We all want our drums to sound massive, hard-hitting, and larger-than-life. And compression is one of the tools we can use to get there.
But it’s not easy to learn how to compress drums like a pro.
If you’re struggling to craft drums that sound like the ones in your favorite records, you’re not alone. But don’t worry — this article will help.
Inside, you’ll discover 6 powerful tips that will help you compress drums with clarity and confidence, so you can craft mixes that sound more professional today.
But before we dive in, make sure you grab my free drum mixing cheatsheet below. It’s packed with additional tips and tricks that will instantly elevate your drums.
Tip #1: Slow Down The Attack Time
When it comes to compressing drums, there’s one control on your compressor that you should pay extra attention to.
The attack time.
The attack control will determine how much punch the compressor will add or remove on your drums.
Punch is what makes drums sound exciting and impactful. It’s what makes the kick feel like it hits you in the chest, and the snare poke out of the mix.
It’s important that when you’re compressing your drums, you don’t mess this up.
A fast attack will tell the compressor to reduce the punch in your drum tracks. This can make your drums sound flat, lifeless, and unexciting.
A slow attack, on the other hand, will tell the compressor to retain and enhance the punch in your drums. This will make your drums sound energetic and larger-than-life.
Take a listen to the impact a slow vs. fast attack time can have on a snare:
In short, unless you’re deliberately trying to remove punch from your drums, you should use slow attack times when compressing them.
What’s a slow attack time? I wish I could give you exact numbers, but it varies depending on which compressor you’re using. A 5 millisecond attack on one compressor can sound vastly different than the same numerical value on another.
My best advice is to listen closely to the punch in your drums when adjusting your compressor’s attack knob. Just tweak the knob until your drums have the punch you’re looking for. Don’t worry too much about the exact number you land on.
Tip #2: Set The Release Correctly
The release time on your compressor is also essential to get right when compressing drums. If you don’t set this control properly, your drums can end up sounding small and far away.
There are two approaches to setting the release time on drums:
Approach #1 – Set The Release As Fast As Possible
This approach will add volume and density to your drums by bringing up low-level details, like the decay of the drum hits and the room ambience.
Fast release times can make drums sound bigger and more aggressive. I typically find myself using them on drums in harder genres, like rock or EDM.
Approach #2 – Sync The Release To The Tempo
Using this approach, you set the release so the compressor pumps in time with the music.
The easiest way to do this is to use a compressor with a gain reduction meter. Adjust the release so compressor’s meter pumps in time with the music.
For example, you might see the meter pull back when the snare hits, and then return to zero just before the next snare hits. When you do this right, you’ll see the meter bounce in time with the music, almost as if you were bobbing your head to the beat.
This approach can enhance the groove of your song by adding a subtle pulse to the drum performance. It works well in tracks with a strong and stable rhythmic foundation — like EDM, R&B, or soul.
Syncing the release to the tempo will not maximize the volume and intensity of your drums as much as approach #1 will, but it will add a stronger rhythmic pulse to the performance.
Tip #3: Compress In Stages
If you’re trying to paint a wall in your house, it’s usually best to apply several coats. You start with the primer to cover up the previous color. Then you apply a base coat. And finally, you apply another coat to polish things off.
The same concept applies when using compression. For the best results, apply several “coats,” or stages, of compression.
Start by applying a layer of compression on the individual drum tracks in your mix. For example, you might apply some light compression to the kick and snare.
Then apply a layer of compression across the drum group as a whole.
And finally, you may want to add a subtle layer of compression on your mix bus (this will, of course, affect all the tracks in your mix — not just the drums).
By approaching compression in this layered way, you’ll achieve a drum sound that’s up-front and impactful, without sounding lifeless or overprocessed.
Tip #4: Use Parallel Compression
I don’t use parallel compression that often. But when it comes to mixing drums, it’s one of my go-to techniques.
Parallel compression can add energy and intensity to your drum tracks. It can help them cut through the mix while retaining a natural, organic sound.
I find this technique works best on acoustic drums, but I’ve successfully used it on programmed drums too.
To learn how to apply parallel compression to your drum tracks, watch the video below:
Tip #5: Get Rid Of The Bleed
Managing bleed is one of your main challenges when compressing acoustic drums. Since all the drums were recorded at the same time, there’s almost always a good amount of bleed on each individual drum track. For example, when you solo the snare, you’ll often hear quite a bit of bleed from the hi-hat.
Normally, this isn’t a big problem. But when you start adding compression, the bleed can quickly get out of hand.
Compression tends to bring up low-level details in a track. If you apply compression to the drums, you often bring out the bleed too — which can easily make your drums sound messy and amateur.
Pay close attention to bleed when compressing your drum tracks. If the bleed is starting to get out of hand, there are a few different ways to solve this problem.
Approach #1 – Cut The Bleed
If you get rid of bleed on the individual drum tracks, you can apply more compression without causing a mess.
The easiest way to cut the bleed is by hand. Go through the drum tracks and cut the parts where the drum is not playing.
This is my go-to technique on toms. I go through each tom track by hand and remove all the parts where the toms aren’t playing.
After doing this, I have clean tom tracks to work with that have virtually no bleed. If I need to apply compression to them, I don’t have to worry about bringing out the bleed.
You can also use a gate to cut the bleed on drum tracks. This is a special type of plugin that will automatically turn down the bleed in your tracks. Gates usually work best for the kick and snare. I don’t find them useful on toms. (I’d rather go in and cut the bleed manually.)
Gates can be helpful, but ultimately, some of the bleed will be unavoidable — especially on the snare. If there’s a lot of hi-hat in the snare, the gate will only be able to cut the parts when the snare isn’t playing. This can make the hi-hat sound like it jumps up and down in volume in your mix (not good). If you’re dealing with this problem, particularly on snare, a better approach is the one below.
Approach #2 – Augment With Drum Samples
By adding drum samples, you can lower the original drum tracks in your mix. This will reduce the impact of the bleed and enable you to compress more without creating a mess.
Whenever I’m dealing with bleed on a snare and I want to compress the track more, I’ll just add a sample. I can use the sample to create more punch and impact without having to worry about the bleed. Problem solved.
Tip #6: Use Your Compressor’s High-Pass Filter
When you’re compressing the drums as a group, sometimes the kick can trigger the compressor more than the rest of the drums do. When the kick drum hits, the compressor will often kick in (no pun intended) aggressively and the entire drum group will dip noticeably in volume.
Sometimes this sounds cool. But often times, it’s not what you want.
If your compressor has a high-pass filter, you can use it to fix this problem.
Dialing in this filter will cause the compressor to react less aggressively to the kick. This can help you achieve a more balanced, even sound when compressing drums.
Wrapping Things Up
At this point, you should have learned how to compress drums with more clarity and confidence. But if you’re ready to dive deeper, don’t forget to grab my free drum mixing cheatsheet below. It’s packed with additional tips and tricks that will make your drums sound more professional today.
Before you go — what’s your go-to compressor for drums? Leave a comment below and let me know.