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Making drums sound "bigger" in the mix

Asked 1636 day 9 h | Viewed 15293 times | Updated 1632 day 22 h |

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Gravatar photo rockandrollsteve

I know this question has been answered countless times elsewhere, and there is no right or wrong answer, but how do I mix drums to make them sound huge? I can't figure out the right formula... Is it automating level changes? Compression? EQ? Somehow the drums get buried in a mess of guitar and vocals.

  • As pointed out, what would you consider the basis of your huge drum sound. Do you have any examples of huge drum sounds you admire or are partial to?

    Justin Vencel | Feb 07 at 03:02

  • Hey Justin. Sorry for the delayed response. My two favorite drum sound albums are Smash by The Offspring and Rage Against the Machine's first album. The drums on Smash are like a freight train that the rest of the band is playing in front of and Rage's drums have dynamics and sound very natural. I'm trying to avoid drums that sound too fake or polished like modern bands (Paramore comes to mind). Thanks.

    rockandrollsteve | Mar 18 at 02:03

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7 Answers

  1. Answered: 1632 day 23 h (1) | Permalink

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    Gravatar photoguest

    Huge drum sounds don't start in the mix - they start at tracking with a combination of player, tuning, room and miking (or perhaps lack of miking). Given those four elements and a lot of skill and a little bit of luck - you should have to do nothing much more than push up the faders. Thou' compression is your friend ;-)

    Try not to think in absolutes - why are the drums getting buried in a mess of guitar and vocal? Think about the song arrangement - does the arrangement organically allow the various instruments to breathe in both sapce and register.

    Do you think that the huge drum sound of, say "When the Levee Breaks" would sound the same without the space around it? No mess of guitars or vocals there. What I'm saying to you is, sometimes, as an engineer, you just have to deal with what you're given - if the arrangement sucks and/or the original tracking is bad - it's gonna be tough. You can't make a silk purse out of a pig's ear as we say up north.

    • Ok, I can respect this point of view. The source is everything -- I totally agree. I guess it just seems like a lot of people wind up asking these questions AFTER they have already recorded their source and it's too late to change that. But I agree...like a painting, you need to decide ahead of time what role the guitar, bass, and drums are going to play and then select and tune your sources accordingly.

      Justin Vencel | Feb 07 at 04:02

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  2. Answered: 1635 day 9 h (1) | Permalink

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    Gravatar photoTwisted Engineer

    I'm going to get that you are not doing enough to isolate frequencies, both as you record and as you mix.

    What I mean by this is be conscience of what instrument you are recording and decide -- what frequencies are vital to this instrument?  For instance, people tend to record way too much high end on their guitar tracks, especially rhythm guitar.  It starts at the source, be sure your rhythm tones are not screaming high end, and your lead tracks are not all muddy in the mids to low end.  Manipulate this starting at the guitar, amp, and microphone level and you will have a ton more room to work with.

    Obviously the same applies to drum tracks.  When mixing, I like to have the cymbals float above everything else in the mix, so you should only be boosting the extreme highs on these tracks.  The snare is typically going to fight with the vocals a bit since they usually sit around the same frequency range.  I like to find the dominant frequencies of each and then cut out a bit of that in the other.

    Riding the fader on drum fills is pretty common in rock or more aggressive tracks to bump up the snare level and make it pop.

    You can also try a few compression tricks like parallel compression on the drum buss as a whole.  Or try doubling the main drum mix, and compressing one of them very little and squashing the crap outta the other, then mix the two together.  This will give you a bigger and fatter sound without sacrificing the dynamics of the track.

    Here are a couple of great posts about using parametric equalization.

    Great posts about EQing metal guitar, but there are good nuggets that apply to general mixing.

    • Thank you for that! I never considered applying compression to the whole drum mix. I will also tweak my EQ settings further.

      rockandrollsteve | Feb 04 at 06:02

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  3. Answered: 1633 day 23 h (0) | Permalink

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    Gravatar photoguest

    If you have a line out on each channel, split the snare and kick and put them onto 2 or more channels each (can do the toms too). This will give two mono channels of each drum you choose which can bring up the volume of a given drum.

    The fun begins when playing with the multiple channels of each drum on the desk. You can eq, compress or process one of the drum channels in any way you wish to make them fatter. Distortion on snare works a treat (you need to find the right distortion) as well as compressed room sound. Panning of the two channels might also make the drum (probably not the kick) wider/fatter.

    Eqing the channels differently will allow you to boost cut the drum eq to make it stand out more in the track.. hope that helps

  4. Answered: 1633 day 13 h (0) | Permalink

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    Gravatar photoJustin Vencel

    One trick I love on drums to really bring out the snap (especially for snare) involves using the infamous 1176 compressor. (I use the 1176 plugin on my universal Audio UAD card because I can't afford $2k for the real thing at the moment, but the principal works the same).

    • Run the snare through the 1176 set at the 4:1 ratio 
    • Set the attack near the full counter-clockwise setting (longest attack)
    • Set the release toward the full clockwise setting (shortest release)
    • Adjust the input to your own tastes

    This simple formula really brings out the snap of the snare and helps it cut through the mix.

    As some other people have pointed out...try splitting the snare track, applying this to one channel, and then mixing it back in with the original sound.

  5. Answered: 1633 day 2 h (1) | Permalink

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    Gravatar photostefolof

    It's a very subjective thing. It would be easier to pinpoint the sound you are looking for if you could specify a song that you perceive has a huge drum sound.

    • True, one mans wall of sound is anothers...let's not go there. Agreed, examples in the world of audio help a ton therefore I shale leave a comment for mr rockandrollsteve

      Justin Vencel | Feb 07 at 03:02

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  6. Answered: 1606 day 9 h (0) | Permalink

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    Gravatar photoNeil Burne

    You should'nt need to automate the drum levels if you've recorded the drums properly. Have Kik/snr/und snr/rack tom/floor tom/ hats and the room individulay miked up, start with the overhead sound (try to get the best natural sound by experimenting with the oh mics in different places) when you've got a good natural mic sound then you can add a bit of e.q to fatten them up. Alot of people think the overheads are for cymbals only..nope. Next do a similar thing with a room mic, experiment with mic placement until you're happy with the signal. you want the drums to sound the same in the live room as they do coming into control room. Next get the best natural mic sound for the kick,snr,under snare, rack tom, floor tom (experiment again with positions). If you've managed to get a great natural sound for all the mics then you should have a good drum sound to start off with. All you'll need to do then in add a touch of e.q and slight compression (if needed) on the kit apart from the overheads and room signal. Balance wise start of with the overheads, add the room then have the rest of the kit underneath them. you should now have a large drum sound (due to the overheads and room being uncompressed, add a bit of reverb if needed) with a punch (due to the rest of the kit which has been tweaked). Balancing with the music, start with the drums then add the bass, then the vocals then guitars and keys. You have to sit everything in, if the drums sound great on their own but not with the music add then you need to readdress the e.q of the other music tracks to fit with the drum sound.

  7. Answered: 1035 day 9 h (0) | Permalink

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    Gravatar photoguest

    Neil Burne, You've never actually recorded drums, have you.

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