Ever wondered how producers mix their drums to give that crispy sound?
The kind that make you nod your head without noticing & cut through the mix so smoothly? We did too and we listened for hours, watched thousands of tutorials & still didn’t sound good until we learned the secret. In this article, we’re going to share with you the key that unlocks everything.
How To Mix Drums (The Secret) ?
Now this is a fairly advanced tutorial, so if you’re new to production, we suggest checking out some of our basics first. But if you wanna stick around, we’ve made it as easy as possible for you to get the result you’re desiring. Let’s go.
We’re going to be running through this tutorial in Ableton Live, but it’s applicable to any DAW.
Here’s what we’re starting with:
Here’s what we’ll end up with:
Notice how much clearer and more impactful the 2nd is?
The Importance of Good Drums
Drums are probably one of the most important ingredients of a good track and their rhythms are infectious. Without good drums it’s like you’re trying to bake a cake with no sugar. It might come out looking ok, but when you bite into it, you don’t get that same feeling of satisfaction. That sugar rush that sends your brain nothing but signals of pleasure.
Drums are often the absolute core of making a floor filling tune. And, if they don’t carry the weight or punch needed… you’ll see it
Even worse – you’ll feel it.
There’s absolutely nothing more disappointing than playing a track you’ve worked for hours on to a crowd and not getting that response you wanted. Trust me, we’ve done it.
But it’s true.
How you mix your drums is essential to getting that floor-filling response you need and want for your tune to become infectious. Once we understood the value of good drum mixing, our music changed forever.
So how do we mix our drums to cut through our mixes as smooth as butter? We’re going to break this down into 4 simple steps, starting with.
*drum roll please*
Tuning Your Drums
This is the most important section of this guide!
Making sure that your drums are in key with your track is one of the big things people miss when mixing drums in Ableton live (or other DAWs). It’s especially true when you’re mixing kick drums.
In electronic music, Trap & even some Hip Hop you really want your kick drum to sing in harmony with your bass & melody.
It’s a kind of glue that holds everything together.
So how do we do it?
Finding The Right Note
The easiest way you can do this is by finding the key of your track first.
If you don’t know how to find out the key, there’s an awesome application called Mixed In Key that will help you with this.
And if you still can’t work it out:
Then you can brush up on some of your theory knowledge, with our basic music theory guides.
We’ll be using Bb major in this guide as that’s what key our bass is in. The secret to tuning your drums is tuning them to the, root note of your scale (Bb) or, the 3rd (D) or 5th (F) note in your scale.
We’ve found that usually the 3rd and 5th note work best harmonically.
Finding Your Current Note
With the knowledge that the 3rd & 5th note sound the best harmonically, let’s find the current note values of each individual drum sound. We recommend using a frequency analyser plugin to do this.
The one we’re going to be using is called Span & it’s free!
To find the current note of your drums, you’ll need to look for the highest peak in the spectrum.
Then you’ll need to use the crosshairs & hover over that peak. Whatever the value of your note here, is the current note of your drum sound.
Changing The Pitch
So we know that the current note value of our drum is C. How can we change the pitch of that?
All we’re going to do is use a pitch shifter.
Luckily there’s one in Ableton’s built in sample editor (if you don’t have this just use a plugin).
We want to transpose the note here using semi-tones. Because we already know we’re in Bb major, we know that the 3rd note is D. That means we can pitch our kick up 2 semi-tones and it will be on the 3rd note in our scale.
Amazing! We’ve now got a kick that’s singing perfectly with our bass!
When tuning your drums, you want to choose the note in your scale that is closest to the current note of your drum. So in this instance we have chosen E, because we don’t want the Kick to loose it’s bass frequencies.
Once you’ve done this with your Kick, all you need to do is rinse and repeat it with all your other drums.
EQ is next on our list of priorities when mixing drums. This is where you sculpt your sounds so they can sit in the pockets of space you’ve left.
How you use EQ to mix your drums can make a huge difference and you really want to be focussing on where you want each element to cut through.
Btw we’ll be using Fab Filter Pro Q3 and we recommend it highly! It’s definitely the best EQ out there!
It’s also important to decide here where you want your kick and bass to sit.
If you want your kick to bring the bass, then you need to make adjustments to your bass so they don’t clash and vice versa.
For example: If you cut your kick at 30 – 40hz, you want to make sure your bass is cut at 50 – 70hz.
This means that whatever you cut, the other is replacing and therefore they prevent any unwanted muddiness in the low end.
You wouldn’t usually see EQ as extreme as what we have done here. This is just the particular style we were going for.
To help you decide where your EQ needs to go, we’ve made you a drum mixing EQ cheat sheet! Follow this as a guideline to mix each element of your drums!
It’s always best to use your ears and determine what you want your drums to sound like before using EQ. Save this image so you’ve got it somewhere and use it as a guide when mixing drums.
For this section, you want to start putting your drums into groups. There are loads of different ways you can group your drums, but we find this the best:
- Kicks separate.
- Snares together.
- Hats together.
- Percs together.
After grouping your drums in the desired format, you want to group all of the groups you just made.
By doing this it allows you to add glue compression to your individual sounds. Then compression to the entire kit after you’ve balanced your levels right. It also allows you to go in and change the volume of the elements together.
So once you have a balanced sound with all of your snares for instance, you can keep that exactly where it is while changing the whole volume.
We tend to leave the kick separate to side-chain with other sounds such as the bass, and hats etc.
Now we’ve got our sounds EQ’d and grouped, it’s time to add that glue we were on about earlier. You’ll want to add compression to the individual groups we made & also the entire group.
Adding Individual Compression
Remember those groups of snares you made? You’re going to want to add some glue compression to those. You can use Ableton’s stock compressor, or you can grab any other compression plugin to help you do this.
This allows the sound to act as if it is one snare by squashing the signals together. It also thickens the sound up and can add distortion. Notice we’ve got the soft clip option selected in our compressor.
We’ve used this feature to clip the snare sound and make it much more heavy, without it clipping.
What soft clipping does is it allows you to distort your sound and, when that sound clips, it rounds the waveform off rather than cutting it off. Therefore we’re left with a nice warm distortion sound on our drum mix.
Adding soft clipping & glue compression to your kick will really beef it up! Take a listen to the difference in the drums with it off and on.
Adding Group Compression
So you’ve got your kick and snare sounding beefy. What next?
Let’s group all the drums and add some glue.
When mixing your drums the elements can become disconnected sometimes.
Most of the time you can’t just fix that by changing the levels!! To really get our kit sounding like one element and add that extra sauce, we want to compress the whole thing together.
You don’t want to go too crazy with this compression.
IT NEEDS TO BE LIGHT.
We’d recommend using a 2:1 ratio and going easy on the threshold.
Parallel compression is really important to getting that punchy, crunchy sound in your drums. You’re probably thinking: ‘what’s parallel compression?’.
So let us explain…
Parallel compression is when you have two channels set up side by side (parallel to each other). On one of the channels you have the drums as you’ve already got them (the dry signal).
And, on the other you’re going to add some extreme compression. We want to ideally set this up in an audio effect chain in Ableton Live.
If you’re not using Ableton Live to mix your drums, then you can simply send the drum signal to a bus.
Once you’ve done this, you then mix in the original sound with the heavily compressed sound. This adds an underlying grit or punch that gives your drums that extra edge and thickens our sound.
You want to be really heavy on the compression with this. The idea is to squish the sound as much as possible to get that boxy punch we want in our drums.
Now all you’ve gotta do is blend it a little like the bad boi selecta you are.
Re e wind when the crowd say bo, selectaaa! (gotta love a bit of Craig David)
Around about now you should have some pretty groovin drums. If you don’t, try to re-visit your track and see what’s clashing with them.
That’s it for now!
We’ll be doing more in depth teachings on subjects like this soon as part of a course. As always if you want to check out more of our stuff, have a little browse through the page.
- The Best Audio Plugin Deals on The Internet (updated every week)
- The One Stop Guide To Playing Every Scale on The Piano
- The Essential Guide To Writing Better & More Memorable Melodies
And so much more on the way!
Also while we’ve got you – give us some over on instagram.
Love you long time.
With over 8 years of hands-on experience in the music industry, Harry has run successful raves, played alongside industry heavyweights such as Max Chapman, DJ EZ, DJ Zinc and more (pictured below), had music played on national radio, DJ’d on live radio, produced until he hated every song, mixed until his ears bled, created sample packs from scratch using just a Zoom H1n and some sound design skills… and pretty much anything related to music production – he’s done it, tested it, tried it.