Ever notice how some mixes just sound like a demo?
You think you’ve got it balanced, but for some reason you keep turning everything up.
You think you’ve got killer tones, but for some reason you just can’t get that sheen your favorite mixes have.
You think people will love it, but after 10 minutes of listening your ears are kind of sore.
There’s tons of potential causes, but IMO one of the prime offenders are badly mixed cymbals. Nothing makes a mix sound “basement” faster than some offensive overheads ruining everything.
Even though we think of cymbals an instrument that inhabits the high end of the mix, in reality they’re very broadband and can swallow other instruments whole. Not treated correctly, a painful mix will be just the start of your problems. Shitty cymbals will step over your guitars, vocals, snares, and will make for a generally unlistenable mix.
Remember, if you want people to love your mix, they need to be able to listen to it over and over and over and over and over and over again. And I’m sure you agree, burying your cymbals should be a last resort.
1. CUT THE SHIT
One of the most commonly used cymbal mixing techniques is to high pass any unwanted low end. That’s a classic move because there’s all kinds of nasty cymbal stand vibrations, room resonances, and in some genres, drums that you just don’t want bleeding all over your overhead mics. But don’t stop there. Pull up your favorite surgical EQ (Q10 anyone?), dial up a narrow Q and boost the crap out of it. Scan around and listen for frequencies that HURT when you reach them. Cut them. With maximum prejudice. Also, scan around for the harmonics of these frequencies and experiment with cuts there. For instance, if you notice a nasty resonance at 3k, check 6k, 12k, 1.5k, etc. One word of caution… use your ears. In taming these nasty peaks, you don’t want to completely neuter your cymbals either.
2. BRING DOWN THAT SNARE
Before I go any further, here’s a disclaimer. I don’t think you should cut all drums out of your overheads. Your overheads are a huge part of your drum sound. Without good drums in your overheads (and rooms) all you’ll get is the sound of a stick hitting a head, which is incomplete… What I’m about to say applies for drums that are TOO LOUD in your overheads. Drums that are too loud in overheads will make it very difficult to dial good compression settings because the compressor will be reacting to the snare, not the cymbals. If you want to apply any sort of compression to your cymbals, it’s best to prep them for compression. There’s two basic ways that you can go about this.
Throw a stock compressor that has a side chain (dyn-3 for instance) on your cymbal track. Arm a send on your snare and send it to the compressor on your cymbal track. On said compressor, set the “key input” to react to the send from your snare track. You’ll notice that when a snare hits, the compressor will duck the cymbal track. Make sure to play with the release settings and don’t go overboard. A little goes a long way. The goal isn’t to hear your snare being actively ducked, it’s merely to prevent a snare that’s louder than your cymbals.
Throw a Waves L2 on your cymbal track and set the threshold low enough so that it reacts to the snare hits. This should bring them down to be level with the cymbals. The idea is that later in the chain when you compress, it won’t be reacting to transient spikes from the snare, causing a weird pumpy imbalance.
3. PARALLEL COMPRESSION/PROCESSING
(Thanks Josh Newell) If you’ve got cymbals that aren’t sustaining as much as you want, meaning, they just sound too short, parallel processing might be your answer. Make a mult of your cymbals, and throw a compressor you like on there with a very slow release. Subtly blend it in under the cymbals to add that length you were missing. Just like anything else I’m suggesting, subtlety is key. You don’t want to actually hear the parallel processing, you just want to hear longer cymbals. The cliche, “use your ears” applies.
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