Mixing drums has always been an especially unique challenge. From Nirvana to The Beatles, the way the drums have sounded in the mix has always defined the sound of the world’s most legendary bands.
So now that you’ve tracked your drums, how can you EQ them to sit well in the mix? Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all fix for every circumstance. HOWEVER, there are many useful guidelines we can follow when getting our first pass at a mix.
Generally, there are 2 options when you are mixing a drum track, you can cut or you can boost. That is, on an EQ plugin you can either drag certain frequencies down or up, making that specific frequency louder or softer respectively.
These EQ guidelines will be the basis of your mixing decisions, and for the most part can be used for all styles of music (provided you tweak the ranges to your liking).
Let’s get into it. First of all, let’s check out this chart of the total EQ frequency ranges of where each drum sits. Notice although there is quite a bit of overlap, there are still distinctive start and end points to the frequency space that each instrument occupies. And with the technique of cutting and boosting, we will further sculpt each instrument its own individual identity.
One note before we get into it. It is important to not go crazy with cutting and boosting. It can be tempting to take of 5, 10 or 20 dbs without flinching. But remember slow and steady wins the race. Boosting or cutting with about 2 or 3 dbs can sometimes be all your mix needs.
Okay, so without further ado here are my mix shortcuts that I usually fall back on..
These frequencies are just too low and unnecessary, cut them to clean up your mixes. You can also use a high pass up to 50hz.
Boosting within these ranges gives your bass drum girth, body and warm low end. Find your sweet spot and crank it up a bit.
This is a certain zone that just tends to muddy up the kick drum, cutting these frequencies increases clarity.
This is where you get the snap sound of the kick. It can also be the actual beater sound when recording live drums.
This frequency in the kick drum is usually just too slappy and unappetizing. Cut here to make the kick sound more round and PHAT.
It is common to do a hi-pass to get rid of the low end of the snare. It’s unnecessary and just clutters the space.
This is the body of the snare drum, boost to get more weight out of your snare drum.
This is the boxiness of the snare, when we cut it we get a little more clarity between the lows and the highs.
This is the brightness and snappy-ness of the snare drum. Boost to taste.
This is the ringy sound of the snare. We can cut or put a lowpass to dampen it.
Again, we usually do not need frequencies these low (even if you’re rocking that 18” floor tom), eliminating them will clean up the mix in general.
Here we can boost in order to hear and feel the body of the toms.
These frequencies tend to be the ones that do not add much to the mix, so we’ll clear out the clutter.
These control the brightness of the toms. Boost in this area to have toms pop more.
Once again we want to cut or use high pass from 50 to 100hz. We don’t need the low end and it will inevitably muddy up our mixes if we leave it in.
Here we want to make a small cut between 300-500 hz in order to get rid of the boxiness that lies in the mix. This small cut can make a big difference in tightening up the overhead mix.
This last boost enables us to increase the brightness of the overheads, in particular the cymbals. The overheads are where you will get the majority of your cymbal sound and some brightness out of your snare.
This gets rid of any unwanted collision of frequencies allows the hats to excel in what they do best—to be heard in the mid and high range frequencies.
This boost is where the heart of the low end lies, boost here to get more chunk out of your hi-hats.
Cut a couple of dB here in order to get rid of unwanted harshness and muddiness.
This is where the brightness of your hats lie. Together with your low end boosts you should have a nice crispy hi hat sound.
Again, we will want to do a low end cut, however we will want to be sparing on this as the room mic is excellent for getting some nice beefy lows out of our drums.
Giving our drums a boost at around 100hz gives them an extra punch that will be essential
Cutting here removes the mud, similar to the effect we did in the overheads.
These frequencies tend to be harsh and boxey on the room mics as well. We’ll eliminate them to get a clear yet stomping low end sound out of our drums.
Now let’s cut out all the cymbal bleed that we let our overheads take care of. You can be generous on these cuts depending on the track. I’ve sometimes cut as low as 1000hz!
Like I mentioned earlier, there are many ways to mix and we will always find exceptions to the rules above. But in my experience it’s good to have a map of some typical mixing spots where we can take our mixes.
Remember to be conservative with cuts and boosts and work incrementally to measure the differences. Try having your high pass EQ on a steep curve. Now a shallow one. How is it different?
Sometimes it helps to exaggerate these cuts and boosts to see what you are really taking away, even if at the end you will only take away 2 or 3 dB. Most importantly, always use your ears to figure out what is working.
Ben Heckler is a multi-instrumentalist and musician from Portland, Oregon. Currently Ben lives in Barcelona where he teaches drum lessons, writes and records original music for his band Sea Fuzz as well as playing drums for one of the biggest Beatles tribute bands in Europe, The Flaming Shakers.
Ben is constantly creating and composing various types of music, video, and artwork for a multitude of projects that come his way. He hopes to use his platforms to share, help and inspire others to create in their own ways.