A Little Goes A Long Way: How To Avoid Overcompressed Drums

Drums are one of the hardest pieces of a mix to get the perfect sound from. Even if you were the engineer on the tracking session, the sound you were after during recording can change drastically once you add in other elements to the production. For this reason, many engineers choose to capture a “useable” kit during tracking without any intention of perfecting it until the mix.

Flexible, well-tracked drums are rewarded over careless tracking decisions when you’ve got dozens of microphones on an instrument that needs to be combined in the mix.

By the time you get into the mix, the first thing you might want to do is reach for a compressor to tame some of the transients that come with such a dynamic instrument. If you’re not careful, reaching for that compressor can set you up for failure if you don’t know what you’re doing. The last thing you need in a mix is over-compression jumping in and collapsing your drums that you worked so hard to record.

So what can we do to treat our drums in a way that minimizes the risk of too much compression?

Reinforce With Samples

I’m sure someone’s going to try to argue with me, but there is NOTHING wrong with combining your favorite drum samples with live drums. Maybe you’ve got some preconceived notion that samples are a shortcut or defeat the purpose of tracking live, but when done correctly, samples should be virtually unnoticeable in the final mix.

A live drum set is about as dynamic as instruments come. You’ve got ring between drum shells, constant cymbal noise & plenty of hits that should cut through the mix, but sometimes they just can’t.

Enter samples. Samples give you a clean, one-shot hit that can reinforce any snare, kick or other percussive instrument. Whether they’re from a pack that you bought or a sample you created yourself, they give you a quick way to add consistency back to your mix. Isn’t that what you’re after using compressors anyway?

Use A Transient Processor

A multi-band processor like Transify gives you complete control over the transients in your drum mix. These easy-to-use plugins give you control over individual drum tracks or can be used on the kit as a whole. With the best transient processors, you’re going to get the flexibility to tweak each frequency band independently, meaning the crack of your snare can be enhanced while leaving the body completely unaffected.

You can choose to use a transient processor in combination with samples or as a standalone solution to your live drum problems. I’ve found that if you have multiple layers to a certain drum (such as the 5 snares Billy uses in the video below), a transient processor can be applied to the most extreme layers to help them blend a bit better with the others.

Stacking Compressors

If you noticed in the video, Billy Decker has a decent number of compressors on his drums (not even accounting for bus compression that’s surely happening later in his signal chain). What’s more important than the number of compressor is how he’s choosing to use them.

None of his compressors are getting slammed. Zero. Zilch.

Instead, Billy uses gain staging and compression stacks to achieve his signature drum tone. He starts with his normal processing, but never cranks a compressor up more than about 30% on individual tracks. He understands that over-compressing early on will make your drum mix collapse when you listen back to it within the overall mix.

Instead, Billy uses plugins like JST Clip to add just a bit of compression and grit to the tracks that need it, then busses everything down to aux tracks where a little more compression can be applied.

Even there, the chain doesn’t just contain one compressor. It contains BG-Drums, which adds a bit of body/boom to the mix and just 2-3 dB of compression. Then the signal goes into Finality, where even as a limiter, he’s applying just a few dB of gain reduction to “warm up the sound”. Finally, it arrives at another instance of JST Clip, where Billy’s “3 light setting” provides the right amount of grit and compression to finish things off.

Start to finish, a single track might see half a dozen compressors or more before the final mix bus. Because there’s no extreme compression settings applied and each compressor acts a bit differently, you’re left with a relatively transparent sound that’s still polished and professional.

Do You Struggle With Over-Compression?

It’s okay; you’re certainly not the only one. Too many engineers apply compression because they’re fighting to stay loud and to compete with other mixes they here. These loudness wars end up destroying our mixes.

If you’re ever curious about how others are using techniques like this to combat over-compression, come join the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook, where you can see and hear what thousands of other engineers and producers are working with on a regular basis.

See you there!