Sunday, May 29, 2011

How to Mix Drums Without Samples

Hey guys! Sorry it has been so long since I have posted! But I'm back after a fun weekend of graduation=)

My two cents about producing drums "straight up" without samples:

Drum replacement has made us lazy. Too few of us are learning the craft and some of us that know it aren't flexing their skills. And the 'craft', so to speak, has very little to do with compressin' -n- EQ'in, but has everything to do with maximizing the player and the kit in a room in front of some microphones. This is the real deal right here: player, kit, room, mics. Live and die by those ingredients, because all the +15db at 62hz isn't going to help an improperly tuned kick drum sound amazing.

First off--know what you are looking for. There are many different kit sounds, but you have to pick one. Have some idea in mind what you need to accomplish for the track. This is going to take into account the style of music, the arrangement, the drummer's style, the kit, their preferred tuning, esthetic preferences of the band and yourself. Have an answer to the following questions:

dry versus roomy
bright versus fat
realistic versus hyped
wide stereo image versus realistic stereo image
vintage or modern flavor?
straight up or gimmicky?
balanced kit or mostly kick-n-snare?

By compiling a little mental list of 'this versus that' you've come a long way towards giving yourself the important END GOAL of what your engineering needs to accomplish. Keep in mind that all of these goals have nothing to do with mixing/processing/screwin' around with the audio in post--they have EVERYTHING to do with your room placement, tuning, microphone selection and placement, and guidance you need to give to the player. This is the *missing link* so many people seem to grope for answers for... it's about making decisions, having a clear picture in your head, and making it happen with the setup.

First thing's first--getting the kit places in a room. Obviously your familiarity with the room is going to be a big help here, you should already know the sweet spots for boomy, sweet and cracky. If not, open your ears and take a walk through the space and listen to the acoustics. For those of you not as familiar with the physics behind acoustics here are some guidelines that will hasten your search for 'the spot':

1.) Generally avoid the center of the room--largest build up of room modes here. Potential boominess lives here. Avoid the middle of width and length, AND height. Sticking your mics at the halfway point, for example, on the cymbals is a potential "gotcha" situation depending on the space. Definitely avoid the middle ground.

2.) Think in thirds. Be a third of the total distance off both walls. This is a good starting point. Have your overhead mics two-thirds off the floor or so... same with room mics--which should also be obeying the rule of thirds--make sure that it's away from the walls by that distance as well as height.

3.) Room corners can be your friends if you want a more "rock" sound. To avoid nasty comb filtering effects stick a gobo or wall in the corner so it's "rounded off" a bit. Near center of the room works great for more "pop" drum sounds.

4.) Room mics should--in my opinion--be dramatically different in sound/feel from your overheads. Choose different mics for starters. Get them pretty far away if you're going for an ambient approach (i.e. "roomy"); if you want something a bit tighter a single microphone in omni that's about 5-7' closer should work. Speaking of room mics: if you want a more stereo kit you should experiment with mono microphones in spaced pairs with some baffling in between them--signals become more stereo when one side "hears" differently than the other from reflections and time delay--make the most of what you're going to get! Another thing to consider: if you want a 'tougher' and deeper room mic sound set their height to one-third off the floor; if you want a more airy and ambient sound put them at two-thirds height. The 'tougher' setup is going to get more kick/toms/snare; the 'airy' setup tends to accent strike harmonics and especially cymbals. EVERY CHOICE OF YOUR SETUP SHOULD REFLECT YOUR END GOAL!

This may be a no-brainer, but it is so important it bears repeating: your drum sounds are only as good as your drums and tuning. Call a professional if you have to. Use new heads. Avoid coated heads. The best sounding drum heads have very, very short lifespans... use those. Remo Ambassadors and Emporers rule the day. In my opinion any other choice is just stupid because these are the best sounding heads used on probably a few hundred thousand records that you love. Man up, just get the Remos, make sure they're new and tuned like a champ. A well tuned drum set with quality heads like Ambassadors should give you an erection just hearing them in the room. Until you draw wood, you're not ready for mics.

Make sure the kit is in great condition. Take care of all the little problems. To wit: oil the kick chain and pedal, oil the high hat pedal, make sure the felts are new-ish and appropriately locked down (not too tight, not too loose), make sure all the laminate and binding is solid inside and out, make sure the drum mounting lips are smooth without divots or bumps, make sure the lugs are secure and quiet, make sure the kit isn't going to fall over--tape the bitch if you have to, make sure the throne doesn't squeak, make sure the snares aren't resonating with the kick/toms (retune if they are), make sure the sticks are good to go and new, make sure the kick isn't going to "walk" on you, make the drummer take off their rattling jewelry, make sure the drummer doesn't have their cell phone on them and knows the punishment if someone texts them during a take, and so forth. If you find the slightest odd noise you need to troubleshoot it and take care of it with extreme prejudice.

When it comes to microphone choice... well that's getting pretty personal. One man's secret weapon is another man's trash. You know your mic collection--USE IT. The important question, except at the most lavishly equipped studios, is one of allocation--you only have "X" mics to go around. You may have to make compromises. However, your BEST mics should be on the most important elements based on your goal. If a super wide stereo image is no big deal but a beefy room sound is--put the more expensive mics as the rooms instead of the overheads. You get the picture.

Since we're talking about mics, let's spend a moment on placement. Pay special attention to "problem children" that are going to make hitting your audio goal difficult. If your end product is going to be kick/snare centric you're obviously going to have to spend a minute to make sure your kick and snare mics are isolated as much as possible from the other elements. No matter what, you should take a minute to make sure the goddamn high hat isn't squaking 5's in your snare mic--this is going to screw you every time no matter what. Do whatever it takes to get the high hat out of your snare mic and vise-versa. I know some guys that put the 'hat mic BEHIND the drummer pointing at the hat--using the player's body as a shield to block out the snare. Hey--it works! Whenever possible avoid those clip on mics and use a stand--the less wonky low end sympathetic resonance you can eliminate the more you can let the low end sing 'loud and proud' in your mix without things getting weird.

Word of warning: don't use two mics on a single source (like kick drum) unless that's what you NEED to do. Most engineers I know just do it because they think it makes them badass. I dunno. Use what you need and nothing more. Sometimes you may need two mics, sometimes you may not need any. Keep your goal in mind, and what/who you're working with.

After you've covered the basics: kick, snare, toms, overheads and rooms, you can start thinking spot mics. Looking for an ultra stereophonic image? Then spot mic your cymbals; make sure they are in phase, and edit or gate the suckers. When they hit the cymbal you hear that mic, and about 500 ms later it's gone. Does wonders for the stereo image. Just ask Bob Rock, he's famous for these kinds of capers... and it sounds great. Don't worry about getting everything, just get the things important to your end goal. Maybe that means spotting the ride, or the chinas. Whatever it takes, you're there to deliver. You're the man with the plan.

Now that you've gotten a bazillion microphones on the kit comes the moment of truth--phase check. This is a pain, it takes some time, the band will whine and complain, the drummer will think you're daft, but it is critical that the mics are in sympathetic phase with one another. Use a phase meter, use your ears, zoom in on a snippet of recorded audio and eyeball it for Christ's sake, but do it. Make adjustments. If you are lucky you'll have some of those amazing IBT boxes that let you tweak the phase angle (or just use the UAD plugin). Every time I've been hired to mix a project I didn't record and the drums sounded funky there were always a few mics out of phase.... kick OOP with the OH's, or the middle tom a little bit out. Don't let this be you. This is also why the "less is more" school of drum miking can sound so... well... phase coherent, realistic, punchy and fresh. Once again use what you need and no more/less.

Let's talk for a minute about outboard gear. If you have it--USE IT! Throw on the compression, get the EQ happening right here and now. Screw options later. If the kit sounds fantastic, what other options do you really need? Obviously don't spend five hours EQ'ing the snare, but paint some bold, broad strokes. Hell, the client is paying for that outboard, might as well use it. Besides, how are you going to know that you've got *THE* sound until you run it through the ropes? This is the old school stuff. And if you've got gates--use them! Gate the kick and snare now. Gate the toms. Make it happen. Do some damage. Once again, this is how they made those records from 20, 30 or 40 years ago you live and die by. Make choices, be an engineer. Plus, all that stuff will be available during mixdown for other things. Saves time to have a bitchin' drum sound by just pulling up faders when starting your mix.

Last but certainly not least is the player. Unfortunately you're stuck with this guy. You can't swap 'em out like a mic, or tweak them like an 1176, or even fire them like an intern. This is the guy you have to work with. So look out for them. Make sure they are properly rested, know when to tell them to take five minutes for a break. Don't let them drink too much or smoke too much. Be encouraging. Point out the good twice as often as the bad. Let them know you're on their side. Let them know all this hard work during the setup was for THEM. Remind them how much you love recording drums and how there's no such thing as a great record without great drum tracks. Boost their confidence, give 'em a hug now and again. You know... bullshit them. :)

Okay, now that you've recorded some stellar drum tracks with passion and skill it's time to mix them. While I don't want to get into the depths of mixing drums at the moment (because it would take a month... fiddly subject), there are a few things to keep in mind.

1.) Did I mention gates were your friend? Well, chances are you're going to need them hardcore mixing without drum replacement. Sometimes, in this crazy world, you may find yourself copying the snare track and gating it really hard for one track, and only gating it a little bit for the other. Do whatever it takes to get that happenin' sound. There are no rules except there's no excuse for bad engineering.

2.) Commit to not using triggers. Don't wimp out. So what if it doesn't sound like the last 30 Seconds to Mars album... without triggers and Autotune they wouldn't sound like it either. Use older albums as your frame of reference, not today's generic "IQ 80 drum machine" albums.

3.) Realize that it's not going to sound perfect like a sample replaced album. Revel in the authenticity of each unique note that was created by a living, breathing human applying stick to skin. Take comfort in the knowledge that vibe is everything.

And don't forget there are a whole host of other options! Try recording drums first, cymbals on a second take--eliminates most of your bleed problems. Or maybe just eliminate the high hat from the main take and overdub it later (I swear they had to be doing this in the 80's, the high hat is so far to the left or right stereo image). Experiment with overdubbing kick or snare on top of the main track (better hope the drummer has rockin' timing and you used a click!) There are a million options to try. Unfortunately none of them are particularly fast ways to record drums."

Here's mine. ;)

No professional by any means. But tonight I tried a few new things with great success, and wanted to share them. This is to get you in the right place generally if you are starting out. This is for a natural sounding Pop Rock kinda thing. Somewhere in-between clean and dirty. If you don't like these ideas make your own tutorial! No flaming please. We all mix different. This is for beginner beginners.

Setting the General Mix

1. group all your drums into a group.
2. Send them all to a stereo bus
3. Set some generalized levels (hopefully you've got some room mics, if you don't, add a reverb bus in the mix and send it to your stereo bus as well, not a really long reverb either, keep it simple stupid, also 100% wet) and make sure things are in phase.
3. Add brightness to the stereo bus (compare to brightness of favorite mastered CD) Do not do any more EQing here.
4. Find the oomph of your snare and boost it. (if you have two snare top mics boost only one of them, probably the one that captured more low frequencies)
5. Cut the snares oomph frequency from all the other parts of the kit (assuming your rack tom's oomph is below that) including the room.
6. Cut out a low shelf in the overheads hats ride room mics rack and snare below 100
7. Duplicate your stereo bus and nuke it with compression/limiting and mix it under the volume level of your normal drum bus. Take off some of the high end eq. (depending on your plugins used this could add "plugin delay" which will make your drums sound terrible. See bottom.


1. Duplicate your tom tracks
Set a will be for the brightness and attack
Set b will be for the resonance and fullness

2. Solo your toms and boost the high mid frequencies to get the desired attack/punch. Remove the low end frequencies.

3. Add a gate, use the side chain frequencies to capture the high mid area. Set the fastest attack and a pretty short release with no hold.
Lets say 200-300ms If the kick and snare come through its fine... Maximum threshold, leave no bleed.

for set B eliminate all high frequencies above the resonate frequency, set a gate on these with a long release time. 3 - 4 seconds and make sure the attack isn't creating bad artifacts. use the side chain EQ and center in right on the resonate frequencies.
Also leave no bleed here either.

if you do this right you should have all the attack with no cymbal bleed
and all the resonance without having a bad pongy sound when the toms aren't being played.

Finish it up

Add some EQ and compression here and there where it seems necessary on the kick and snare... very light stuff because your compressed drum buss is already doing the job. Your cymbals should all be bright but you can clean up your hats lower and mid frequencies.

Make sure the hihat is coming from one concentric point. IE gate the snare and outside kick if needed, but leave the bleed at somewhere like negative 10, adjust the ratio so you aren't losing the quieter hits. if you had two top snare mics... you need not worry about this because you don't need to gate your oomph boosted mic most likely.


Check your plugin delay.

If you are using protools you can buy a plugin called mellow muse which you insert as the last plugin on every track.

Or... Apple click the volume and you should get a new display which will tell you your plugin delay. You can use the time adjuster plugin (it comes with protools) at the end of each track to match the delays.

Match your drum bus's to eachother. (if stuff was sounding really bad inbetween the drum bus's this is where it gets fixed)

At this point you should be definitely in the ballpark. Make sure your tracks aren't peaking.

And here's my random video of the day!


  1. Very informative and interesting. Keep up the good work.

  2. nice tips and thanks for sharing!

  3. Ty for sharing, didnt read it all but i will later <3

  4. Thanks for this text. You cannot ever know enough about mixing. :)

  5. Stuff as many drums on your kit as possible and pay for serious mixing. LoL

    I never saw that video before but I know them from a video called brorape. That video had me rolling the first time I saw it.

  6. Drums are probably the oldest musical instrument in existence, as well as being one of the most popular. Thanks for share your informative post. It helps to mix drums without samples. There are many ways to approach recording drums besides the ‘mic everything that moves' approach, including many time honored 'minimalist' approaches.
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  7. Wow! This blog looks just like my old one! It's on a completely different subject but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Great choice of colors!

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