My Top Five Starting Points for Every Drum Mix

Everybody needs to start somewhere, so why not start from a place that most sessions end up anyway?

Today, I want to share some of the quickest “clean-up” techniques you can start using the minute you open up mix sessions. These moves will help create consistency between your drums and clean up many muddiness problems that are common in unedited tracking sessions.

Please keep in mind that these are all starting points. Every session is different, as is every song and instrument. You’re going to want to trust your ears at all times to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. These starting points should guide your decision making as you go, but don’t let them have the final say on how your drum mix should sound. That’s completely up to you as the mixer.

Without further adieu, here are my top five starting points for every drum mix:

5. Ditch The Boxy Kick Drum

Boxy kick drums cheapen the sound of every mix they infect. How something intended to sound so huge and bombastic can be thin and flimsy is beyond me, but it’s a problem that often creeps its way into the session.

When it does happen, reach for your EQ and notch out a few dB around the 300 – 400 Hz range. Doing so not only removes the boxy tone from the kick, but also frees up space in the lower mid range for other instruments fighting for that space.

4. Time Your Snare Compression

Compression on snare is like peanut butter with jelly. On their own, they’re pretty good but when added together you get a match made in heaven.

A great trick to getting the right amount of gain reduction on your snare’s compressor is to use the needle/meter to set the “timing”. These meters act as an ideal visual representation of how your attack and release are acting in real time in addition to their primary function as a reduction meter. Get a meter to bounce to the rhythm of the song, and there’s a good chance you’ve got your timing locked in too.

The amount of compression is something you’ll need your ears to determine, but 2-3 dB of gain reduction at a lower ratio is a great starting point if you’re just trying to balance your levels. You can always go back and add more compression later.

3. Fake Rooms Using Overheads

Whenever I’m in a pinch where room mics were not recorded, I turn to the overheads to be my source of truth.

While many engineers use overheads primarily for the cymbals they’re capturing, a copy of the overhead tracks (or an aux track they’re being sent to) can be used to somewhat replicate a room mic.

I’m a huge fan of absolutely crushing room mics for a trashier, raw room tone, so for my purposes an overhead copy works just fine. I just throw on a compressor like BG-Drums, dial up the highest ratio possible, and play with punch and output level until I get a sound that I like.

The key is to mix it in subtly with the clean overheads, finding a place where I’ve added color without damaging the live drum sound.

2. Auto Toms

Wouldn’t you love to set your drum session clean-up work on autopilot? Gates can get close, but you run the risk of chopping off tails and having the gate trigger inaccurately due to a snare hit that happened to bleed into the mic above the threshold.

Instead, filter-based solutions should be used as the standard for tom clean up, rolling off problem frequencies as they go.

I’ve talked about how filtering toms works several times if you’re looking to read more about it. If you’re not already using it, tools like Tominator are great utilities that save hours of manual edits.

1. Group Early

If you’re not using a mix template that has a drum bus already set up, I urge you to make one today. The sooner you can group your drums together in a mix session, the sooner you can begin treating them as a single, cohesive instrument.

Drums aren’t like guitar layers that can be endlessly stacked on top of each other. They’re extremely dynamic instruments that drive the rhythm of the song forward. With that task in mind, it should be obvious that they need to be clear and consistent with each other.

By setting up your drum bus early, you can begin working on your overall drum sound as quickly as you can start working on individual pieces of the kit. You have a way to monitor your drum levels in real time without soloing dozens of tracks, and you’ll be able to make more confident mix decisions because of it.

Owning Your Drum Mix From Start To Finish

Looking for ways to improve your entire drum mix beyond these starting points?

Joey Sturgis Tones VIP members just got a free copy of our new guide titled “Taking Control of Your Drum Mix” included with their membership. The guide contains nearly 20 pages filled with the information you need to get the perfect drums starting with tracking and continuing all the way through to the final mix.

Get your copy as a Joey Sturgis Tones VIP member today.