Can you name one great song that doesn’t have a good drum sound? It’s hard, right? That’s because drums are very important in music.
If you want to have a good song you need to have a good drum take and a good drum mix. So, in order to have a good drum sound, you need to mix it right.
Although drum mixing is not complicated there are some steps to follow. If you do it right, then you will achieve great results.
Mixing Drums: Real vs Plugin
But first, before you learn how to mix drums, you have to know the difference between real and VST drums. The recording process is different for both and mixing needs a different approach.
With real drums, you have to choose a good room, mic drums properly, check sound, etc. There is a whole process when it comes to real drum recording and mixing. If you record your drums properly, then mixing will be easier.
You will have different mics that record different drum instruments, you will have natural reverb, and so on.
But with programmable or VST drums it’s different. They are already recorded drum samples in professional studios by real drummers.
So, you can’t do anything about it. The only thing you can do is choose the best-sounding sample and use it.
Also, these drum samples are already somewhat compressed. Some EQ might have been used too. So, you are stuck with what you got. That’s why you have to use tools such as compressors, and EQ.
In a nutshell, with real drums, you do everything from choosing the room to mixing. But with VST drums, you just pick a drum kit, record it, and then you mix it.
How To Mix Drums: Beginner’s Guide
In this drum mixing guide, I will show you the process of mixing drums. This will be a general guide and will work with both – real and VST drums. But this is not a step-by-step guide. This is just a blueprint. Because in recording and mixing, there are no rules.
1. Start With Gain Staging Drums
The first thing in the mixing process is the gain staging. It’s not only for drums. But when you start mixing a song, it starts with gain staging. This step is overlooked many times but it’s very important. Gain staging creates balance in your mix.
What gain staging means is that you balance the levels of all the tracks in a song. And it’s done by moving track faders. But drums are important in this step. Because gain staging starts with drums.
Cut the signal for every track by dragging the faders to the bottom. This way no sound goes to the master track. Your track is muted.
Then start raising faders track by track. Once you are satisfied with the sound level go to the next track.
Start with the kick drum, then snare, toms, hi-hat, and cymbals. If you have drum overheads, do it the last.
When you have your drum levels in the position you like, then go to the bass guitar track and do the same. Then go to other tracks and so on.
Finally, you will have a balanced track. If you don’t like anything, fix it now. Because you don’t want to return to gain staging in the future. Gain staging is done once.
2. Drum Panning
After the gain staging, the next step is the panning. Track panning is very important in mixing. Panning means when you send an audio signal on the right or left speaker and I will explain how to pan drums in a mix.
Panning is not a thing only for drums. Some track needs to stay in the center but some instruments need panning. For example, guitar panning is a very common practice in modern music production.
But drums don’t need huge panning. The goal is to make it sound natural. Imagine you are watching a live drum performance. So, the kick is in the center, but for example, the snare is a little bit right side and the hi-hat is on the right side.
That’s how panning drums in a mix works. Some tracks go right and some go to the left. But don’t hard-pan them. About 10-15% will be enough.
3. Mix Individual Drum Tracks
Now, after you complete the gain staging and pan drum tracks properly, it’s time to start mixing with EQ and compressor. These are the main tools you will need for drum mixing.
You have to mix each drum track individually but you need to avoid soloing the track. You need to listen to your drums in the context so, the whole song is playing and you mix the drums that way.
You should start mixing drums with EQ and you can use any equalizer plugin you want. It could be free, premium, or default EQ your DAW has. Also, use my drum EQ cheat sheet as a guide which will make your job easier.
Start with HPF and LPF. This way you will cut all unnecessary frequencies for that particular track. Filters will be different for every drum kit and track. The goal is to just remove excessive frequencies.
After that, create EQ bands to cut or boost different frequencies. Try to find good frequencies and boost them. Do the opposite with bad frequencies. Also, try to leave space for the bass guitar. Bass and kick drum fight for frequencies below 100Hz.
When you are done with EQ, it’s time for compression. With a compressor, you need to make your track even. It will smooth the peaks and this will create an even sound. Don’t overdo it. It will make your tracks too compressed.
Every drum kit and track is different. So, each needs an individual approach whether it’s EQ or compressor. Just listen to the sound and make wise decisions.
You do this to all drum tracks. But the order is very important. Here is the order you should mix your drums:
- Kick Drum
4. Create and Mix Drum Bus
Now you have individual drum tracks mixed. But you don’t need to have your drum divided into pieces. It’s hard to control. So, you need a drum bus.
A bus track is just a simple track where you send different signals. In this case, you have to create a track and send all your drum tracks to that drum bus track.
Different DAWs have different names for them. In some DAWs it is called an AUX track, bus track, or just a regular audio track.
So, create a drum bus track and send individual drum tracks to that newly created audio track. Now, all drum track signals go to that track and from there, it goes to the master bus.
Now you can add additional EQ and compressor to the whole drums. Also, you can control the volume of your drums with this track. Drum bus gives you more flexibility.
5. Apply Parallel Drum Compression
A great way to make your drums more powerful is to use parallel compression. It also makes the drum sound more even. This technique is also known as the New York Compression.
It’s simple. Create a new track and send only the kick drum, snare, and toms to that track. Add a compressor and apply hard compression. You need to crush your drums. Apply high ratio, fastest attack, and slowest release.
Now you have a very compressed kick, snare, and toms. The goal is to make our main drum bus track more powerful. So, you need to blend this compressed track into the main drum bus track.
Bring down the fader of the compressed track to zero. Then, slowly start raising it. Listen very carefully and find the best spot where it has a good impact on the drums.
6. Add Reverb To Drums
The last step is to add reverb to drums. If you have recorded the real drums, you might not need them. Because real drums have a natural ambiance and reverb. But for VST drums, it’s necessary.
For this, you need to create a separate track again and insert any reverb plugin you like. Then you send your drum signal to that track. Some people send entire drums but some people only send toms and snares. Because reverb can be bad for kick drums.
But it all depends on the song and your personal preferences. The goal is to send drum signals to separate reverb tracks. Add any reverb settings you like and then like in parallel compression, blend it with the master drum bus.
In the end, you will have three drum tracks. Main drum bus, parallel compression track, and drum reverb track. The main bus is the main drum sound. Compression and reverb tracks are auxiliary tracks that make your drum sound better and bigger.
This is a beginner’s guide to drum mixing. And this is not a step-by-step guide. Use it as a general guide or a blueprint. There are other methods of drum mixing but this will work in almost every situation. And this method will work for rock, metal, pop, or any other music genre.
Just remember that you need to have a master drum bus and separate tracks for reverb and compression. You blend these two auxiliary tracks with the main drum track.