Whether it’s dance, rock or pop, your drum sound is going to make or break your overall mix. From parallel compression to adding a touch of distortion, this month’s tips from our world-class producers are a treasure trove of useful info.
(Recoil, Depeche Mode | recoil.co.uk)
Often, one needs to trigger a sampled or electronic kick from a real kick drum performance (ensuring it retains dynamics and is tight) to get proper depth and punch. Pitch-shifting of snares sampled and mixed in with the unshifted version can be great—no flams allowed. The dynamic differences between each hit should be retained unless you’re going for something very robotic, which I usually find dull. When mixing, I go for sounds with their own ambience built in, rather than adding much reverb. Quite often, a heavily compressed track of overhead mics sitting behind the main drums brings the sound alive.
I like parallel compression on my drums to make them breathe without losing their character. I create a return track and put two or three compressors on it, completely smashing the hell out of the signal in different ways. Sometimes I throw a little reverb between the compressors to give it more flavor. When this is all mixed back in subtly with the dry drums, it has a way of making a basic drum pattern sound ten times bigger.
(Dragonette | dragonette.com)
We layer a lot of snares and kicks over our real kit, which I think is pretty common. We make sure to have a few distortion options, such as a room mic that’s gone to tape pretty hard, the Scream device in Reason, SansAmp in Pro Tools, or Bitcrusher in Logic. Also, I’m really getting into the Decimator plug-in from SoundToys for this purpose.
(Jaytech | jaytechmusic.com)
Bus all kick sounds together, then all non-kick drum sounds together. Don’t be afraid to use hefty compression ratios on the drum bus. If things start to sound too compressed, I omit some of the higher-pitched hats from the bus to retain the overall crispness in the treble. Avoid any excessive stereo widening on the main percussive elements so they’ll shine through on anemic systems such as laptop speakers.
I usually layer several snares to get the fat sound I want and make them anchor the groove. With kicks, there’s a fine line between a strong kick and one that dominates the track too much. I spend a lot of time auditioning drum sounds. People forget that drums are pitched instruments, so it’s really important to make sure that they blend well with each other, and with the rest of the track. I also make sure that the hi-hats aren’t too sibilant, dialing back a little bit of 12kHz on an open hat if it’s piercing through the track too much. The same goes for crash cymbals.
A common mistake is to mix drums (or individual hits) too low or high. When I revisit productions I did two years ago, I notice my entire drum mix is a dB or two too loud. Drums are a bit like bass that way: at first, the more the merrier. Now, I think there’s nothing worse than drums sitting on top of the mix instead of in the mix. So these days, I often use group compression to glue the drums together. My best way to avoid mixing drums too loud is to audition my mix on a big sound system that can take a beating. If you don’t have access to such a system, buy a pair of headphones with an exaggerated bass response. Finally, mentally switching your focus away from bass and drums often reveals more than expensive speakers do.