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7 Tips for Mixing Drums

by Nick Messitte, iZotope Contributor December 13, 2021

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We get a lot of questions about how to mix drums—and that’s understandable. Drums are a vital element in music. They get people moving and they provide a pulse that keeps songs alive. Well, hopefully they do. If they sound weak, the drums might do nothing more than cause disappointment and even death to your production. 

In this tutorial, I’ll be sharing mixing tips to get a full, clean drum mix in your production. You can try these tips to get a great percussive sound with a free trial of iZotope’s Music Production Suite Pro membership, which gives you access to a continually updated powerhouse of 46 intelligent assistive audio plug-ins including Neutron and the Visual Mixer, along with exclusive courses, tutorials, and royalty-free sound packs.

This article references a previous version of Neutron. Learn about Neutron 4 and its powerful features including Assistant View, Target Library, Unmask, and more by clicking here.

In this piece you’ll learn:

7 tips on mixing drums:

  1. Visualize your drums with panning
  2. Fast-track your submixes with Track Enhance
  3. Dial-in the details with Transient Shaper
  4. Create a powerful kick with Dynamic EQ
  5. Delineate drum tones from spill with a multiband gate
  6. Apply multiband compression on overheads
  7. Use series and parallel compression on a submix

Should you mix drums first?

Lots of engineers prefer to begin their mix with the drums—some starting with the granularity of the kick and building out from there. Others have different methods, including mixing with all the instruments all the time; getting the vocal first and placing it against bass, kick drum, and snare; and many more. 

Mixing is such a personalized art. There is no “one size fits all” answer to this, so I would not presume to prescribe. I can only tell you how I go about a mix with drums involved. 

I begin my mix by gain staging each track for my chain, both digital processes and hardware components. Once that’s finished, I assemble a kind of overall static mix. If the band, producer, or artist trusts me over their own inclinations—or if the music is acoustic and not heavily programmed—I put the static mix up to my preference. Often the producers have a rough mix that they love, and in this case, my static mix matches their rough with my gain staging and routing. 

When that is completed, I have a good idea of how the song feels and sounds already. I mute everything but the drums and the bass and I work from there. Sometimes the music beckons me to start mixing from the overheads first, back to the kick drum. Other times, I start with the bass and kick together. 

What effects should you put on drums?

It is standard to use some sort of atmosphere to enhance the drums’ space. Compression, transient shaping, and delay are also par for the course, as is EQ. Depending on the sound and the recording, gating may be necessary. 

Flanging, phasing, and other modulations don’t usually occur unless one has very specific motives—or unless one wants to enhance the reverberation/delay in a specific manner. 

Let’s move into techniques for mixing drums with iZotope’s Neutron Pro plug-in. None of these tips are time-consuming, but all can give you big sonic rewards. A word to the wise: these tips aren’t sequential, so feel free to bounce around when trying them.

1. Visualize your drum sound with panning

In most mixing consoles and DAWs, you use separate controls for the level and panning of each track. However, adjusting a track’s fader and pan simultaneously requires that you either have impressive coordination or that you set up automation envelopes for both parameters. Graciously, iZotope has changed the mixing game with the free Visual Mixer plug-in that is also available in Neutron.

Visual Mixer features a single control to simultaneously adjust level and panning, and offers this for multiple tracks in a single window! Applied to drum mixing, you can fiddle with eight controls in one place rather than having to mess with eight faders and eight pans across eight drum tracks.

Feast your eyes upon the next image, which shows the Visual Mixer window. It was inserted on an aux input track that all the drums are routed to. Instances of Neutron Pro were placed on each individual drum track, and thus, each instrument appears in the Visual Mixer window. You can also put Relay on each drum track. 

visual mixer neutron pro
In the Visual Mixer, panning is left to right and level is up and down (up is louder and down is quieter)

Start by listening to your overheads, with all the other tracks dragging the bottom (i.e., muted). A lot of the time, if you’re working with two mono overheads, you’ll start by pushing them all the way right and all the way left. Listen to the stereo image. Is your snare in the center? If not, here’s a tip on how to get it there: Try moving one of the overheads in to make the snare more centered. You’ll notice the kick will be off-centered then; don’t worry about that for now, the actual kick drum will fix that, or a high-shelf on the overheads—attenuating them—should help as well. 

Next, bring up your snare, your kick, your hat, your room mics, and your toms. Try to match the panning with the overheads. 

2. Fast-track your submixes with Track Enhance

Having a plethora of processors and parameters is fun and empowering, but it’s also dangerous. Something as minute as the wrong attack time on a compressor can impede your progress toward the right sound. One way to play it safe is to rely on Neutron’s Mix Assistant to steer you in the right direction. Put it on a drum submix, then let it configure various modules according to your current and desired drum sound.

In the example shown below, all drum tracks are routed to one stereo aux track, where Neutron is inserted. After I select Mix Assistant, then Track Enhance, the software presents a few key options: Instrument, Style, and Intensity.

Select Mix Assistant, then Track Enhance to get to a menu with several preset options
Select Mix Assistant, then Track Enhance to get to a menu with several preset options

Once those are set, Neutron will wait for you to play the track so it can analyze your audio and work its magic.

Neutron Track Enhance analyzing audio
Neutron's Track Enhance while analyzing your audio

After accepting the configuration, you have full access to each module and all parameters!

Neutron's intelligent Track Enhance results
Neutron's intelligent Track Enhance results

It’s also worth noting that Neutron has the Balance Assistant, which can help you secure optimal drum levels from the start. It won’t take care of panning, but it will help with getting good levels at the get go. Simply place Neutron or Relay on all your tracks, open up the Mix Assistant, and choose your lead instruments. Play the song, and let Mix Assistant work its magic.

3. Dial in the details with Transient Shaper

If your kick and snare don’t “hit hard” or your toms ring out too much, consider Neutron’s Transient Shaper to be a go-to secret weapon. It offers shockingly effective and simple manipulation of the attack and sustain properties and gifts you the bonus of a dry/wet mix control. Plus, its handy real-time scrolling waveform display shows both the original signal and the gain trace of its activity.

Observe these drums, paired with a bass. All instruments here are unprocessed, but level and pan balanced to a broadly acceptable margin. 

Unprocessed Drums and Bass

I want more definition in my kick. I also want more thwack on the snare, and I want to minimize some of that harshness on the crash cymbals when the drummer bangs the hell out of them. I can do all this with the Transient Shaper:

Neutron's Transient Shaper on the kick drum
Neutron's Transient Shaper on the kick drum
Neutron's Transient Shaper on the snare drum
Neutron's Transient Shaper on the snare drum
Neutron's Transient Shaper on overheads
Neutron's Transient Shaper on overheads

The results sound like this:

Drums and Bass with Transient Shaper

4. Create a powerful kick with Dynamic EQ

Have you ever wanted more kick when dealing with drum loops and stereo drum mixes? Just use a little EQ, right?

Sure, maybe. Although it makes sense to grab an EQ, there is a problem with traditional equalizers in this situation. Let’s say you use a standard EQ to boost 80 Hz by 4 dB on a drum loop. That 4 dB of gain applies throughout the duration of the loop, not just for the kick. So, everything in the drum loop will be tonally impacted by the EQ.

One solution is to use an EQ that can boost or cut in response to the kick. The Equalizer in Neutron can do that! It can operate as a Dynamic EQ, which allows you to apply a boost or cut triggered by the level and frequency zone that you specify.

In the image below, notice that band 1 of the EQ is in Dynamic Mode. It is configured for a 7.4 dB boost centered around 90 Hz, where the kick is most present in this particular track. Since the sidechain is set to the band 1 frequencies, the kick will trigger the EQ boost, but the hi-hat and snare will not.

Neutron Pro Dynamic EQ
Neutron Pro Dynamic EQ

5. Delineate drum tones from spill with a multiband gate

Even “perfectly-mic’ed” acoustic drums will not have perfect isolation from mic to mic. So, there will be some bleed from the snare, toms, and cymbals in the kick mic, bleed from the kick, toms, and cymbals in the snare mic, etc. Too much of this bleed turns into a real headache in the mixing process. 

The downsides of editing out the bleed from the recorded tracks are “choppy” sound and using too much of your limited time, not always what you need. Using gates is a classic solution that iZotope has modernized and made even better by utilizing Multiband functionality.

The image below shows Neutron’s Gate in a Multiband configuration optimized for a snare. As you can see, the bands have independent settings to allow for different gain control of the frequency zones. Those zones were set via the Learn function, which lets the plug-in choose appropriate crossover frequencies based upon the analyzed audio signal.

Neutron’s Gate in a multiband configuration optimized for a snare
Neutron’s Gate in a multiband configuration optimized for a snare

6. Apply multiband compression on overheads

Many drum recordings present a challenge for the mixer. How do you get a nice, even level from the overheads when there are drastic differences in loudness between drums such as kick and snare?

If you’re thinking of compression, you’ve nailed half of the equation! With Neutron’s Compressor, you can independently compress up to three different frequency zones with multiband compression, which offers more control over the lows for the kick, the mids for the snare, and the highs for the cymbals.

The following image shows the Compressor 1 module with all three bands active. The crossover points were set automatically by pressing “Learn,” then playing the track. How cool is that?

This particular setup helped provide a more balanced drum kit sound, even though the kick and cymbals were quiet in comparison to the snare in the original overheads.

Neutron's Compressor 1 module with all three bands active
Neutron's Compressor 1 module with all three bands active

Bonus tip: As I’ve mentioned in numerous articles before, there is compression for character and compression for dynamics taming. If you’re after transparent control of the dynamics, you’d do well to set the ratio, attack, and release to the same values, and adjust the individual thresholds accordingly. That way, the compressor will react similarly across the board—it’ll only be triggered by differing thresholds.

Observe these two different compressors to hear what I mean. One is set with individual time constants for each band, while the other is set with the same attack, release, and ratio values. 

Multiband Compression on Drums, Individual Time Constants

Multiband Compression on Drums, Shared Time Constants & Ratios

One sounds much smoother to my ear than the other.

7. Use series and parallel compression on a submix

Speaking of character compression and dynamics taming, Neutron lets you apply both to your drum bus at the same time, as it has two individual compression modules. 

Many engineers like to route the whole drum bus through a compressor configured with moderate settings to achieve dynamics control. For character, engineers often opt to use parallel processing, applying aggressive compression settings to a duplicate signal, and mixing that in with the dry, unprocessed signal. 

The image below shows the Compressor 1 module tweaked for mild compression. It has a low ratio, medium to slow attack and release, and low gain reduction. One more important setting—the mix slider is set to 100% wet to ensure that only the processed signal is passed along the chain.

Neutron's Compressor 1 module tweaked for mild compression
Neutron's Compressor 1 module tweaked for mild compression

The next image displays the setup of the Compressor 2 module, which is placed after Compressor 1. The second compressor is configured for intense compression; it has a high ratio, faster attack and release times, and more gain reduction. This sort of sound would be too extreme on its own, but thanks to the Mix slider, it can be blended in with the original (as shown in the image).

The second Compression module is configured for intense compression
The second Compression module is configured for intense compression

Start mixing drums

Not all tricks will work all the time. Try them and try them again; what works for one song may not work for another and what isn’t right for one track may be perfect for another. If you feel comfortable using Neutron for dialing in your drum sounds, try it on other instruments. 

Good luck in mixing your next project! I hope these tips have been helpful to give you a full and balanced percussion mix. And remember, you can try all of these concepts in your DAW with a free trial of iZotope’s Music Production Suite Pro membership.

Learn more about mixing

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