How to Mix Metal Sessions
Learn how to mix metal music, with tips on how to get your drums to cut through, your bass to growl, and your guitars to sit well in the mix.
Metal and hard rock music have a challenge that other genres of popular music don’t have: a battle for the midrange. With distorted bass, chugging guitars, higher-pitched drumwork, and screaming vocals—it can be a minefield for a mix engineer.
Do you have problems getting your guitars to sit well in the mix, when the drums and bass both need to cut through? Read on to learn how to mix metal music—in fact, we’ll give you some good tips to test your mettle!
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1. Reference your particular sub genre
When I started mixing, Tool was considered a metal band. I bet I’d get laughed out of the room by serious metal afficianadoes if I called them a metal band today. Metal, like any other genre, changes. Black Sabbath does not sound like Trivium.
If you’re reading this article, you probably have a metal track in your clutches and a sound you’re going for in your head. The first move should be to locate comparable, commercial metal productions, and to use them as reference tracks.
For instance, take the song “Army of Cops” by Pig Destoyer. If I wanted to attempt a mix of this tune, I’d look for similar songs to serve as my reference tracks, putting them in my session to cross-check from time to time.
With your references set, you can move on to the next bits of business.
2. Redefine what you think of kick, bass, and guitar
If you’re coming to metal from another genre, you’re going to have to redefine how you comprehend instruments to function in the mix, because your kick, bass, and drums frequently behave differently from how they would in other genres.
That big fat kick drum you know and love in pop productions? It’s out of place in a lot of metal. Instead, the kick behaves more like a bullet, with a sudden, high-midrange, clicky impact.
That round and meaty bass? Again, might be out of place, thanks to the guitars. Frequently the bass is holding down the growl, while the guitars are actually holding down the low end—and doing so in stereo!
These are broad generalizations, of course. Not all metal is going to conform to this classification. As veteran metal engineer Joe Barresi told iZotope a few years ago, “I think it’s really up to the song to dictate the part, and then the sound of the part.”
3. Get the transients of your drum shells to cut through
Listen to a lot of metal these days, and you’ll notice the immediacy and clarity of drum-shell transients. Kick, snare, and toms often punctuate modern metal productions without disturbing the bass and guitars.
Getting your drum shells to cut is a mixture of balance, EQ, compression (often in parallel), and fancy transient reinforcement.
Consider this mix static mix, in its rough state.
There is no EQ on this mix—just volume and panning, as well as some gating on the snare and toms. Just the usual beginning moves.
We want the drums to shine through, specifically the kick and snare—so check out what I’m going to do here using
4. Use parallel compression chains for punch and glue
Because the midrange is so packed, and because each instrument needs to be its own little powerhouse, parallel compression chains are key for establishing punch and glue. Take it again from veteran mix engineer Joe Barresi, who spoke to iZotope about how to mix metal a few years ago:
“I use a lot of compression in parallel, some specifically tailored to each drum—i.e. a separate kick parallel comp, separate snare, and an overall drum stereo parallel comp for punch and glue,” he said.
This is not so much for overall dynamics control, because, as he put it, “riding faders is a better use of ‘human’ compression, unless one is using the compressor for sound character and not level riding.”
Compression here is for reinforcement and distinguishing characteristics.
Take our mix again, and see what happens when I add two parallel chains—one to the kick, and another to the snare.
As you can see and hear, these moves do a lot to add more heft to drum shells without upsetting the balances too much.
5. Think of sample-augmentation like EQ and compression—not like replacement
You’re going to hear a lot of sample replacement in modern metal. Some of it will sound good, some of it will sound terrible and obvious. In fact, obvious sample replacement is so prevalent that it’s become a genre indicator.
The real pros know that samples should be used as enhancement. As Joe Barresi told iZotope, “I use a combination of samples—some recorded by me, some available commercially. I try to not replace the original sounds at all—just using samples for some consistency and presence. Some band’s tracks don’t need samples and some do. It depends on what the drums are competing with. Remember, there’s only a finite area for all the elements to fit in the stereo mix.”
Take our example mix again. After some parallel help in the drums, we got it to this:
Before Sample Augmentation
But the snare and kick aren’t really competing with my references, based on the quality of the recording I’ve gotten. I can use EQ and compression on these drums to get part-way there. But from experience, I know it’s only ever going to be part way. This is due to how it was recorded: the snare will always sound like a version of how it was recorded, and the kick was a trigger to begin with, most likely from a v-drum pad.
Beyond a certain point, the more I use EQ and compression, the worse it wil sound. Better to get closer with the right samples quickly, like so:
After Sample Augmentation
It doesn’t sound drastically different, right? There’s just more punch and body now. Would you believe that the samples I chose are samples I use all the time? Well, they are.
While matching the original drums is always part of the equation, I base my sample selection on what is lacking more than anything else. It’s about adding to what’s there, not replacing it.
6. If you’re using drum samples, make sure to tune them to the existing material
Again, we turn to Joe, who likes “to make sure the samples, if used, are tuned to the song. Using tuning to raise or lower the sample’s pitch to fit in the track is very important.”
Here, we’re going to look at a part of this song that features toms:
We’re in trouble here. The drums don’t really cohere. Why? Well, let’s look at all our stereo overheads and room mics in solo:
Overheads and Room Mics in Solo
We have a decent picture of our rack tom, but the floor tom feels almost like it’s behind the kit! We have a depth problem in the original recording, and we are going to turn to sample augmentation to fix it.
Because we’re dealing with toms here—which have easily identifiable pitches, like timpani—we have to tune these toms to fit the piece. We also have to be cognizant of phase. If we are, we can get it to a place like this:
However, in order to get our sampled toms to match perfectly, we have to do a lot of gating trickery before we trigger our samples. This is what my tom channels sounded like before I put the triggers on them:
These sound terribly unnatural and a bit distorted. But that doesn’t matter: this kind of processing preps the parts to trigger the samples more cleanly.
7. Get that bass growling
A lot of the time, detuned guitars will handle much of the low end. The bass also needs to center the low end, but we frequently need the bass to growl through the mix, to add centered presence.
One of the best ways to get a bass part to growl is with saturation, often in parallel. There’s a couple of ways to do this that work for me.
One is by utilizing straight-up distortion, such as the kind found in Neutron. The other is through amp simulations, found in Trash 2 and in Native Instruments’ GUITAR RIG.
Let’s take a look at two different approaches for midrange growl.
Here’s how Neutron 4 could work:
Note how in this video, I’m also fiddling with the gains, trims, and fader for various elements to make sure we maintain a good balance.
Here’s how it could work with amp simulations:
8. You don’t have to do much to guitars
Beginner engineers love to throw processing at a sound source regardless of its raw state. This approach can be problematic, especially when it comes to guitars.
So here’s a secret you’re not gonna like hearing: provided the guitar was recorded well, you don’t have to do much to metal guitars to get them to work in the mix! EQ and panning are usually all you need, as evidenced by the following example:
All I did was EQ guitars in context, and it’s pretty much all we need—at least for right now. The EQ settings, particularly in the midrange, contrast and complement each other. Why is this the case? Two reasons, one specific to electric guitars, the other to guitar players.
Because of how electric guitars are amplified, distorted axes really don’t need a lot of compression—the distortion is already reducing the dynamic range!
If you want the sound of an 1176 on your guitars, by all means have at it. Analog-style compressors are tonal agents as much as anything else. But the dynamics-processing has already been handled by virtue of how amp saturation works.
Now on to guitar players: they are very particular about their tone. Most guitar players I know have driven their gigantic cabinets to the studio, supplied their own pedal chains, and breathed over the recording engineer’s shoulder to make sure their guitars sound exactly like they should. They are fastidious about tone.
This means we don’t have to do much here to get the basic hard-left/hard-right hallmark of metal guitar mixing to work.
The only caveat is if you’re working with DI’d guitars and amp simulations. Here you will have to do a lot of processing to make the guitars sound real. The key, with amp sims, is to select the exact right one for the song, and to pay critical attention to the 1 to 4.5 kHz register; this is often where the amp sim falls apart, even in the best of circumstances.
One last thing to keep in mind: don’t fall back on stereo wideners to widen hard-panned left/right guitars! Oftentimes, pushing the stereo width with some kind of fancy M/S operation can have the opposite effect that you want! You might very well introduce crossfeed from the left to right and vice versa. Trust me on this!
9. Mixing metal is all about the midrange
Many mixing and mastering engineers will extol the virtues of the midrange, but in metal, the midrange is perhaps even more critical. So many of the important hallmarks in the genre take place there.
The clicky kicks? Midrange. The growling bass? Midrange. All the expansiveness of a distorted guitar’s realistic sound? Yep, midrange.
So keep an eye on this midrange as best you can. A good tool for this in the iZotope universe is
Tonal Balance Control 2
I decreased the Q of the alt-solo function to cover more of the midrange in one click. When I solo the midrange, I can hear all of my instruments doing exactly what they need to do. No instrument disappears. Make sure your mix cuts operate similarly in the midrange!
10. Watch out for harsh sounds when mixing metal
In trying to get a punchy sound—with all your midrange elements in place and the drums cutting through—you are likely to run up against harshness, particularly in the hats and cymbals. How do you identify if your metal mix is sounding harsh?
References are of great use here: listening to a similar mix in a similar sub-genre at level-matched volumes will tell you a lot about whether you’ve incurred undue harshness in a particular area. If you have, your tools are the same as they are in any other genre: careful EQ in the upper mids, automation of EQ in the upper mids, dynamic EQ, multiband compression, or even the Spectral Shaper module in
Just don’t go overboard, or it will sound like a mess.
From here on out, a metal mix is just a like any other mix
Once you have these concepts in mind, getting your metal mix over the finish line isn’t different from any other mix: you do what you have to do in order to get the mix to sound like what’s in your head—and to get it to compete with the references. Indeed, I did nothing special to get from where we left this tune to where we got it to:
Unmixed vs. Mixed Metal Track
For instance, you’ll notice I didn’t cover any vocal mixing techniques here. How can I, when metal hosts so many different kinds of vocals, from all-out-screaming to operatic melodies? All I can tell you is to treat it like any other mix from this point. And if for you, that process involves reading more on the subject, check out these articles on metal production, songwriting and metal mastering.
And if you haven't already, get a professional-sounding metal mix with your copy of Music Production Suite 5 Universal Edition.