The Ultimate Guide to Drum Isolation

Your percussion section is one of the hardest places to find a balance, and it’s usually because you’re walking a fine line between isolating each piece of your drum kit and melding them into a cohesive, single instrument.

We’re constantly at war with ourselves, bouncing all around between treating our busses, individual tracks & getting each piece to sit just right in the mix. Of course, the problem doesn’t always start in the mix; a lot of the time it starts with tracking.

No matter how talented the tracking engineer is, things change when you get to the mixing stage. And if you’re pulling up a mix for the first time, there are two main scenarios you’ll usually find your drums in:

     1. Your drums are too independent from each other.
     2. Your drums are muddy.

Let’s take a closer look at how best to deal with each of these situations.

Too Much Isolation 

This is what happens when the tracking engineer decides every little detail of your kit needs to be captured on it’s own. Usually it’s the same guy that’s got top mics, bottom mics, spot mics, and there’s a chance they’re all wrapped in some foam that’s supposed to help with isolation (even though it doesn’t).

What you end up with can be a nightmare of seemingly endless tracks. A web of unblended snare microphones, tracks dedicated to each cymbal (and two on the ride); it’s not a pretty sight.

Adding to the problem is phase cancellation, which becomes a bigger headache the more microphones you use. If the tracking engineer hasn’t properly checked phase while setting up for the session, there’s a chance your “extreme isolation” isn’t even going to play back properly without certain frequencies dropping out altogether.

The solution for this problem is almost too easy: remove what you’re not going to use.

Take a good, long look at your session and decide what you need. Are there tracks in the session that you can visually identify as “blank”? Ditch them.

Once you’ve cleaned out the empty tracks (which happens way more than it should when engineers mic up parts of the kit that don’t get used in the song), start thinking about what spot mics you need.

If your overheads sound good, ask yourself if you really need the spot mics at all. Spot placement works great when you have a softer cymbal that might not cut through the overheads very well, or when there’s an intricate pattern being played where you’re hoping to catch the nuances of the performance.

But if you’re faced with a session where the drummer is beating the life out of his crash cymbals, are you really getting anything out of those spot mics anyway?

Cleaning up your drum tracks before you reach for a single fader/pan knob will go a long way to make your mix decisions easier as you work.

Not Enough Isolation

More common than too much separation is not enough. Every element of a drum kit has to be squeezed together in a small enough space for the drummer to reach everything, and that creates a whole set of problems that we don’t have to deal with when working with other musicians.

Most drum tracking engineers will focus on getting a good, cohesive sound from the start – tracking overheads, room mics & trying to capture the essence of the drums in the space they’re recorded in. They’re usually good about checking phase where it counts, but in their quest for capturing the kit as a single instrument, they may have lost some isolation that could really help us out in the mix.

Usually, we see this the most with bleed. Cymbal bleed into tom & snare mics happens all the time. The same could be said for the ringing of each shell in the kit. A lot of engineers make the mistake of using gates to filter out the unwanted stuff, but they’re going about it the wrong way.

Rather than using a harsh gate that trims the tails off of your shells, you should be focusing on rolling off the unwanted frequencies with a filter. Any type of low-pass will do. You just need to find the frequencies that are sneaking into your track, and roll-off below that.

In order to really dial things in, you can automate the low-pass frequency to allow in the full frequency spectrum with each hit. To save time and effort, we suggest using Tominator, which has already saved me hundreds of hours of automation (that’s not even an exaggeration).

Tominator acts as a low-pass filter that gets triggered by the drum hit. It’s the exact same approach I’ve been taking to clean up my toms for years, but in a plugin that does most of the automation for me. Best of all, it’s nowhere near as harsh as a gate.

The end results are the same audio tracks that the tracking engineer worked so hard to make into a single instrument, but with plenty of isolation to treat each piece of the kit individually as needed.

Get It Just Right

If you’re tracking your own drums, what are you doing to prevent (or at least minimize) the editing that’s so often required before you can mix? Do you tend to do some of your editing while tracking, or is it it’s own step in the process?

Come share your approach with our community of engineers & producers on the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook. We’re always looking for new ideas to try out, especially if they’ll save us time and get everyone back to making more music.