Mixing Drums in Pro Tools

01
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An Introduction to Mixing Drums in Pro Tools

Drum Kit With Microphones
Recording The Drum Kit. Joe Shambro

Getting the perfect drum sound isn't easy, and for most home studios, practicing on a real drum kit was a rare occurrence -- until now!

In my previous article about recording and mixing drums, I took on the basics of recording and mixing drums. But now, let's take that a step further, and work on a more in-depth project, mixing drums in Pro Tools. Of course, you can use these same methods in whatever software you prefer using.

In this tutorial, you'll learn how to pan your drums, how to compress, gate, and EQ, and how to make sure the overall mix is balanced.

Let's take a listen to how the drums sound naturally, to compare to your final mix. Here's an mp3 file of the drums as they are naturally, without any mixing done.

Click here to download the .zip file of the session for Pro Tools 7 users, or if you're using Pro Tools 5.9 through 6.9, download the above session and unzip it; then, download this session file, and place it in the unzipped directory alongside the other session file. It should find the audio files necessary.

Open the session. You'll see individual tracks for the kick, snare, toms, high-hat, and a stereo file with the overhead mics. The recording uses industry-standard microphones on everything - AKG D112 on ‚Äčkick, Shure SM57 on snare and toms, Shure SM81 on high-hat, and AKG C414 stereo pair on the overheads.

Let's get started!

02
of 05

Panning Drums

Panning The Tracks
Panning The Tracks. Joe Shambro / About.com

Click "Play" on the session, and take a listen. You'll notice that, with the exception of the overheads, everything is on the same "plane" in the stereo image. A stereo image has two channels - left and right - to simulate both ears on the human head. Within that stereo image, you can move items from left, to right, to back to the center. Why do this?


First, it gives you something very psychologically important. The listener hears with two ears in nature, and when listening to something in stereo versus mono, it brings the subject to life. The listener is more engaged, and feels more "connected" with the recording. Second, it allows you to separate items of different timbre or tone, and allow the recording to come together with items that would otherwise sound "cluttered".Let's look at the drum kit as if you were facing it. Keep in mind that my tips here are for a right-handed drummer; if your drummer is left-handed, just do the opposite of what I'm recommending, if the high-hat is on the right instead of left.The kick and snare should always stay centered. They both form a very important aspect of the song, and form a very strong backbone on which the song sits. You can, of course, experiment -- many recordings have the kick and snare panned in non-traditional ways -- but for most rock recordings, you'll keep them centered.Next, look at the toms. You have four toms on this recording -- high, mid, low, and floor tom -- and those should be panned as you'd be seeing them, with the high tom leaning right, mid in the center, low leaning to the left, and the floor panned hard left.Next, let's look at the high-hat and overheads. Naturally, the overheads need to be panned hard left and right, since they're recorded in stereo. The high-hat will be panned hard right.Now, let's go on to gating and compressing.

03
of 05

Compression and Gating

Compressing the Overheads. Joe Shambro / About.com

Gating

First, we need to apply a

noise gate

to the kick and snare. Because the kick and snare will be higher volume in the mix than the rest of the drums, you need to keep extra information from getting through, causing a cluttered-sounding mix.


Solo both channels. Apply the noise gate plug-in to both -- you'll need to adjust the threshold a little bit to make sure that it's triggering at the right time, and then adjust the "attack" and "decay" so you're getting enough of the drum, and shutting out the bad stuff at the right time. For kick, I prefer a fast attack with a fast decay; with snare, I give it a little longer decay, since sometimes a fast decay can shut out gentle transients that you'd rather hear with the snare. After you're done gating, it's time to move on to compressing. Unsolo the kick and snare.

Compression

As we talked about in other articles, compressing brings out the best in items with strong dynamics. Apply a simple compressor to both the kick and the snare, and use the presets "Tight Kick" and "Basic Snare Comp". While I normally don't use presets, in this case, it works just fine! You'll notice that when you compress the tracks, you lose quite a bit of volume. That's easily remedied, and to be expected; in the "gain" area on the compressors, add some gain to make up for the compression. I had to add almost 10 db of gain to get the kick and snare back to where they were; play with the settings, and you'll see what I mean. I also like to apply a nice, tight compressor on the toms -- the preset "Tight Kick" works well on toms, too!


I also like to apply a compressor to the overheads, with a ratio of 4:1, with a short attack, and a long release. This gives the overheads a little bit of "body".Now, let's take a look at using EQ on the drums.

04
of 05

EQing the Drums

Compressing the Overheads. Joe Shambro / About.com

EQ is a really touchy subject; a lot of engineers avoid it like the plague. Quite simply, you can ruin a really good recording if you EQ something wrong. You'd be surprised at how a little bit of EQ gone wrong can change the whole perception of your mix!


For a really good kick and snare sound, we need to do a little bit of EQ to get things to sparkle in the right places. Make sure you've un-soloed the tracks, so you're listening to the whole mix together. Any changes you make in EQ on a particular track should be listened to against the whole recording.Place an EQ plug-in on both the kick and snare -- I really like Digidesign's new EQ III plug-in. For the kick, add a tiny bit of low-end, and then pull down the mid-low quite a bit. You'll need to adjust the "Q" setting to make it less wide. Then, bring up the mid-highs just a touch, and you'll end up with a warm, snappy-sounding kick. For the snare, I prefer to bring a little bit of mid-highs up, and kill most everything below 80 Hz, and sometimes, depending on how much of everything else I'm picking up, I also kill some of the highs as well. Aside from that, play with the curve; your ears (and song) may benefit from some added "air" on other tracks around 8-10khz.I tend not to use EQ on most everything else on the drum kit, with one exception: on both the overheads and the high-hat, I tend to remove everything below 100 Hz, mainly because cymbals don't project anything in that aural range.Now, let's look at one final step -- making sure everything is even.

05
of 05

Balancing the Mix

Drum Tracks Overview. Joe Shambro / About.com

Now comes the final step - making sure the whole mix is balanced.

Since we've already covered panning, your drums should be panned in the stereo field where you want them. If, upon listening to them together, they sound unbalanced (which makes for a "lumpy" sounding recording), make some panning adjustments. Always trust your ears before trusting the meters and faders!

Using the faders, adjust the overall levels. Generally, I leave the kick near the middle (0db), and then adjust everything else around it. I bring the snare down a little bit, and then the toms down from that (since, generally, when a tom is being hit, it's got a lot of velocity). The high-hat and overheads are generally lower, but depending on the velocity being hit on the hat, I move it up or down. I also move the overheads down so that I'm not getting a whole lot of "noise" other than the actual cymbal hits.

One note on isolation: if you'll notice on these tracks, the band was tracking in the same room as the drummer, which is a popular way to do things when budget is an issue. That's something you'll need to deal with if recording in this manner; for rock bands, such as this, it's not an issue, as everything blends in just fine. But be mindful if you're recording a quieter, acoustic band -- you'll need to make sure you're isolating better.

So let's take a listen. Here's what my final mix sounds like (in mp3 format). How does yours sound?

Again, trust your ears... they're your best tool, despite all the fancy plug-ins and mixing software we have today!

With what you've learned here, you're now able to mix drums successfully in Pro Tools!