The case against compressed drums (articulation vs texture)

Don’t overcompress those drums!

When drums are compressed, the body of the drums is brought up in level (relative to the transient). This creates the perception of longer sustain, making the drums sound bigger. By bringing up the level of the audio between the transients, there is more sound overall. This makes the drums sound fuller. Coupled with the right kind of envelope shaping from the compressor, this results in a drum sound that is interesting and exciting!

In the context of a mix, however, this can just as easily work against you. Within the context of a mix, drums traditionally serve as rhythmic articulation. That is, they are the ‘spiky’ hits that rise above the other instruments to establish the timing and the groove of the music. On a continuous scale between articulation and texture the drums are almost entirely articulation, whereas the other instruments are more texture.

When the drums are heavily compressed the longer, louder sustain between the drum hits adds more textural sound. This leaves less textural room for other instruments. This might be appropriate if the mix is quite sparse, but you want to make it sound thick and full. A heavily compressed drum group might only need a bass and melody to sound like a complete mix. On the other hand, it will be difficult to fit in a subtle layered pad or detailed background sounds. They’ll have to be much louder to be audible, which muddies the mix and reduces its depth (because the background is not so far away).

A subtle and deep mix will be better served by shorter drums with less sustain. While these drums will sound weaker on their own, they’ll be more appropriate in the mix. The space between the drum hits will provide ample space for bringing in other sounds, allowing either a subtle textural approach or a deep mix with a far background. The space between the drum hits is like a window through which the listener hears the rest of the mix.


    • Jacaré
    • August 12th, 2009

    Great article Kim. The drums taking such space in a mix BECAUSE of the so loved compression, I would never guess it. In fact never thought of it, in any way near that… that is something I’ll experiment on ! Thanks…

  1. Every mix is a balance. There are always compromises to be made. The craft is in choosing the right compromises that serve the song.

    Even in a dense or deep mix, the drums don’t necessarily need to be without compression. It might still be useful to use compression to keep the dynamics even. Just keep in mind that it’s a different approach to compression – using it for dynamics, rather than for enveloping. You can be much gentler.


    • Jacaré
    • August 12th, 2009

    It’s always good to have more tricks in your repertoire. Thanks again Kim.

    • Rich
    • August 13th, 2009

    Excellent! I think I just learned more about compressing drums in this short article than in any book or tutorial I’ve encountered yet!! Very well put and THANK YOU :~)


  2. I definitely echo the comments from Rich and Jacare. Great advice, great blog. Thanks for taking the time to post all of this.

    • john
    • October 6th, 2009

    this is a HUGE problem with a lot of dance music these days, especially the type that im most exposed too. everyone is so hell bent on having the biggest, fattest, most in your face drums that they dont realize how little room it leaves in the rest of the mix. if you’ve got a bowel loosening kick drum and a tree-trunk thick thwacking snare drum on every freaking tune it leaves you with such a smaller aural canvas to work with as far as all the other parts are concerned.

    AND its bad for your ears!

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