Every mix engineer loves a great drum mix! We want a drums that are big, punchy, and full of depth and movement, but all too often we find ourselves with something else….lifeless, dull, abrasive, muddy, or flat. But you know what’s even worse? Some of it might be our fault. But don’t worry, we can turn this mix around! Here are five common mix issues to watch out for when you’re mixing drums.
1. TOO MUCH CYMBALS IN THE MIX
This is a big one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked in to a service and band smashed in the face by all the cymbals. The issue usually stems from not being aware of how much stage volume there is. Cymbals are already REALLY loud. Whatever drummer was like “Hey I’ve got this awesome idea! I’m going to get this big piece of metal and hit it FOR THE ENTIRE SONG.” was clearly crazy; cause that junk is LOUD. Plus, they actually have a pretty wide frequency range. I’ve heard cymbals that go from around 200hz all the way up to 18khz, so they’re not just loud, they’re loud across almost the whole frequency spectrum.
So what’s the solution? It’s actually an easy one: listening in the room. Too often we get stuck behind the sound board and we never explore the sound in the rest of the room. Go walk around at least once per song while the band is practicing and listen to how the sound changes as you move through it. Once you can hear, you’ll know exactly how to fix the issue.
A couple typical fixes for me include:
- Using a low cut filter on overheads/hat (sometimes up to 500hz to get rid of the mud).
- Gating other drums to get rid of excessive cymbal bleed We want to hear good cymbal tones from the overheads, not trashy tones bleeding through a snare or tom mic.
- Asking the drummer to hit the cymbals less. A great drummer friend of mine once said “Hit the drums, pet the cymbals” and I think that’s great advice.
And the last tip…just turn them down! Sometimes I don’t even run overheads in the house because the cymbals are so loud on stage. Obviously that’s not ideal, but sometimes it’s what’s necessary to keep them from being overpowering.
2. TOO MUCH OF A BAD SNARE TONE
We just love that big, punchy snare tone don’t we? Especially in modern worship music, having a punchy snare tone is super important, but a lot of times we end up cranking the volume on a snare tying to get that punch, but what we actually end up with…is just a really loud snare that still isn’t very punchy, just loud.
So how do we get that punch? Compression. To keep it short and sweet, we want a compressor with a slower attack time and a faster release time so that the initial punch and pop of the snare get through, and then the compressor kicks in and helps round out the tail of the snare and keep everything in check. Some settings that I like are: 4:1 ratio, 25 ms attack, 120 ms release, 8 or 9 db of gain reduction.
To me, those settings usually get a super punchy tone. Obviously there are a lot of other factors, but use those settings to start with (and then listen carefully and make adjustments to suit your snare tone) and you’ll be on the right track!
3. BAD MIC PLACEMENT
This is another frequent mistake that’s easy to fix. If the microphones aren’t placed right, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to get a usable tone out of the drums.
For snare, I start with the mic about an inch high over the rim of the drum, pointed at a SLIGHT angle across the drum. As weird as it might sound, I tend to point the mic across the drum so that it sort of aims at the drummers crotch as he’s sitting on the throne. Sounds a little weird, but it totally works.
Tom mic placement actually gives you a lot of control over the tone you get by where you point the mic. Want more attack? Point the mic at the center. Need more sustain and ring? Position the mic closer to the rim. You’d be surprised how much of you tone comes from where you move the mic.
Kick is another one where moving the mic matters a lot. It’s usually preferable to have a hole cut in the resonant head of the kick drum so you can get the mic inside, then once you’re in, you can move it close to the beater (further in to the drum) for more click and attack, or further away from the beater for more boom and sustain. Experiment and see what works for you!
Overheads can be kind of tricky sometimes, but usually I try to get a complete sound of the whole drum kit (not just the cymbals) to fill in where the close mics might be lacking. To achieve this, I typically space the two overheads equally over the center of the kit. Honestly, most of the time I just kind of eyeball the distance and then use my ear. Typically I aim for about 5 feet in between the mics, so they cover the whole kit and still get enough separation.
Most importantly, use your ear! If you like the sound, then it’s good. If not, get back there and move some things around until it sounds more like what you want!
4. POOR TUNING
If a guitarist’s guitar was constantly out of tune, wouldn’t we ask him to fix the problem? Of course we would. But how often do we even think about drum tuning? For most of us, the answer is almost never.
Now, I realize that drum tuning isn’t really the sound guy’s responsibility, but pointing out where there’s an issue certainly is. Even if it’s just asking the drummer “Hey, when was the last time this kit was tuned” to get an idea of what your working with, it might lead to some improvements.
Here are some things to listen for that might indicate poorly tuned drums:
- Excessive ringing, especially in the snare
- Rattling/creaking sounds
- A “wobbling” sound when the drum is hit
- Toms that make the “dive bomb” sound
- Drums that sound like they’re so high pitched or low pitched that they don’t sound natural
Talk to your drummer about tuning this Sunday and see what his/her thoughs are!
5. PHASE ISSUES
The last issue is a more technical one. Phase issues occur on a drum set with multiple mics when the mics are positioned in such a way that the sound coming from a drum reaches the different mics at different times (because sound takes time to travel through the air to get to each mic) and the resulting sounds interfere with each other out when they’re mixed together.
Have you ever thrown a rock in to a still pond and seen the ripples? Imagine those are like sound waves. Now imagine you throw two rocks in to the pond: what happens when the ripples run in to each other? Usually, it’s a lot of choppy, turbulent waves. Well guess what? Sound waves interact the same way, and our version of the two rocks would be two microphones picking up sound at slightly different times.
Fortunately there is an easy way to check on this…using your ear! Nearly every sound board has a “phase” button on each channel. Technically what this does is it takes the signal coming in to the board and flips it 180 degrees upside down. The benefit of this is that it will reduce phase issues if there are any.
An easy drum to hear this on is a snare that has a top and a bottom mic on it. Hit the phase button on the bottom mic and listen to the change. If the two mics were out of phase before you pushed the phase button, you’ll hear a lot of bass frequencies come back to the sound that were being cancelled out before. On the flip side, if the two snare mics happened to already be in phase, when you hit the button your snare will instantly sound thin and papery due to the phase cancellation that happened when you flipped the phase button.
On some digital boards, you get various meters and tools to check the phase of all the incoming signals, but for the most part, I find my ear to be just as reliable. If I push the phase button and the bass frequencies sound better, I know the signal was off. If nothing happens or it sounds thinner/worse, I know it was good to begin with
I hope you’ve enjoyed these tips on getting a great drum mix! As always, feel free to contact us with any questions!
If you want to go even deeper in to drum mixing, make sure to check out our flagship live sound training course: Sound Guy Essentials! It’s packed with drum techniques plus over 6 hours of in-depth, step-by-step training. Click right here to check it out and start learning today!