TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 42 Mixing Drums

This week and next in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio series, we’ll be looking at Drums in the mix process.

But before we get into discussing mixing drums – were you happy with the recorded sound of your kit? Was the drum kit properly tuned?

A Vital Ingredient For A Great Drum Sound – Tuning.

We covered drum tuning in this blog. A badly tuned kit will never produce a great sound. So if you weren’t up to it yourself, hopefully you got someone in to tune them for you. We looked at recording and the various mic techniques for drums in four blogs starting here…..from Part 19 through to Part 22.

Showing The Tuning Order For Drum Heads With Different Numbers Of Lugs.

It is rumoured that Metallica’s Black Album employed 30 tracks (including ambience tracks) just for the drums!!! Depending on how many mics you used to record your kit, will dictate to a large extent what you can do with the drums in your mix. If you have 12 tracks recorded for the kit it should allow you more control over each individual drum and cymbal component and more variation in sound than if you only used 2 or 3 tracks for the drums. But either extreme can produce a great sound or a complete mess.

More isn’t always better. Glyn Johns famously used 3 or 4 mics to record drums on many major releases from the 60s to the late 80s. His technique is described in this blog.

To understand better the pros and cons for using a few or several mics, click on the links above for tuning and recording drums.

Drums And Mics Setup At TML Studio TCM Music Nashville.

Drums are the backbone of modern music tracks. Providing you have taken the time to tune them properly and have got a great recording of them – you should have few problems in the mix. Although there is bound to be some bleed, for example, a snare mic may also pick up audio from the other drums and cymbals in the kit.

Of course, one of the reasons for using a real drummer and kit is to get that real drum sound that’s unique to that player, kit, room etc.

A useful tip, is to sample all the drums on the kit individually before recording the drummer. This allows you to trigger a clean sample if necessary in the mix stage.

Drum Samples From Sonic Reality.

Today, you can buy great drum samples (which tend to be EQ’d already), but unless you’re really good at programming, it’s not always easy producing a great drum performance. Many samples offered come as loops that can be used ‘straight out of the box’. With a little editing they can be turned into excellent drum tracks.

When using EQ on any instrument, drums included, solo the track your listening to first. And only ever apply EQ if it’s needed. If it sounds okay, leave it alone. Where possible, use EQ cut rather than boost to get the sound you want…..this approach ensures less noise is added to your track.

Once you start monitoring drums with the rest of your tracks, then you may find yourself adding more top end to a kick and snare. Be sure to compare the sound between the soloed track(s) and the overall drum sound in the mix.

The acoustics of the room you recorded in, the quality of the drum kit, how well they were tuned, the player – will all have contributed to the drum sound. So any EQ and processing suggestions are only guidelines.

Graphic Illustrating Possible EQ For Bass Guitar And Kick Drum.

The Kick Drum needs to work with the bass guitar. So don’t EQ both with the same frequencies. For example, if the bass guitar is boosted around 150 Hz, don’t emphasise the kick in the same frequency range. In the picture above, notice the narrow bandwidth boost for the kick at 50 Hz and the cut to the bass guitar at the same frequency.

Kick Drum Miked From Pedal Side.

To give the kick some force, add a few dB at 80-100 Hz. Cutting around 400-600 Hz can help to reduce the boxiness some drums have. Adding a few dB at around 5 kHz should give your kick more presence and attack. If you recorded the kick with a mic at the front and another on the pedal side, each will give a different quality to the drum. The pedal side usually contributes a punchier sound.

To find the exact frequency that needs adjusting, use extreme cut or boost, whilst using a very high Q or narrow bandwidth setting as you sweep through the frequencies. This makes it easier to find the desired frequency. Once you’ve found the frequency that works best, moderate the cut or boost dB levels and widen the bandwidth a little.

Don’t alter the levels of the kick drum and bass guitar. These two instruments are the foundation of the beat in any song. Find a level and EQ setting that works for them and leave them alone.

It’s rare to find two engineers/producers that approach recording and mixing in exactly the same way. So opinions vary on the use of dynamic processing in the mix stage. A major part of the debate centres around whether to EQ first then Compress or vice versa. You might want to consider this guideline…..if the drum needs drastic EQ then compress before EQ. If the drum needs serious compression then EQ before compression. Ultimately, it’s down to what sounds best, so try both and see which you prefer.

A Carefully Setup Noise Gate On The Kick Can Get Rid Of Bleed From Other Drums.

If you have used multiple mics to record your drum kit, there will inevitably be bleed on the kick mic from other drums (especially the snare) and vice versa. One way to reduce bleed is to use a noise gate. The principle is that the noise gate will open when the kick drum is hit, but will close when the kick is not present, thus getting rid of the spill in the kick mic from the other drums.

The picture above shows Logic’s Noise Gate with a very fast attack. The release is fast enough to close before the snare is heard, but allows the full sound of the kick to get through. The threshold has been turned down until the other drums cannot be heard. If you decide to use a gate, take your time to get the settings right so that the kick is not cut off prematurely.

Logic’s Compressor Set Up For The Kick.

Compression helps to even out any level inconsistencies. If the drummer provided a reasonably steady output, you could try a 5:1 ratio, adjust the threshold until you’re compressing around 3-4 dBs. You can then bring the level back by increasing the gain by about 3 dBs. Then adjust the attack and release until you get the effect you want. A slower attack allows the beater to break through. Adjust the release time to stop the compressor from compressing before the next beat.

Left – Snare Miked Top & Bottom, Right – Dampening The Snare.

The Snare Drum is what gives the drive and beat to your music, so it should cut through everything else. For many producers/engineers their snare drum sound is their signature. Also, many drummers will bring along more than one snare to a recording session, using different ones on different songs. So decide on the kind of snare sound you want. Listen to your favourite songs from different eras and different bands for ideas. Drums recorded in the 60’s sounded different from those in the noughties.

Click here for an interesting article on recording and mixing the snare drum.

If you have used one mic on the snare, positioning it above the rim is the usual  spot. Placing a mic below the snare gives you additional options and tonal qualities as it will capture the sizzle of the snare wires. You will however, need to reverse its phase with the mic above the snare.

Digirack EQ On Snare Drum.

If your snare sound needs more body, try boosting at around 100-150 Hz. Below 100 Hz, there isn’t much that needs to be kept, so you can use a high-pass filter. Reduce boxiness by cutting around 650 Hz. Need more crispness? Add a few dB between 4-8 kHz. There are also enhancers or exciters on the market from the likes of JoeMeek and Aphex that can really help to improve the sound.

The snare mic will pick up some of the kick, toms, cymbals and hi-hat. So again, a noise gate works well in cleaning up the snare sound. But whereas the kick’s characteristic thud is quite short, the snare can ring out. So adjust the settings carefully, taking care that the natural decay of the snare does not get cut-off.

Something to consider…..once you’ve got a great sounding snare, you could try triggering some good drum samples underneath to produce a punchier, modern rock sound.

Along with the kick and the bass guitar, the snare is usually placed centre stage in the stereo field. There are examples in modern music where these conventions have been ignored, but in general these three instruments fulfill their purpose best when panned down the middle.

A radically different snare sound can be created with the addition of a short delay or reverb, e.g. a good plate or room setting. Just bear in mind that adding a long reverb can muddy or confuse the snare sound. Try using a decay length that fits between the consecutive snare hits. There’s also the gated reverb sound, used by Phil Collins to great effect on ‘In The Air Tonight’ and many other artists.

You may find there are certain effects that require slightly different settings at different points in the song.  For example, you may want to add a longer reverb to a snare in the chorus, whilst using a drier setting in the verse. The only way to find out what works is to try it. This is the beauty of the modern multitrack process, in the mix stage you can experiment with all kinds of processing without compromising your original tracks.

Next week we’ll continue with mixing drums by looking at Toms, Overheads, Hi-Hat, Cymbals and Ambience tracks.

TCM Music Group and TCM Mastering provide full recording, mixing, mastering and production services from their facilities in the UK and Nashville, USA. For more information, click here.

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