Sometimes you just can't get the drum tones you hear in your head - no matter if you're tracking or mixing. In each of these scenarios there are a couple things you can do to improve your tones and increase the punch and depth of your drums.
Here are a couple of tips you can use in your next session:
1. CHECK THE POLARITY
Let's just get this out of the way - no drum mix is going to sound good and punchy if the tracks are out of polarity with each other. All your meticulous tuning and mic placement goes down the toilet if the tracks are cancelling each other out, leaving you with a hollow, weird, phasey mess of a drum sound.
There are absolutely no processing tricks that will breathe life into a mix like that other than flipping the polarity switch. It doesn't matter if you're tracking or mixing, be sure to check polarities of your tracks, so that your close mics, overheads and rooms are all complementing each other. Don't just assume that everything will be perfect from the get go.
The usual suspects to check first are snare top and bottom mics. Get them in polarity and then check them against the overheads. You can also look at the waveforms to determine if something needs to be flipped.
Do this before you add any further processing the tracks, as EQ filters and other processing may alter the phase and polarity of the track.
2. CHECK THE PHASE
Once you've got polarities in check, you may actually be done and you may have a slamming raw drum mix going on. If not, you may have a phase problem.
Phase and polarity are often mistaken for being the same thing when it's actually not. Phase problems can not really be fixed by just flipping the polarity switch, because they are time based. If your close mics are way out of phase with your overheads, they will sound a lot weaker than they actually can.
You can use either mic placement to correct the phase when tracking or you can drag the audio files around in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to match the close mics to the overheads. Once they are in phase, the sound will become a lot fuller and more powerful.
Be careful though - if you have room tracks recorded, don't be tempted to drag those into phase, as you will lose the roomy feel of your recording.
The most common problem in modern audio production is not checking if your drum samples are printed exactly in phase with the mic tracks. Often times the drum sampler will spit out a sample that's not exactly where it's supposed to be, even though the MIDI file is fine. You should play the track and check if all the hits are fine. If not, edit the sample hits to line up perfectly with the real ones - this will save you from having limp hits that have no punch.
3. GET RID OF ANNOYING FREQUENCIES
If you're tracking, you have a real advantage to affect the tones directly by moving the mics around, changing the tuning of the drums and adding acoustic treatment around the kit to minimize unwanted reflections.
Cymbals usually have a sweet spot to place a mic against. If you're hearing a ringing or a whistling sound in your tracks, move the overhead mics around a little until the ringing is not audible or as close to that as possible. This is the most effective way to get better sounds.
The same applies for other drums as well - mic placement can change way more than EQ and compression can.
If you're mixing tracks that have annoying frequencies (that's every single one of us), make sure you attenuate those before you start piling on compression and other stuff. Cutting the bad stuff will make other processors react to the frequencies you want them to, leading to a much cleaner end result.
When cutting, always compare before and after to make sure you are actually making progress and improving the sound.
4. MIX IN CONTEXT
To mix drums that are moving together with the song, you need to EQ and compress them in context. If you spend too much time in solo mode, you might find yourself making tiny tweaks that mean absolutely nothing once the rest of the instruments come in.
Mixing in context does not actually mean that you have to have all instruments playing when you're EQing a kick drum - just turn up the bass guitar and snare, for example. This will make sure that the low end locks and does not clash with the bass and that the top end is coherent with the snare crack.
When mixing cymbals, turn up other elements that occupy the same space, like guitars, synths, orchestral elements and so on. Now you'll be making adjustments that actually matter and serve the song.
Sure, solo mode is also super important for finding resonances and offending frequencies. Don't be afraid to use all tools at your disposal, just keep the big picture in mind.
5. BLEND IN SAMPLES
To be competitive in the modern audio world, you will most likely have to blend real drums with samples to achieve not only extra consistency, but also the punchy over the top tones that everyone is used to hearing.
No matter how well the drums are recorded, a layer of samples might be required, so it pays to do it well.
Choose samples that complement the drums - if you want a punchy sound, choose a punchy sample right from the start. If your snare lacks top end crack, choose a sample that adds what you need. Audition samples to find what works. Pitch-matching the samples to the real drums also helps them blend in seamlessly.
If you want to create a realistic ambience, room samples can be an excellent way to achieve width and depth without using reverb that usually sounds a lot more fake. This way you can make the impression that the drums were recorded in a larger space
Once the samples are printed, check that they are in phase and that the polarity is correct, as described above.
Drums are one of the most difficult instruments to mix and it can be overwhelming at times. These five tips will make your drums sound better no matter how well they are recorded and help you achieve that slamming mix you hear in your head!