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How To Pump Up Your Toms With Compression

Toms are arguably the most musical component of your drum kit. They’re what transform a purely rhythmic instrument into a melodic one.

If you want your toms to deliver a huge, pumped-up sound, you’ll need to inflate them with a compressor. Dynamic compression — more than any other effect — is the secret sauce for punchy, hard-hitting toms.

In this post, we’ll walk you through tried-and-true methods for compressing toms. If you’ve struggled to achieve solid-sounding toms, the tips and tricks in this post are guaranteed to yank you out of your rut.

You Can’t Polish A Turd

Inexperienced mix engineers have a tendency to stack plug-ins onto a track in an effort to achieve a studio-quality sound — even if the original track was recorded poorly. 

This is a mistake, however. If a track sounds bad without processing, adding compression and other effects to it will likely make it sound worse.

Rather than trying to cover up a track’s imperfections with plug-ins, try re-recording it instead. If re-recording the track isn’t possible, such as when you’re mixing somebody else’s project, a sample replacement plug-in is the way to go.

Sample replacement plug-ins do exactly what their name suggests: they replace a subpar sound with a high-quality, studio-produced sound. This will enable you to give your toms a recorded-in-a-world-class-studio quality that’s guaranteed to elevate your production.

You don’t need to go all out, of course. If your toms sound limp, yet passable, try blending just enough of the samples to reinforce the original sound; if your toms are completely unusable, replace the original sound entirely.

After you get your toms sounding great without processing, then you’ll be ready to go onto the next step.

A Word About Tuning

Since toms are melodic percussion instruments, tuning them to the key of your song will oftentimes make them sit in your mix better.

While this isn’t essential, tuning your toms to the key of your song will avoid dissonant frequency collisions and weird oscillations — often perceived as an unpleasant ringing — especially when you’re playing two toms at once. It will also allow you to let the toms ring out — you won’t feel as compelled to dampen them.

Many tone aficionados feel that the tonic and dominant notes — the first and fifth degrees of the scale — are the best notes to aim for when tuning toms. Regardless, choose notes that are within the scale that corresponds to the key of your song.

It’s also important to note that different tom sizes possess different optimal tuning ranges, so you should choose notes that are inside of this range. This will ensure that the tom not only sounds great in the context of your song, but also in isolation.

Remove Unwanted Resonances

Toms, like every other track in your mix, are prone to unwanted frequency buildups. Also known as resonances, these frequency pileups not only deplete dynamics and headroom, but they’ll also hamper your ability to mix the track.

Historically, you’d get rid of unwanted resonance by instantiating a dynamic EQ plug-in on the offending track, creating a large boost with a narrow-Q bandwidth, then sweeping around the frequency spectrum to reveal any troublesome frequencies. You’d then lower the gain on the bad-sounding frequency band until the unwanted artifacts disappear. ,,,,,

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