The art of good drum sounds

From time to time I find compressors on drums that are there to control volume. The unfortunate part of this is that in most cases these compressors
have an instantaneous attack. By doing so you lose all the interesting bits of a drum hit. The most interesting part is that initial slam as the pedal/stick/etc. hit the device. If you kill that leading transient, you've killed the excitement. 

So what do we want to do? First things first. Let's make sure we aren't hearing things we don't want to hear in that drum mic - and it really doesn't matter which drum we're talking about. We can make sure that mic is "off" when we don't want to hear any sounds from it. That requires a Gate. And, we want a good gate. We want one that opens closes cleanly. And, for drums, we want that opening and closing to be very, very fast on opening. Closing the gate is more a matter of sound and technique - which we'll cover below. One simple rule: the worse the quality of the drum set, the more you need gates that open or close quickly and completely. 

To get that gate working correctly we want to close it far enough that it doesn't open at all. Then back it off while the drummer hits the drum until it opens fully as soon as the drum stick hits. It shouldn't "shudder" on opening and closing. You'll hear the noise of a gate chattering if it isn't right. 

Next we want to control how much of the drum sound gets through unmodified. We're going to tackle this with a compressor. If you compressor has automatic functions, turn them OFF! Yes, OFF. You need to set drum compression very carefully and very precisely. With practice you'll be able to 
hear this.

First, set the ratio to around 4:1. That is, once the compressor kicks it it will only let the sound increase one unit for each 4 units of increased input. This is fairly dramatic, but you may choose to make this ratio even larger - often 6:1. You'll soon learn to see why this is important. Set the attack to zero (instantaneous compression). Set the threshold so that about 12 dB of gain reduction occurs. 

Lets now take a look at that attack. Start opening up the attack so that compression doesn't occur for some period of time. This is allowing the leading transient of the drum hit to pass through uncompressed. That's the interesting bit of the drum sound. You'll be able to tell by listening to the drummer hit the drum when you have this right. A light will go on in your head when you hear this. It's like magic.

Setting the release is a bit easier. Again we are going to scan the time range by listening as the drummer hits the drum. The release is the period before compression goes away and sound returns to uncompressed. You need to set this so that the next drum hit is NOT still being compressed. This is trickier to get right than you think, but the range is pretty wide so can be hit with just a little practice.

After you set the gate and compression for individual drums, you need to get the drummer to start playing around the drum set. You need to tighten up some gates so that adjacent drums don't open gates on drums that aren't being hit. It is quite common for the snare drum to open gates on toms. But, you have to judge a balance so that the gate isn't now so "tight" that it never opens.

Get this all right and your "crappy" drum set will come alive.

A couple other notes here. I never compress brass. It isn't going to get any louder after a certain point. You need to be using the faders to control
the volume here. That's part of the job of being an audio engineer.

But "my drums are still too loud." Lower the drum group. You're the engineer here - do the work. Your fingers need to be on those controls. You need to be continuously varying the relative volumes to keep the song coherent. It's not easy - but it is what you've decided to do.
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