How to Make Space For Your Drums in the Mix
Okay, you picked out some great samples, tweaked them to get the exact sound you wanted, and programmed them into an amazing pattern that grooves and sounds great. But none of that matters if you can’t hear your drums loud enough when all the other instruments in the mix are playing!
Turning up the volume on your drums is an obvious place to start. Sometimes that’s all you need to do. But sometimes that causes more problems than it solves. If your drum samples are turned up too high, it will be hard for you to maximize the loudness of your track when you’re finishing the mix. Your drums will be peaking at such high levels that you won’t have any headroom on your stereo bus to turn up the rest of the mix.
Don't let this happen:
If your drums are already loud enough, the reason you can’t hear them is that there isn’t space for them in the mix. They may be clashing with other drums or with the instruments in the track. Here are some ways you can make space for your electronic drums so that they come through loud and clear.
Fix Your Arrangement
The first thing you should do is make sure that you don’t have any instruments taking up the same space in the frequency spectrum as your drums. For example, let’s say you’re using a kick drum sample that has a lot of body in the 80 – 130 Hz range. (You can see where your drum samples are in the frequency spectrum by using a frequency spectrum analyzer plugin as an insert on your drum track. Watch the frequency graph as the drum plays.)
You may have also written a bass synth part whose fundamental frequencies occupy that same space in the frequency spectrum. Whenever the kick drum sample and synth play at the same time in your song, you won’t be able to hear either clearly—they’ll be competing for space.
The simplest and most effective way to fix this problem is by getting either the kick or the synth out of the way! Here are a couple ways you could do that.
Re-write the synth part to use higher or lower notes that take up a different space in the frequency spectrum and don’t clash with the kick.
Keep the synth in the same part of the frequency spectrum, but erase or mute the synth notes that play at the same time as the kick drum sample. You could also use automation to mute the synth when the kick comes in.
If you can leave out some of the kick drum hits without taking away from the drum groove you’ve created, consider muting some of your kick drums to leave room for the synth.
Consider replacing your kick drum sample with a different drum sample that doesn’t clash as much with the synth.
It’s also possible that some of your samples will clash with other drum samples. For example, let’s say you’re using a 909 snare drum that has a lot of high frequency energy (part of a 909 snare sample contains high frequency white noise). Maybe you also wrote a 16th note hi-hat pattern. If they clash, you may not be able to hear the hi-hat sample when the snare hits.
If two drums are clashing with each other, I recommend choosing which one you want to hear, and muting the other one every time they both hit at the same time. Drums take up a lot of headroom. There’s no reason to leave a drum in if you can’t hear it in the mix anyway.
Use All Of Your Space
Changing your arrangement won’t always work. Sometimes an instrument that is absolutely critical to your mix will occupy the same space in the frequency spectrum as one of your electronic drum parts that you’re not willing to replace. If that’s the case, you have some other options to keep the drum and the instrument out of each other’s way.
Two elements can occupy the same space in the frequency spectrum and still come through the mix if they aren’t in the same space in the mix from left to right or from front to back. Here are some tips to put two clashing elements in different spaces in the mix.
Use panning. Try panning the drum to the left and the instrument to the right, or vice versa. Or try keeping one of the two elements panned dead center, and pan the other element to one side.
Use reverb to push one of the elements behind the other. Adding reverb to either your instrument or your drum will make it sound farther away. If your instrument sounds like it is way behind your drum, or vice versa, they won’t clash as much, and you’ll be able to hear both of them.
In addition to using reverb, using a filter to dampen the high frequencies of the element you push into the background with reverb will enhance the effect of making it seem farther away. High frequencies make instruments sound close, so dampening them with a filter makes them sound farther away. As a starting point, try using a low-pass filter with a gentle 12 dB/octave slope. Set the cutoff frequency somewhere in the 5000 – 10k range, and use low resonance.
Change the Sound of Your Instruments
In some cases, the tips we’ve discussed so far won’t be enough to make your drums come through clearly. If that’s the case, you may have to change the sound of either your instruments or your drums to make room for both.
That’s not always a bad thing. For example, you may have a Linn snare with a lot of body in the 100 - 200 Hz range. It might sound great played on its own. But in your track, you have a bass part that’s occupying the same space in the frequency spectrum. You can’t stop the bass part from playing at the same time as your snare because it will mess up the groove. You love the snare and the bass sound, and you don’t want to replace or rewrite either. And you want to keep both elements panned dead center. What do you do?
Use a high-pass filter on the snare drum to make room for the bass. Try a setting of around 24 dB/octave slope, cutoff frequency of 150 Hz, and low resonance to start. When you solo the filtered snare drum, it will sound wimpier than before you filtered it. But in your mix, the bass will occupy that low-end space in the frequency spectrum. Your snare won’t sound like it’s lacking anything. So your snare will sound just as powerful as before, and both the bass and snare will come through more clearly.
Because the low end will be occupied by other elements, you may be surprised how high you can set the cutoff frequency of a high-pass filter on a drum or instrument without noticing it in the mix.
Sometimes it’s best to filter the instrument and leave the drum alone. If you have a low synth part that is clashing with your kick drum sample, try putting a high-pass filter on the synth to make room in the low end for the kick.
Don’t Ever Let Your Instruments Clash
These tricks should get you well on your way to making your drums come through in the mix without turning them up too high. Even if you like the sound of your drums, make sure you’re always careful to prevent instruments from clashing. Fixing any small amount of clashing may allow you to turn down your drums a bit and still hear them clearly. That gives you more headroom, which means your overall mix can get louder.
Besides that, preventing instruments from clashing has been an important part of music way before there were DAWs or even before the invention of recorded music. Whether it's a cello, an electric guitar, or a kick drum sample, never let two instruments occupy the same space at the same time—it’s just good arranging.
What do you find works to make space for your drums in a mix?