Drums are a vital element in music. They get people moving and they provide a pulse that keeps songs alive. Well, hopefully they do. If they sound weak, the drums might do nothing more than cause disappointment and even death to your production. Don’t let that happen to you!
What follows are some tips for mixing drums with iZotope’s Neutron 2 plug-in. None of these tips are time-consuming, but all can give you big sonic rewards.
So check out the video, and read the tips below (plus a few that aren’t in the video).
A word to the wise: these tips aren’t sequential, so feel free to bounce around when trying them.
1. Visualize your drum sound
In most mixing consoles and DAWs, you must use separate controls to change the level and panning for each track. It’s expected to encounter faders for level and knobs for pans. However, adjusting a track’s fader and pan simultaneously requires that you have a control surface, both hands free, and great two-hand coordination. Graciously, iZotope has changed the mixing game with the introduction of the Visual Mixer.
Visual Mixer features a single control to simultaneously adjust level and panning, and offers this for multiple tracks in a single window! Applied to drum mixing, you can fiddle with eight controls in one place rather than having to mess with eight faders and eight pans across eight drum tracks!
Feast your eyes upon the next image, which shows the Visual Mixer window. It was inserted on an aux input track that all the drums are routed to. The Neutron 2 Mix Tap was instantiated on each individual drum track to enable each one to appear in the Visual Mixer window. The Mix Tap isn’t necessary for any tracks that already have an instance of Neutron 2. In the Visual Mixer, panning is left to right and level is up and down (up is louder and down is quieter). It’s so fast!
2. Fast-track your submixes
Having a plethora of processors and parameters is fun and empowering, but it’s also dangerous. Something as minute as the wrong attack time on a compressor can impede your progress toward the right sound. One way to play it safe is to rely on Neutron 2’s Track Assistant to steer you in the right direction. Put it on a drum submix, then let it configure various modules according to your current and desired drum sound.
In the example shown below, all drum tracks are routed to one stereo aux track, where Neutron 2 is inserted. After selecting the Track Assistant, it presents a few key options. Instrument, Style, and Intensity.
Track Assistant Step 1
Once those are set, Neutron 2 will wait for you to play the track so it can analyze your audio and work its magic.
Track Assistant Step 2
After accepting the configuration, you have full access to each module and all parameters!
Track Assistant Step 3
3. Dial-in the details with Transient Shaper
If your kick and snare don’t “hit hard” or your toms ring out too much, consider Neutron 2’s Transient Shaper to be a go-to secret weapon. It offers shockingly effective and simple manipulation of the attack and sustain properties and gifts you the bonus of a dry/wet mix control. Plus, its handy real-time scrolling waveform display shows both the original signal and the gain trace of its activity.
The next three images show how Transient Shapers on three tracks—kick, snare, and floor tom—are optimized to achieve the preferred balance of attack and sustain in each drum.
Transient Shaper on Kick
Transient Shaper on Snare
Transient Shaper on Tom
4. Create a powerful kick with Dynamic EQ
Have you ever wanted more kick when dealing with drum loops and stereo drum mixes? Just use a little EQ, right?
Sure, maybe. Although it makes sense to grab an EQ, there is a problem with traditional equalizers in this situation. Let’s say you use a standard EQ to boost 80 Hz by 4 dB on a drum loop. That 4 dB of gain applies throughout the duration of the loop, not just for the kick. So, everything in the drum loop will be tonally impacted by the EQ.
One solution is to use an EQ that can boost or cut in response to the kick. The Equalizer in Neutron 2 can do that! It can operate as a dynamic EQ, which allows you to apply a boost or cut triggered by the level and frequency zone that you specify.
In the image below, notice that band 1 of the EQ is in Dynamic Mode. It is configured for a 7.4 dB boost centered around 63 Hz, where the kick is most present. Since the sidechain is set to the band 1 frequencies, the kick will trigger the EQ boost but the hi-hat and snare will not.
5. Sculpt drum tones with a multiband gate
Even “perfectly-miked” acoustic drums will not have perfect isolation from mic to mic. So, there will be some bleed from the snare, toms, and cymbals in the kick mic, bleed from the kick, toms, and cymbals in the snare mic, etc, etc, etc. Too much of this bleed turns into a real headache in the mixing process. The downsides of editing out the bleed from the recorded tracks are “choppy” sound and using too much of your limited time, not always what you need. Using gates is a classic solution that iZotope has modernized and made even better by utilizing Multiband functionality.
The image below shows Neutron 2’s Gate in a Multiband configuration optimized for a snare. As you can see, the bands have independent settings to allow for different gain control of the frequency zones. Those zones were set via the Learn function, which lets the plug-in choose appropriate crossover frequencies based upon the analyzed audio signal.
6. Apply multiband compression on overheads
Many drum recordings present a challenge for the mixer. How do you get a nice, even level from the overheads when there are drastic differences in loudness between drums such as kick and snare?
If you’re thinking compression, you’ve nailed half of the equation! With Neutron 2’s Compressor, you can independently compress up to three different frequency zones, which offers more control over the lows for the kick, the mids for the snare, and the highs for the cymbals.
The following image shows the Compressor 1 module with all three bands active and with subjectively configured ratio, attack, release, and threshold per band. The crossover points were set automatically by pressing “Learn,” then playing the track. How cool is that?!
This particular setup helped provide a more balanced drum kit sound, even though the kick and cymbals were quiet in comparison to the snare in the original overheads.
7. Use series and parallel compression on a submix
For many mixing engineers, compression on drums is useful for both dynamic control and special sonic effects. For dynamic control of the drums, the whole drum mix is often routed through a compressor configured with moderate settings. When a compressor is to provide special sonic effects, engineers tend to favor aggressive compression blended in via parallel processing. Doing both requires two compressors and the ability to adjust the dry/wet ratio. Thankfully, that’s easy for Neutron 2!
The image below shows the Compressor 1 module tweaked for mild compression. It has a low ratio, medium to slow attack and release, and low gain reduction. One more important setting—the mix slider is set to 100% wet to ensure that only the processed signal is passed along the chain.
The next image displays the setup of the Compressor 2 module, which is placed after Compressor 1. The second compressor is configured for intense compression; it has a high ratio, faster attack and release times, and more gain reduction. This sort of sound would be too extreme on its own, but thanks to the Mix slider, it can be blended in with the original (as shown in the image).
Not all tricks will work all the time. Try them and try them again; what works for one song may not work for another and what isn’t right for one track may be perfect for another.
If you feel comfortable using Neutron 2 for dialing in your drum sounds, try it on other instruments, and read through the first three articles in this series for tips on applying Neutron 2 to vocals, guitars, and bass.