It’s no secret that mixing and eq’ing the drums is one of the toughest jobs of an producer. That challenge stems from the fact that you are dealing with a collection of instruments. It’s not like recording a harmonica.
Even if you can tame the snares and the toms and the bass drum, you still face a challenge with the cymbals. Cymbals present a broad spectrum of high and super-high frequency information that varies from barely audible, to sweetly powerful and finally to overbearing. As a drummer, I offer no apologies.
But I do recognize the difficulty of this task. Mixing cymbals correctly can be positively infuriating. You know where this is headed, don’t you?
If you’re waiting until the mixing phase to get your cymbals to sound good, then you’ve already missed the boat.
Hopefully, you have some strong ideas on drum kit sound before you start this whole process. Things to consider, the number of mics and their placement, the room you’ll record in, any acoustic treatment, and any other instruments that will be involved. You can and should take the cymbals into account during the pre-production process. The choices you make now will have a huge impact on the final product.
First, think about the cymbals themselves. You might not want to use the loudest cymbals at your disposal. The same cymbals that cut through the mix of a band during a live performance will probably wash over the rest of the drums in a recording session. If you have the option, try some different, quieter cymbals.
Next, see if you can work with the drummer. If they can give the cymbals a lighter touch, rather than pounding on them during recording, you’re likely to get a better balance before you start mixing. If you’re using a small number of microphones, the drummer should be able to balance the cymbals and the drums during recording, making things easier for you.
In pre-production, do a few test runs with your planned mic placement and adjust accordingly. You’ll have much mellower cymbal sounds with a dynamic microphone, so consider using one of those for your overhead or overheads to tone things down before you mix. Also, subtle position changes with the mic can de-emphasize the cymbals.
But what about the mixing process?
You can get a lot of mileage out of some EQ, but you might also use a de-esser, just as this article from Harmony Central suggests:
De-essers, as their name suggests, are normally used on vocals, and are designed to reduce the apparent volume of sibilant sounds from consonants such as the letters s, f, v and t. These “hissy” sounds can often be louder than the main pitched parts of the vocal, and when they are, they sound rather annoying and distracting. As with our drum cymbal issue, these strident high frequency sounds occur irregularly throughout the track, and the de-esser’s job is to reduce their volume and impact while leaving the rest of the vocal tonality as unchanged as possible.
There is a plethora of other pertinent advice to the burgeoning producer in this article, all of which will help you get the best out of your drum tracks.