Drums are always interesting to mix. Simply bringing together and balancing as many as 20 or 30 mics is an art in itself. Perhaps because of this, there seem to be more plugins made specifically for mixing drums than just about any other instrument.
Today, I’d like to parse through my favorites to give you a list of what I believe to be some of the key essential tools for drum mixing. Each of these plugins has helped take my own drum mixing game to the next level and I could barely imagine mixing without them now.
1. The Sound Radix Drum Leveler
Sound Radix only makes a few plugins, but each of them is truly special. Drum Leveler comes in as my first essential drum mixing plugin because it solves one of the most significant issues with live, multi-tracked drums: Bleed.
Noise gates have come and gone from my arsenal, some with more success than others. They can be frustrating enough to work with that it seems many engineers avoid them altogether, opting to work around bleed in other ways, whether by using samples, cutting dead space, or just working on optimizing their mic positioning and selection.
But there is hope. Drum Leveler has become indispensable in my drum mixing, and it may be the best, and final, gate you’ll ever need for drums. This plugin tracks hits, and cuts out all the stuff you don’t need. In every situation that I’ve used it, this plugin has delivered, and fast. The internal sidechain is custom-built for filtering out bleed, and a few helpful presets will help tailor its response for the particular kind of drum you’re working on.
Drum Leveler it’s more than just a gate, though. This plugin is also described as a “detection-based downward and upward compressor/expander”. What this means is that the plugin automatically compresses or expands individual hits to achieve a more limited dynamic range with a minimum of compression artifacts, all while respecting the natural dynamics of the performance.
In short, Drum Leveler cleans up both your drum tracks and your drummer. It can’t fake good playing, but it can take a good drum performance and make it great. Another interesting entry in this category of drum-specific gates is the Wilkinson DeBleeder. While not as flexible or powerful as the Drum Leveler, it also provides a unique take on drum gating and can currently be found for less than a third of the price.
2. A Drum Replacer, Like Slate Trigger 2
One thing Drum Leveler can’t do is fix a bad-sounding drum. Thankfully, Slate Trigger can.
Drum replacers are becoming more and more commonplace and, while a few good competitors exist, nothing comes close to Slate’s in my experience.
Trigger is a fully-featured drum replacement plugin. It allows you to load up to eight different samples and blend them however you want, along with the natural sound. You can tweak the samples further with controls for dynamics and velocity range, giving you the options to mold the sound to fit your live kit more naturally.
What I really love about Trigger is how simple it is to use. Despite being very flexible, everything makes sense within the plugin. In true Slate fashion, the important stuff is put up front while more complex options are just a few clicks away.
Despite being a “utility” plugin, this one has been essential for me in getting great and consistent-sounding mixes. To me, it’s more than just an essential drum plugin, it’s just an essential plugin in general.
When you purchase the plugin, you’ll also receive a library of Slate samples. While some may sound dated, these samples have been used on countless records, and are sure to give you some more options when blending. I end up adding Kick 7 to almost every kick I mix, even if I am blending it in with other samples to get a distinct tone each time.
All of the samples come in Slate’s proprietary TCI format. The included instrument editor will allow you to import WAV files and make your own multi-velocity samples, but one-shot WAVs can be loaded directly into the plugin as well.
Other good options include WavemachineLab’s Drumagog, Toontracks’ EZDrummer, Avid’s TL Drum Rehab and SPL’s DrumXchanger, but in my experience there is a reason that the simple and flexible Slate is winning such devoted fans with the ease-of-use and value to be found in Trigger.
Another great “utility” plugin for drums is Auto Align from Sound Radix.
Put it across all of your drum tracks, and let it go to work. This plugin will detect phase and timing issues and automatically adjust your tracks in real time.
This plugin is a real CPU hog that could bog down the your chain. However, with the “Commit” function now standard will all Pro Tools versions, this plugin is a dream to work with.
Before I touch my drum tracks, I usually set up Auto Align and commit the versions. That way, I can go forward knowing my drums are just about perfectly in phase.
Phase is one of the silent killers of great drum tracks. Especially for those just starting out, it can be hard to tell when something is out of phase, leading to disastrous results down the line. This plugin helps fix it at the source, and cuts out all of the labor of zooming in to line up transients when needed.
Setting up Auto Align can be a bit confusing at first. You start out by selecting a track to send a signal that all other instances of the plugin will receive. There is no particular track you must select, but I have found that using one of your overhead mics will generally work best.
After you’ve selected this master track, you’ll want to go through all of the instances of the plugin to set the noise floor. All this means is adjusting a slider so the plugin is only reacting to the transients and ignoring the ambient sound in the room. (Be careful not to set it too high, especially on spot mics.)
Hit “detect” and play through some of the song. Once the light stops blinking, the plugin is finished working and you can move on to the next instance.
If you’re relying heavily on room mics, be careful when using Auto Align on them. Much of the benefit of room mics is in the delay that comes from them, so they may not need to be included.
4. A Virtual Tape Machine like Slate VTM
Moving on to tonal shaping plugins, there is no end to tape saturation plugins available for use on drums.
UAD users have the acclaimed Studer A800 and Ampex ATR-102 to draw on, Waves offers the J37 Tape and Kramer Master Tape, and Crane Song’s Phoenix has long been a cult favorite, to name just a handful of options.
In my studio, the Slate Virtual Tape Machine has become something of a staple for all of my drum tracks. I put it across my drum bus to add a little “special something”, as well as using it on the individual tracks. I really don’t know what this plugin does, but I love it. It just makes everything sound polished.