If there’s one secret to mixing, it’s that there is no secret. Disappointing, isn't it? But every song is different, and requires different approaches to achieve the best possible sound.
Still, most engineers have habits that they tend to follow when mixing: methods and workflows they have found works best for them. In an interview recently, a famed mixing engineer said that he almost always mixes drums first out of habit, making them essentially act as one instrument, and then builds the rest of the track around those drums.
Of course, he points out that there’s almost always tweaking to be done to the individual drums later on in the mix, but getting a good drum sound can be a great way to build a foundation for your mix. Here, we’ll look at the advantages and disadvantages of starting your mix with drums.
The biggest advantage of starting your mix with drums is that you get a complicated portion of the mix out of the way early. Drums take up a large amount of tracks, usually ranging from at least four to well over 20 on large sessions, so it’s understandable that these can be a daunting set of audio tracks staring at you from your mix window as you get ready to put your song together.
Getting the drum sounds and levels first allows you to put all of these tracks into one group that you can essentially operate as one fader for most of the rest of your mix. Setting your drum mix and thinking of them as one instrument also lessens the urge to adjust individual drum tracks during your mix. Even the slightest adjustments doing this can throw off your entire drum mix, leading you to have to essentially start over with the drums.
However, after you’ve added the other instruments, you can go back to your specific drum tracks if something sound off and adjust EQ, compression or any other effects that will get you the sound you want within the context of the song as a whole.
The primary disadvantage of mixing drum first is that you’re not necessarily accounting for the sounds and frequencies of other instruments in your mix. For example, some engineers start mixing with the lead vocal, and then build the mix around the vocal, making sure no frequencies or volumes interfere with that vocal, ensuring it’s the focal point of the song.
But even disregarding the vocal track, sometimes drums need to be very prominent in the instrumental mix of a song, and sometimes other instruments (i.e. guitar or piano) need to be the most noticeable instrument. In cases like this, mixing the drums first can create problems when you add in those other instruments, as they may become overpowered by the drum sounds, volume and frequencies.
But as we say often on the Sage Audio mastering blog, the best method is whatever best fits the song. As you get more experienced mixing, you’ll be able to tell not only what general workflow works best for you, but also when to change up that workflow to best suit a particular song. Still, if you are in the middle of a mix that’s just not coming together, never be afraid to start over working with another instrument (or instruments) first in your mix.