9 Ways to Make Your Recorded Drum Tracks Sound Epic in a Mix
Recording great-sounding drums is only the first step of producing an epic drum track. The next challenge is making them fit in with the rest of your music. While mixing recorded drum tracks is one of the most enjoyable elements to mix in music, it’s also one of the most difficult. It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole when mixing drums, and one wrong turn can derail your entire production.
If you follow these nine tips, you will get your drums sounding epic in a mix, so you can be confident that your next song will make your listeners want to move, groove, and hit repeat.
1. Check Phase
When you begin mixing drums, the very first thing you should do is check the phase relationship between all the microphones.
When instruments are out of phase, they sound hollow and soft. This is highly prevalent with the kick and snare drums that use multiple microphones.
More inexperienced mix engineers will overlook the problem phase created and start looking to an EQ to fix the lost depth when sources are out-of-phase.
The checking of phase is easy, and most DAWs come with an EQ with a phase polarity button. It will be undeniable if something is out-of-phase when you click this button.
Test it in your next mix. Does the sound get fatter and more full, or does it sound more hollowed out? It isn’t subtle, and your ears will tell which is correct.
Remember, the first thing you should do to make your drum tracks sound epic is to make sure that the phase relationship between all microphones is rock solid.
2. Beat Detective
Beat Detective is an incredible feature in Avid’s Pro Tools that allows you to easily make thousands of slices, edits, and quantize drums to perfection.
Some audio purists will turn their nose up with any mention of making drums line up perfectly “on the grid.” Still, the truth is most professional recordings do this.
It doesn’t take away from the performance of a great drum recording; it simply makes a recorded drum track fit the pocket of the track.
Learning how to use Beat detective properly is an art form, and when done well, it makes drums sound epic and the drummer like a rockstar. The drums still breathe and have life, but with zero timing flaws.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many great alternatives to Beat Detective, and Pro Tools is pushing more towards a subscription model for pricing. So if this isn’t your main DAW, it can seem like an expensive monthly cost for drum editing software.
However, if you’re working with live drum recordings often, it’s a must-have for Beat Detective alone.
Another production trick that will make your recorded drum tracks sound epic is layering sampled drums underneath the recorded drums.
The significant benefit of doing this is that it gives your drums consistency in the hits without compression while adding missing tones without adding EQ. Using samples well makes your drums instantly pop out of the speakers.
However, you need to be very careful when layering samples. If done incorrectly, it can actually make your drums sound worse.
If the transients (initial hit) don’t line up perfectly, you will get phasing and flams that make your tracks sound amateur.
Also, if you mix the triggers too loud in your mix, your drums will sound unnatural and lose a lot of the tracks’ original vibrancy and bounce.
Layering is also a great way to add depth and punch to less-than-perfect drum recordings. As long as the overheads and rooms were recorded decently, you can layer samples under the close mics to make them sound more full and punchy.
Using samples for making epic-sounding drum tracks might sound like cheating. Still, this technique is used by professional engineers and producers repeatedly.
4. Understanding the Genre
Not all drums are meant to be upfront in the mix and punching you in the face. Sometimes the most epic drum tracks are the ones that lay back in a mix.
Understanding the genre you work in is critical to correctly approaching the processing of your drum tracks and how it interacts with the other instruments.
In some cases, like dance music, the kick and snare need to be front and center. However, folk music might have the drums more tucked into the other sounds.
It’s essential to understand the conventions of different genres to make the appropriate decisions for making the drums sound epic for that track.
5. Proper Use of Volume
Volume is the first step towas balrdancing your drum tracks within a mix.
Volume pushes sounds forward and back in the stereo field. The louder a sound is, the more forward it will sound. The quieter, the further back.
Because drums occupy the entire frequency range (they take up tons of space), balancing with volume becomes more crucial.
A mistake that beginner mixers make is thinking that everything should be loud.
They fail to recognize how human ears naturally pick up sounds. Brighter sounds, like cymbals, are more “sharp” and need less volume to be heard in a mix.
By pushing some aspects of the drums backward in the mix with volume, you will free up the “space that’s in your face.” This gives other instruments like vocals to occupy the front of the mix without fighting elements of the drums.
This use of volume to balance drums will make your drum tracks fit into the mix better and make your drum tracks sound more epic.
6. Using Compression Wisely
Drums are incredibly dynamic instruments, and while a great studio drummer should give you dynamically consistent performances, they are still human. They will perform with slight deviations in the velocity of their hits.
If left untreated with compression, this variation in volume will make the drums shift forward and backward in the stereo field, creating a sense of chaos in the mix.
Using light/transparent compression will apply enough reduction to the sound to keep the tracks in the sonic space you placed them in with volume.
You can also use compression to manipulate the movement of the drums to give them more groove.
This is down with the attack and release controls of your compressor. A faster attack will clamp down on the transient (the loudest part of the hit). This quick attack time will make that transient quieter, which pushes the drum sound further back in the mix. This can also make a sound smaller and more “squashed” sounding, which takes up less sonic space.
Conversely, a slower attack time will allow the initial attack to come through. This can be a great trick to make the drum sound poke out, but keeping the body and sustain of the sound locked into place in the “front to back” space you placed it.
Understanding how to use compressors for more than volume control is a great way to make your drum tracks sound epic!
7. The Right Use of EQ
You must understand how to properly EQ drums to make them sound more epic. If you think about EQ as height in a mix, it will make it easier to make the right decisions when processing your recorded drum tracks.
When we think of how EQ can shift a sound either up or down, this gives increased flexibility in manipulating the drums to sit naturally within the mix.
- High-Frequencies = Top of Speakers
- Mid-Frequencies = Middle of Speaker
- Low-Frequencies = Bottom of Speakers
For example, let’s say you have used volume and compression to have the crash cymbals tucked back into the mix, but now they are buried behind the lead vocal.
You might be tempted to try and make the cymbals louder so they are better heard. However, you really need to raise the upper frequencies with an EQ to make them move upwards in the sonic landscape.
This works with low-end frequencies as well. The low-end can be problematic because low frequencies occupy a lot of space. So a kick drum and bass guitar can often fight each other.
You can make a kick drum sit lower in a mix by boosting lower frequencies (anything below 100hz) to allow space for the bass.
You can use a range of other EQ tricks to make your drum tracks sound more epic within a mix. Remember, you must understand the reasons behind every EQ move to take your drum tracks from good to great.
8. Tasteful Reverb
Reverb is an essential tool that creates subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) depth and width within a mix.
When used correctly, it can make for very epic-sounding drum tracks.
Reverb gives sounds a sense of space that helps the listener sense depth in the stereo field. This is highly effective for snares, cymbals, and auxiliary percussion. A well-used reverb can make a sound extend into the background.
However, if you aren’t careful, reverb can really mess up your drum tracks and mix.
For example, Lower frequency instruments, like a kick drum, should use reverb sparingly, if at all. Because low frequencies take up so much sonic real estate, adding reverb will create a soupy mess. You will lose definition in your drums and surrounding instruments, making a less than epic-sounding track.
There are many ways to use reverb to enhance drum tracks. It’s very much like seasoning in cooking. Add too little, and your song will sound bland and dry. Add too much, and your piece will become a blown-out mess.
If you want to listen to the masterful use of reverb on drums, listen to Celine Dion’s classic “My Heart Will Go On.” Seriously, do it now…and try not to cry 🙂
9. Sizzily Saturation
Saturation is distortion. In the analog days of recording, you would get natural saturation from various gear. Some of the most famous saturation types would be created by tape machines, tube circuitry, and transformers.
Adding saturation to your drums will beef them up, increase the perceived loudness, and tame harshness.
When you add saturation to a sound, you will often “round off” transients making them less pronounced and fuzzy sounding. This can be particularly helpful for harsh sounds like cymbals and bright snares.
There’s also a gluing effect that saturation has on a group of instruments. If you run all your drums through a saturation unit, you will bring sonic cohesion to each drum track, making them sound more epic.
Saturation also has the effect of making something sound louder without losing headroom. This means you can get fatter, louder drums without upsetting your mastering engineer.
Saturation can be easily overdone, and if you aren’t careful, you will create a distorted and smeary mess. However, add just the right amount, and you will get a drum track that glows and sizzles out of the speakers.
Making a drum track sound epic is not always as easy as it may seem. It takes a lot of skill to make the drums fit seamlessly with other elements in your recording while sounding like a cohesive kit.
If you keep these tips in mind while mixing your next record, you’ll be on your way to creating a song with epic-sounding drums!
However, If you feel stuck and need help with your track, finding a great mix engineer is the best option to get your track across the finish line. Supreme Tracks has a network of vetted sound mixing and mastering engineers ready to take on your project.
Contact us today to get connected!