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.