove much of the low spill and give the sound more clarity, make the high-mid area more crisp/tight and remove the ‘gongy’ overtones.

Overheads and Cymbals:
As we already know the Overheads are hugely important, not only do they capture the cymbals but add definition to the individual drums and help knit the whole kit together. Remember, that when you add the Overheads it can affect the panning of the other elements, due to the position and separation of microphones at the recording stage. For example you may want the Snare close to the centre in the finish mix. However due to its position in the recording (under one of the overheads) it can move slightly. This will mean returning to the snare track to correct this.

[audio:|titles=Overheads with Snare]

Here is an example of this in practice. Listen closely to how the snare moves from the centre across to the right as the Overheads are introduced. There is no panning involved, just the position of the overhead microphones creating a true stereo picture.

This takes us nicely to possibly the most important aspect to remember when mixing. Never listen in isolation. You may need to solo certain parts at certain times to refine the sound but untimely its how these elements blend and balance together.