Mixing Drums in FL Studio
Well mixed drums are imperative to produce a good dance track. Where they are positioned, their dynamic range and level envelope are all factors that can help boost the loudness of your music. By setting good foundations (drums) you are in an easier position, with the most significant element finished, to develop your track.
This FL Studio tutorial will help break down each disaster you may encounter whilst mixing your drums. It is a complex and enduring process, so instead of tearing your hair out and screaming at your screen, understand each step thoroughly before advancing to the next.
When to Start?
If you have a full drum track consisting of your kick drum, snare/clap, hats, loops and percs, that harmonically and rhythmically work, you are now in a position to start mixing. There is no right or wrong way how to mix and creatively you can go as far as you like with it to put your own unique style on a track. However, in order to approach a mix in your own way, this tutorial will show you the fundamentals that will help you produce tight, detailed mixes that can then be developed to suit your taste.
Ahh everything’s too loud!
Yes your drums should be the loudest element in your mix, but don’t expect to turn everything up to unity gain and think that your mix will sound anything like a professional production. Adjusting the volume of each individual element within a drum track is the first stage of mixing and is essential in creating an interesting, dynamic sound. By lowering the volume of the less prominent parts of a drum loop such as the loops and percs it allows the defining elements such as the kick and snare/clap to come to the very front of the mix. There is a good article at http://www.tweakheadz.com/perfect_mix.html that indicates roughly what db level each individual element in your track should be at. This is a good indication, especially for beginners, but I’d try and use your ears more often than not to determine where each element should sit in the mix and listen to as many professional tracks as you can to compare with.
A good technique I and many other producers use is a subtractive mixing method, where you put each drum element at unity gain and reduce the fader on each (other than the kick), until the element sits nicely within the track.
Give your drums some space…
After adjusting the volumes within your drum track, you need start thinking about where to position them. Positioning is as equally as important as any other aspect of mixing and should be taking seriously. Bad panning can make a track sound terrible, for example if the kick drum and snare were panned left and right, there would be no central energy to drive the track. The kick drum should always be positioned centrally in a dance track as it is the most prominent part of track, the clap/snare should also remain near the centre, as it is a defining element of a track and both speakers should generally share the same energy. As for the other elements, you can experiment with but I would try and mirror a drum kit on a stage to maintain a more natural sounding drum track so keeping:
• Kick drum centrally
• Snares and small toms centrally/right 5-10%
• Hi-hats right/left 5-15%
• Ride left 5-10%.
This is just general and I would exaggerate these percentages depending on what you’re going for with your mix.
The Clash of the Frequencies
As with volume adjusting and panning, EQ can be used however you like and I am only going to give you guidelines for you to expand upon. Without some sort of EQ’ing your drum mix will most probably end up muddy sounding. This is because the different parts of your drum track will contain the same frequency content, resulting in a clash, which in turn creates an unclear mix. To prevent these clashes from occurring, by using an EQ unit you can either boost or subtract a frequency range to make it sound clearer in the mix. When mixing I would subtract frequencies rather than boosting as subtraction is far more natural sounding to our ears. Subtraction can also have the same effect as boosting, as when you subtract a range of frequencies, the higher frequencies in front will be perceived louder to due to the dip.
When using EQ you really have to prioritize your drums, so asking yourself what will be the most and least important element to define my track? In a dance track the most significant elements are your kick drum and clap/snare, the other parts are used to glue your track together and implement groove. As these are your priority, EQ is significant in order to bring these instruments cleanly to the front of your mix. There are two ways you can do this using EQ; Subtract the frequencies off the other percussive elements that share the same frequencies as the dominant frequencies of the kick drum and snare/clap so for example, the attack stage of the kick and the snap of the clap/snare. Or you can use a small boost at these main frequencies to make them appear clearer in the mix.
Attack: around 3-6 kHz
Bottom: around 60-100Hz
Attack: around 1.5-2.5 kHz
Thump: around 200-400 Hz
A good frequency chart can be found at http://www.independentrecording.net/irn/resources/freqchart/main_display.htm
Also when using EQ on your drums, it is critical that you subtract all inaudible frequencies and unnecessary frequencies.
Here is the FL Studio Parametric EQ 2 affecting a clap sound. I have removed all frequency content below 500Hz using a large Q acting as a high pass filter. This has helped to remove frequencies that don’t affect how the clap sounds and has helped make room for the bottom end of the kick drum.
Compression is a main ingredient of mixing if you want to achieve the typical sound heard on popular dance tracks. The drums are the most important aspect of a track as they drive it a long, but without compression your drums will sound unflattering and flat, resulting in a bad mix overall.
I believe there are two main reasons to use a compressor across a drum bus:
• To control signal peaks
• Create the pumping effect heard on thousands of dance records
Controlling Signal Peaks
Firstly route each individual drum element to a separate drum bus with a compressor attached.
After all elements have successfully been routed to the bus, we are then ready to set up the compressor. You have to set the threshold so that it’s just above the average signal level; this assures that only the peaks are subjected to gain reduction. You then have to set your ratio according to how much you want the peaks to be reduced, the higher the ratio the more they will be reduced. Your attack should be relatively short so that it clamps on the transients as soon as they exceed the threshold, but not too short so that it squashes them. Most importantly use your ears to determine all these levels. The Fruity Loops compressor does not have a gain reduction meter so without external plug-ins you will not be able to see visually how much you’re reducing, so it is vital that you learn to use your ears.
Creating a ‘Pumping’ Effect
This is a Practical Compression effect heard on thousands of dance tracks worldwide to make a track more ‘pumpy’ and energetic. There are two ways to achieve this sound: using Side Chain compression and a similar effect called Gain Pumping.
Learn more about Side Chain Compression
Gain Pumping is used to help give a track a more dynamic feel similar to Side Chaining. It is a great practical compression technique that many producers use across a drum bus customarily.
To achieve this technique you again have to route each individual drum element to a separate drum bus with a compressor attached. Then you set the threshold on the compressor just below the peak level of the kick drum, this activates the compressor each time the kick drum hits. Your ratio should be from 2:1 – 4:1, with attack and releases levels quite short to activate and deactivate the compressor quickly to create the desired pumping effect. Experiment with the release time, as too short of a release time can sound very unnatural and if pushed to short can cause distortion.