Drums. Every engineer’s favorite topic. And for some reason the snare drum in particular has always been the gold standard by which mixes are judged. And this is a phenomenon I will never for the life of me understand. I’ve tried to, but as a mix engineer who spends many hour of every day mixing records and balancing often 70 plus tracks only to have such a delicate juggling act reduced to, “wow, great snare sound” escapes my capacity of understanding. Mixing is hours upon hours of hundreds of subtle changes, shaping and molding an amazing amount of moving parts into a single form whose sum is exponentially greater than the whole of its parts. This is not meant to downplay the importance of any one instrument, but if mix engineers were to focus on a single instrument, it without question should be the vocal. Back to drums. I love drums and I love mixing drums. I think of drums as the motor of a mix. And for a motor to function at its peak, all of the parts must fit together precisely and be well lubed. What good is a shit-hot frame, body and paint job if it’s sitting in a showroom? I try to mix drums as a kit, not as individual sounds. This was learned the very hard way. I spent years getting the “perfect” kick sound and the “perfect” snare sound only to put them together and have one big mess on my hands. I like to treat the all of the parts as one to avoid these sloppy, disjointed motors. When assembling the motor, I go one step further and add the bass to it. It turns a small block 350 into a big block 427. I do this because I consider the kick and the bass to be a single instrument. Once the parts are fit together, it time to lube ‘em up. Compression is one way to keep it running smooth. I tend to (not always) use a touch of individual compression on the separate drums as well as a slight overall compression on the whole kit, which has been bussed to it’ owns auxiliary. A touch of verb, be it a room preset on the whole kit or some plate on the snare for ambience also “smooth’s” out a kit. So in conclusion, build your motor solidly, keep it well oiled and never again reduce someone’s hard worked mix to “wow, great snare sound,” appreciate the whole record.
As a beginning mix engineer, I found a few records that I loved the way they sounded. Some of them being Earth Wind and Fire’s “All n All”, Donald Fagens “The Nightfly” and Peter Gabriels “So”. You should try to find a record that you really love and use it as a reference when mixing. Don’t try to copy every part of I, because that is an impossible task. There are literally thousands of decisions that go into the sound of a mix, including all of the thousands of decisions that went into the recording process. Choice of mic, mic placement, mic pre, compression, eq, room, etc… on often 40-70 instruments adds up to a lot of decisions during the recording process. And an equal amount of decisions go into the mixing process. So to try to replicate what a mixing engineer has done to arrive at a mix is difficult if not impossible. I am suggesting using a song or a record as a reference of the overall balance, sound or mood. Also, it’s important to develop your own style. Pick your record and close your eyes and listen. Listen to a lot of records. Listen to the relationship between the rhythm track and the vocals. Figure out which of the harmonic instruments (keys, guitars etc…) are more “up front” and which are tucked in/back. These relationships are important because they create dimension. Borrow different sounds or uses or reverb that create these dimensions in your mixes. And don’t be too concerned about genre. It’s actually incredibly useful to be able to cross reference instruments across genre lines. I can’t stress the importance of listening to as many records as you can from as many genres as you can handle. (There are some genres I can’t listen to, but they’re very few). Happy listening.