Working with live multitrack drums tracks in a mix is an art in itself. At times it can be a daunting if not frustrating challenge to get all the drum ambience and spot mic channels working together, especially if you are the type of engineer who is more familiar with mixing drums from sample libraries or virtual instrument packages. Drum bleed from other elements of the drum kit coming down various spot mics is typically the first moot point in a drum mix. Is bleed something to reduce or embrace?
The answer to this lies in the song you are mixing. For me bleed isn’t something to be afraid of. The next time you have the opportunity to listen to a quality drum kit played by a skilled player listen closely for natural resonances within the kit… My bet is that you won’t even notice the toms warbling away during a hi hat, snare, kick groove.
In this article we share our seven golden rules of drum mixing to help you tackle your next live multitrack drum mix. The points presented below are valuable rules that many top mix engineers use in order to work a set of drum channels together in a mix. These rules do not focus on specific plug-ins or processor techniques, instead these points are broad mindsets that can apply to your workflows to help you stay focused on mixing a drum kit as a single instrument instead of a collection of kit pieces.
Rule #1 - Always Mix In Context
Don’t be tempted to solo any of the drum tracks. Working in isolation in a drum mix does little more than waste time. Trust us when we say that anyone can tweak an EQ to get a good kick drum sound in isolation but being able to achieve a great sounding kick that will work within the context of other drum channels is what separates the wheat from the chaff. The only time you should solo a drum channel is when you need to hear an element for reference purposes such as what the kick bleed characteristics sound like through other close mic channels… or to find out where that damn rattle is coming from!
You should also be aware that tonal elements of the entire drum track collection together make up the overall sound of the kit. To put this point into context, let’s say you add a high shelf EQ to the snare channel as you want to boost some sparkle to pretty up a dull sounding snare… be prepared, this EQ change will also brighten the hi hats and cymbals bleed, which will only become present in the bigger picture of the drum mix.
Rule #2 - Balance First, Process Later
It’s so easy to get carried away from the drum mixing get go by throwing a bunch of EQ and compressor plug-ins across individual drums channels, but wait one second... have you actually done any basic mixing yet? Before you process anything take some time to properly set the fader levels. It pays huge dividends to work the faders until you seriously cannot get anymore out of the channels you have in your session. Balance first, process later. By sticking to this simple rule, which also applies to mixing in general, you will be surprised at how little plug-in processing your drum mixes actually needs... that statement is of course assuming the drum tracks and performance you have to work will are well recorded and solid sounding in the first place.
Rule #3 - Mix Drums To The Song, Avoid Mixing Drums To The Drums
Never forget that the multitrack drums you have to work with are part of a production, they are not a drum solo or an island to themselves. It really isn’t that difficult to mix a great sounding drum kit on its own but, like Rule #1, being able to mix the drums to have a purposeful sound and place within the bigger of a song is where the magic is. Don’t be afraid to mute a channel or two that you feel doesn’t add value to the overall mix such as snare bottom channels, close mic hi hats or washy room channels. Many engineers, will throw up one or two extra mics in a drum tracking session so that we can keep our creative options open for the mix but remember a valid choice when “option mics” are concerned is to not use them at all if they add nothing to the musical merits of the production.
Rule #4 - Phase Facts
If you drum tracks include a set of snare mic channels, one for top and another of the bottom, then you will need to flip the phase. Everybody in audio production knows this drum mixing fundamental. Ideally this should be set at the mic preamp in the tracking stage but this isn’t always the case.
If you find that other aspects of your drum mix are not quite sounding as intended or playing nice with the overall picture of the drums then you should experiment with flipping the phase on other spot mics such as kick drums or floor toms. You will need to follow your ears and instincts here to get the best results or use a timing and phase alignment tool.
Rule #5 - Time To Align
Or is it? What I’m referring to here is time aligning all of your multitrack drums tracks to “get your drums sounding totally in phase, which reduces or eliminates phase cancellations that puts back body and punch to the sound of your drums”. While time aligning does indeed help bring back some tone to the sound of your drum mixes, and of course there are a number of very cool plug-ins that make this process easy, you should consider the fact that your drums may not need any time aligning at all. Not because there will be some phase cancellations happening caused by time delays between the channels but because your drums may already sound good with these subtle cancellations in place. Why fix something that sonically isn’t broken? Listen to some classic hits recorded and mixed on tape from a time gone by which feature epic drum mixes you lust after... Think about it, time aligning wasn’t available back then… I rest my case.
Rule #6 - Mix Top Down
You should try to establish a sound to your drum mixes with as few a moves as possible. Try to avoid working forensically on a channel by channel basis as you’ll most likely not put your focus on the bigger picture of the drums.
Top tip: Output all your drum channels via the same stereo bus to a stereo aux track. Apply some slow attack/fast release bus compression knocking off around 3db of gain reduction. This starting point is a great way of applying some overall levelling to the kit. Follow this with a touch of EQ for colour & shape, followed by another EQ to subtract (notch out) any pesky resonances that the combined drum kit may have in its sub mix. You should find that a good fader level mix and this top down approach will have your drums sounding most of the way there. After this initial top down process you can, if required, start to hone in on certain channels within the picture of the drums, starting with the overhead tracks moving “down” into the spot mics if needed.
Often people start mixing their drums at the spot mic channels moving their way from the “bottom” to the “top”. In my experience this approach doesn’t always work. Start at the “top” on a drum bus and work your way “down”. Remember drums are one instrument, not a collection of instruments. Always work on the sum of the drums for as long as you can before focusing on the parts.
Rule #7 - Mix With Realistic Expectations
Knowing what style or sound you want from your drum mixes is half the battle. Actually getting your drums to sound how you intend is the difficult bit. It’s easy to have big aspirational ideas such as “I want my drums to have that big vintage Bonham sound from Kashmir” but if the drummer who performed the parts didn’t play in that style, or have a kit big enough to get that sound in the first place, or even record in a room reminiscent of the type of space Bonham would recording in… or even the touch of Bonham… then there’s little you can do in the mix to recreate that sound.
Listen to what your unprocessed drum channels tell you. Listen for the qualities and focus on bringing those out to fit the bigger picture of the song as these results will sound much better than mixes that sound forced or faked. Apply a similar approach or mindset that we all use in vocal production to drum mixing. With vocals we work hard to fit lead vocal tracks within a song. Lead vocals have their own characters and personalities that top mix engineers embrace and nurture in the mix. Often when drums don’t sound good in a mix it’s because people haven’t nurtured their drums enough as they’ve rushed in with little to no direction in terms of sound and style hoping for the best results in the early moments of mixing. Avoid rushing your drum mixes as you will only be left wondering why your drum mixes sound disjointed.
What Are You Top Live Multitrack Drum Mixing Golden Rules?
If you only take away one point from this article then please make sure it’s Rule #6: “Always work on the sum of the drums for as long as you can before focusing on the parts”. This simple yet effective mindset single handedly raised my drum mixing skills up a few levels at a time many years ago when my drum mixes sucked. I struggling to get my drums to fit together up until I started applying this rule.
What golden rules of drum mixing do you abide by? Please share in the comments below…