Are Mix-Ready Live Toms Too Good to Be True?

Mix-ready is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. Personally, I think mix-ready can be anything and everything I can drop into a session and find an immediate place for in the song. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to do my own tweaking to make it fit better, just that it sounds natural when added in with everything else.

My sessions include a lot of mix-ready elements. Things like guitars that have been recorded DI with Toneforge can be mix-ready. A lot of software synths can be mix-ready, especially ones that are modeled after classic keys. And of course, another huge mix-ready element always seems to be sampled drums.

What if I told you that your own drums could be mix-ready with minimal editing though? It might sound too good to be true for some of you, but a decent mix-ready drum set isn’t as far out of reach as you might think.

Today, I want to focus on how we can create mix-ready toms that you’ve recorded yourself live in the studio. While you still might choose to layer in samples to enhance your mix, these same techniques can be applied to almost any percussive instrument.

Tune Up

The key to any good recording starts with a well-tuned instrument. If your toms aren’t in tune with each other, you can’t expect the resulting recording to sound any better.

If you’re a drummer, having the ability to tune your own kit is indispensable, especially in a studio environment where you might be changing out heads between songs to get the freshest sound. Tuning your top/beater heads will determine the majority of your attack and overtones, while tuning the resonant heads will give you more body and ring.

If you’re not a drummer, you should still keep some tools around the studio to help tune up when you’re in a pinch. Not every drummer coming in is going to know how to tune their own kit, at which point you’ll be glad you’ve got that tension tuner handy.

By keeping your drums in tune while tracking, you’ll ensure you’ve got the same quality source audio as any of your favorite samples of the same kit might.

Mic Check

Once you’re all tuned up, you need to spend some time improving the first touch point in your tom tracking signal chain: your mic. Each microphone should be placed in a way that captures a balanced, full tone from your toms. Experiment with the distance and angle at which you’re pointing the mic at the tom. If you’re getting the attack without much ring, try backing it away a bit or moving it away from the center of the top head.

If all you’re getting is body, try positioning the capsule of the microphone more toward where the drumstick is hitting. No two kits are the same, and no two drummers will play a kit the same way. Engineers need to be able to adapt their technique to match the drummer they’re working with. As you develop your own approach to recording drums, you’ll find a sweet spot for every situation.

The Clean-Up Crew

After your drums are tracked, there’s one last step needed to get them in mix-ready condition: you need to get your transients sitting where you want them. This usually requires a bit of EQing if you’re not completely satisfied with your source audio that you’ve captured. If you were provided toms tracked by someone else, this might be your first and only step in getting them mix-ready.

Don’t be afraid to get drastic with your EQ decisions around toms. Toms peak out of the mix so infrequently, it becomes all about getting the sound right for each and every hit. If your drummer only goes for that low tom a handful of times in the song, you’re going to want to make sure those hits count.

To get just a bit more bite out of your toms before the mix, a multi-band transient processor can help dial in the right sound. Using Transify, you can simultaneously isolate your transient, boost it, and add some harmonic distortion with the Clip circuit.

For Nick, toms get their mids scooped and the low-mids & higher attack frequencies get boosted before going into Transify. Check out his approach in the video below:

The end result is something that’s polished, professional, and as easy to work with in the mix as any sampled tom would be.

What Else Do You Do For Mix Prep?

Are you taking other steps to get your tracking sessions cleaned up before you start mixing? I’ve found that the mixing process can be a lot more enjoyable (and moves faster) whenever some of the more menial tasks like tuning & editing are done beforehand, rather than on the fly while mixing.

Do you agree? Let me know which approach you prefer, and see what other engineers and producers are doing to prep their mixes in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook.

See you there!