The Inside Track: Mixing Drums

Jan 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Kevin Becka



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Mix is proud to introduce a new article series for 2007: “the Inside Track,” a bi-monthly feature by Mix technical editor Kevin Becka that explores the craft of mixing in-depth. Each installation will tackle a different instrument, from drums to piano to vocals. Whether you're a veteran or just getting started, you will find something here to help take your mix to the next level.

Illustration: Chuck Dahmer

The tracking is done, the mics are put away, the band's gone home and it's time to mix. Now what do you do? If you've been mixing for some time, you already have a bag of tricks with which to polish your tracks. But if you're looking for some new ways to work your audio mojo, this feature is for you. This installment of “The Inside Track” focuses on mixing drums, covering everything from organization to tips on EQ, compression and effects, and even tips on how to plan your mix while you're still tracking.

In a mix, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, so know early on which direction that first step is going to take. In other words, have a concept for your mix before you start. Consult other mixes in your musical style. Ask the artist and/or producer how they envision the mix and production developing. This initial planning can save you many hours of re-dos. Regarding drums, an important decision to make early on is determining how you're going to orient the drummer in the mix — from his perspective or the audience perspective. (There's no right or wrong here; it's the mixer's call.)

Preliminary mixing in sections — drums, percussion, keys, vocals, guitars, etc. — can be a great way to build your mix and keep repetitive tasks focused on a group of instruments. If your DAW-based session is large and you have a lot of returns for reverb and other often-used elements at the back end of your session, it can be a chore to scroll over two or three screen widths and back again as you mix. On a large-format console, all of your returns are visible and only a chair slide away, but a great way to take advantage of a DAW's ability to organize mix elements is to have only the necessary elements onscreen at any given time. (See “Power Tip” on page 28 for a great way to handle this task in Pro Tools.) Once you have your channels organized into groups, you can quickly hop around, group to group, spending less time interfacing with the computer and more time listening.

In the overall picture of a mix, there can be a lot of instruments vying for the same bandwidth. If you have two competing tracks that occupy the same frequency space (for example, kick drum and bass), then something's going to be masked. For clarity, there are a few tricks you can use to keep individual drums clean and up front in the mix.

Let's start with the kick. The “muddiest” part of the kick's bandwidth will reside somewhere between 200 and 500 Hz, depending on the drum. Notching that out with a medium Q setting will help clarify punchy low end that resides in the 40 to 60Hz range and the beater's attack, which is higher up at 1.5 to 2.5 kHz. This technique also makes room for the bass guitar, which occupies the same range you're cutting out of the kick drum. You may want to treat your bass at this point, EQ'ing and compressing as necessary to get the kick and bass to work well together. To bring out the fundamental snap of the kick, you can compress it with a medium to slow attack, 40 to 80 ms, so that the attack is louder than the rest of the drum. Both plug-ins and hardware devices work well for this purpose; examples include Sony's Transient Modulator plug-in or the SPL Transient Designer.

If there is excess leakage on the kick track, then you may want to clear it out by using either a gate or the Strip Silence tool in Pro Tools (LE and TDM), Logic and Digital Performer. By taking out the leakage, you can get a more isolated kick that interferes less with other tracks. If you have two kick tracks that were recorded inside and outside the drum, then the inside feed will generally be cleaner with less leakage. Use this inside track to trigger the gate on the outer kick through its sidechain input. This way, both gates, in and out, are locked together and working in the exact same way.

Because of the snare drum's complex tonal relationship between the top and bottom heads and rattle of the snares, its timbre is a broad mix of frequencies with a nebulous tonal center. When mixing, EQ'ing different areas of this aural potpourri can bring out the snap of the snare, the lower resonant tones or both. Try adding 100 to 200 Hz for more body, 1.5 kHz for snap and 3 to 5 kHz to emphasize higher tones. The latter can be useful to bring out the “snare” sound on a bottom miked drum. Specific fine-tuning depends on how the snare is tuned; finding the sound that works best with the song is the rule. For instance, is the snare too snappy or drawing too much attention to itself? Or does it need to speak more because there isn't much going on aurally to set the tone of the groove? Your ear is the ultimate arbiter.

You can also clean up the snare with a gate or Strip Silence in the same way as the kick. This technique isn't for every style or situation, but it's a nice trick to have in the bag if you need it. It can make the snare speak better in the mix by removing leakage between hits that competes with the overheads. This technique works best if the drummer played a strict backbeat on beats 2 and 4; it will not work if the drummer added in softer, unaccented notes between the accented notes. Removing too many unaccented notes will result in the loss of nuance.

The hi-hat can work better with the kick and snare if it's mildly compressed. Try a 4:1 ratio providing -3 dB of gain reduction at the peaks. This will tend to make this very dynamic kit component sit better in the mix. You can also bring out the sizzle in the hat by adding a shelf at 8 kHz. Keep in mind that the hi-hat track is usually not prominent in the mix; it's added to the mix to drag the hat more to one side and give it a bit of accent. Use compression with discretion and depend more on your overheads to give an overall picture of cymbals and hat.

Toms can ring incessantly in response to other drums and take up a lot of space in a mix. To keep the toms in your face when you need them without having the leakage occupy too much room, ride the toms as a group. This is especially easy with a DAW because you can physically see when they're coming up by viewing the waveform. First, find the volume level where the tom ring sits nicely in the mix. You don't really want to eliminate this ring entirely as there is a lot of flavor from the rest of the kit in those tracks that will be missed if the toms starkly come up and down from dead-zero to full volume. After all, completely isolated tracks sound like a drum machine, not a drum kit. Once you find the lowest volume level where the toms sit nicely, find the spot at the top of their ideal volume range in the mix. This high point may vary from hit to hit depending on your drummer's consistency. Once you find the upper range, you can ride the fader or physically write it in on your DAW's volume graph within these parameters.

Toms can also be EQ'd individually using a 3-band approach. Start with the high tom and find the bright top end of the skin at about 5 to 8 kHz and bring that up. Next, there is sometimes a “tubby” muffled range that can be cut out (anywhere between 400 to 1.5k Hz). Lastly, find the fundamental at 100 to 200 Hz and add that to taste. DAWs make it easy to isolate and loop a portion of a single hit, making EQ'ing a quick process. Because you're riding the toms, you can get away with a bit more EQ than you could if the toms were up in the mix all of the time. Once you hear them in context, you can then fine-tune to perfection.

The overheads bring the whole kit into focus and let the cymbals shine in the mix. We know that a shelving EQ from 8 kHz and up makes for some nice sizzle. However, adding some bottom end (100 to 200 Hz) to these tracks can really help emphasize the low end of the kick drum and toms. After all, you don't listen to a kick or tom with your ear next to the head; you hear them in the room. Because of drum kit logistics and overhead mic placement, the snare can sometimes lean to the drummer's left. (See “Before You Mix” on page 28 for some tips on how to keep things centered.)

To further bring the drums up naturally (or unnaturally) in the mix, you can compress the toms and overheads together. Adding a bit of mild compression — 2 to 3 dB of gain reduction with a slow release (80 to 150 ms) and a mild attack (30 to 60 ms) — will tend to make them sound bigger and more in your face in the overall picture. You can accomplish this effect easily if you're mixing outside the box by sending your toms and overheads to the same stereo pair in your summing box and then putting the compressor across that feed. Or, if you're inside the box, bus your tracks to a stereo aux input and use a plug-in such as the Waves Renaissance compressor on that track. A hardware option might be a pair of the Retro Sta-Level tube compressors or Universal Audio's new 2-LA-2 Twin T4 leveling amplifier.

You can greatly enhance room mics by heavily compressing them and then adding a touch of the room to the mix. Sending it through a “personality” compressor such as the Distressor from Empirical Labs will give you the ability to crush the signal, bringing out the roominess of the sound and making it sound bigger than it physically is. Sending these mics through the Little Labs IBP can give you even more control over the sound by allowing you to play with the phase in relation to the close mics. Use the mix's low end to discern whether you're getting the most out of your room feed.

There are a couple of ways to address drum reverb in your mix. In a DAW, you could instantiate a plug-in on each track and work that way. This works well for single elements, but when you're working with a drum kit, it's more DSP-efficient to bus your tracks over to an aux input and have the plug-in on that channel. This technique works especially well if you have more than one flavor of reverb on a track (i.e., short, medium or long 'verb).

You can better organize your mix by labeling your bus sends rather than letting them retain their bus 1/bus 2 labels. Some DAWs will allow you to name your buses. In Pro Tools, for example, click on the Settings pulldown and choose I/O. Click on the Bus tab at the top and then, on the left, double-click on the bus you wish to rename. Once you confirm, this name will then be on the Insert window when you choose it for your send. Now when you bus to an aux input, your bus will be named in the channel. For simplicity, call it by the name of the reverb or delay's personality, such as Lng Vrb, Med Vrb, Shrt Dly, Lng Dly. Now when you look at your channel, you don't see a faceless bus but a label that corresponds to the chosen effect.

If you're looking for a very expressive and clean snare reverb, then create a secondary version of your snare to send to the reverb. This effect can be created by multing the snare to a second channel on the console and gating it, or duplicating the track in your DAW and stripping out everything on either side of the transient until only the snare hits are left. In your DAW, use a short fade on the front of the hit and a longer, tapered fade at the back to make it sound more natural and to keep the track from “clicking” when you cut across the audio. Be sure to take this track out of the stereo bus and send it only to your reverb. Bring your reverb return back as you usually would and add it to the mix. The effect will be the original snare remains as recorded, but you will have a much cleaner reverb return uncluttered by leakage from the other drums.

If you need to beef up weak drum tracks or replace them altogether, there are some easy ways to do it through software. Digidesign's SoundReplacer or the Drumagog Drum Replacer operate within your DAW and come with a wide variety of sounds from which to choose. It's often a good idea to clean up a track before you add to or replace it. This technique can make a busy drum part less obtrusive in the arrangement and maximize its impact.

You can also replace or enhance a weak snare the old-school way: placing a speaker on a snare in the studio and then sending the snare track out to the speaker. To accomplish this trick, you'll need a re-amping device such as the Radial Engineering X-amp or John Cuniberti's Reamp. You'll also need a speaker amp or guitar amp to get your signal up to speaker level. Send your existing snare through the re-amping device to the amp and then to the speaker. The pulse of the snare will then trigger the new snare, which you can record in the traditional sense or have it run live in your mix. For extra vibe, you can also put up a room mic.

The width of your mix is one of your most valuable palettes, but just because you can pan as wide as possible doesn't mean you should. Pan decisions depend on the arrangement of the other tracks and the production's musical style. For instance, to my ear, panning a solo piano hard-left and hard-right sounds ridiculous. Yet, a wildly busy pop or rock track can afford to be wider because you have to space your elements to give them a soundstage.

Making something speak might mean moving it just a bit further left or right of another element. This means that the drums might be better heard if centered when competing with a lot of other percussive elements panned to the sides. Think of the tracks as actors on a stage: If they're all shouting at once from center stage, then you have little chance of discerning individual voices. But if they are all spread across the stage, then you can hear everyone a little better. This puzzle needs to be solved individually for each mix and is a lot of fun once you get into balancing these relationships.

After everything is organized, cleaned up, beefed up and sprinkled with ear candy (aka effects), it's time to balance the whole mess. This is where a reference can be handy. It's not cheating to emulate your favorite drum mixes. How loud is the snare overall? How big is the kick in relation to the bass guitar? How does the whole kit fit in relation to the rest of the band? These questions can be answered by imitating a track you admire in other productions. As said earlier, know your direction before you start; it could save you a lot of time in the long run.

Mix technical editor Kevin Becka would like to thank David Rideau and Craig Schumacher for their help with this feature.

Keeping Your Snare Centered

Because of the way a drum kit is naturally laid out, the snare sits to the left of the drummer's center. This can sometimes drag your snare to one side of the stereo picture if the overheads are used predominately over the individual mic feeds, making for a confusing stereo picture. One possible solution to keep the snare centered in your stereo image is to plan ahead when tracking, using a mic centered on the kit as part of your overhead array. There are four possible miking scenarios that can help you keep your kit centered in the mix.

"Centering" via LCR array (pink), Decca array (blue) or X/Y with or without a third mic (yellow, green)

The first option is to use an LCR array over the kit, with the center mic placed directly over the center of the kick drum at the same height as the other two mics. The second is to configure a Decca-like array with the center mic at the top of a triangle and the other mics spaced as a pair. Picture a flat triangle sitting over the kit with the mics at the corners. A third scenario is creating an X/Y array, which, although not a complete solution, tends to sound a bit tighter than a spaced pair of mics because both mics are closer to the center of the kit. The last solution takes a page from Geoff Emerick's playbook and uses a mic placed 3 to 4 feet from the front of the kit, about 4 to 5 feet high, pointing down at the front of the kit. You could use this with a spaced or X/Y pair of overheads. Once you have these resources at your disposal during the mix, you can play with the “centeredness” of the sound by bringing your middle mic up in relation to the other overheads. At this point, check the phase coherence of all the overheads to the direct snare mic by flipping the polarity. Also, be sure to measure all of your overheads precisely to keep things nicely in phase. (Tip: The Hilti PD32 range finder, although not cheap, is amazingly accurate and a great tool for setting up mics at a distance from the source.)
Kevin Becka

Tracking Your Tracks in Pro Tools

Mixing drums means managing plenty of tracks. If you're using a DAW, streamline the approach by keeping onscreen elements to a necessary minimum. In Pro Tools, try organizing your onscreen tracks using Show/Hide group. With this function, you can assign any tracks to a custom group that can quickly be recalled from the Memory Locations window. This is not grouping in the traditional sense; here, one channel's fader level and mute will not affect the others. Rather, it is simply a way of cleaning up your worksurface so you can view only what you'd like. (By the way, Digital Performer has a similar function to Show/Hide, and Logic Pro can hide tracks but not organize them in the way we're trying to here.)

For starters, you'll want a Show/Hide group where all elements reside. From any screen in Pro Tools, push the Enter key and a New Memory Location window will pop up. If you're on a laptop, choose Memory Locations from the Windows pulldown at the top of the screen and then use the Name key on the window to choose Add Memory Location. Either way, once you see the New Memory Location window, choose None in the Time Properties section and then give your group a name in the General Properties section (for example. “All”). Next, click on the small square between the eyeball and Track Show/Hide, and hit Return or click OK. Your group now appears in the Memory Locations window with a number, name (All) and an eyeball icon to the right. This setting can now be recalled by clicking on that All label in the window or by using period, number location and period on the 10 keypad.

For the next group (let's group drums as that's what we're mixing), hold down the Option key and click on any member of the Show/Hide list to the left of the mix or Edit window to clear them all. Then, hold down Apple and choose the members of the drum group. Be sure to include any master faders, bus returns, reverb returns and other elements needed for your drum mix. It is a good idea to include the bass guitar here, as the drums and bass are foundational elements in your mix. If a lot of elements are next to each other in the list, you can choose the first and then hold Shift and choose the last; all the channels in between will come along for the ride. Once you have all of the desired elements chosen, make a new Show/Hide group and title it appropriately. Do this for all your mix groups and then quickly jump between them to keep your desktop neat and your tasks focused.
Kevin Becka

Save My Snare Track!
Q: How do I quickly resurrect a badly recorded snare that is dull and has no punch or snap?

A: A badly recorded snare can often be helped by duplicating it and then treating the duplicates as separately processed members of the same “club.” For starters, duplicate your track, either by multing it to a second channel on your console or physically duplicating it in your DAW. One of these dupes will be optimized for punch, while the other will be used to add snap. Alone, they will not have what it takes to flavor your drum mix, but that's the point — it's the combination that will work.

First, bring out the snare's low end on one track with some EQ at 100 to 200 Hz. Remember, this will be the foundation of your track, so don't be afraid to go for punch. Then treat the other track more severely, digging out the transient with a compressor set to a slow attack time (30 to 50 ms) and a fairly fast release (100 to 300 ms). The release time is tempo-dependent, so you can get away with a slower release time on a ballad than you could on an up-tempo song. Try to stay away from the dreaded “pumping,” where the compressor gasps for breath in-between hits, bringing up the noise floor unnaturally. Set the EQ to bring out more of the top frequency range of the instrument at 1 to 3 kHz. Once both tracks please your ear, you can mix them accordingly. If you're mixing in a DAW, then make sure your latency is lined up perfectly by using delay compensation or physically correct it by sliding the tracks back by the amount of delay. Most DAWs will let you see how much latency is being introduced by a group of plug-ins. Take that number and move your entire track back to match up with its original position. Keep in mind that one track's latency may not match the others due to differences in plug-ins.
Kevin Becka

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