Pro Mixer's Guide to Mixing Drums (with Bonus Toms Preset)

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I'd like to welcome my good friend, Tiki Horea, to The Mix Academy blog. Tiki did a great video on mix prep in Reaper earlier this year and he's back with another great resource for you today on mixing drums. 

Take it away, Tiki!


Big-sounding drums have become a staple of modern music production. They’re exciting, they’re dramatic, and they’re really cool. They’re one of the most complex and important elements you’ll find in modern mixes.

Mixing is a highly personal endeavor. The artist and the listener care mostly about the result. It’s generally only us engineers that care about the whole process.

Some engineers like to start their mix from the kick. Others start with the most significant element in the song, usually the vocal. Others begin to mix with all the tracks going on at the same time. There are pros and cons to each, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.



First things first: find the best balance between each element of the drum set. Once that’s sorted out, balance the drums as a whole and the other mix elements.

You want to start by listening to the drums as you received them. 

If you’re mixing an acoustic drum set that hasn’t been recorded well, you might want to start with the overheads. You’d then fill in the gaps with the individual drum tracks. Doing this is necessary when the phase relationship between microphones isn’t all that great. Alternatively, consider using SoundRadix’s AutoAlign to try to resolve this capital issue.

This approach to mixing drums leads to the most natural drum sound, as the overheads present the overall image of the drum kit. The power of the drums comes from the individual drum mics.

If the snare isn’t centered in the overheads, one easy solution is raising the level of the track that is panned opposite the snare. If the snare leans to the left, make the right overhead louder.

This will likely push the kick off to the side, but fret not, as bringing in the kick drum mic will resolve the issue for you.

There is a downside to mixing live drums, though: if the drummer isn’t good, you might end up using samples to replace his performance. In this case, consider using the overheads as cymbal mics only.

When mixing non-acoustic genres such as electronic dance music or pop, the balance of the drum kit is somewhat genre-specific. For this reason, I use reference mixes to make sure I’m not getting lost in the woods. Generally, the kick is the dominant element of the drum set.

EQ, compression, saturation, and transient shaping are the common types of processing used on drums. Depending on the sound and the recording, gating may also be required.

For ambience, reverb and delay are often used.



Using the solo button when EQing will lead to weak-sounding drums. Why? If you EQ the close drum mics individually, you’ll probably notice plenty of resonant frequencies you’d be tempted to remove. However, getting rid of them will neuter your drums into a clean, polite mess. You want powerful, daring drums, right?

Each mix is different from the others, but there are some frequencies that typically need your attention. Before EQing, think about the main cause of the problem you’re hearing. 

Regularly, you get frequencies covering each other up (masking). A boring, lifeless snare could be fixed by fixing the midrange resonance. This will uncover the high end, letting the snare shine.

An easy way to EQ the best tone for your drums is to bus them together. Use a stereo EQ on the bus, then clear out the dirt or add more sparkle to them. Bear in mind that you’re processing all the drums at the same time.


Drums bus

  • Shape the lows by using a high pass filter
  • Boost using a shelf at around 50-100Hz. This lets you enhance the low end without exaggerating it
  • Boxiness resides between 300-400 Hz
  • 500Hz for body
  • Cut 2.5kHz if the drum kit is harsh; this also makes a bit of room for guitars and vocals

Once you’re done with EQing the drums as a group, pay attention to the individual tracks to further shape your drums tone…but not in solo!



  • Kicks can be high passed at around 30Hz. 808 kicks, however, may have fundamentals at 30Hz, so be careful
  • 300-600Hz is the boxy area
  • 4-8kHz for metal’s iconic clicky attack, 1.5-2.5kHz for a wet-sounding smack



  • Body is between 100-250Hz
  • Increase the attack at around 1.5-3kHz
  • Snares rattle is at around 5kHz
  • If the snares are too loud, but the drum itself isn’t bright enough, high shelf boost at 9-10kHz
  • Snares usually have really unpleasant resonances, so sweep using an EQ and eliminate them
  • Ringing lives between 500-1500Hz



  • Rumble under 70-100Hz, generally
  • Fundamental frequency resides between 80-200Hz 
  • Muddiness at around 250Hz
  • Boxiness and room tone can be cleaned up between 250-1000Hz
  • Add attack and snap by boost between 1-5kHz  


A great engineer, buddy of mine, who goes by David Glenn (yup, the very same) uses specific multi-band compressor settings to bring his tom tracks to life. This is to be used on your toms bus.

The low-end and the high high-end are boosted, with the low-mids, mids, high-mids and top-end being controlled. This brings more power to the toms, while keeping the boxiness in check.

Here's the FabFilter Pro-MB preset file for it.

You can find info on what to do with the preset file on FabFilter's help page.



  • Most of the drum bleed in the hihat can be removed by using a high pass at 300-400Hz
  • Hihat thickness is found between 600-800Hz
  • Hihat clarity is between 6-12kHz
  • 800Hz-2kHz will clear out nasal harshness, if present.
  • General cymbals' harshness is at around 2.5kHz. Sweep and cut. Clearing out this frequency range won’t make your cymbals sound dull.
  • Muddiness at around 250Hz
  • Boxiness and room tone - between 250-1000Hz


Gating/transient processing

Even drums that have been ‘perfectly recorded’ won’t be free from drum bleed. In some cases, such as if both the drummer and the recording engineer are great at their job, this can be a desirable addition to the overall sound.

However, depending on the music genre, bleed can make the drums feel less snappy and harder to mix.

The solution to this is using noise gates on the close mic tracks, such as kick, snare, and toms. Set the threshold so the gate is closed when the drummer doesn’t hit the drum. Once the drum is hit again, the gate opens, allowing the sound to come through. Once the signal goes under the threshold again, the gate closes anew. The downside is that, often, traditional noise gates make drums sound artificial, over-processed. One solution would be using Slate's Gates Bundle. The drums gate generally works best for our purposes.



You’ve cleared out the bad and enhanced the good. Not only that, but you’ve sculpted the perfect snare. Despite all your efforts, the drums are still unimpressive.

Here’s where we turn to compression, to really get the drums moving.

The most often used types of drum compressors are VCAs and FETs. Both types can be set to have very fast attack and release, and they can color the sound in desirable ways when driven hard.

When compressing a well-played and well-recorded drum kit, you usually only need a couple of dBs of gain reduction, and a low ratio (under 4:1). The attack and release times of the compressor will be very forgiving when you’re working with such small gain reduction amounts.

In most cases, though, it’s common to go for 3-6dB of gain reduction to the kick and snare. Toms aren’t compressed as regularly, depending on how much they’re played in the song.

Slow attack times let the transient pass through before being compressed. Setting it too slow will cause the compressor to miss some drum hits. 

On digital compressors, an attack between 11 ms and 25 ms typically seems natural.

Fast attack times tighten up the performance by taming the transient, which adds control to the sound. However, setting the attack too fast can flatten the snare and push it further back in the mix.

Setting the release too slow will keep the volume of the drum soft all the time. 

Relatively fast release times increase perceived loudness and bump drums up ‘in your face,’ but too fast can cause pumping. 

Ideally, the compressor has to be finished releasing before the next big hit arrives. The needle should bounce up 3-6 dB when the drum is hit, then just before it returns to 0, the next drum hit pushes the needle back up 3-6 dB.

Lastly, gentle compression is used on the drum bus to make the individual drum tracks breathe together. This means 2:1 ratio, slow attack times to allow the transients to peek through. For release, go for auto so the compressor isn’t pumping.


Parallel compression is achieved by sending the drum shells, meaning your kick, snare, toms to an (aux) bus. There, you can smash them using super-fast attack and release settings. Bring up the bus under the original drums and enjoy your supersized sound.

Applying parallel compression to room mics creates a more exciting sound that works on many songs.



Reverb is used to make the individual drums sound and feel like one instrument, instead of a collection of individual tracks. Reverb achieves this by adding depth and space to your mix.

Send either your whole drum kit, or just the shells, or even just the snare to an (aux) bus.

What type and size of reverb you go with mainly depends on the genre.

Small rooms are generally used to gel together the drums. This type of reverb works on genres that require the drums to sound organic, but small, such as acoustic singer-songwriter music, jazz, folk, and so on.

Hall reverbs are used for bigger live-sounding drums.

Plate reverb is usually the tool of choice for moody, dark, unconventional spaces.

Keep in mind that the length of the reverb should typically be correlated to the tempo.

For example, a snare reverb should decay until right before the next snare hit. In most Western music, this means you have a half-note tail.

As a meant-to-be-broken rule, the reverb channel should be just loud enough to where you feel something’s missing when muted, but not louder.



Last, distortion allows your drums to make a statement in the mix. Try to use a multi-band distortion plugin. A single-band plugin will distort the highs as well, possibly introducing harshness into the sound. This will force you to then open an EQ and use a high-cut filter to get rid of the nastiness.

Another use for distortion is when you want your 808 kick to cut through the mix more.

  • Duplicate the kick track.
  • Low cut the copy till you're left with the mids. This will ensure the low end of the kick stays nice and punchy.
  • Open up your favorite exciter and tweak it until the kick's more present in the mix.
  • Take an ear break and have a healthy snack. Or not, we're not a health blog, ya know?



Following the steps above will net you great, big-sounding drums. However, keep in mind that how big the drums need to be depends on the genre, on how interesting the drum parts are, and, most importantly, on what the artist/producer's vision for the song is.


🎧 Download the free Fix-It in the Mix Guide and learn 5 Must-Have Mixing Skills to Turn Average (or even poor) Recordings into Radio-Ready Mixes




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