Compressing Drums

How to compress your drum sounds for maximum impact.

This Quick Tip features me interviewing my friend and heavyweight engineer Gennaro Schiano about drum compression. You might not know his name but you definitely know his work (Mary J Blige, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Stephen Marley and many more).

"Let’s dive right in. What is your preferred way of compressing your drums?"

Hmmm… The funny thing is, everybody wants to compress their drums… I try my hardest not to! On kicks and snares, I hardly reach for compression at all unless one of these situations occurs:

1. The transients of the drums are out of control and need to be tamed.
2. There’s not enough transient in the drums, or there’s not enough tone for my liking.

Most of the time I can get away without compressing, if I got some great sounding drum samples from the start it makes it a lot easier… What I’ll do is fatten drums up with EQ, or thin them out if needed. If I want more attack, I’ll use something like a DBX-160 compressor with a high ratio, medium threshold and crank up the output.

If I need to control the transients, I use a fast attack, fast release Waves R-Compressor with the threshold around where I want my peaks to be at like a 1.5:1 or 3:1 ratio. Sometimes I can go up to 10:1 depending on how wild the source is.

To get tone I might use a slower setting on compressors like an LA2A, LA3A, 1176 or Fairchild with a low threshold and crank the output, so the transient still peeks through, but the sustain is exaggerated.

Not to be skipped over as well: Sometimes drums just need to be massaged with a little automation before I’ll reach for a compressor. Volume trim automation is probably one of the features of pro tools I use the most. This allows me to adjust the static level of the fader and have built in volume automation to the track. Very useful tool.

Fairchild Compressor

Fairchild Compressor Plug-In

"Do you like using a drum-bus? And what would you use it for?"

If I don’t have to, I don’t use a drum-bus. I try to deal with what I need to at the source, getting great drum sounds for me consists of sorting out the blend and treating the specific enhancements / corrections on a track-by-track basis.

I might use a drum buss if I can’t get the drums to sound cohesive, like one element together by treating them all on their own…  kicks and snares separately etc. And I would definitely use one for programmed drums trying to have a live feel.

If I do use a drum buss for processing, I prefer to use a multi-band dynamics tool like the McDsp ML4000. It’s got a pretty intense learning curve, but once I got my head around it It’s really nice to have all that power in one place.

Multi-band compression / expansion are what I generally use it for often and I might use the limiter to get a little more weight out of the drum blend without chopping off peaks or shooting for any reduction but just a slight increase in output level.

Tip: Download the RDS free drum sounds package to start experimenting with mixing these kits yourself.

"How would you treat programmed drums that you would like to feel ‘live’?"

For live style programmed drums I will create an aux track with a drum room type reverb on it, followed by an 1176 style compressor , all buttons in (sometimes stereo, sometimes mono), often I’ll keep it 100% wet but sometimes I let some or a lot of the dry signal peek through. This is to emulate a room mic feel.

When I record drums, I actually favor the color of a squashed room mic to fill up the sound of the kit and use the direct mics as the tight definition of the sound (the kush ubk or pusher work very well for this application too).

1176 compressor

Universal Audio 1176 Compressor Plug-Ins

"Since most are behind the computer and don’t have any access to real hardware equipment what would you recommend as your preferred digital replacement for the DBX 160 to create more attack in the drums?"

The UA DBX or NI DBX will do the trick fine. Valley People Dynamite and Eventide Omnipressor, will offer some similar settings as well to enhance transients.

If I need slight basic compression on a track, I usually reach for something simple, MCDSP Compressor Bank, R-Comp, an SSL channel strip plug (to kill a few birds with one stone) or Metric Halo channel strip.

It’s my first reaction is to find a proper level for a sound, pan the sound if it makes sense to find another place for it in the stereo field which also makes room for other elements in a similar frequency ranges, competing for the same space. After that I’ll reach for an EQ.

Depending on how I’m feeling, I’ll usually try and clean up problem frequencies causing the sound to lose weight or might start by enhancing the tone to how I want it to sound then finish up by carving out the stuff I don’t need. It usually makes sense to check phase relationships and polarity in this stage as well. Sometimes a simple polarity flip will give a drum sound all the vibe it needs to fit in the mix.

If the drums are still bugging me after that process, that’s when I’ll start compressing them to put them in “volume pockets”. I try not to choke them out, and try to keep the leash as long as I can if that makes any sense. Sometimes things, like a kick, need to be squashed to make sense in the song, but it’s never really the first thing I do, unless it is a very pronounced element in the rough mix that shapes the sound of the record.

"I’m curious to hear your thoughts on using different compressors in a mix versus using few. The thought being that it can add different colors but also make the sound less coherent?"

I use the first compressor that comes to mind and usually lean towards compressors that are easy to set quickly. Once I find a proper setting using the first compressor choice, I’m either satisfied and on to the next thing or curious to see how another compressor will react with similar settings. Once I set the next compressor, I will match the output levels to the bypass level and make comparisons between them.

Sometimes after all that work, I’ll choose not to compress or make a decision between the compressors in the running. In order for this to make sense, both compressor settings need to stand on their own in your own head.

"I think it can be explained by the fact that I’m a drummer but I almost always start out my mix with the drums. Is that the same for you or completely different?"

I start with drums and bass. It doesn’t make sense for me to mix drums without the bass playing. The bass sound and vibe influences my drum blend.

"Do you compress your bass? What are your preferences?"

 Ha! That’s where I start to love compression. I usually boost the subs into a syrupy style compressor (LA2A, Fairchild, Fatso, Distressor chain). I’ll use a Pultec EQ to boost between 30 and 100 Hz (depending on the tone and fundamentals) into the compressor.

I’ll use medium to slow attack for punchy bass with definition in the attack or I use faster attack, lower threshold (more compression) and heavy makeup gain for fat sub by bass.

I’ll do a healthy amount of gain reduction and match the input level to make sure what I’m doing makes sense.

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