Tim Latham

Mixing Drums: The Motor Of The Mix

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.

Posted on January 25, 2010.
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3 Responses to Mixing Drums: The Motor Of The Mix

  1. Hi Tim,
    I also am a mix engineer working working mostly in Montreal (sorry for my english, I speak french). I’ve been self employed for 6 years doing mostly production and mixing. I also have a blog (http://villemure.bangbangblog.com/) that I should update more often.

    I really appreciate what you’re writing on your blog. For the drum mixing I agree totally when you say it’s better to mix drum as a kit. My approach is the same. I usually put the drum kit in a bus, then send it pre-fader into 2 other buses. One for parallel compression, and the other one for “punch”. Those buses are usually just there to add a little bit of spices without sounding unnatural. All the drums buses goes with the bass in a bus named “rythmsection”

    Do you also sometimes use sidechain compression between elements in the drum kit?

    I’ll keep reading your post, that’s really interesting.
    Thanks.
    JP Villemure

    sorry fo my english writing again! :)

    • tlatham7 says:

      Hey Jean-Phillipe,
      Thanks for stopping by.
      I will use sidechain compression occasionally. I prefer to use multiband instead. It’s just my choice. When I use a sidechain, it’s typically on room mics to really crush the snare if the song calls for it. I’ll also use a de-esser on room mics to control the loudest part of a lot of drummers kits: the hi hat.

      You English is better than most of my American friends and considerably better than my French. I’ve been trying learn enough basic French for the past 15 years and all I can do is basically order a meal from a menu!

      All my best,
      Tim

  2. Dropping in late to this post, but just found your site and reading through some articles. I liked this one in particular, as I often find the same thing… people focus too much on one particular sound or track instead of trying to make it all work together as a whole. In addition, in my mind, if someone (other than another engineer) listens to the song and the first thing they say is “great snare sound”, or “great kick drum”, or “cool vocal effect”, then I don’t think I did my job right. If something in the mix is calling attention to itself too much, and taking the focus away from the overall song and the emotion of the song, then that’s not a good mix. Sure, some little gimmicks can be fun once in a while, but only if it enhances the feeling of the song and is appropriate. It’s like editing or music in a movie, if those elements are drawing attention away from the story of the movie, and causing you to notice those elements, then that’s simply bad work.

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