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5 tips for mixing drums

Our samples are already processed so they can fit most mixes straight out of the box.
However, we acknowledge that they could be used in very different scenarios and combinations, and some further processing could be needed so they can sound well together.

Music production doesn’t reward being lazy and overlooking stuff, so, even if you’re backed by our carefully crafted samples, you still have some work to do in order to achieve a professional-sounding mix.

First, we need to create a drum bus, and we’re doing it by either grouping the drum tracks or by sending them to a bus, whichever your DAW allows and fits your workflow best.

Glue Compression

Even with the most accurate leveling decisions, overall dynamics might need some fixing.

Sometimes glue compression also allows imparting some movement that makes everything bounce together nicely. This kind of effect is particularly effective to cymbals and percussions when they’re being compressed in response to the kick and/or the snare drum hitting the threshold.

When setting a compressor on the drum bus, you need to know the following things:

  • Use the sidechain filter, if available, and cut the low end with a high-pass filter. This won’t actually filter your signal, but it will tell the compressor to ignore those frequencies, mainly coming from the kick drum, so you won’t have to find a compromise between setting a high threshold that doesn’t catch the majority of drums and compressing too much due to the kick drum power.
  • Mind the attack time! Drums are percussive elements, therefore we want to preserve the impact of transients, so we need to make the attack slow enough to let transients and the body of the major hits cut through.
  • Mind the release time too! Depending on how much average volume you want, you can set shorter times for more of it and vice-versa. Remember that using too quick release times can bring unnatural pumping and too slow release times will affect the transients of the upcoming hits.
  • Don’t forget output gain. Don’t rely on auto gain for drums and try doing it yourself by A/B matching.

If you’ve set compression correctly, you’ll notice how more lively and consistent your drum kit is sounding.

Saturation

Time for some color. Saturation is not always required, but it can help a lot in making drums crispier and more intelligible, especially if the track has a lot of stuff going on that’s distracting the listener from them.

The saturation stage is all about cranking the drive, selecting the desired saturation style, and mixing the effect with the Dry/Wet knob.

EQ

While leveling can somehow affect the perceived tone of a drum kit, it’s also true that, depending on the rest of the mix, an equalizer can do a lot at making it fit the rest of the mix.

Semi-parametric EQs work wonders on the drum bus because they let you focus on the tone without getting lost with the tiny adjustments that you can do with fully-parametric EQs.
Want more high end? Boost it. Want less low end? Attenuate it. And so on.

Parallel Processing

Here’s where things get fun! This stage can be approached with either creative or technical purposes.

Depending on how your DAW works, set up a way to apply multiple parallel processing at the same time.
So this doesn’t mean having a 50% Dry Wet effect after another 50% Dry Wet effect because, even if the single instances are working in parallel within themselves, that’s still serial processing.

If you’re on Ableton you can take advantage of the audio effect rack and create multiple channels inside it, otherwise, you can go for return tracks.

We’re achieving two main goals with this setup:

  • More punch. Set a transient shaper and turn the attack all the way up and the sustain all the way down. If that’s not enough to isolate the transients, repeat the process. Now, you can use a clipper and drive the isolated transients into it for more impact.
  • More details. Use a limiter, maximizer, or compressor that allows applying upward compression. The goal is to bring all the low-level details so they can be heard. We’re not caring about how impactful drums are. Basically, we’re doing the very opposite of the first kind of parallel processing.

Now that you have these two parallel effects, you can mix them in and balance them based on how much punch and how many details you want to be heard.

While the whole setup looks kinda tricky at first, you’ll experience how much easier it makes to mix drums.
You’ve basically built an ADSR envelope for your drum bus!

Reverb

Let’s give the final touch with reverb! Of course, this kind of processing has to be done on your end because otherwise, our samples wouldn’t be usable at all!

As for the previous step, reverb sounds best on drums when applied in parallel, and no, using the Dry/Wet knob is not optimal.

Reverb is a type of processing that entirely depends on the track and its mood.

One thing we’re sure about it is that you’ll 99% of the time need it, even just a bit.

The goal with reverb isn’t necessarily making the listener aware of drums having some reverb, but it’s to glue everything together while making the kit more lively.
If you use short decay settings and mix it in gently, the perceived effect will be a bigger and more impactful drum kit that doesn’t scream reverb everywhere.

Make sure to A/B match the reverb while playing the whole track in context.

Last but not least, keep an eye on the low end. Some genres and styles want some low end coming from the reverb (especially the “Live” ones) and others don’t benefit from it (especially the most modern ones with a lot of low end stuff that might interfere with it such as 808 and tight kicks).

Conclusion

While this might seem like a lot of stuff to do, we barely scratched the surface of the processing most chart-topping projects are going through. Do your best at getting used to this routine and it will become second nature.

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