The Beginner's Guide to a Cohesive Drum Mix

You know that a solid drum mix is half the battle when working out a professional and polished song, right? If not I’m telling you right now – it is.

Some engineers say it’s the vocals that make a mix but if you’re working in pop, rock, electronic, hip-hop, or one of a dozen other genres, I’m willing to wager that the drums contribute just as much, if not more than, a clear and present vocal. The reason why is everywhere you look:

Take for example a club or live show. You’re not hearing the vocals as you approach; you’re usually hearing the bass and a punchy, omnipresent kick drum. As you get closer, you might hear some guitars or synths start to build a wall of sound, but through that wall rings the crack of the snare drum. It’s only once you’re in the venue that the vocals and other instruments become clear and balanced (if the sound guy is doing his job right).

A good live sound should translate into a mix by whatever means necessary. Even if you don’t have the best equipment to track with, getting a solid drum tone is not only achievable; it’s the only option if you want to stay competitive as an engineer.

Junk In = Junk Out

If you’re working with a band from tracking through mixing and mastering, you get a lot of input into the way drums are captured and presented. Unfortunately, too many engineers cut corners when recording drums, and their mixes suffer because of it.

When it comes time to record drums, make the best of your situation. Have a massive studio you’re renting out for the day? Make use of the mics they have. If you’re unfamiliar with the options available, ask the studio for recommendations. They know the room and the gear and should be quick with a suggestion.

Over-mic the kit if you have to, and remove the unwanted tracks when mixing if you don’t need them. Take the time to get a good sound at the source whenever possible – if you can’t get it right here, you’ll have more work to do later.

If the band plans on using live drums, shine those bad boys up prior to tracking! There’s never a better time for new heads than the recording studio. If there’s budget available, spend it. Tune your drums. - batter & resonant heads. Make that kit sound brand new before a single mic gets set up. You won’t regret it.

Not Using Live Drums?

There’s really no need to spend the budget on recording live drums if you can’t afford it. Bankrupting yourself for drum tones isn’t really high up on anyone’s wish list (at least I hope it isn’t). There are better ways to spend a fraction of the money you’d spend on a good studio that will result in a sound that’s just as good, and often better, especially if you’re not familiar with a drum kit yet.

Drum samples have reached a point where they’re indistinguishable from a drummer behind a live kit if they’re programmed properly. Investing in a drum sample pack that includes an easy-to-use interface and drums recorded at various velocities is a great investment for any engineer.

Whether you’re looking to build a MIDI drum track from scratch, trying to sample-replace a poorly recorded kit, or even just trying to enhance a good sounding live kit for some additional depth – a great drum sample library makes all the difference.

Consistency Across The Kit 

Have you ever noticed that the same type of mics get used time and time again by professional session engineers? It’s because they’ve found their drum sound, and they stick to it. That’s not to say they don’t experiment and add a new mic or mic position from time to time, but they know what works for them.

There are standards that a lot of engineers stick to: dynamic mics on batter heads, small diaphragm condensers for cymbals & large diaphragm condensers or ribbon mics on overheads… the list goes on.

Just like you’ll be consistent with your microphone choices once you’ve found your sound, your drum mixing should have the same level of effort to maintain consistency. Start with tools you know will give you a controlled, dynamic sound in the box.

Plugins like Tominator and Transify give you extreme levels of dynamic control over your drum mix. Both tools can act as utilities – editing processors that clean up your individual drum sounds so you can approach the rest of the drum mix with a level playing field.

Glue Your Kit Together 

Once you’ve got edited, manageable drums, your creativity as a mixer has room to expand. Based on the song, you might choose to deaden your snare and toms for a grungy, lo-fi sound. You might want to boost your kick and snare to the front, dialing the rest of the drums back to let them drive the song forward. Every song is different, and it’s up to you to match your individual drums to what each song requires.

Once you’ve got your mix sitting where you like it, some bus compression can really drive home the impact of your drum mix. By routing all of your drums down to a stereo bus with a drum bus compressor, you can glue together the individual sounds across the entire stereo mix.

A lot of engineers that supplement their mixes with sampled drums find this a quick and easy way to tie the samples back to their live counterparts.

Rather than toms sticking out to the sides and a snare poking through the center, a drum bus compressor can bring them all together for a powerful and punchy single instrument.

Keeping Your Drums Competitive 

Are you doing everything you can to give your drums the impact they deserve?

There’s a lot that can be done depending on the song you’re working on to make that happen, but the first step should always be taking control of your dynamics. Once you’ve done that, everything else becomes instinct as an engineer.

Want the upper hand on your competition as a mixer? Come see what other engineers are doing in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum. It’s a community for sharing, but if you steal a few mix techniques and make them part of your sound, we promise not to tell anyone…

Happy mixing!