Written By Electric Eye Collaborator - September 13 2017
Keep it simple
We’re fortunate to have a huge array of plugins at our disposal these days, and when faced with a tricky mixing challenge it can be tempting to just throw a bunch of plugins on a channel and hope that fixes it. And before you know it, you’ve got 4 compressors, 2 EQs and a saturator on there and you realize that you have no clue what’s even going on. We’ve all been there, right? I have learned to try to get away with as little as possible in terms of plugins. Not only does it simplify the processing, it will make you a much better mixer over time because you’ll get a finer understanding of each and every mixing move that you make (and equally importantly, why that was or wasn’t the right move). Maybe if you need to use 4 compressors on your snare top to get it to sound right, you aren’t using the correct compressor for the drum, or maybe what you are hearing is something that actually would just need a bit more eq or be solved in some other fashion. Give yourself a fun challenge and see just how little you can get away with, you might just surprise yourself.
Use your velocities, and use them wisely
A real drummer’s hits are at surprisingly wide range of velocities, even super-consistent hard hitters like Anup Sastry. With that in mind, approach programming by thinking about how a drummer might hit certain drums in certain contexts and you’ll be able to translate that into more realistic performances.
For example, toms in fills are rarely hit at full velocity, and that is even more true if the fill is faster. And a single footed double on the kick will have a much softer initial hit as opposed to one played with both feet. This is especially effective if you have a multi-sampled library with multiple round robins (ie, the drums were recorded at different intensities and with multiple variants of each hit).
Get punch with parallel compression
When I was just starting out, I wanted to get a lot of punch in my drums but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. So I made a common mistake, which is trying to get the punch on the individual channels (snare, toms, etc) and on the drum bus or sub mix.
The problem with this approach is that a lot of what we perceive as pleasant compression on drums is actually the interaction of the kick, snare and toms, but not necessarily as much of the cymbals. So if you are compressing your entire drum sub mix (including the cymbals), you’ll often throw off the compressor and make it pump in an unappealing way due to the cymbals.
A good solution is to send different parts of the kit in the appropriate amount to a parallel compression bus, where you can tweak and even automate what goes to that bus, and it runs in parallel to your sub mix, so you can adjust how much of the punchy or natural drum sound you want!
Use room sounds
Reverb is a very tempting thing to throw on your drums in hopes of adding that special something, and it is a tool that I use strategically in my mixes. It’s fine to use reverb when it’s the right tool for the job, but I think that a lot of people think what they are hearing in pro mixes as reverb is oftentimes just a great room sound.
No reverb, convolution or otherwise, seems to be able to emulate how the drums are interacting together in a good and well captured space. I personally use reverbs to create a bit of depth and give the drums a bit of a 3 dimensional sound, not to make them sound like they are in the world’s biggest cavern. And I have yet to find a reverb that can really create that depth without getting washy or muddying the mix.
Use your room sounds before you reach for the reverb, because there is a good chance it’s what you are looking for!
Mix your drums in context
Rock and metal mixes are very crowded and dense. With distorted guitars, bass, vocals and sometimes even synths all fighting for space in the sonic spectrum, it’s a big challenge to make everything fit. Drums are a very pure and clean sounding instrument, and it’s very easy for them to get “eaten up” by the other instruments in a mix. I can’t even count how many times I dialed in a gorgeous snare sound, just to find that the guitars and bass reduce it to a harsh transient with a papery decay in the mix.
Luckily there are some solutions: Try to dial your sounds in with the other instruments on (rather than soloing the drums), and only mute them when you are focusing in on something. Make strategic cuts in the frequencies in other instruments where you feel like your drums tend to shine, this will free up some space for your drums. Oftentimes the best way to make your drums punchier isn’t adding compression or EQ to the drums, but making an EQ cut in one of the other instruments. You may also want to try using side chain compression to cut the volume of the bass guitar every time a kick hits, or experiment with the guitars being side chained by the snare. Just try to give everything it’s own space to exist in your mix.
Rely on presets to fix your problems
Presets are a wonderful tool to give you context and starting points for plugins and their intended applications. However, they are most likely not the way to get your mix to sound the way you want. Your mix is yours, and the context of a plugin is everything.
You probably aren’t using a source tone anything like what the preset was designed for (safe to say the CLA presets weren’t made for drop B guitars), and “one size fits all” plugins and presets are pretty rare. Even if you make your own presets you will find they probably don’t always translate through your different mixes the way you would expect. So think of presets as a good starting point at best, and maybe just a reference at worst, and adjust the plugin to your source tone and goal.
Exclusively program at velocity 127
Drummers are humans, and therefore they can’t hit at full velocity on every beat of every measure. So if you want your drums to sound realistic, back off on your default note velocity. The 127 hits are generally hit so hard that they would be appropriate for accents, but they just aren’t how a drummer would hit even if they were playing really hard.
You may also find that backing off on the velocities adds more depth and sustain, because oftentimes the drums will sound a bit more “choked” as a result of the hard hit not allowing the drum to resonate.
I generally use 100-110 as a good default starting point, but depending on your library and velocity curve it might be a bit different for you. Back off your velocity for the sake of realism and tone!
If this guy is the only one who can play your grooves, you’ve got a problem!
Program things a drummer can’t play
There is a myth going around that only drummers can program good parts, but I know many people who prove that to be untrue. As long as you have an understanding of what a drummer can do with 4 limbs and tends to play given the setup and style, you have everything you need to program great drums. As an obvious example, it’s not really possible or practical for a drummer to hit a left crash, right crash and a snare at the exact same time, nor is it possible for them to do an intricate double bass pattern and keep steady hat chicks over the top. There are more subtle details as well, like times where a part would require a drummer to cross their arms in a way that they wouldn’t really do. Getting all these details right is the key to programming drums that sound lifelike and real.
The best way to get a sense of this is to watch drummers, and emulate those you like. Try programming some of your favorite beats and pay close attention to what they are doing, see just how close you can get it to sound to the real thing. In doing that you will start to absorb what makes a drum part sound realistic and playable, and it will soon become second nature
Match absolutely everything with a drum hit
Sometimes it can sound really awesome to have the drums match every guitar and bass hit, and have your mix sound like it’s a single huge instrument playing. But that sound can also get very tiresome if used exclusively. Remember that drums are there as the backbone of the music, to keep things grounded, so also think of how to include negative space.
Don’t over program just because you can. Sometimes the best drum parts are surprisingly sparse and simple, where you are omitting hits can be just as powerful as where you are placing them.
Assume one drum set and mix can work for everything
It can’t. Even if the style seems similar, the speed of the song, the tuning, the layers, the other instruments will all affect how the drums sound and play with the mix. Don’t be afraid to change things up in each song, even if the mix seems the same. Choose the appropriate set of sounds for the song, and don’t be afraid to tweak away. Ironically, tweaking things from song to song is actually key to making them sound consistent.
In a mix, any change to one part will affect the other parts, and the drums in some ways are the most susceptible to these changes, especially if you are going for more natural and realistic sounds. Choose your sounds wisely and mix them appropriately for the song!