In this article, we hope to help you understand how use your drum bus compressor.
Using the right drum bus compression settings, or a compressor in general, makes sense only if your tracks are already edited and cleaned up properly. Although it’s completely optional, you make consider compressing the individual tracks before you apply a compressor on a drum bus.
Use moderate ratios and set the threshold so you would have 3-4 dBs of gain reduction. Use a relatively slow attack to leave the transients unaffected and set the release with the flow of the track making sure that the transients are still unaffected. And always remember that the drum bus compression is more about flavor and feel than anything else.
Before the compression
We shall begin with an understanding that no matter how advanced your compressor is, it couldn’t possibly fix any major mistakes. Yes, some minute problems most definitely can be solved with proper compression, but it’s better to avoid any issues before you start applying it. For example, compression doesn’t help with bad timing of the drummer and, moreover, could actually emphasize it. So if you feel like some editing is needed, you should do it before you apply the compressor on the drum bus or any other effect for that matter.
Clean up first
The first step on the road to great drum sound should be checking the timing and making sure that no stylistic and technical mistakes were made during the recording. If you are not completely satisfied with the result, your best option would, of course, be to re-record the part from scratch, but if it doesn’t seem possible, there are things that could help you to solve the issues. If the timing isn’t great, you could try to quantize the tracks to the beat. But be warned, though, despite that modern DAWs are extremely capable, it is still quite a tiresome process. In most DAWs, you have to highlight every transient and snap it to the grid, but don’t overdo it to the point where it sounds artificial.
Phase alignment also could be a useful thing to do, since when recording drums you always deal with multiple sound sources. Snare sound will always be recorded by the overheads and because overhead mics are further from the snare mic, the sound will be delayed, which will lead to cancelation of some frequencies. To fix the issue, you can use a dedicated plugin or do it by hand.
Compress individual tracks
Before you apply drum bus compression, think of compressing all of the individual drum tracks separately. This step isn’t completely necessary, but most professional audio engineers prefer to do things this way. After all, if your dynamics are at the right place, the drum bus compressor will only benefit from it. If the kick drum is all over the place, try to tame it with a rather slow attack and fast release on top of a moderate ratio and relatively low threshold. If you feel like your snare doesn’t have enough weight, you can treat it with a longer release and a rather slow attack.
If you align the phase of your drum tracks, you can treat overheads in whatever way you see fit. But we recommend making them linger a bit more by using a relatively fast attack and significantly slower release.
What compressor to use on a drum bus
To be completely honest, it really doesn’t matter what particular compressor you choose to use on a drum bus. Any compressor with flexible settings should do the trick, but when it comes to drum busses, compression itself isn’t really the focal point. Proper compressor should also be able to add some character and a certain feel to your drums. Fortunately for us, there are plenty of more than decent compressors to choose from for adding a flavor to your drum tracks. All you have to do is to find the flavor that suits you the most.
Apart from flavoring capabilities, you also have to make sure that the compressor of your choosing has adjustable attack and release settings for additional flexibility. Variable ratios and a high pass filter are also very useful features to have on your compressor, especially when it comes to drum busses.
Drum bus compressor settings
Fortunately enough, there’s hardly any rocket science involved in compression. All of the compressors, with very few exceptions, have the same basic setting that we can use to shape the dynamics of our tracks. Ratio controls the amount of compression by setting the proportion between original signal and a compressed one. Attack tells the compressor when it should start to work its magic and release tells it when to stop. And the threshold will determine at which volume compression should be applied.
Considering that compression is always very specific to a particular project, we cannot provide you with the exact compressor settings to use on a drum bus or any other bus for that matter. But what we actually can and will do is provide you with some recommendations, so you’d have a better idea of where to start and what to do.
Depending on your project and the initial goal, there are two very opposite ways of how you can set your ratio. If you want to smash your drums to beats, use higher ratios starting from 10:1 and even more if you feel like it. Your drums would sound very noticeably compressed, to say the least, but if this is your artistic choice, so be it. In most situations, however, it is more beneficial to use lower ratios on a drum bus, since most of the time you want your compression to be as subtle as possible. Start as low as 2:1 and if you’re not happy with the result, try to raise it just a bit, usually, the sweet spot lies somewhere around 3:1 but could be just slightly higher.
Generally speaking, setting a threshold could be a bit tricky since if you set it too low, it could bring up some unwanted noise and mess up the overall flow of the drum track by significantly changing the dynamics. But setting it too high could also cause some problems because then only the loudest peaks would be affected and we wouldn’t achieve a desirable “glued” sound. So unless your goal is to brush off some loud peaks here and there, you should use as high of a ratio as possible with a gain reduction that corresponds to the peaks. Note that this will work beautifully when combined with a softer knee, otherwise while setting the threshold you should aim for 3-6 dB of gain reduction since it would provide you with the most pleasant result.
Attack and release
Everyone who begins to learn compression knows that setting attack and release properly is by far the hardest part. What makes it so gruesome is that no one can tell you the exact numbers to the decimal point that you should use. In general, you should avoid fast attack times since fast attack will eat up the transients and will make your drums sound less natural and lively. So slow attack is a way to go, but only if you combine it with the right release settings. If you make your release too slow, the compressor wouldn’t reset properly and still would affect some of the transients.
If the release would be too fast, you’ll end up with even less natural sound so the best bet would be to try to set the release with the timing of the song and listen carefully while doing so.
Other useful settings
We’ve already mentioned the knee settings which are very useful to have since it establishes the correlation between unaffected and compressed signals. A softer knee will make the transition between compressed and uncompressed sound very smooth and the compression overall very subtle. A high pass filter is also a very useful feature since it allows you to leave the low-end unaffected making your drums sound even more natural. And lastly, an option of mixing the original signal with the compressed one could add even more flexibility to your workflow. You can easily use very high ratios and aggressive threshold knowing that you can always dial back the compression with a Mix knob, thus using a compressor in parallel without adding an extra auxiliary track.
One of the main components of any musical composition is rhythm. And since the most obvious choice to emphasize the rhythm of the composition is a drum set, it’s extremely crucial to know how to make it sound excellent. Fortunately enough, there’re a lot of very efficient ways to improve the sound of drums. And we believe that it’s essential to know how to compress a drum bus and which drum bus compression settings to use to do so.