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!