The right compressor settings give you endless power to shape the sound and groove of a multi‑miked drum recording.
Have you ever entered the final stages of a mix and wondered just how you managed to use quite so many plug‑ins to get things sounding ‘right’? Did you really need 12 plug‑ins on that snare? Were you really in control of where the sound was going, or just chasing your tail? Most listeners won’t care, of course — the track will either sound good to them or it won’t. But if you’re to deliver good mixes consistently you should care, so, on noticing this trend a few years ago, my response was to take a fresh look at how I was approaching using my basic tools during the early stages of a mix.
In this article, I’m going take you through one aspect of mixing that’s a great example of how simplifying your approach can ensure you get your mixes off to a great start: compressing acoustic drums. I’ll deliberately focus my advice on getting the best results using regular, single‑band compression. By this, I mean I won’t explore things like parallel or multiband compression here, and certainly not the sort of ‘secret tricks’ you might encounter online (see the ‘Online Tips’ box for some musings on that theme!). Such techniques can have a place in modern mixes, but in my experience they tend to work better if you’ve already laid solid foundations.
Before we get stuck in, though, there are a few points that I’d like you to bear in mind. Compressors are one of the most powerful and versatile tools available to an engineer, and if you’re to use them in a productive way it’s obviously important to know something about what their various controls do. If you need a good primer on that side of things, I recommend that you check out Sam Inglis’ SOS November 2021 article: 'Compression: What Do All Those Knobs Do?'
I’m going to assume, though, that you have your head around that stuff already, and will focus my advice on developing a feel for the ‘where, what and why’ of compression — because that’s at least as important as understanding how to operate a compressor!
So why do we compress? If put on the spot and asked for an explanation, most of us would probably suggest that the aim is to reduce the dynamic range of a signal, making the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of the signal less. Some might simply say we compress to ‘make it louder’ or ‘thicker’. A compressor can, of course, be used for those reasons, but it can be used to achieve far more than that too. With that in mind, I’ll take you through some examples of using compressors to achieve different things with the drums in some of my recent mixes.
When you’re lucky enough to work with a really good drummer, by which I mean someone who can hit the drums in a controlled and consistent way, the playing dynamics should already be on point. But away from the world of A‑list mix engineers and session musicians, you’ll find that not every drummer is up to that standard! Many of us, then, will often reach for a compressor to ‘even out’ the performance. The aim is to create the impression/illusion of a more consistent performance, and a mix I worked on recently provides a good example...
Happily, the drummer was decent enough to play coherent, nicely thought‑out drum parts and to keep time well, but they seemed to have less control over their playing dynamics; some hits were too loud, some too quiet. The aim in such a scenario is to reduce the dynamic range of the performance, and typically to do this you need to lean on faster attack times and higher ratios. This way, louder hits are reduced as they rise above a compressor’s threshold but the gain reduction backs off to leave the drums’ sustain alone. In this case, I started with a 5:1 ratio, a fast attack (which I fine‑tuned by ear so the part didn’t sound overly squashed) and a medium release. With the threshold set to give up to 4‑5 dB of gain reduction, the snare drum felt more consistent.
There are pros and cons to this approach, though. It works well when used fairly lightly like this, but when the amount of gain reduction increases past a certain point it starts to introduce unpleasant side‑effects, such as overly squashing any cymbal bleed on the snare mic. There will always be trade‑offs — there’s no magic bullet in this scenario — but if you need to take the gain reduction further, a good strategy can be to layer smaller amounts of this sort of compression, applying it at multiple points in the drum mix’s...