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The Ultimate Guide To Mixing Toms: Punchy, Powerful, Thunderous

May 19, 2023 
Last Updated on June 7, 2023

Drumming is an art, and like all forms of art, it relies heavily on the nuances. One such nuance in the world of drums is the tom-tom, or as we affectionately call it, the tom. An often-underestimated piece of the drum kit puzzle, the tom can be the defining element that gives your track its rhythmic complexity and depth. But to unlock its full potential, it's essential to master the art of mixing toms.

In this comprehensive guide, we dive deep into the world of tom mixing. From understanding the basics of toms to achieving a balanced, dynamic, and compelling drum sound in your mixes. Whether you're a budding sound engineer or a seasoned musician, this guide will help you perfect your tom mixing techniques and elevate your overall sound production. Let's beat to a new rhythm!

What Are Toms?

A drum kit featuring the rack toms.

Toms, short for tom-toms, are cylindrical drums without snares. They come in various types, like rack toms, which are smaller and typically mounted on the drum kit, and floor toms, which are larger and stand on their own. Each type contributes its unique tone and timbre to the overall sound of a drum kit.

Rack Toms

3 rack toms in a drum kit.

Rack toms are drums that are typically mounted on a rack system or stand above the bass drum in a standard drum kit setup. They are smaller than floor toms and are typically played in a sequence to create a melodic, rhythmic pattern.

There can be one or several rack toms in a drum kit. Like all toms, they do not have snares (the wires that give a snare drum its characteristic sharp, crisp sound). Instead, rack toms produce a resonant, full-bodied sound that can vary in pitch depending on their size and tuning.

Rack toms are used across a wide range of musical genres, including rock, pop, jazz, and many others. They're integral to drum fills, solos, and certain rhythmic patterns.

Floor Toms

A red floor tom.

Floor toms are a type of drum used in many different styles of music. They are typically larger and lower-pitched than the other toms in a drum kit, including rack or mounted toms.

As their name implies, floor toms sit on the floor. They are mounted on metal legs that allow them to stand independently, typically placed to the right of the drummer's seat (for right-handed players), though placement can vary depending on the drummer's preference and the specific setup of the drum kit.

The sound of a floor tom is deep and resonant. It can be used for creating rhythmic patterns, for punctuating certain moments in the music, or for contributing to a drum fill. In some musical styles, the floor tom can even be used almost like a bass drum.

Just like all drums, the specific sound of a floor tom can be adjusted by using different types of drum heads and by fine-tuning their tensions. The size of the drum, its shell material, and the type and construction of the drum heads all contribute to the overall sound.

Mixing Toms: A Step-By-Step Guide

Before you even start the mixing process, ensure your toms are well-recorded. The choice of tom, drum head selection, and tuning can significantly affect the outcome of the mix. Start with a good source, and your mixing process will be much smoother. When mixing toms, there are several tools and techniques at your disposal:

  1. Equalization (EQ): EQ is used to balance the tonal characteristics of your toms, removing problematic frequencies and highlighting the ones that define their sound.

  2. Compression: Use compression to control the dynamics of your tom tracks, ensuring they remain consistent and balanced within the mix.

  3. Gating: Noise gates can be beneficial for cleaning up your tom tracks, eliminating bleed from other drums and emphasizing the tom hits.

  4. Panning: Panning your toms effectively can help create a realistic and immersive stereo image.

  5. Reverb: A touch of reverb can add depth and space to your toms, making them sound more natural and less "dry."

EQing Toms

1. Cut unwanted frequencies: Use a high-pass filter to remove low-end rumble that might muddy up the mix. The exact frequency to cut will vary depending on the type of tom and the mix, but usually, it will be somewhere below 60 Hz for floor toms and 80 Hz for rack toms. Also, use a 12 dB/octave slope.

2. Remove problematic frequencies: Use a narrow Q (quality factor) to sweep across the frequency spectrum and find any frequencies that sound harsh, boxy, or otherwise problematic. Once you've identified these frequencies, reduce them with a narrow cut. (Example: 250 Hz often makes the toms sound boxy.)

3. Enhance the tone: Boost the low-end frequencies to add some body to the sound – usually around 80-100 Hz for rack toms and 60-80 Hz for floor toms, but this can vary. Use a low-shelf EQ to make these adjustments

4. Add attack: If you want your toms to have more attack and stick out more in the mix, you can boost the high mids (around 4-5 kHz usually). Be careful with this, though, as too much boost in this area can make the toms sound harsh.

5. Clarity: To add clarity or air to the toms, you might want to add a high-shelf boost around 8-12 kHz.

Related Article: EQ Cheat Sheet | The Only Guide You'll Ever Need!

Compressing Toms

1. Set the Attack: The attack setting on a compressor determines how quickly the compressor responds once the signal exceeds the threshold. For toms, you typically want a medium to slow attack time (around 30-100ms). This allows the initial transient (the stick hitting the drum) to come through before the compression kicks in, ensuring punchy toms.

2. Set the Release: The release time is how long it takes for the compressor to stop reducing the volume after the signal drops below the threshold. A fast release time (around 100-200ms) is usually a good starting point for toms. This ensures that the compressor stops working before the next drum hit, avoiding a "pumping" sound. However, the optimal release time will depend on the tempo of the song and the rhythm of the tom part.

3. Set the Ratio: The ratio determines how much compression is applied once the signal exceeds the threshold. For toms, a ratio between 4:1 and 6:1 often works well.

4. Adjust the Threshold: Adjust the threshold so that the compressor is activating on the loud hits but not compressing the quieter parts too much. This will help ensure that the toms have a consistent volume and presence in the mix.

5. Use Makeup Gain: After setting your compressor parameters, adjust the makeup gain to match the output level with the input level. This is to make sure that you're not tricked into thinking the signal sounds better just because it's louder.

Gating Toms

1. Set the Threshold: The threshold setting determines at what level the gate opens and allows sound to pass through. Adjust the threshold so that it's just above the level of the bleed from other the drum sounds. This way, the gate should open only when a tom is hit.

2. Set the Attack: The attack time determines how quickly the gate opens once the signal exceeds the threshold. For toms, you typically want a fast attack time to ensure the full strength of the drum hit is captured.

3. Set the Release: The release time is how long it takes for the gate to close after the signal drops below the threshold. For toms, a longer release time can sound more natural, as it allows the full resonance of the drum to be heard.

4. Set the Hold: The hold setting determines the minimum amount of time the gate stays open after the signal exceeds the threshold. Adjusting this correctly can prevent the gate from closing too quickly, cutting off the natural decay of the tom.

5. Use a Sidechain or Key Input (if available): Some gates allow you to set a sidechain or key input, which means the gate is triggered by a different signal than the one it is processing. By setting the snare or kick drum as the key input, you can prevent the gate on the toms from opening when these louder drums are hit.

6. Use Range/Depth control (if available): Instead of completely closing the gate and muting the sound, some gates allow you to set a range or depth control that only reduces the volume by a certain amount. This can create a more natural sound by allowing some bleed to come through when the tom is not being played.

Related Article: Top 5 Noise Gate Plugins

Panning Toms

Panning tom drums is actually a pretty simple task. All you have to do is solo up the stereo overheads and listen to find out where the toms exist in the sound field. Make sure you do this with headphones as it requires constructive listening. After you determine where each tom goes, pan them accordingly and listen with the overhead tracks to make sure they sound cohesive.

Reverb On Toms

When applying effects to toms all you need is a good room reverb. Use the same reverb you are using on the rest of the drum kit to make them sound like they are in the same room. You don't want to use anything with a long decay time. A natural sounding studio room or chamber usually works best.

One of the best ways to understand the impact of well-mixed toms is by listening to popular tracks. Songs like "In The Air Tonight" by Phil Collins or "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin showcase the power and rhythmic drive well-mixed toms can deliver. Check these songs out below.

Final Thoughts

And there you have it - your ultimate guide to mixing toms. While it might initially seem like a daunting task, with practice and patience, you'll soon find yourself effectively enhancing your drum mixes with well-balanced and dynamic toms. Remember, there's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to mixing. Each track will require its own unique touch. So, experiment with these techniques, tweak them to your liking, and above all, trust your ears. Happy mixing, and here's to creating rhythmically rich and compelling music!

If you found the information in this article helpful, please considering subscribing to our blog for more music production tips, tricks, and advice.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why is it important to mix toms correctly?

In certain cases, toms contribute significantly to the rhythm and groove of a song. Properly mixed toms enhance the overall balance and feel of the drum mix, while poorly mixed toms can lead to a muddy or unbalanced sound.

Can I follow the same process for mixing all types of toms?

The basic principles of EQ, compression, and gating apply to all toms. However, each type of tom – from rack toms to floor toms – will require different settings depending on its size, material, and the specific sound you're aiming for.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when mixing toms?

Common mistakes when mixing toms include overusing reverb, excessive EQ boosts, and panning toms too wide. Each mix is unique, so it's crucial to experiment and listen closely to achieve the best results.

Are there any advanced techniques for mixing toms?

Advanced techniques for mixing toms include using automation to enhance dynamics, layering samples in for a fuller sound, and using sidechain compression or gating techniques for a cleaner mix.

How can I make my toms sound more professional?

Good tom sound starts with a quality recording. Make sure your toms are well-tuned and properly miked. In the mixing stage, effective use of EQ, compression, and gating, as well as advanced techniques like automation and layering, can greatly enhance your overall tom sound.

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