Is mixing percussion difficult? In the mind of most beginners, it’s probably something that doesn’t even deserve time to think about. Since it’s often such a (seemingly) small part of the music, people simply just throw it in the mix. Whether it was a recorded percussion part, or something that came as a sample or even a synth generated sound, they just add it to the mix more or less as an afterthought. Is that the right way to handle it?
Of course not. Percussion – despite of often being a small element on its own – can be the heart and soul of a good mix. Let’s see how you can consciously mix and enhance your percussion tracks.
Not always small
First of all, while the tracks may sound small and harsh on their on, putting them in the mix can reveal certain masking in the low end, and not enough midrange cut. Of course percussive elements don’t cause near as much problems with masking as sustaining ones, they can get in the way if a drum kit is present as well. You don’t want your cajón to compete with the kick. You also don’t want your shakers disappear against the hi-hat.
Plan your arrangement
Part of it is an arrangement thing. If you can plan ahead and place your percussive elements on an imaginary grid when there are little overlaps, and the ones that are present make sense musically, you have won half the battle. The second important part is the recording. You can control the sound a major way with mic placement, and mic choice as well. For example, capturing the tambourine with a ribbon (Coles) or a beefy dynamic mic (RE20) from a bit of a distance will result in a softer sound. If you know that there won’t be much competition for your percussion (a laid back, sparser song), you can go down that way for a tasty sound. In a denser tune where you just want to balance out a hi-hat with a shaker or shekere, you might want to go with a fast condenser put right on the sound source, to get all the bite available.
If you’re working with samples, your only way is to pick the right ones and/or EQ the living shite out of them. You can thin out brassy bells and chimes this way. You can also dial in an upper midrange edge to those wood blocks or bongos if they are lacking cutting power.
Compression – not always necessary
Go easy with compression. You can of course turn up an impressive room sound with the compressor, but it’s often going to cost you the sharpness of the track. Parallel compression is a route worth considering, if you want a bit of both. If all you need is a soft hiss here and there, or an almost indetectable, subtle pulse of the congas, by all means, compress it.
A balance thing
Make sure that your panning choices don’t put the whole mix out of balance. Percussion is something that plays almost constantly, or at least all the way through certain structural parts of the song. That means if you don’t carefully balance it with the rest of the percussive frame of the track, it will result in a tilted stereo image. On the other hand, sometimes it’s actually a desirable thing, especially if you want to put a surprising effect in the music. It can work great for a few passages, but not recommended for a whole verse or chorus.