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Engineer Notebook: How to Bring Life into Sampled Drums

Engineer Notebook: How to Bring Life into Sampled Drums

Mixing Drums is most definitely one of the biggest challenges for a mixing engineer. In today’s world of home and project studios—not being able to record acoustic drums a lot of times, combined with the need to have a current sound—this is even more of a challenge.

Here is an approach that works for me and might work for you as well:

First, to note, drums played by a great drummer—sampled or not—will always sound better, so the first step is to try and find a great drummer for your project—it’s more than half the battle won.

Being a drummer myself I tend to play on most recording sessions that I end up mixing and since I can’t record acoustic drums in my project studio due to noise concerns, I invested in a Roland V-Drum Set because it’s the closest to a real drum set in regards to feel, but drum pads and even a keyboard can do the trick as well.

Ok, let’s get started: The overall philosophy here is to treat sampled drums just like acoustic drums—that means you need to get a bit creative.

Taylor Hawkins – Foo Fighters

Do not over quantize, the better the performer the less you should need and the more life-like it will feel, only correct what is absolutely needed, otherwise you will get a drum machine sound.

I record every instrument through a quality preamp, maybe a bit of EQ and some compression. If you don’t have enough pre’s, solo the instruments and record them separately—bass drum, snare, toms, etc.

Stay mono, at least for the snare, hi-hat, and bass drum. Toms and cymbals can be done in stereo, but you will have more room to play in mono when it comes to panning.

The V-Drums have an Overhead option as well but other systems or libraries might not. In that case you need to create your own: Do a basic level mix (NO EQ, compression, or reverbs at this time) and route those to a Drum Bus. Next, lower the bass drum and snare drum a bit more to emphasis on the cymbals. Now record that into its own stereo or multi mono tracks and pan hard right and left. Here’s your overhead track. Add this to the Drum Bus and bring the snare and bass drum back up. Again do some basic level mixing, NO effects.

OK, but what about a Room mic? Glad you asked. Create another Stereo or multi mono track coming out of the Drum Bus as you have it and pan it hard left and right. Add its output to the Drum Bus. Now add a reverb as an Insert and have the Mix to 100%—you are basically draining it. Use a large room or maybe a great studio Convulsion reverb—you need to play around with this a bit I usually use a large hall.

Next add a 1176 style compressor to the next Insert, set the Attack to slow and the Release to slow and set the Ratio about 12:1 and compress it pretty hard. Next add a Transient Designer to the next Insert slot. If you don’t have one or know what that is, do some research these things are a must for drums. I use the Universal Audio SPL Transient Designer which is the plugin version of SPL’s outboard box and it rocks. Take off attack and add sustain. If you’re doing this right you should have the equivalent of a room now. Start mixing this into the drums to taste—the larger the room, the less the smaller, you get the picture. Don’t be afraid to experiment here, as this takes some practice to get it right.

Moving on, let’s ad some EQ and light compression to the individual instruments just as you would for a regular drum set, and some transient designer to the snare and bass drum, maybe? Add some reverb if needed.

Now let’s add some parallel compression, or New York Style Compression, note you can also just add some drum bus compression to glue everything together. This is a matter of taste. I personally prefer parallel, it gives me a bit more flexibility I have found.

Create a new Bus, call it Drums Compression Bus.

Route every drum related channel to the Compression Bus except for the Drum Bus, on top of still routing to the Drums Bus, of course. Depending on your DAW this might be straight forward or a bit of a challenge, do some reading here, I don’t want to make it too easy for you. Wink.

Once you have figured this one out you should have two Buses receiving the same signal. Add a Bus Style Compressor to the insert of the Compressor Bus (I prefer the SSL G Series Bus Compressor) and compress it pretty hard, play with the release and attack times to taste, I usually have the release fast and the attack a bit slower and the ratio at 4:1. Once you have this, start mixing the Compressor Bus into the drums until you get the sound you want. Again this takes practice, play around, you might come up with something amazing!

Lastly you might want to add a few bass drum or snare samples and mix them in, to give it a more current sound or make it more punchy—taste is the word here.

One word of caution: Watch the phase relationships and possible compensate for delays, depending on your DAW you might have some issues—bad phasing can ruin the best mix, but this is for another time.

And that is it—enjoy.

Main photo: Neil Peart – Rush

About the Author

Thomas Hornig Thomas Hornig is a freelance Producer/Mixer/Session Player located in Studio City, CA. He is the owner of Tomcat On The Prowl Productions and focuses primarily on Singer/Songwriter Folk/Pop style music. Thomas has worked with Artists such as Dorian Holley, Jennifer Quiroz, Larry Dunn, Skye Stevenson, Deanna Pino, Tati Rabell, Josh Rich, and many more. Contact:, or

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