Drum Mixing: Part I - Finding The Right Balance


Over the past few weeks, we here at PAL have been focusing on home studio recording guidelines as they pertain to certain instruments. We took a look at the fundamentals of recording low end frequency instruments such as an electric bass or a kick drum along with certain common problems and their solutions. We then moved on to recording and mixing an acoustic guitar track and laid out tips on certain techniques, EQing and even compression. Not only that, we more recently focused on recording vocals, gave a layout on proper singing technique and even gave you guys some pointers on finding perfect settings on vocal EQ, compression and gates. Alright, so how about we keep things going with some well mixed beats to go along with that song of yours?


Things To Consider Before Mixing

Unfortunately, this article will be mainly focusing on the mixing phase of the drum track and while we will discuss certain recording tips such as proper levels for mixing, the more detailed aspects such as mic placement will not be touched. Hopefully, we will get a guide on recording live drums soon, in which case I will update this article and insert a link here somewhere. Also, if you decide to take the MIDI route, this guide is assuming that you already know how to properly work your program. Again, we’ll have something up here on some general MIDI drum machine tips and techniques in the near future and update this article with a link. Anyways, when it comes to any recording, there are essentially two phases; you have the actual recording portion and then you have the post-processing which is pretty much where all of the mixing, editing, mastering and anything other than the live recording takes place. It is important to remember this because every choice you make with the recording phase will directly affect the mixing phase. Also, certain mistakes made while recording such as gain overload (clipping) cannot be fixed with mixing or EQ which basically means that if you want a great mix, you have to start with the best possible recording you can muster.


Using MIDI versus Live Drums

The question of using real drums versus MIDI comes down to a few things – such as what sound you are going for or what inherent pros and cons you are willing to compromise with – but more often than not it comes down to simply working with what you have, and if you’re like the average musician, you probably know how to play a couple of instruments pretty solidly and drums just may not be one of them. I can tell you right now, most professionals prefer the sound of the real deal simply because there are certain natural intangibles and colorations that just can’t be reproduced by any other means than live recording. But on the other side of that same coin, recording live drums can be the most difficult and time consuming task of an entire mix. Even pros probably spend more time on getting that live drum track right simply because it’s such a complex instrument to record and mix well but the pay off in the end is well worth it. But even with that said, MIDI is by no means a bad option if that’s all you have to work with. Depending on the drum machine or program, they are essentially well recorded snippets of a studio quality kit that can actually have amazing sound quality. The biggest problem with MIDI though is that you have to manually program a solid performance which can be pretty tough for newer producers. Luckily though, regardless of what option you will be going for, finding the right levels is pretty much the same for both.


Finding the Right Monitor Levels

Most professional producers tend to begin the mixing process with drums. Seeing as how they are the main rhythmic backbone of pretty much any song that uses them, having a perfectly mixed drum track makes moving on and adding every other instrument on top of it that much easier. One of the more common mistakes people make when mixing drums is that they set the levels way too high. Your standalone drum track might sound killer and perfectly balanced but once you start adding everything else such as bass, vocals, guitars, etc., you’ll probably end up clipping your master bus. Most people try and pulling down individual tracks to combat this although they fail to realize that 90 percent of the time, the issue started with the drum levels being too loud. Unfortunately, you will have to go back and get the levels right on that drum recording. One of the more common reasons why people end up having their drum levels so high is because they fail to turn up their studio monitors loud enough. One of the best ways to get that monitor level right is to start with your snare drum. Make it peak at about (-12 db) on the master and turn up your monitors so that the snare is sufficiently loud and clear or just a tad bit below for some extra cushioning.


Finding the Right Balance

So, now that you have the levels for your monitors sufficiently loud, the first thing you should focus on is getting the overhead mic levels right. Get these sounding like how you want your entire kit to sound since the overhead mics are responsible for a bulk of the body of the drum kit. Once you get these sounding great on their own, you can begin moving on to the other pieces in the kit. The kick drum should be the next part of the kit to focus on and you will pretty much want it at the same level as the overheads. Do the same thing for the snare drum and after that, the high hat/toms. If you are using a room mic, bring up the level just a bit but not as loud as the rest of the kit. If you tackled your kit in this order, you should end up with a pretty balanced track that should not cause your project to clip.

You might be tempted to engage the solo button on your mixer for a certain part of the drum kit – usually the kick drum – but I can tell you right now, do not do it. Much like the entire drum kit being set up too loud, engaging the solo button for one part of the kit might make it sound outstanding on its own but it will almost always sound off from the rest of the drums. Always try to treat the drums as one instrument. When setting up the levels, try to listen to the entire kit at about 90 percent of the time. Trust me – this will save you plenty of headaches when you start adding other instruments.


Alright, now that we have that drum track balanced we can more on to adding EQ and compression! But unfortunately, that will have to wait until tomorrow when we have more time. But until then, don’t forget that recording and mixing is most definitely an art, meaning that there is no true right or wrong way in how you choose to tackle your project, but there are certain guidelines you can follow that will help you truly conquer the scientific nature of the beast – not to mention help you avoid those annoying clipping issues!


Leave a Reply