Drums are the backbone of most recordings, and the quality of the drum sound can make or break a track. As mix engineers, we have to consider the envelope of each of our individual drums – how powerful should our transients be? What should their volume relationship be the tail of the drum hit? There are a number of ways that we can shape our drum sound so that it best fits our mix. Below we discuss three such methods.
We often use compressors to make drum hits more consistent in level, but many novice engineers don't take enough time to think about how compression settings can alter the sound of the drum hits, as well as their level. Think in particular about your attack and release times. A fast attack and a fast release will mean that the compressor kicks in quickly, but also resets very quickly, long before the drum hit has finished. This results in a sound where transients are minimised. A fast attack with a slow release means that the compressor will catch the initial transient, and will then continue to act on the drum hit for its entire duration. The balance between the initial transient and the tail of the drum hit will therefore remain much as it was in the original recording, but the performance will feel more consistent as the level change between hits has been reduced. Finally, a slow attack with a slow release will allow some of the drum transient to sneak through before the compressor kicks in. The effect of this is to reduce the level of the tail in comparison to the initial transient; the drums will sound like they have less sustain.
Another way to alter your drum sound is to use a gate to reshape the envelope of your drum hits. Put a high-ratio gate onto one of your drum tracks – perhaps the snare or a tom. Set the threshold as high as you can, whilst still ensuring that each hit is being picked up by the plug-in. You can then use the Attack, Hold and Release controls to alter the envelope in different ways. The Attack can be used to reduce transients, which will have the effect of pushing the drum back in the mix. The Hold can be used to decrease the length of the tail of the drum hit. Finally, the release can cause the drum tail to be cut off abruptly – like a sampled drum on a drum machine – or it can be set with a longer value for a more natural fade-out.
Gating can be useful if you want to decrease the transients on a drum sound, but occasionally you will want to accentuate them – if your mix calls for a particularly snappy drum sound, or if you really want the transients to cut through the rest of the mix. The easiest way to achieve this is with a dedicated transient enhancement plug-in. There are some great paid options on the market, such as Waves Trans-X or iZotope's Neutron. Thankfully there are some pretty good free options out there too, such as Flux's BitterSweet, which we have previously covered on our blog.
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