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Controlling Your Drum Mix

Impose Some Discipline! By Neil Rogers
Published August 2023

Controlling Your Drum Mix

Drum mics can occupy a lot of channels in your DAW, and they can quickly multiply as you experiment with different processing — so it pays to impose some discipline!

Our DAWs offer us almost boundless creative freedom when mixing, but along with the infinite possibilities there’s a downside: with the number of channels and routing options on offer, you have to be really disciplined if you’re to retain control over your mix throughout a project.

A recent project I worked on is a great example of where just such a lack of control presented a problem. Tasked with helping a client elevate the quality of a mix they’d worked on at home, I found myself unable to perform the most basic mixing move: I just wanted to turn down the snare! This was tricky, because the DAW session I’d been given featured an elaborate setup for the drums, with the snare routed to multiple auxiliary channels and various buses for processing. When I moved the main snare fader down it made little difference to the loudness of the snare. In fact, no fader did what I wanted. Hoping to avoid completely unpicking and rebuilding this drum mix, I brought up the level of the rest of the kit (thankfully, this was easy!) and then lowered the main drum bus fader. As a solution it worked, but it was inefficient and shouldn’t really have been necessary.

I found myself unable to perform the most basic mixing move: I just wanted to turn down the snare!

Now, there’s nothing wrong with creating sophisticated routing and parallel processing setups if they help you to shape the sound in a certain way, but it’s essential that as you throw more and more ideas at your project, you retain control over all the key components of the drum sound. In particular, you need the ability to turn the key pieces of the kit up or down with a minimum of fuss — at any stage in the project and no matter how many channels you’re working with!

With all that in mind, I want to take you through how I typically manage the routing for multitrack drums in my DAW. My setup is pretty simple in theory (there are no real ‘tricks’ here) but, importantly, I’ve thought it through and it’s proved its worth on many projects. It helps me to keep my focus on what really matters: the big picture, by which I mean what the drums are contributing to the song. It also gives me the control I need to troubleshoot problems very quickly at any stage of the mix. Or, indeed, after I’ve finished it; for example if a client or mastering engineer comes back to request tweaks, I can go back into the project and make changes without having to get into a mixing mindset all over again. Yet it doesn’t stop me experimenting with different techniques for creative effect.

Rule Of Three

Even at the very beginning of a mix, before any processing has been applied to the drums and I’m working to build a quick initial balance, I find it useful to have broad control over the sound of the whole kit using just a few group buses. That way I can mix fast and, as the mix progresses, if anything doesn’t sound good/right (maybe I can hear a harshness in the cymbals or notice what could possibly be a phase issue), I can mute or solo these broad groups to help me locate the problem quickly.

The individual tracks of the drum kit are routed into three broad subgroups.The individual tracks of the drum kit are routed into three broad subgroups.

I start by assigning everything to one of three stereo group buses, each of which is routed to a master drum bus, so that each ‘family’ of mics can be controlled and processed as a whole. Any panning is performed on the individual tracks. The buses are as follows:

Close Mics: Close kick, snare and tom mics, and so forth — any tracks that provide a focused capture of an individual, non‑cymbal element of the drum kit.

Overheads: I route the main overheads and any cymbal spot mics to this group. I tend to rely on overhead mics to retain the ‘lifelike’ quality of acoustic drums, and this bus will typically end up being the least heavily processed.

Rooms/Effects: To this group, I route room or ambience mics, as well as any quirky ‘effect’ mics. It can be tricky to gauge how influential this family of mics will end up being in a given mix, and in the early stages of a mix I find it helpful to be able to quickly adjust their overall level. Later in the mix, I often find this bus useful for troubleshooting (eg. when a particular cymbal appears too loud during a certain song section).

Close Calls

As I get the mix up and running and start to develop a clearer idea of how I want to work on shaping the sound of the kit, I’ll also create subgroups for the multi‑miked kit pieces. (Yes, you could include these in a project template if you wanted to, but I generally prefer to keep my template simple, with just my main groups, and then to flesh things out as I mix if the need arises.) Typically, this involves routing the multiple kick and snare mics to dedicated kick and snare groups, respectively, and I’ll put tom mics into their own group too. These subgroups are all routed to the main Close Mics group I described earlier.

This setup effectively gives each instrument (not just each mic) within the kit its own fader, and with this all set up I might start processing the close mics, perhaps gating the close kick and snare mics at the subgroup level, and using EQ to generally shape the sound; the actual decisions obviously depend on the style of the production. It’s not that I won’t process the mic channels such as the kick in and out mics individually, but usually I’ll have set the mics up at the recording stage to work together well, and too much processing can interfere with that relationship. Also I find it helpful to be able to shape the drum sound starting at the highest level possible (the drum bus), and then ‘drilling down’ when I need to get into more detail.

The close mics are sorted into individual kit‑piece groups for more focused mix processing.The close mics are sorted into individual kit‑piece groups for more focused mix processing.

Parallel Lines

What I’ve discussed above is about getting the basic sound together. But getting drums to work as you want for any given song typically also involves a period of creative experimentation before you find an angle or specific tool that brings the particular drum sound to life, or imparts the distinctive vibe you’re chasing. For this more experimental phase, I set up a few dedicated auxiliary channels for parallel processes (compression, saturation/distortion etc.) that can be blended in to taste to add excitement or interest. These tracks will all be routed directly to the main drum bus.

Although explosive parallel compression of the main drum bus (compressing the peaks very hard and blending this ‘wet’ sound in to taste with the uncompressed sound) can inject excitement into the drum sound, it often has unwanted side‑effects. For instance, it can make the cymbals sound too harsh, or overly ‘mucked around with’. To some extent you can EQ the compressor channel to mitigate that, but my routing setup allows me to use sends from the broad groups (Close Mic, Overheads and Room/Effects) to feed a different balance into the parallel compressor. Again, it’s about quick and effective control.

As the mix develops, aux channels, routed directly to the main stereo drum bus, can help you get creative with parallel processing, without having to do too much processing at the individual track level.As the mix develops, aux channels, routed directly to the main stereo drum bus, can help you get creative with parallel processing, without having to do too much processing at the individual track level.I don’t tend to use much parallel processing on the individual kit pieces, and I think that’s partly because by the time I’ve done what I want to shape the sound at the drum buses, main subgroup and these ‘vibe’ parallel tracks, there’s often very little need. But, importantly, if I wanted to add a track for, say, parallel saturation of the kick close mics, it would be very easy for me to incorporate that within this overall routing framework — it would be routed to the group bus for the relevant kit piece.

Let It Flow

What should you take away from all this? You don’t have to copy my approach, but I’d encourage you to think about the big idea — that you think through how you can retain the ability to quickly and easily shape and control the drums as a whole in the context of any song.

I recently heard someone describe audio signal flow as being like tributaries, with various sources combining before they eventually all feed into the same river. That analogy works well here: every component in my final drum sound, including send effects like reverb, ends up flowing through one stereo drum bus; if you mute that drum bus, no drums reach the stereo bus. If there’s just a little tonal issue bugging you about the drums (maybe they need a touch more presence, or a bit less low end) you can usually attend to that at the drum bus, and in a busy mix, if you decide you don’t want the drums (or room mics, or snare...) sitting at the same level throughout, you can change that quickly and easily. But you can also work your way ‘upstream’ to get into as much detail as you want — without losing control.  

Working With Samples?

Mixing drums can often be intimidating for newbie engineers, especially for genres and productions that generally require them to have a ‘larger than life’ quality, and it can be seductively easy to just reach for samples to get a gratifying drum sound. That can work. But I’d really like to encourage you to try and learn to get the most out of the ‘real’ drum recordings first, and if I’ve explained myself clearly here this setup will allow you to creatively feel your way around a group of microphone options — and can often produce surprisingly good results.

If you do end up augmenting the drums with samples (or whatever funky processing your favourite YouTube guru is demonstrating!) then incorporating them in this framework will help you to get them working much more seamlessly with the rest of the kit, as well as making those finer balance moves towards the end of your mix much easier to perform.