I love mixing drums. Well, I love it and I hate it, but when the drums turn out well it’s a great feeling. One thing I’m always trying get just right is the amount of punch and smack that the drums have. You usually want the kick and snare to jump out of the speakers a bit so you can feel them, not just hear them. But no matter how well you think you’ve mixed your drums there is a test worth putting them through to make sure you’re on the right track.
Via Kryrre Gjerstad Flickr
Turn Down The Volume
Hopefully you are aware that mixing at loud volumes is a bad idea. In fact, mixing at lower volumes will almost always get you a better mix. But this is especially true when it comes to mixing drums. With the speakers nice and loud, even a monkey could make drums sound awesome. The lows and highs get hyped and you “feel” the drums pounding. It’s an illusion.
If you turn your speakers down quite a ways, your drums will start to sound small and pathetic. Now we’re getting somewhere! This is the first part of the test, realizing that what your drums sound like at quiet volumes is a better indicator of their impact. If they sound weak and not punchy, it’s time to get to work.
The Key To Drum Compression
You see the key to making drums punchy is compression. And the key to knowing if your compression settings are working or not is to compress your drum tracks at super low volumes. The goal is to experiment with your compressors until the kick, snare, and toms are cutting through and slamming nice and hard …at low volumes.
Once you’re getting that smack that is satisfying to your audio soul you know the compression settings are right and you can turn things back up a bit for the remainder of the mix. If the drums still sound weak however, then you’re not done compressing. Maybe you need a higher ratio, or a lower threshold, or different attack and release settings to get that smack. Do whatever it takes at super low volumes until it sounds smacking.
As you progress in your mix it’s always a good idea to do a simple reverse listening check. What’s that you ask? Simply turn your speakers all the down to silence. Then gradually turn them back up (slowly now) and make note of what parts of the mix you hear first. Is it the guitars? The vocals? The snare drum?
Ideally you’ll want to hear the lead vocal and the kick and snare as the first few tracks audible. This will give you a good indicator of them being mixed well (out front and with clarity/punch). Now this is a blanket statement, but it holds true in most genres. Try it yourself, see what you discover. These low volume tests can be super helpful in discovering what your mix is really doing.