Mixing Drums: 5 Powerful Tips You Need To Know

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Struggling to make your drums sound tight, punchy, and larger-than-life? You’re in the right place.

Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers, and today, you’re gonna learn five powerful drum mixing tips you need to know.

Now before we dive in, I also put together a drum mixing cheatsheet that summarizes everything we’ll be covering today, and also includes some additional tips and tricks that will take the sound of your drum tracks to a whole new level. So if you want to download this, it’s completely free, just click the link in the description below, or up there on the video, and you’ll get instant access.

Tip number one is to slow down the attack time.

Whenever you’re compressing drums, the most important parameter to pay attention to is the attack time. If your attack time is set too fast, you’re gonna rob the drums of their impact and punch by destroying transients. That’s the thwack on the front end of the snare, the punch of the kick drum, all the stuff that makes drums sound impressive and larger than life. On the other hand, a slow attack time is gonna let through a lot more of that transient energy, giving the drums a lot more impact and punch and life. Now in most circumstances, unless you’re looking to diminish the punch or impact of a drum hit, you’re gonna wanna go for a slower attack time. It’s just gonna be a much better sound in most circumstances.

So next I want to jump into my DAW and show you the impact that a slow attack versus a fast attack can have on a drum sample.

Okay, so we’re here in Pro Tools, and I have a snare sample loaded up and duplicated across several different tracks, and that way we can compare the sound of the original sample, dry without any compression, with the fast attack compression versus slow attack compression. So let’s take a listen to the dry sample first. Again, this is without any processing, so completely dry. This is what we’ll be starting with today.

So let’s take a listen to the fast attack compression track now. Same sample loaded up on this track, but you can see I have a compressor added as well with a very fast attack time, so this is about as fast as it’ll go on this compressor, 0.52 milliseconds, and then a bit of make-up gain to make sure that there’s no level decrease between this track and the original track. So first, let me play you this snare sample again. Now this is with fast attack compression.

So I want to just flip back and forth between the dry sample and the fast attack sample so you can get a sense for what the differences are. And I want you to listen to the front end of that hit. So notice which of these two tracks has more impact and punch. Which of them has more thwack right on the beginning of the hit? So we’ll start with fast attack and then we’ll flip back and forth. And you can take a look here and see which track I’m currently soloing to know which one you’re listening to.

So you can hear that the original sample has a lot more impact right at the beginning of the hit, right? It feels like it has more thwack on the beginning of that sample. And the reason why is because the fast attack compression is really annihilating that transient right at the beginning of that hit, right? It’s pulling down all of that energy and so the snare sounds kind of flat and one-dimensional. It has more sustain, we hear more of the decay of the snare hit, but we don’t hear any of that impact and that punch right on the beginning of the hit.

So in most cases, this is not what we’re looking for with drums. We want to make sure we retain that energy, because in a mix, we’re looking for the drums to be punchy and tight, and to have that impact. And so in this case a fast attack time is taking us further away from where we wanna be.

So on the other hand, let’s take a listen to this same snare sample with slow attack compression added. And so you can see here, same compressor, the only difference is we have a slow attack time of 20 milliseconds, and again a bit of make-up gain to make sure there’s no difference in level between all of these samples. So let’s take a listen to this.

So right away, I can hear there’s a lot more impact as compared to the fast attack compression. So I want to go ahead and flip back and forth between this, the slow attack compression, and the dry track. Again, I want you to pay very close attention to the impact and the punch on the front end of this hit.

So to my ears, the slow attack compression is actually giving the hit more impact. So it’s accentuating the transient right at the beginning of that hit. And the reason why is because basically with a slow attack time, we’re telling the compressor to wait before pulling down the volume of the track. So what happens is the compressor lets through a lot of the energy right at the beginning of the hit before compressing the track. And once we add make-up gain, the effect is that we’re actually raising the level of that punch and that impact. So we’re making it more impactful with a slow attack time.

So in this case, you know, I’m really liking the sound of the slow attack time on the snare. It feels like it has more punch and more impact, and in many cases, this is what we’re looking for. So if you’re trying to add impact to drums, a slower attack time is usually the better way to go.

So now just to close things out, I want to go ahead and flip back and forth between all of these so you can get a sense for the differences in context. So let’s start with the dry.

So again, the dry sound sounds great to begin with, the fast attack is my least favorite, we’re losing a lot of that impact on the front end of the note, but I really the slow attack as well, and depending on the context, depending on the track, if this snare sound need a little bit more punch and impact, certainly, a slow attack time would be a great choice.

Tip number two is to consider tempo.

A lot of people don’t think about the fact that tempo plays an incredibly important role in determining how much low end is appropriate in a given mix. So the slower the tempo is, the more low end you can usually pack into a song. And this is because low end takes time to decay, so it rings out over time and so if you have more space between the drum hits, then you have more space for that low end to kind of fill in those spaces. So you can usually pack more low end into a slower tempo, whereas if the hits are moving very quickly and there’s not a lot of space between them, usually you have a lot less room to pack the low end in.

So if you’re dealing with a song with a slower tempo, that usually means you can add some more low end to the kick drum and snare, have things decay a little bit longer—you just have more room for that. But in a faster tempo song, like an up-tempo track, or a punk song where things are moving really quickly, you’re not really gonna have enough space for that low end. And so typically a thinner drum sound will actually be more appropriate in this kind of mix.

Tip number three is to check the polarity.

Now whether you’re mixing drum samples or live drums, this is so important and something that I see so commonly overlooked. Now if you’re fighting polarity problems in your mixes, no amount of EQ or compression is gonna fix that. So you’re gonna be fighting an uphill battle wondering why your drums don’t sound punchy and don’t have impact and sound thin and lifeless. So this is one of the easiest things you can do, it’ll take two minutes, and often times, it can significantly improve the sounds of the drums in your mixes. So let me jump into my DAW and show you exactly how I check the polarity in my drums.

Okay, so we’re back in Pro Tools, and I have a couple different drum samples loaded up, and they’re all hitting at exactly the same time. So this is a process known as layering, very common in EDM or hip-hop, where producers will stack multiple sounds like this to get the overall sound that they’re looking for. Now whenever you have drum samples that at are playing all at once like in this case, it’s very important to check the polarity between them and make sure that you’ve optimized other relationships between these different samples. This is something that far too many producers ignore. They just stack layers upon layers of samples, and they don’t pay any attention to the way the samples are interacting with each other, and they wonder why they can’t get their drums to sound thick, or punchy, or impactful.

So let’s take a listen first to all these samples together, and then I’ll walk you through the process of checking the polarity of all these samples.

So I want you to notice that that doesn’t sound terrible. And this is why this problem is so insidious, because it’s so easy to accept that sound in the mix. And it doesn’t sound terrible again, but as you’ll see in a second when we make these small little tweaks, it can make a significant impact and just make things sound a lot more punchy and impactful.

So the way that I like to go about this is first I choose what I call the master sample, and this is the sample that I like to compare all the others against. So usually, I like to find the sample that is the loudest in the mix, that’s contributing the bulk of the sound, and in this case, I know that’s sample number one.

So the way that this works is I’m gonna solo the master sample and also solo another one of these samples. So in this case, I’m gonna solo sample number two just ’cause it’s next in line, and I’m gonna check the relationship of sample number two against sample number one. So I’m gonna add a plugin to sample number two, and in this case I’m gonna use the EQ-1 plugin, and this is because it just has this polarity flip button here that makes it really easy. You can also use the trim plugin in Pro Tools, or if you’re in another DAW, just look for a polarity flip button. Most DAWs have a plugin that ships stock that’ll allow you to do this.

So I’m gonna play the track and flip this button in and out, and listen for the position that sounds the fullest and has the most impact.

So to my ears, I really prefer the sound of these two samples with this polarity button engaged. It sounds like the sample has more low end, it just has more impact and punch, it just sounds weightier. So take a listen again, and just try to pinpoint the differences between this polarity flip in and out.

So right away, I know that that sound sounds a lot better with this polarity button engaged. So now we figured out a better position for those two, and I’m gonna move on to sample number three. Now once we have that sample in the mix, it’s gonna stay in the mix, so I’m not gonna un-solo this. So now I’m listening to the relationship of these two samples against the third sample. So I’m gonna add another EQ-1 band plugin to this sample number three, and then I’m gonna listen to everything together and flip this third sample in and out with the polarity button here, and try to figure out which of the positions I prefer.

So this one definitely doesn’t have as big of an impact, but I actually prefer also the sound of this with the polarity button engaged. It just sounds a little bit fuller and thicker to me. So take a listen one more time, and listen to the low end on the bottom of this sample. When I kick this in, you’ll just feel like there’s a little bit more low end that comes in. The samples together just sound fuller with that polarity flip engaged.

So now we’ve figured out the right positions for the polarity buttons on all of these samples. So I want to go ahead and play this together, and I’m gonna flip these polarity buttons in and out. So first we’ll take a listen to these three samples without any of our polarity flips, and then you can take a look up here, when these plugins are in, the polarity flips are engaged.

So together, the samples just sound a whole lot thicker, they have more weight, and impact, and punch with those polarity flips engaged. And this is something you might spend hours trying to create with EQ or compression, but you’re gonna be fighting an uphill battle if you’re dealing with polarity problems between your samples. So make sure that you do this every time you have layering going on between your drum samples, and I promise you, if you can make this a habit, the sound of your drums is just gonna be a whole lot better.

Tip number four is to start with the source.

A lot of people want EQ hacks or compression tricks that’ll make their drums sound great, but when I take a listen to their tracks, what I hear is poorly recorded drums, or drum samples that just weren’t great choices to begin with. If you’re not starting with the right ingredients, you’re gonna be fighting an uphill battle right from the beginning. So instead of trying desperately to make bad ingredients work well in the mix, start at the source. Find the right stuff to begin with, take the time to record things properly, or take the time to choose the right samples. This is so important because oftentimes, if you have the right ingredients, you’ll need little to no processing, no EQ compression in the mix, and you can get away with just using the raw samples or raw drum sounds as is. So again, get it right at the beginning, take the time, make sure you’re starting at the source, and oftentimes this is the best kept secret—or not so much of a secret—to crafting a great drum sound.

Tip number five is to use parallel compression.

Parallel compression is one of my favorite tricks to add weight, density and impact to drums, and it’s something that I use very commonly, especially on live drums. I find it can just give them presence in the mix and really make them cut through. So let me jump into my DAW and show you exactly how I use parallel compression on drums to really give them life and impact in my mixes.

So this is a track called “One More Day” by Leah Capelle. Let’s take a listen to the chorus.

♪ Oh ♪

♪ Just give me one more day ♪

Throughout the mixing process, as I was getting towards the end of this mix, I kind of felt like we were missing some of those hits on the ride cymbal. I really liked the overall balance of the drums, I didn’t feel like I wanted to turn up the overheads anymore, but I was missing those ghost notes and those hits on the ride that really propelled the track forward. Those were really important and I wanted to see if I could bring some of those hits out with parallel compression.

So if you check this out here, the way I have these individual tracks in the drum kit set up is they’re all routed out bus 1/2, which is feeding into a drum sub. And this is something that I had set up from the beginning of the mix, but towards the end of the mix, I wanted to see if I could pull in a little bit of parallel compression.

Now what a lot of people will do is if they’ve already set up their routing like I’ve set this up, where all of the drums are feeding into an aux, they’ll just duplicate that aux, and then they’ll add the compression to that aux and blend it under the original. But I actually prefer to set up an entirely new aux with a different bus, and then send out of that bus on each of these individual tracks. And the reason why is because oftentimes, heavy compression is gonna change the balance of the kit. So oftentimes, you want a different balance going into your parallel compressed track than you do on the regular aux track that doesn’t have any of the compression on it. So the disadvantage to just duplicating the aux that you’re using for your normal drum sub is that you’re not gonna be able to make changes to the balance that’s going into that compressor.

For example, oftentimes with heavy compression on a drum sub, the kick is gonna get brought out almost to a point where it just sounds like it’s way too loud. By having these individual tracks sending out to the parallel compressed aux, that will allow you to control the level that’s being sent on an individual, track-by-track basis. So you can see here, like, I’ve pulled down the kick, 3 dB, in the parallel compressed track. Because again, with parallel compression, oftentimes that kick gets brought out just way too much.

So I want to go ahead and just solo the drums, so I’m gonna turn off the music, and the vocals, and the bass here, and let’s just take a listen to the drums just without any parallel processing first. Cool. And now let’s kick in the parallel compression.

This is with it out.

This is with it in.

So you’re getting a little increase in level, so don’t be fooled by that level increase, ’cause obviously, louder is gonna sound better. But what I am hearing is more cymbal, right? We’re hearing more of that low-level detail between the kick and the snare hit. So those individual ghost notes and subdivided hits on the ride symbol are getting brought up. And by bring up those low-level details, I’m actually creating a sound that’s gonna drive the track forward a little bit more, because we’re gonna hear those individual subdivisions a little bit more clearly in the mix.

So let me go ahead and un-solo everything, and let’s take a listen to this in context. So first I want to play you this without any of the parallel processing. So this is the full mix with just the solo drum sub without any parallel processing.

♪ Oh ♪

♪ Just give me one more day ♪

And this is with it in.

♪ Oh ♪

♪ Just give me one more day ♪

With it out.

♪ Oh ♪

With it in.

♪ Give me one more perfect day ♪

So it’s subtle, but what I’m hearing is more of that ride cymbal. So we’re hearing a little bit more of that subdivision that’s really moving the track forward. It feels like the track doesn’t drag as much, it has more movement.

So to pull this off, all I did was add a compressor to this track, and you can see—

♪ Oh ♪

I mean, it’s pretty heavy compression, so 10 or more dB. I have a super fast attack, because I really don’t want any of the punch or impact on this track. I have that on the dry track. What I’m really looking to do is bring up the low-level detail on this track. So I really don’t want any of the transients, and I have a fast release because that way, the compressor’s gonna really just pull down the transients, and bring up that low-level detail, and a really high ratio.

So let’s take a listen to this track on it’s own, and I just want to show you what this sounds like in solo because it’s quite aggressive. So this is the parallel compressed on its own.

So you can see, I mean, it’s a really aggressive sound. This is obviously more compression than you would ever want to put across a drum sub, but by adding this to an aux track and then fading this in under the original drums, I get the benefit of both that dry sound with just a little bit more energy, and that’s really gonna bring up a lot of that low-level detail like those cymbal hits which are gonna move the track and drive the track forward.

So I hope you enjoyed this, and if you want to dive deeper, I put together that drum mixing cheatsheet that summarizes everything we covered today so you don’t forget it, and also includes some additional tips and tricks that will take the sound of your drum tracks even further. So if you want to download this, it’s completely free. You can click the link in the description below, or up there on the video, and you’ll get instant access.

Now before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know do you prefer the sound of programmed drums or live drums? I’d love to hear from you, I read every comment, and reply to as many as I can. So again, leave your answer in the comment section below.

Thanks so much for watching. You can check our more mixing tips like these on my YouTube channel here, or on my website, BehindTheSpeakers.com. Take care.

Video features music by Leah Capelle.

Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.