I haven’t written a lot of articles about mixing here on Home Studio Corner, so over the next several weeks we’ll take a look at mixing various instruments, and how I approach them.

Over the next couple of days, let’s take a look at drums.

Recorded drums or MIDI drums?

My guess is that most home studio owners aren’t set up to record a full drum kit, and chances are most of you aren’t going to hire a drummer and a book a nice studio to track your drums.

So, we revert to using MIDI drums – things like EZDrummer, BFD, etc. Is this okay? Absolutely!

These drum samplers have an amazing sound quality. You’re essentially bringing a well-recorded drum kit from a high-end studio into your home studio. The problem? You’ve got to come up with a good performance, which can be really hard to do with MIDI.

Recording drums is a lot of fun, too, but it can be difficult to get the sound you want.

The purpose of this article isn’t to teach you how to record acoustic drums or how to program a MIDI drum track. That’s something you’ll need to invest time into learning.

What I want to show you over the next couple of posts is how to approach mixing drums. Your approach shouldn’t change whether you’re using recorded drums or MIDI drums. As long as the performance is good and you have each piece of the kit on a dedicated track, you’ll be in good shape.

Setting Levels

Almost every engineer I know starts the mixing process with drums. Drums are the rhythmic basis of the entire song, the backbone of the track. Once you get them locked into place and sounding amazing, you can move on to the other pieces of the mix.

One of the biggest frustrations during a mixing session is when you set the levels of your drum tracks too high. They sound amazing when you’re just listening to drums, but by the time you add in bass, guitars, keyboards, vocals, etc., you’re clipping your master bus.

Most people try pulling down individual tracks to fix this, when nine times out of ten the issue is that they started with the drums too loud.

I talked about this in Setting Levels for Mixing, and Jon (@theaudiogeek) made a great point in the comments section about setting drum levels:

One trick, for getting your monitor level right. Start with your snare top, make that peak around -12 on the master, turn up your monitors so that snare is loud and clear, or just below.

Like I’ve said before (and I’ll say again many more times in the future), turn up your monitors!

Easy on the Solo Button

Once you dive head-long into mixing drums, it’s very easy to get caught up in soloing the kick drum and spending an hour dialing in the perfect EQ and compression settings.

As tempting as this may be, don’t do it. Why? Because you need to mix the entire kit, not one single component.

What you’ll find is that no matter how much time you spend tweaking a solo’d kick or snare drum, it will never sound right when you listen to it with the rest of the kit.

Treat the drums as one instrument. Listen to everything together 90% of the time. You can solo the kick briefly to listen for a fundamental frequency, but make all of your adjustments while listening to the whole kit. You’ll save yourself hours of frustration.

Brief Overview

Here’s a simplified list of how I would approach mixing a drum kit:

  • Turn up monitors/headphones
  • Bring up overhead mics. Get these sounding like you want your kit to sound. These are the most important tracks when it comes to drums. Once you get the kit sounding great with just the overheads, you can move on to individual pieces.
  • Bring up kick drum, set level relative to overheads.
  • Bring up snare drum, set level.
  • Bring up high-hat/toms, set levels.
  • Bring up room mic (just a little bit for starters).
  • Now add EQ and compression as needed to each component, making adjustments while listening to the entire kit.
  • Add EQ and compression to the entire kit (via a submix) if needed.

So that should get you started. Over the next two days we’ll take a look at EQ and Compression.

  • Soloing the individual mics isn’t about over-perfecting it, it’s about isolating the issue at hand.

    • Absolutely. Solo is helpful for finding those specific frequencies, but a lot of people spend 5 minutes adjusting the solo’d sound, only to find that it doesn’t work in the mix at all.
      I’d rather work on the sound WHILE listening to it in context of the mix. It seems to work a lot better.

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  • Joe, you are ahead of your time… As for drums, most drummers argue, typical of wanna be musician/engineers. I think of drums as a room mike and two overheads = Snap Shot, once you have a good sound with good mikes and preamps, little or no EQ., start blending for accents, the rest of the kit. We don’t listen to drums with our ears 1-2 inches away, so the close mikeing is only for the frequency to give the tonal characteristics of each drum blending with the snapshot. I also like to add drums last especially when working with pop or female vocalist, then I avoid overload. Usually starting with the most important instrument Vox or Guit or whatever lead instrument is featured. There is no right way when it comes to art, recording and mixing is an art, however there are guidelines to the scientific nature of the beast.

  • Spencer

    Joe,

    First off, let me say that your site has some of the best videos ever! I have fought with ezdrummer for awhile getting that “right” sound and getting it seperated and never could quite figure it out….until now! That’s when I had my DUH! moment! LOL

    Anyways, here is my question. How do you handle mixing your cymbals in ezdrummer? I have snare, kick, toms all seperated out. But with ezdrummer, the only way to get the cymbals tracking is on the overhead channel (at least I think that is the only way!)

    Any advice? Keep us the great work!

    • You don’t need to separate the cymbals. That would be unrealistic. If you recorded an actual drum kit, you would pick up everything in the kit through the overhead mics.

      • Spencer

        LOL……I have re-read my post and thought about it.

        Welcome to DUH! Part Deaux! HAHAHA

        Appreciate it Joe. Makes 1000% sense. And as a drummer, I feel particularly silly now!

  • Joe –

    Great post – very practical — I agree about the EZDrummer concept – those are great sounds and very applicable performances.

    One frustrating thing about recording 'live' drums is bleed – Not just bleed into other instruments that might be in the same area, but the hi-hat and snare, toms and snare. There are a bunch of strategies, but how much time do you spend in it?

    You might want to just touch on tuning drums – a lot of flat sounds come from a poorly tuned set.

    • Hi Darryl. To be honest, I haven't had a lot of issues with bleed. If
      anything, I view bleed as helping the kit sound more real. Heck, a lot of
      these drum plug-ins have options for re-introducing bleed back into these
      perfect drum samples.

      • I agree about bleed that it adds real-character/ambience/etc… but if mics aren't positioned properly and you get a snare/hi-hat combo as opposed to snare with a bit of hi-hat bleed, then when you go to EQ you end up EQ-ing something other that what you wanted to in the first place.

        • True, true. Good mic placement is definitely important. Otherwise, you'll
          have little hope of getting the different tracks to play nicely together.

  • Great info, Joe! A question about MIDI drums: do you ever pull the kit apart (so you have separate tracks for kick & snare) so that you can process/mix each drum sound individually? It seems like you'd have a lot more control, but also a lot more work…