This is part 3 of a little Mixing Drums Series. So far we’ve covered:

Today we’ll cover how to use compression on a drum kit.

First things first. Just so we’re all on the same page, if you haven’t watched my Intro to Compression video, I’d suggest hopping over to that link and watching it. Like the Intro to EQ video I posted yesterday, it’s a good overview of what compression is and how it works.

Tonal Implications of Compression

Besides just being an automatic volume controller, compression is used to change, or enhance, the tone of an instrument. These tonal changes are different with every instrument, and they vary from very subtle to extremely obvious.

What does compression do for the tone of drums?

Since compression makes louder things softer and soft things louder, when you put a compressor on a drum track, you’re going to start hearing more and more of the body of the drum, and less and less of the attack of the transient (the sound of the stick hitting the drum head).

That’s an over-simplified explanation, but it gets the point across. By turning down the transients and turning up the softer parts, you’re compressing the dynamic range of the instrument, allowing the instrument to be turned up louder and cut through the mix more.

For example, most floor toms resonate pretty loudly. However, when blended in with the rest of the kit, you don’t really hear it resonating.

Add a compressor to the floor tom, and you’ll start to hear the body of the tom much more.

Compressing drums is a balancing act. You want to tighten up each piece of the kit so you can hear it clearly, but if you over-compress, you end up with a lifeless, dull-sounding (but very loud) kit.

Compressing the Overheads

Some folks like to really compress the overhead tracks. This can have a cool effect, because it brings up the volume of the room itself, giving the drums a very organic feel.

The more you compress the overheads, though, the less likely your other drum tracks (kick, snare, etc.) will be able to cut through.

Pay Attention to Attack and Release Times

Let’s say you’re compressing a snare drum, and you really like the tone your getting. You hear a nice blend between the body of the drum itself and the rattle of the snares. The downside, though, is that while you like the tone of the snare, it’s no longer cutting through the mix.

One big mistake people make when mixing drums is ignoring the attack and release times on the compressor.

If the attack of the compressor is too short, the transients of the drum will get turned down. The compressor will kick in before the full transient has passed through, making the snare sound a bit muffled and less punchy.

If the attack of the compressor is too long, the entire drum hit passes through the compressor before the compressor even kicks in, so you’re basically not compressing anything.

Release times aren’t as important as attack times. Just keep in mind that if you have a super-long release time, the compressor may not have a chance to recover (stop compressing) before the next drum hit, so keep the release times fairly short.

Back to our snare drum example. The snare wasn’t cutting through. This is most likely because the attack time on the compressor was too short. By making it a bit longer, you’re allowing the initial crack of the snare to pass through the compressor, while the rest of the sound gets compressed.

The result? You hear the snap of the drum and the fullness of the body. Win-win.

Compress the Entire Kit?

You may consider compressing the entire kit at some point. To do this, simply route all of the drum tracks through a single aux track, creating a drum “submix.” Add compression (and even EQ) to this track.

You have to be careful when compressing an entire kit. You can easily mess things up royally if you’re not careful. My general rule of thumb when compressing a drum kit is to use longer attack and release times, so that the compression is very smooth and doesn’t interfere with the transients of the kit itself.

Another way to compress the whole kit is to use parallel compression. Here’s a video I did on it – Parallel Processing Drums.

That concludes my 3-part series on mixing drums. What other tips do you have? How do you compress drums? Leave a comment!

  • Gough

    I like having one heavily compressed room mic in mono.

  • Raf

    I love compressing the whole kit though 3 different compressors. Not at once, but use a dif drum bus compressor for different sections of a song

    • Lots of people like stacking comps like that. It can work really well. I don’t personally do it all that much, but it’s certainly a valid technique.

  • I pretty much always compress the whole kit, if only a tiny bit…but I only really mix rock stuff. Makes it easier to control.

  • I’ve been looking for someone to teach me all of these rules. Every time I bring up a drum kit, it sounds boxy, the kick never sounds big enough, and I’m always slightly off time. Besides trying to figure out quantization better, I’ll know now how to get the sound setup better making timing more accurate.

  • Thanks for this Joe! I’m always struggling with making the drums sound good in a mix and after reading this I realized it’s the lack of proper compression 🙂

    Gotta try master it now!

    Thanks again!

  • joe, i just cut 400 Hz out of the kick. wow! 😀 thx

    • CameronN

       I know! I like to make a boost and sweep it to find the exact offending frequency. It is usually between 300 and 500 hz.

      • Funny how well it works…almost a little creepy. 🙂

  • Anthony campagna

    Hey Joe

    I think using a multi band compressor (like the c4 wavs) for an individual drum can yield sick results. I’ve turned a couple of snares from hellacious to bodacious with it, but i think on overheads itsa no no, just too many sound sources being altered leading to “phase smear”! like u said “a bad eq” (never tried it with a linear phase comp though) Im also talking about drum kit recordings not BDF or EZ, I’ve never used those.

    Out
    T

    • CameronN

       I’ve compressed the overheads with great success before. All depends on the song/drummer/kit.

      • Yeah, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Always an option, though. What I LOVE compressing like crazy is the room mic. So awesome…usually.

        • CameronN

          I have three rack toms on my kit and I usually close mic them all, so I never record with a room mic. Plus, I am usually using my LDC for the kick drum.

  • “How do you compress drums?”
    Individual drums where required.
    Drum submix
    Parallel “CRUSH” bus (kick, snare, toms, bass gtr)
    Master bus

    So I use a lot I guess. 😀

    • Interesting idea putting bass guitar through the same compressor as the drums.

  • The thing with compression is to not just make it louder, that old trap that louder is better. Depending on what I'm doing I may not use the makeup gain at all.

    Massey CT4 is one of my favorites for clean/transparent compression. I use Smack! when I want something to sound compressed.

  • Dadooz

    Great stuff as always, Joe. Question: you talked about bussing all the drums through an aux/submix for compression; what's your experience/opinion regarding multi-band compression on a drum submix? I've done it a few times and had decent results with some presets, but I'm having a tough time getting a grip on the multi-band compressor…

    • Good question. Multi-band compressors can be useful tools, but I RARELY use
      one. I went through a phase where I really tried to use it a lot, and I just
      ended up making things sound worse.

      I've landed on thinking of multi-band comps as mastering tools, or something
      you use to FIX problems. Otherwise, a regular ol' compressor combined with
      an EQ seems to work just fine for me.

      • Multi-band compressors are weird things, sure they're “just” several compressors in one split into frequency bands, but if it was that simple it wouldn't be so easy to destroy everything you put into them. You have to use them more like a multiband de-esser.

        Hopefully you never need them to correct bad mic selection & position.

        • Right. I find that if I try to be too creative with a multi-band compressor, I end up just turning it into a really complex EQ.

  • huzzam

    Thanks for this series Joe! I'm about to start mixing a cd for the first time solo (I've had the privilege to work with great mixers on my previous two cds) and this gives explanations to things I'd seen & not understood before.

    Now (as soon as I get my replacement monitor tweeter in the mail) I can't wait to get to work!

    thanks
    peter in oakland