In this post you will learn the best EQ and compression techniques for drums when mixing your music. The drums is one of the most complicated instruments to work with for a sound engineer, and as a home studio owner, you’ll probably quickly find out why…
Not to worry, this post will break down the essential EQing and compression techniques you can use in your DAW.
Interested? Keep reading…
Table of Content:
Check out these other guides:
- Proper Vocal Compression
- Proper Bass Compression
- Vocal Compressor Plugins
- Music Production Courses Online
The drum set consist of five principal audio sources that you have to work with. Knowing what these audio sources are, you will need to ensure you’re getting the best sound first before doing any manipulation.
Ever heard of fix it in the mix?
Fairy tales and puppy dog tails…
Any sort of “fixing” may result in a damaged and processed sound. If your style of music is, say, country, rock, roots reggae, or anything like that, you know you first need to get some good sounds first because you decide to EQ or compress anything.
Let’s talk about at the five major parts of the drums you need to mix record and then mix.
Your five audio sources…
The overheads microphones are arguably the most important, as they give you the overall sound of the drums, as well as the room that the drums are in. They also provide for picking up your cymbals. The overheads will act as the “glue” making all your drums gel together right.
After the overheads, then comes miking the kick drum.
The kick is what drives the music. It is the “heartbeat” of any song or composition, so capturing that sound and being able to articulate in a way that is clear, unmuffled, and cuts through cleanly in a mix will give your music that rhythmic foundation that’s so necessary in a mix.
Then comes the snare, which are quite probably the most audible instrument in the drum set. That’s why, when it comes to studio recording, you need the snare to sit well with every other instrument. Especially if you’re working with a particularly heavy handed drummer…
Then we have the hi-hats. Here’s an interesting fact…
The hi-hats were originally invented for the purpose of keeping the timing on the music right. The drummer would do this by tapping his left foot on the pedal. That way he keeps not only himself, but the whole set, in time.
I remember a story by a great senior guitarist who told me that, in the younger days he used to watch the hi-hat intently to keep his playing on point.
Anyway, with all the subdivisions and polyrhythmic textures that eventually became possible, the hi-hat quickly evolved grooving styling. This is mainly because of how sharp the transients are, as also the reason why you want to make sure you are able to get good quality hi-hat sounds in your DAW for mixing.
Then we come to the part of the drum set that really turns the drum into a musical instrument capable of a rather melodic performance… the toms.
They come in high toms (I’ll refer to them as “rack toms”) and low toms (“floor toms.”) These will add some nice character to your mix, so you want to make sure that the “melodic” component of your drummer’s playing is represented well in your mix.
Take in mind that the set needs to be recorded properly. There is no such thing as “fix it in the mix,” if your audio source is bad, there is nothing that you can do in the mix to fix with EQ or compression. And as the drum set is such an extreme dynamic multi-instrument, you need to get your miking done right before you even decide to start thinking about mixing techniques.
If you’re looking for the perfect drum mics, check out this drum mic buying guide.
If you’re trying to find good bass compression settings (regardless of genre), check out this article.
Now on to the actual EQ and compression techniques themselves 🙂
# 1 – EQ and Compression Techniques for Overheads (or drum room)
Let’s talk about the overheads.
Getting the right sound for the overheads is crucial. Your overhead microphones are perhaps the most important in your recording setup. It’s responsible for blending all of your drum sounds together, as well as capturing the sound of your drum in the room.
With two overhead microphones, you get a sense of the sound of your drums before you start mixing each drum individually. You can then use your overheads as a guide for mixing other individual drums in the mix, such as increasing the kick, compressing the snare, or EQ’ing the hi-hats.
Since the main purpose of the overheads is to capture the sounds of the cymbals as well as the overall drum set in the room, you want to get rid of some frequencies that aren’t going to play nice. Start by dropping out the sub-bass kicks in your EQ by using a low-cut, cutting off anything below the 40 kHz range. That will clean up any nasty rumbling sounds.
To prevent that muddy build-up in the low-mid frequency range, between 100 Hz to 200 Hz, attenuate about 3 to 5 dB to keep everything sounding nice and flat.
Depending on the quality of microphones, and how much brightness you may need, compare boosting the 5 kHz range by 1 to 3 dB. See which one sounds good, or if you need to leave it flat.
Let’s talk about compression.
Now that we’ve gotten our overheads sounding nice and clean, we need to bring the dynamics within nice controllable range.
Let’s start by setting our ratio to 3:1. Set a slow attack of about 100 ms, so that the transient slaps will be able to come right through, and a slightly faster release of around 70 ms.
Adjust the threshold as you like once you’ve started adding other individual drums to the mix. This way you know how much your compressor needs to be working, given the basic settings you’ve just provided.
# 2 – EQ and Compression Techniques for Kick
After the overheads, the next essential instrument in the drum set that you need to mix is the kick. The kick, as I said, provides the throb and the heartbeat of your music. Getting a good kick sound that doesn’t overwhelm but can still drive through in your mix, cutting through the other frequencies and dynamics, can really bring life to your sounds.
Let’s see how we can deal with your kicks.
Kicks are supposed to have a nice round boomy sound. But you can’t ignore the flip of that click or crunch from the sound of the hammer smashing your drum–it’s part of what actually gives character to your kick sound. That sound also helps it to cut through the other frequencies in the mix, enabling you to be able to hear the kick even on laptop speakers.
Start by cutting out the frequencies between 350 Hz to 450 Hz by about 2 to 5 dB. Use your ears and your discretion. What you want to do is get rid of that muddy sound that you can get from kick drums sometimes, especially if you’re not using dedicated kick mics.
After getting rid of those low mids, try to get some of that click and slapping sound by boosting the 2k – 3k range by a couple of dB. This will add more character to your kicks.
You want to be able to get the overall roundness of the kick boom that’s not lost in the initial attack, but you also don’t want to crunch out the kick’s attack either, because that’s what’s going to give your music its punch.
The best way to do this is to set a fairly quick attack time, fast enough to compress the transient, but not so fast that you lose the initial punch.
Try aiming for about 8 to 10 ms as general guideline. Then set the release to fast so that you get the roundness of the kick after the initial transient, as well as make the compressor ready for any rapid style kicks. A setting of about 10 to 12 ms for release should be good (just a hair slower than the attack).
Set your ratio to something modest like 2:1 or 3:1. Not too much compression, but just enough to keep things under control.
Adjust your threshold to see how it sits with the mix once you have everything together. Use your threshold to see how much your compression should be working.
# 3 – EQ and Compression Techniques for Snare
The snare is arguably the most audible thing in the drum set, besides maybe the cymbals. But a if you’ve miked your snare correctly, you’re able add lots of “meat” to the beat.
Have you ever heard a poorly EQ’d and compressed snare? It’s very noticeable, maybe even more than the kick. This is one instrument engineers don’t want to leave out. A thin and uninspiring snare sound can totally redefine the feel of an entire track. Let’s look at how to get a good snare sound.
The frequencies generally to watch out for are 80 Hz, 350 – 450 Hz, and the “presence” frequencies around 5 kHz.
Boosting the lower frequencies and cutting the mid-frequencies prepares the snare for compression. The 80 Hz section of your EQ adds some depth to year snare, give it a little more power and preventing it from being too thin. Just add 2 or 3 dB to 80 Hz.
After that, you want to make sure your snares don’t sound too “boxy,” so cut about 2 dB from the 350 – 450 Hz range.
To add more presence or brightness where needed, give a slight boost to the 3 to 5 Hz frequencies as needed. No more that 3 dB should be sufficient. It can make things sound a little harsh if you overdo it.
This is an instrument you can have fun with when it comes to compression. Adding a compressor can be such a rewarding experience, as you get the really tighten or thicken a snare sound for your mix here.
Start by adding a modest ratio. Between 2 to 3:1 should be good to keep things under control. Then add a very fast attack, about 2ms. But use your discretion. You want just a little of the transient, enough to sit well in your mix, without overwhelming the instruments on your mix. Too fast (or rather instantaneous attack) would get rid of the initial slap and cause the snare to lose its bite. But too slow, and you lose control of the snare all together.
You can set the release to about 11 ms. And for threshold, use your ears to see how it sounds in your overall drum mix. Depending on what type of music you and mixing for, if it is aggressive or soft, you can use the threshold to determine the overall compression that will be required for your snare drum. Too much and you lose your snare, not enough, and your snare sticks out too much.
# 4 – EQ Techniques for Hi-Hat
Hi-hats are actually very simply to deal with in a mix. Even though I’ve seen it done, generally you’re not going to be need any compression in your hi-hats. The cases I’ve experienced having compression on hi-hats tended to be in more electronic music genres. In this case, you’re better off with getting the right samples so you don’t have to be be doing anything else.
But since we’re talking about recording an actual drum set with a live player, then you’d need to be able get a good sound first, before doing any sort of EQ or anything else.
In EQing the hi-hats, you want to cut out anything from about 200 Hz and under. The hi-hats are, as the name suggests, for providing you with that high percussive sounds for the groove and timing of the music. And cutting out the information that you don’t need allows other instruments to come through in the mix more effectively, since they don’t have to compete with any stray frequencies. Overall, you are even able to get a louder mix since every instrument is playing in their corrective frequency range (remember this principle when EQing any instrument or vocalist as well).
If you want a little more air on the hi-hats, try giving them a couple dB boost around 6K to 8 kHz.
# 5 – EQ and Compression Techniques for Toms
Toms can add variety to a drum groove, and mixing them can be a challenge at times. That’s because toms can be tuned differently, and depending on the drummer, will be used differently as well. Because of that, you don’t want them to interfere with the kicks or the snare, regardless of how they sound. They need to stand out on their own, when used, as well as preserve the sound so that your drums sound musical when the toms are being used.
This technique is particularly useful when miking your toms individually.
For the floor toms, you’d want to cut out about 10 to 12 dB of 500 Hz so that you get a nice clear sound in your mix that’s not muddy. To add some bite, add about 4 to 7 dB to the 3 kHz range.
For rack toms, you can use a similar setting. Make a drastic cut at 600 Hz, while boosting the 2 kHz range by 6 or so dB.
Set your compressor’s ratio to attenuate the audio signal modestly. Something like 4 to 5:1 should do the trick on floor toms, while rack toms can get a ratio of 6:1. This gives you some control over the toms so that they don’t overwhelm your mix, particularly with a heavy-handed drummer during a solo.
Use a slower attack time. The slow attack (about 100 to 120 ms) will allow the attack of the toms to cut through, while allowing its roundness to be remain audible. Use a setting based on the type of toms you are recording.
In terms of release time, on floor toms, use a medium release time of about 90 ms, while using a fast release time of 25 ms on rack toms.
Threshold setting is adjusted by using your ears and discretion to see what sound good, and how much your compressor should be working.
Drum EQ and Compression – Final Thoughts…
As you can see, drums can be a complicated instrument to microphone and mix (others would be acoustic guitar and then vocals). But with a little bit of know-how, you’ve equipped yourself with the basic fundamentals of sort of setting you should be using on each drum.
When it comes to mixing drums, you really only need two plugins, the EQ and the compressor (in some plugins you can get both of them together). Any other plugin that you use will be doing the same things I suggested in this post.
By follow the guidelines, using your ears, and making sure you have the right microphones for the job, you will be mixing perfect drums in no time.
I hope you found this information useful. If you have, or have any questions, please leave a comment below. Otherwise, share this with your friends or anyone else you think will find this information useful.