“I never know what levels my drums should hit or what level my final mix should hit.” If this sounds like you then never fear as U.K based sound engineer and all round mixing and mastering guru Dan Worrall has released a fantastic Youtube video to walk you through the minefield that is levels and dynamics in drum mixing.
Wether you’re new to mixing or have years of experience under your belt, I really do urge you to take some time out to sit down and watch Dan Worrall’s “How Loud Should My Drums Be? And Other Unanswerable Questions” Youtube video below:
If you have to ask the question then I’m guessing that your drums are too quiet! My reasoning: if they were too loud you’d probably spot that yourself and turn them down!Dan Worrall
Thanks to Dan’s twenty minute masterclass above, beginners can save themselves years of frustration and confusion while even professional music producers and seasoned mixing engineers will likely benefit from a refresher course and Dan’s words of wisdom.
If you’re the kind of producer who suffers from “analysis paralysis” and who spends more time reading meters in your DAW and browsing debates and arguments on music gear websites rather than making and releasing tracks then this video will hopefully prove to be a lifesaver!
The information in this video applies to both acoustic and electronic drums mixing but also the wisdom given here can be applied to other elements of your mix as well.
I’ve listed the key points of Dan’s video below complete with timestamps, so you can quickly find the bits of advice you’re interested in but I really do recommend you watch the entire video from start to finish.
0:40 – The quest to find the perfect drum mix settings. A viewer who has been making music for five years writes to Dan to express their frustration at running round in circles trying to mix their drums to the “correct” levels.
1:06 – Dan’s first observation: “5 years is not that long … it took me longer that to shake off ‘imposter syndrome’ and call myself a professional audio engineer”
Key take home point: It takes many years to learn how to mix to a professional standard so don’t get disheartened.
2:05 – Dan informs us he is about to offer three answers to the question “how loud should my drums be” and we can pick whichever we find the most useful.
2:25 – Dan guesses that it’s likely the frustration is due to the drums being too quiet in the mix – a common beginner’s mistake.
2:37 – Dan explains what the peak meters in your DAW are actually useful for.
Key take home point: Peak meters tell you how close you are to clipping but little else. They give almost no information about how loud something actually sounds.
2:45 – You should expect drums to peak much higher than synths and guitars when they sound balanced but how much higher will depend on the nature of the drum sounds you are using.
3:00 – Dan’s first answer to the question “how loud should my drums be?” is: “Louder than they are now!”
3:06 – Dan gives his second answer: “There is no answer!”
3.12 – Dan starts to explain why there is no one size fits all answer to the question “How loud should my drums be?”
Absolute levels don’t matter at the mix stage. It doesn’t matter how loud your drums are so long as they’re well balanced with the other elements in your mix.Dan Worrall.
3:22 – Dan explains that a “well balanced” mix is a subjective and artistic judgement.
Key take home point – stop thinking that mixing is a science or math problem with only one correct answer that someone else can give you.
3:30 – Dan points out that every mix is different and you’ll only know what is “right” when it feels “right” to you.
3:37 Dan explains that there’s no “right” or “wrong” mix any more than there’s a “correct” melody.
If it feels right to you hopefully it will feel right to other human beings as well.Dan Worrall.
4:04: With the second answer out of the way, Dan beings giving a more practical answer to help producers move forward: Dan’s mixing process can be broken down into the following steps (watch the video for full details).
Getting your drums balanced:
1. Start by muting everything except your drums.
2. Set their level so they are hitting about -23 LUFS short term on your master channel (with your master fader at unity).
3. The main thing is you are using average levels and not peak levels.
4. -23 LUFS is quieter than the music you stream from Spotify and the like but that doesn’t matter – you can leave the overall loudness to the mastering stage.
5. If you think things are too quiet then you can just turn up your monitors/speakers or audio interface output if you’re using headphones.
6. Now turn up your monitors/speakers/interface until you are feeling the drums rather than just hearing them.
7. Aim to get your drums loud enough that you have to raise your voice to talk over them. When your drums are at a suitably loud level you’ll not only be able to hear your drums better – makes sense, right? – but you’ll also deal with the problem most rookies run into where they go round in circles pushing up every channel in their DAW to make things louder and “better” until eventually they clip the master and start pulling faders back down and end up back where they started.
8. Monitoring nice and loud helps you focus on what’s too loud rather than what’s too quiet.
9. Be aware that the main downside to mixing loud (apart from annoying your neighbors!) is that your ears wear out quicker.
10. As you gain more confidence and experience you’ll be able to mix at quieter levels while still checking your mix at louder levels periodically.
11. When you are feeling your drums unmute the other elements in your mix and pull their faders up until they feel balanced. Don’t touch your drums – they’re the anchor. Using something in your mix as the anchor, such as the drums, helps avoid the problem of creeping loudness and clipping.
The only thing you need to worry about at the mix stage is making it sound the way you want.Dan Worrall.
8:36 – Dan reads out more of the viewer’s letter and begins to tackle the thorny subject of dynamics.
9:30 – Dan explains how and why compression is so important to modern music production.
10:20 – Dan suggests organizingyour mix into subgroups then “smashing” those subgroups with compression to hear what happens.
Key take home point: Train your ears to hear what too much compression sounds like.
11.15 – Dan explains what the point of using a compressor on drums actually is.
13:05 – Dan introduces the topics of saturation and distortion and their role in the perception of dynamics.
All digital mixes would benefit from some degree of saturation, regardless of the genre. Even classical mixes.Dan Worrall.
13:52 – How much saturation to apply. The “Saturation Bell Curve”.
15:46 – Dan suggests a method for mixing even though it is important to understand there is no one size fits all “method” for mixing as every track is different:
The mixing method – there is no mixing method!
- Start with the volume faders and set a rough balance for all elements of the mix. Make your best guesses and see what sounds good and feels good to you and move on.
- With your faders set, decide what is bothering you most about your mix at this stage and fix this first. Fix the most obvious/glaring problems in your mix first.
- Get through stages 1 and 2 as quickly as possible.
- With the most glaring problems in your mix resolved you can start to surgically focus on the smaller issues and fine details – things many of your listeners probably wouldn’t even notice.
17:26 – Dan explains the importance of learning your mixing chops in the same way a musician learns to play an instrument. Develop techniques you can depend on to quickly fix problems in your mix.
Key take home point: Mixing is an art and skill you’ll learn by doing.
18:55: Dan ends his tutorial with a summary of why you shouldn’t over think a mix or spend too long on a mix.