Your Guide To Home Studio Recording

Using Multiple Samples, Parallel Compression, And Other Tricks To Give Your Drum Mixes More Punch And Depth

There’s nothing like taking a great sounding room, putting a great sounding (and well-tuned) drum kit inside of it, showering it with perfectly spaced high-quality microphones running into expensive preamps, and finding a great drummer to beat the hell out of the skins. But for many of us, that’s just not feasible.

Fortunately, through the power of MIDI, more powerful computers (with bigger hard drives and more RAM), and some very dedicated designers and audio engineers, it’s possible to produce professional drum sounds without even buying a set of drum sticks. Drum samples are not necessarily new, but the availability of complex collections of them and cleverly designed software to trigger them is a newer luxury.

Another great advantage of this kind of software is that it expands your mixing capabilities substantially. With a real recorded kit and no samples at your disposal, if something doesn’t sound right and retracking is not possible, your only option is processing the tracks recorded by each microphone. Sometimes the result you tried to obtain from the processing ends up inflicting undesirable side-effects to the sound. However, using samples greatly expands your tonal options, especially if you think outside the box.

Does the snare sound flat and dull, but compression and EQ techniques are making it sound different rather than better? If your drums were created with purely samples, you can more effectively shape the sound how you want it, since you can achieve perfect isolation and completely circumvent bleed from other drums on your snare track. Additionally, you can also take another snare sample and blend it together with your first snare sample (this is possible with traditionally recorded drum tracks, but is trickier and sometimes doesn’t yield satisfactory results).

I like fairly natural drum sounds, and it may be ironic, but the ability to mix, match, and blend different samples together is a very valuable tool for shaping drum sounds without making them sound artificial. By doing this, you can take the different aspects you like of different drums and use them to complement each other. Of course, a bit of processing is usually necessary to make drums fit properly in a mix, even with samples, but this technique allows you to get away with a lot less of it, and I feel that the results are often better because of it. Another advantage of this technique is that even if you’re not looking for a completely natural sound, you can blend in samples that already have been processed, but with high-quality outboard gear. This can be a great way to add punch to a drum mix in a way that plugin processing might not be able to adequately achieve.

My favorite software for creating drum tracks is Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 2.0. Also available for purchase are multiple expansion sets, featuring more drum samples. I highly recommend all of them, but the stock version still gives you plenty to work with. Superior Drummer is designed to be mixed as if you had really recorded the kit. All of the samples are completely dry (absolutely no EQ, reverb, compression, etc. has been applied to them) and you can adjust the amount of drum bleed present in each microphone. Bleed control is what makes Superior Drummer so flexible. if you’re using Superior Drummer as the basis of a precisely crafted metal mix where everything must occupy a very specific auditory space, you can set the microphones to have no bleed at all. You can even set the overhead microphones to pick up absolutely nothing but cymbals and get everything else from your close microphones and room microphones, if desired. For a clean, pristine mix, this is a godsend. But if you’re recording a more traditional rock song, microphone bleed is an integral part of the drum sound, and you can dial in as much as you need.

Superior Drummer 2.0

Toontrack Superior Drummer 2.0

But thinking of these things in binary terms is boring. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the flexibility that is really available here if you get creative. How about bouncing down a set of tracks with microphone bleed included, and then another set without? Now you don’t just have a set of overhead microphones, you’ve got true cymbal microphones at your disposal, as well (completely free of phasing anomalies, I might add). If you like the way the bleed is affecting the drum sound, but want just the cymbals themselves to come up in volume, you can now bring up the cymbal tracks as you please. Another example is room microphones. I love what they add to the tone of the kick, snare, and toms, but sometimes they also make the cymbals overbearing in the process. No problem though, just bounce another room track and turn off the cymbal bleed. Bring it up in the mix to taste. Once you think outside the box a bit, you can craft a drum sound that fits your every need. No more compromising!

I recently started mixing the drums for a song that I wrote with my “online” bandmates back in 2006. By that, I mean a band comprised of people who live vastly far from each other, but write and record music through the wonders of great affordable recording gear, music composition software, and the internet. This is a particular song that has never seen the light of day in recorded form, but I like it a lot and want to use it as an exercise in getting comfortable with my new recording setup. The drums were created by our bassist and have been sitting on various hard drives all these years in MIDI form. Now it’s time to bring them to life.

I did some minor editing to the MIDI file to make the playing sound more realistic (mainly tweaks to snare flams and fills). Then I dug through my Superior Drummer libraries and started auditioning different drums to find which ones I felt would best fit the style of the song and the mix I had in mind. One of the great things about using Superior Drummer with expansions is that you can trigger drums from multiple expansions at the same time. After a bit of experimentation, this is what I settled on:

-Ride: 22″ Zildjian K Series Heavy Ride (Joe Barresi Evil Drums SDX)
-Crash 1: 18″ Paiste Signature Series Full Crash (Joe Barresi Evil Drums SDX)
-Crash 2: 20″ Zildjian A Custom Series Medium Crash – Brilliant Finish (Joe Barresi Evil Drums SDX)
-Splash: 12″ Sabian HH Splash (The Metal Foundry SDX)
-Hats: 13″ Sabian HHX Evolution (N.Y. Avatar Kit)
-Snare: 6.5×14″ Ludwig 70’s Black Beauty (Joe Barresi Evil Drums SDX)
-Tom 1: 8×10″ Pork Pie Tobacco Satin (Joe Barresi Evil Drums SDX)
-Tom 2: 9×12″ Pork Pie Tobacco Satin (Joe Barresi Evil Drums SDX)
-Tom 3: 14×16″ Pork Pie Tobacco Satin (Joe Barresi Evil Drums SDX)
-Kick: 18×24″ Gretsch Grape Stain (Joe Barresi Evil Drums SDX)

With this combination, the kit was sounding pretty close to what I already had in my head. I bounced the tracks for each microphone (full bleed on everything except toms) and then imported them into a new session in Pro Tools 10 to mix them. I created a rough mix using a bit of basic EQ and compression, and then decided it was time to mix in other samples to make things a bit punchier. I created a new session, this time using the MIDI track to trigger Steven Slate Drums 3.5.

Steven Slate Drums 3.5

Steven Slate Drums 3.5

I had to tweak the MIDI track a little bit again since the dynamics for the Steven Slate samples seem a bit different than Superior Drummer’s (notably that any given velocity will trigger a more aggressive, harder hit from Steven Slate Drums than it will with Superior Drummer), but that didn’t take long. Steven Slate samples are pre-processed with compression and EQ from high quality outboard gear, and are designed to fit into a mix with very little tweaking. However, that’s not my style. Besides, if enough people do that, all their mixes start to sound the same! But I don’t use them for the basis of my drum sounds — I use them to supplement my base drum sound which is created by Superior Drummer — so the punchy nature of the pre-processing is exactly what I want. Creating an entire mix with Steven Slate Drums usually results in a drum sound that isn’t quite natural enough sounding to me (purely due to personal preference), but blending it in for punch works marvelously.

One thing to note is that although Steven Slate’s processing on kick, snare, and toms works well to add some punch into the sound, I’m not really a big fan of the way any of the cymbals and hats sound. I much prefer those of Superior Drummer, so I’ve only been using Steven Slate samples to mix in with the kick, snare, and toms, and leaving everything else completely to Superior Drummer. For this mix, I found elements I like from the kick, snare, and toms from the ToneDef kit, which is based on the Deftones drum sound found on the album “White Pony”. To my ears, they sound the closest to the song “Digital Bath”, as it seems to be the only song where the drums sustain quite as much as the Steven Slate samples do. I definitely didn’t want that much sustain in my mix, but fortunately, Steven Slate Drums offers the option of turning the overhead and room microphones off for the kick, snare, and tom tracks (which, again, is a perfect option for supplemental samples since I just want their close-miked sounds). Doing that got rid of the snare’s excess sustain nicely. The toms still rang out a bit more than I liked, and even after gating them (as I normally would), the amount of sustain didn’t work too well when there were sequential tom hits because they seemed to bleed into each other. Fortunately, Steven Slate Drums includes controls to change the attack, hold, and decay of every drum, so I reduced the hold and decay times a bit and got them sounding a lot better. I then bounced the tracks down and put them into my mix session that already contained the Superior Drummer tracks.

I did some minor adjustments to take what I wanted from each set of tracks in order to allow them to mix beneficially. My goal with the Steven Slate snare was to add some fatness and snap to the overall Superior Drummer snare sound. The Steven Slate snare had a little bit too much midrange for my liking, so I cut about 2 dB at 1.5 kHz. To get a little bit more weight out of the tone, I also added 2 dB at 100 Hz. After bringing this snare up in the mix just enough to tuck it a bit underneath the Superior Drummer snare, the sound I heard in my head was nearly there! I repeated the process to get what I wanted out of the kick and toms. The kick didn’t need an EQ adjustment, but I did flip the phase 180 degrees, as I found that it was out of phase with the Superior Drummer kick. The toms were a bit more snappy than I wanted, so I cut 2 dB at 3 kHz and 5 kHz. I then created separate buses for the kick, snare, and toms. Both the Superior Drummer and Steven Slate tracks were routed to each bus, so that I could leave the individual tracks alone, preserve their balances, and for a bit of additional mixing, I could process each bus as if it were an original, better sounding track to begin with. After this, I just mixed the drums as if I had recorded these near-perfect sounds from the start, and life suddenly got a lot easier! I had to do some basic adjustments (such as low and high passes and gentle compression), but the sound was nearly all the way there at that point.

However, there is one more effective trick that I like to use when mixing drums for big, punchy rock music: parallel compression. Parallel compression is when you duplicate one or more tracks (or buses, auxiliary channels, etc.) and apply compression to only one of them, blending it in with the dry version. This is a great way to make things sound bigger and more exciting but while preserving a fair bit of the dynamics and natural tone of the track. I find that room microphones take this kind of treatment exceptionally well. In addition, applying parallel compression to the entire drum bus and tucking the compressed bus low in the mix can also contribute some subtle depth to the mix. I made use of both of those techniques in the drum mix for this song.

I used my compressed room track to add sustain and liveliness to the sound of the kit. In order to do this, my first step was to high pass the compressed track at 150 Hz and low pass it at about 5.5 kHz. Doing that isolated the frequency range to something more appropriate to be processed. Without the high pass, I’d be bringing too much low end mud into the mix (resulting in excessive “pumping” from the low frequency content triggering the compressor hard), and without the low pass, the cymbals would dominate the track and become distracting. After this, I slammed the duplicated track pretty hard with a compressor. I used a medium attack and medium release with about 3-4 dB of constant gain reduction. The track by itself sounded pretty ridiculous, but blending it into the mix made the drums suddenly come alive. I also made use of parallel compression on the entire drum bus by sending every track to an auxiliary channel. I did no EQing on this auxiliary channel and used a compressor with a fast attack and medium release. My intent with this second instance of parallel compression was to add a slight emphasis to the transients of the overall drum sound (via the compressor’s slow attack) and also give the cymbals and hi-hat a little more sheen. I kept this channel pretty low in the mix.

With these tricks, I crafted a drum sound that I was immensely satisfied with, and spent no time fighting the mix. Instead, it seemed that my workflow became much smoother and more constructive. It was much easier to shape things into how I wanted them to sound, and I was not confined to endless sessions of trial and error. I hope these tips can help you to do the same. Below are some comparisons of the drum mix with and without these techniques. As you can hear, the mix is the fattest and liveliest with the mixed samples and parallel compression, and becomes thinner and flatter when the Steven Slate samples are taken out, and thinner still (especially in the cymbals) when the parallel compression is not utilized. The differences are subtle, but subtlety is sometimes key when mixing!

Drum Mix with Mixed Samples (Superior Drummer and Steven Slate Drums) and Parallel Compression:

Drum Mix with Superior Drummer and Parallel Compression:

Drum Mix with Superior Drummer:

Continuously Playing Comparison (Mixed Samples and Parallel Compression at 0:00, Superior Drummer and Parallel Compression at 0:06, Superior Drummer at 0:12):

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