Drum Mixing Part I
by Frank Gryner (as published in Recording Magazine)
Over the years, multi tracking has allowed us to do some pretty inhuman things with the natural sound of a snare, but the trick is to be able to get it to sound how you want it come mix time . This can be a tall order given the lackluster sound of most closemiked snare tracks.
As a mixer, I've grown accustomed to inheriting the problems passed down from tracking sessions where poorly placed mics, clipping preamps, overcompressed transients, and shoddy head tuning now automatically become my problem. No matter how dismal your starting point may be, the expectation of what the end result should be is usually the same: a snare with presence, attack, body, good decay, all in a believable context within the kit, and ultimately the entire song .
Bleeding to Death
Engineers are notorious for focusing too much time on their beloved "snare sound", while the context in which that snare is situated in the music is actually counterproductive. If any element, especially the snare, needs to be so loud in the mix to sound good, then it's simply the wrong sonic approach. The snare needs to sound loud without actually having to be all that hot in the mix. This happens when its frequencies aren't competing with those around it and the right kind of compression is used.
The main obstacle standing in the way of that goal is the ambience and cym bal bleed that creeps into your main snore track when you instinctively add the eq and compression to shape that sound. I contend that there is a critical balance of light gating, manipulation of a separate bottom snare mic, processing, and the careful addition of a supplemental sample that can transparently solve most snare-related issues in the mix room.
Starting from the Bottom
If you have a bottom snore mic trock you' l! want to process it independently from the top mic. It will usually have less hat bleed and con be compressed more aggressively with fast attack and release times to raise the tail of the raffling snores.
Filtering out unnecessary low frequencies below 200 Hz and boosting some midrange will help when you rejoin this to the other snare mic, giving size with on extended decay. In addition to this, you'll want to make sure that the phase is aligned with the top mic track. More than just flipping the phase, it's a good ideo to zoom in on the waveform and nudge the track by the sample so that the peaks and valleys of the waveforms line up.
Raising the Dead
Your top snare mic track may sound dull and lifeless-they often will on their own. It's common with problematic tracks that any eq or compression you apply seems to only accentuate the hot bleed and not do a whole lot to the actual snare. Great, huh anything extreme will just make matters worse.
Downward expansion or partial gating will help lower the unwanted noise between snare hits, but even when set very conservatively it does so at the expense of the snare decay. The small bleed reduction you gain here will allow you to eq a bit more presence into that snare track, and you will regain some of that tail and overall brightness
when you bring up the overhead tracks into the mix. An alternative to using a gate, one
that I tend to favor, is compressing with an SPL Transient Designer or, in the digital world, with the Sonnox Oxford Transient Modulator. Unlike conventional compressors, these ones allow you to really sculpt the attack and decey of a snare.
Rather than apply extreme eq, I usually find myself adding 2 to 3 dB at 300 Hz and dipping a few decibels at around 2-3 kHz with a foirly wide bandwidth on the top snare mic. This makes room for the vocal or lead instrument and doesn't contribute to the cymbal bleed issue. Sometimes it's necessary to zero in on the predominant frequency and dip a relatively narrow band at around 7 kHz. I'd generally steer away from compressing a really problematic snare, but sometimes a 3: 1 ratio with slow cttack and slow release can work much like the Transient Designer and add some punch to each snare hit.
Not Out of the Woods Yet ...
All this may get you only three quarters of the way there. Modern punchy mixes demand maximum " in-your-face" drum sounds that may not be possible with a conventional miked-up kit-especially the tracks that you've been struggling with.
Because it's so easy to trigger off a snare sample these days, a lot of people rely too heavily on them and their drums end up sounding more mechanical than human.
I'm suggesting that samples be used to supplement the shortcomings of your real
snare and not replace them completely usually a 3 : 1 ratio in favor of the original
snare. In fact, the sound sample should be selected based on what is deficient in
your existing snare and should blend well into one believable sound in the end.
The levels, dynamics, and the phase accurate placement of these samples are crucial to insure this coming off transparently in the final mix. I've found thot drum sample
replacement programs don't work well enough to trust them blindly. I always
have to go through each hit to make sure that there are no mis-triggered samples.
You may also need to automate the level of the samples during drum fills, as
they can often sound more machine-like there than throughout the rest of the song.
Once you have a supplemental snare printed properly, you can apply some of the more aggressive processing to it without bringing up the cymbal bleed. This is when your slow attack, fast release, 1176-style compression and higher-frequency eq can be applied without any restrictions-except your ability to blend the sample with the rest of the kit in a plausible way! Bussing your separately processed bottom snare track, your lightly gated top mic track, and your carefully selected and processed snare sample together into some global eq can help g lue these elements closer together and tailor it 10 your track . On the Recording website 's downloads page, you' ll find some examples
of how I do this sort of processing.
The "Snared Straight" Program
I don't know what I can't stand more: an amateurish-Tupperware snare sound or one that is so sample-heavy that it feels like we're back in the '80s again. But either way, technology has allowed us to make things better and there's no excuse for either scenario to come out of your studio. If the snare isn 't holding down the back beat or if it's stepping all over the lead vocal, then there are some issues that need to be addressed. Let's not forget that a snare is supposed to be performing a function and is one of many elements that need to play well together. Speaking of playing well together, next time we' ll give our ears a bit of a break and focus on the issues surrounding mixing the bass drum.