The Beginner's Guide to Preparing Drums for Mixing

Drums are always a blast to work with, which might have something to do with the boundaries they push. They push our technical abilities as engineers and producers – requiring multiple microphones with exact placement and phase matching to record. They spread themselves across the entire audio spectrum.

On a frequency analyzer, they reach from the lowest of the lows (kick drum) to the highest of the highs (cymbals). In the mix, you’ve got room mics, overheads, and spot mics filling every nook and cranny from your left speaker to your right. Drums love to spread themselves out and reach into every aspect of the songs we work on.

When you can nail a good drum recording or get them to sit right in the mix, it’s one of the greatest feelings the studio offers. When you hear them playing back through your speakers just right, you get a feeling of relief that even makes the pros step back and say “Maybe I know what the hell I’m doing after all!”

Bridging the gap between a well-recorded drum kit and a well-mixed drum kit requires a little something extra though – editing. Even a perfectly recorded drum kit could benefit from some isolation and individuality.

Getting there takes a few common tweaks and an acute attention to detail.

Cleaning Up

When you’ve got so many mics in the same general vicinity, you’re doomed to have some bleed. While not all bleed is bad (your overheads and room mics are essentially made up of  bleed), too much of it can make a mixer’s job impossible.

The first place to look for potential bleed problems is in your shells. Any drum with a shell (tom, kick, snare, etc) has the potential to build up unnecessary bleed and resonance. Perhaps the most common offenders are your toms, and for good reason: they’re not really getting used as much as the rest of your kit.

Because of this, the idle microphone continues to capture everything around it. Cymbals sneak in constantly, and your downward facing microphone can hear right through the tom and pick up the kick drum.

For me, the only solution is a filter with automation. Gates sound harsh and unnatural, making your toms pop in and out of the mix awkwardly. The same goes for kicks and snares, though the bleed might not be as bad.

I use Tominator to save time when cleaning up my drums, because it does what I would do with manual automation once it’s been dialed in. It’s a utility that saves me time and energy on every single mix.

That’s not to say you can’t do it on your own – setting a low-pass filter and automating the cut-off frequency will get you a similar result. It’s just exhaustingly time consuming.

Once you’ve isolated your drums from each other in a way that sounds natural, you can move on to bigger and better things.

Spot Treatment 

Even the most consistent drummer makes a mistake now and then. There’s no use in throwing out a completely valid take because one of his snare hits was a bit off when that happens.

Instead, replacing a drum hit with a sample (especially if you can take a good, clean hit from another part of the song) can save the day. There are tools to do this semi-automatically for you, but there’s nothing wrong manually copying and blending in your own sample for one-off situations.

The main thing you’ll want to be conscious of when searching for your sample is the same as our last step: isolation. You want a clean hit with minimal bleed and enough of a tail to decay naturally in its new spot.

Find the perfect drum hit and you can use it throughout the song for an inconsistent drummer. A good drum sample is worth its weight in gold.

Narrowing Down

The last step to take in your editing is also usually the first step toward mixing: you need to decide what stays and what needs to go.

Do you really need a spot mic on every single cymbal or will your overheads do the job? Can you top/bottom snare mic be summed to a single track? What about your kick in & kick out?

These are all questions you need to ask yourself before you start mixing, or you risk breaking the balance of the mix when modifying the sound of your kit across dozens of tracks.

There is no perfect way to approach it. I know engineers that fold everything down to one track per drum before they mix. I know others that use groups and aux tracks to process multiple tracks together while retaining the flexibility to adjust top/bottom mics later on.

Find a process that works best for you and makes mix decisions easier. The more streamlined your workflow becomes, the faster you can work and the more efficient your time spent on each mix is.

Saving time by narrowing down the drum tracks you’ll need in the mix frees that time up for the more creative elements of your mix.

How clean are your drum tracks?

Do you name your drum tracks a specific way as you work? What about color-coding?

We’re all about a clean workspace and session, so if you’re great about working fast and keeping things organized, we want to hear from you. Come share your best tips on keeping clean and organized with us and we might feature it in a future post!