Drums Loudness: How Loud Should They Be?

How Loud Should Drums Be in a Mix? (Kick, Snare, Clap, Hi-Hats & More) | integraudio.com

This article discusses in detail how loud drums should be in a mix and how their different parts, like kick, snare, hi-hats, percussions, etc., are balanced. We will also be diving into how loud different drum parts are against each other. Finally, we will discuss mixing case studies to deepen our understanding of the topic and learn how drums can be made louder.

Drums, typically, are the loudest in a mix. First, this is primarily because of the transient nature of drums, making them peak at the maximum volume. Secondly, the musical trend over time has led to drums being louder, punchier, and less dynamic than ever in today’s songs.

There are exceptions to this, which we will discuss in this article in the following sections, but this is true for most popular songs we hear today. Even if we make a creative choice of mixing drums softer than usual, we have to ensure that the drums are just loud enough to cut through the mix in every possible sound system without clashing with the vocals. In drums, the kick is typically the loudest and takes up the most headroom.

The drum’s next most prominent element is the snare, followed by the hi-hat and then by the rest of the percussions. We also have to ensure that within drums, at least kick and snare are mixed loud enough to cut through the mix without clashing with the rest.

We will be using the mix session of one of my songs as a case study. This is an electronic folk-pop song, so the balance is done accordingly. The final long-term LuFS and dB True Peak ratings for different elements, before I exported the track for mastering, were as follows:

Drums Bus
-12 dB LUFS
0.6 dbTP
Kick
 -13 dB LUFS
0.6 dbTP
Snare
– 17 dB LUFS
-2.6 dBTP
Percussion
-22 dB LUFS
-4.6 dBTP
-13 dB LUFS
1.6 dBTP
– 17 dB LUFS
-5.8 dBTP

In this mix session, Drums Bus is loud at about -12dB LUFS, with its true peak at 0.6 dB. If we talk about the peak volume, we can rank different elements as vocals > kick > snare > percussion > bass.

However, perceived loudness is more accurately determined by the RMS or LUFS values, not peak decibel values. So in terms of LUFS, this is how different elements can be ranked in terms of loudness: drums bus > kick = vocals > snare > percussions > bass.

So clearly, in this mix session, drums (collectively) sit on top of all other elements in the mix. The kick is the loudest in drums, followed by snare and percussions. The balance of drums may vary with respect to every genre, so we will also discuss that in detail in a later section.

How to balance drums in a mix?

Start with the kick drum and then balance the other drum sounds against that. The reason for doing so is because the kick takes up more headroom than any other element, so it becomes difficult to find space for the kick if we balance it in the later stages of the mix.

It’s like how we stuff the heaviest fruit in the basket before we pack any other smaller items into it. Then, after the kick has been given its space, we can start balancing lighter elements against it. Different music producers and mixing engineers have different ways of balancing a mix. We will discuss a step-by-step approach to how you can balance the drums in a mix and also some other methods & practices.

  • Gain Staging

When starting a mix, the first step is to gain-stage the individual tracks. After importing the stems or multi-tracks in the project, some engineers & producers set the gain of the individual tracks to -16 dB; some set it at -12 dB, as one may prefer. As a rule of thumb, Gain staging could be done at any level below -9 dB.

However, I recommend doing it at -16 dB. By gain staging at -16 dB, we ensure that all tracks are set to an optimal level to minimize noise and distortion and leave enough headroom for processing in our track.

A complete guide to GAIN STAGING (your questions answered)
  • Level Balancing

After gain-staging, start balancing the mix by soloing each track one by one and setting its fader to a certain level. Start with the kick drum. Solo the kick first and set its fader to a level of my preference. After that, solo the snare drum and balance it against the kick track. Further,  solo hi-hats and listen to it against the kick and snare tracks and set its fader accordingly.

Similarly, one by one, further solo every single drum and percussion track and set its balance with reference to the kick, snare, and hats. Once my drums are balanced, I route all drum tracks in a single drums bus. Then balance the rest of the instruments, vocals, bass tracks, etc., against the drums bus.

  • Visualize the Performance

One technique you can use is to visualize the performance of the song. Imagine the song being performed on a stage. Ask yourself where you would want each element of the song to be? If we draw a 3-dimensional graph of the song, volume is considered as the height of the song, pan or stereo image is considered as the width of the song, and frequency is considered the depth of the song. Hence, we balance our song in terms of frequency, volume and pan. So while balancing the volume of each element, visualize which element of the arrangement stands closest to you.

For example, if you visualize the performance of Billy Jean by Michael Jackson, the kick is the most upfront element in that song, with bass being just below it. Further, I visualize the snare above the kick. And in between the kick and snare, in the center, are the vocals. Hi-Hats (left) and shakers (right) are behind kick and snare. Snaps are towards the left and a bit behind the elements mentioned above. Synths lie behind the vocals. Guitars are just behind the vocals and to the left.

After listening to this song, this is how I visualized the balance of the drums in this song to be: kick > snare > hats > shakers. This is how you could visualize a balance in your mind and set levels accordingly. Whatever you visualize to be the closest or most in-your-face would be louder, and whatever is visualized farther from you would be balanced at softer levels.

  • Monitor at different levels

Further, to make sure that the drums are cutting through at each level, monitor the mix at very soft levels (40-60 dB SPL), medium levels (70-80 dB SPL), and loud levels (>90 dB SPL) by rotating the knob of my monitors or interface’s output. Ensure that the balance remains intact at both soft and loud levels.

Especially at softer levels, the drums must transcend through the mix. If they are not cutting through at softer levels, the drum track is not loud enough, and we need to re-balance it.

Drums Loudness: How Loud Should They Be? - 2024 Update

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  • Keep referencing

Another tip is to keep comparing the mix with a reference track. A reference track could be any song that is sonically & musically close to the song you’re mixing. One could always take references from and draw comparisons to industry song(s) that have worked in the past and falls in the same mood & genre as that of the song you’re mixing.

We use reference songs because we, as humans, have a lot of bias toward certain things, which leads to creativity but may also limit you. So it’s important to have a different perspective. Reference songs specifically help you when your ears are tired, and you aren’t able to make a good judgment or decision.

  • Listen to more and more music

A more long-term tip to get better at balancing is to listen to as much music as possible and not just listen but to actively listen to the balance of the song mix and make mental notes of it. We can always study existing songs that have worked in the past. Listening to more & more music programs in your subconscious how good music is supposed to sound like. This practice builds a good ear and slowly comes to the surface in your practice and workflow.  

How the balance of the drums in different genres look like?

  • Hip-hop music

Typically, in a hip-hop song, kick, snare, and hi-hats dominate the groove. A perfect example of a good drums balance in a hip-hop song would be The Box by Roddy Rich. In this song, the drums, primarily the kick and vocals, sound just about the same loudness. Hats and snare in the song are still softer than vocals, though. However, this song’s clean mixing and production don’t let the drums and vocals clash.
Drums Loudness: How Loud Should They Be? - 2024 Update

Let’s take an example of another one of my songs Bombay Dilli, which is a typical modern-day hip-hop/rap-RnB/pop song with trap-based production. Again, these numbers are from the pre-master final mix-down session.

Element
dB LUFS Value
dBTP (True Peak) Value
Drums Bus
-13
-3.3
Kick
-19
-5.1
Snare
-19
-3.6
Hi-hats
-25
-8
Vocals
-18
-6.3
Melody (Guitars + Synths)
-20
-8.5
8o8 Bass
-15
-7.4
Sound FX
-28
-7

As this table tells, the drums bus has the maximum LUFS and peak values in the mix, followed by bass, vocals, and synths. With the master bus peaking at 1.1 dB, drums peak at -3.3 dB. The master bus has a long-term LUFS of -12 dB, while the drums bus has a long-term LUFS of -13 dB. This is the order of loudness of different elements in this mix session: drums bus > 8o8 bass > vocals > snare > kick > melody > hi-hats > sound fx.

  • Pop Music

In modern-day pop music, drums should be the leading element in the mix, after vocals. Pop music is also very drum-dominant. However, pop borrows its musical & production elements from genres like hip-hop, EDM, Rock, RnB, etc. In a pop song, vocals are the most crucial element. Hence, for this genre, drums must be loud enough to support the vocals with a groove and add the required punch to the song.

Let’s take the example of the song Harleys in Hawaii by Katy Perry, a major pop hit in 2019. Drums and vocals guide this song. The melody track (guitars and other melodic instruments) and bass track in terms of loudness take a backseat in the mix of this song.

On the other hand, All Too Well by Taylor Swift is a contrasting example from the same pop genre, in which just vocals and drums do not precisely dominate the arrangement since this song has more of a Pop-rock arrangement. However, in both the songs, drums are balanced as loud if not louder than the vocals.

  • Acoustic Genres

Genres like Rock, Jazz, Country, Soul, etc., are produced more acoustically and have arrangements that usually place almost equal importance on vocals, melodic instruments like guitars & pianos, and drums. So, in this case, the balance may not always be commanded by drums alone. So, in these genres, drums, especially kick and snare, should be just loud enough to cut through at any monitoring levels in any sound system.

In these songs, the primary purpose of drums is to support the song with a groove.
Also, in acoustic arrangements, especially in classic rock songs, the snare usually stands out more than the kick in conventional electronic arrangements. This is because, in this genre, the main accent of the drums falls on the upbeat, which is usually played on the snare drum. So, for example, in Smells Like Teen Spirits by Nirvana, the snare is heavier than the kick drum by at least 3 decibels.

  • EDM & Dance

EDM songs have the drums or the synths as the loudest elements of the mix. Drums in EDM songs could be up to -10 dB LUFS loud, given the mix (including the drums bus) is peaking at 0 dB. EDM and other dance songs usually have hard-hitting and in-your-face drums, especially in the drops. Take, for example, Laung Gawacha by Nuclea.

Drums command this song. EDM songs also have very loud synths and bass parts to fill up the entire frequency spectrum. Digging out the mix session of another one of my songs, KMTN, an EDM song, in which the drums peak the maximum in this mix but are softer than synths due to their higher dynamic range.

Charted below is the balance of drums and how loud they are compared to the rest of the instruments in the main drop of the song.

Element
dB LUFS Value
dB TP Value
Master Bus
-6
1.6
Drums Bus
-11
1.6
Synths Bus
-9
1.4

Should my drums be louder than my melody?

Yes, in most cases, the drum track exceeds the melody track in terms of loudness. In a typical pop/hip-hop mix, the drums take a more fore-front position as compared to the melody tracks, especially in choruses and drops. Although in some sections, the order between the two will alter. 

The melody track includes anything from guitars, synths, pianos, etc. In some rock arrangements, the usual sequence of loudness between drums and melody may reverse. Take for example Nightmare by Avenged Sevenfold, in which in most part of the song, the guitars are totally dominating the drums. Similarly, in Take Me To Church by Hozier, the drum track is balanced softer than the melody track. So the order of loudness in these examples is Vocals > Melody > Drums > Bass. 

Should my drums be louder than my bass?

Usually, the drums are balanced a few decibels above the bass in a mix. The primary reason is the ample headroom and energy bass takes in an arrangement. Also, low frequencies have longer wavelengths, making them travel farther than high frequencies, which may result in muddy mixes in smaller spaces.

Hence, conventionally bass is kept softer than drums. Since kick and bass are almost the same frequency range, their balance is essential. However, there may be some exceptions to this balance. For example, in Attention by Charlie Puth, the entire groove rides upon the bassline and the kick. In this song, the bass guitar takes over the drums, and this arrangement works well for this song.

Similarly, Dark Necessities by Red Hot Chilli Peppers is another exception. In this song also, the groovy bass line dominates the drums. So, if the entire song rides on the bass line’s groove, we have a good reason to balance the bass louder than the drums.

How loud should different parts of drums be against each other?

When different parts of drums are compared against each other, in terms of loudness, either the kick drum or the snare drum is the loudest part of the drums in the mix. The reason for this is that kick and snare carry the song’s central groove, with the accent at either the upbeat (snare) or the downbeat (kick).

In genres like dance, EDM, disco, etc., the kick drum should be louder than any other part of the drums. If we are mixing acoustic drums, the snare is usually the snappiest part of the drums. After kick and snare, hit-hats are prioritized. Further, crashes, rides, shakers, toms, etc., can be as loud or soft as you want them to be, as per your taste, but not louder than the kick, snare, and hi-hats.

How loud should the beat be in a mix?

A beat with enough headroom in the frequency range of the vocals can be kept as loud as the vocals by matching the peak loudness of the beat and the vocals. This means that the beat, and hence the mix, could peak at 0 dB, given vocals can climb through the mix.

This case is usually used when there’s a pre-mixed instrumental track that you’re recording or mixing over. Note: “Beat” is a generalized term on the internet & YouTube world that is used to describe the backing track or the instrumental of the song. In the audio engineering world, it has a different meaning. In FL Studio, it has a different meaning.

Here, we will consider beat as the backing track only. So everything except vocals can be described as a beat. Keeping in mind that vocals have to be able to cut through in a mix, the beat has to be balanced accordingly. A pre-mixed beat usually has drums as its most potent element.

In some cases, for vocals to stand out without their peak decibel value exceeding that of the beat, they would have to be compressed, and their dynamic range would have to be squashed. Further, we could also take the help of mid-side processing, harmonics processing, and stereo imaging to achieve this.

How to make your drums louder?

You can make your drums louder by decreasing their dynamic range using dynamic processors (compressors, limiters, etc.), or by altering their harmonic structure using harmonic enhancers (distorters, saturators, etc.). We will be examining this deeply in the following paragraphs.

Let’s talk about loudness. Loudness can be classified into two categories: perceived and physical. Perceived loudness is entirely dependent on the ears of the listener and how sensitive the listener’s ears are. Each pair of ears perceive sound differently. Physical loudness, which is also called volume, is measured loudness. This is not subjective and remains the same for everyone.

Volume change results from sound pressure change in the environment, which results in perceived loudness in the human ears. Volume is measured in decibels (dB). So the first instinct to check the loudness of an audio track is to read the decibel or dB meter to measure the loudness. However, this doesn’t give the whole picture.

Instinctively, increasing the volume of the drums or adding gain to the drums should result in louder sounding drums. However, there is a better way to increase the loudness of drums without changing the peak dB value of the drums or adding gain to them.

Let’s understand what dynamic range is. The dynamic range of a track over time is the difference between the loudest and softest parts of the track over that period. Perceived loudness and energy are influenced primarily by the dynamic range and not the peak loudness of the audio track.

Higher dynamic range in drums will result in softer sounding drums, and lower dynamic range will result in louder sounding drums. Hence, to make your drums louder, you have to decrease the dynamic range of the drums; that is, bring the softest parts of the drums track or bus closer to the loudest parts of the drums track or bus.

How to pan drums in a mix?

It is a general rule of thumb to pan the kick in the center and snare on top of it. Therefore, for a clap used interchangeably of the snare, it has to be in the center, though you can widen your claps if you have a solid snare and want to put the clap in the background.

Else, it could be panned left or right. For example, high hats and percussions need not be in the center. So, we can pan other parts of drums & percussions across different ends of the stereo field. For example, shakers can be panned left; hi-hats can be panned right, and so on. Panning different elements of drums give the drums more width and add perspective to the performance of the drums.

For example, the kick is primarily panned center because of its low frequency, making it very complicated to mix if panned otherwise. Another reason for kick & snare being in the center is that the entire groove relies upon the interplays between them, so they have to sound equally loud in all left, right, and mono channels.

Drums Loudness: How Loud Should They Be? - 2024 Update

By Beat Maker 101

Further, you could use three-dimensional stereo imaging plugins like S1-Imager, Ozone Imager, Brauer Motion, etc. By using these plug-ins, you can place your drum elements anywhere in the 3-D stereo field, which is not just limited to left and right directions, but also extends to vertical directions.

How the loudness of Drums has changed over time

The loudness of drums has had an upward trend since the 80s. The music industry used to be more acoustic dominant before that. Since synthesizers, samplers, and audio software got popular, the shift has been towards electronic music. There are a couple of reasons behind this trend which are discussed below.

Funk, hip-hop, and other dance genres have pushed today’s music towards having a cleaner and punchier drum mix. Today, most top songs in top playlists on Spotify and leading charts have songs with louder and hard-hitting drums as compared to the songs in the 2000s and before. Even rock music in 2024 uses sampled and programmed drums layered with recorded drums.

For example, if we compare punk rock songs from different periods, like Anarchy in The UK by Sex Pistols (1970’s) with Holiday by Green Day (2004) and Emo Girl by MGK (2022), we notice how drums over time have gotten crisper and louder. This is due to improvements in recording and mixing technology. This also has to do with Loudness Wars, which is an increasing trend of louder audio masters resulting in lower fidelity & less dynamic music.

Avoid this mistake!

It’s a huge mistake to balance the track(s) using gain knob(s) and not level fader(s). So let’s understand the difference between gain and level first. Often these terms are used interchangeably, but they’re technically different, and their meanings may vary at different stages of song production.

Gain is the volume of a waveform or audio at the input stage, and level is the volume of that waveform or audio at the output stage. So while recording, the gain is the volume of the mic you set at the interface, and level is the volume you get in the daw after the track is recorded. Similarly, when you start mixing or dragging in a sample or loop in your session, the gain is the volume you set in your sampler, and the level is the volume you set in the mix window using faders.

A lot of new music producers & audio engineers tend to balance the tracks from the gain knob. However, this is a huge mistake and may mess up your processing and mixes. One should always remember to balance the tracks from the faders in the mix window or mixer only. This is also the difference between gain staging and level balancing.

Here’s a video on how to set levels in a mix:

How to ACTUALLY Set Instrument Levels in a Mix | musicianonamission.com - Mix School #17

In other words, gain staging is the first step in the mixing process, before you apply any plugins. Whereas, level balancing keeps happening throughout the entire mixing process.

Conclusion

For setting the volume levels of the drums right, I recommend referencing other songs in that genre, listening to as much music as possible, and following your intuition, creativity, and knowledge to balance the drums in a mix. There are certain rules of thumb but no rules for creating music. With practice and experience, one develops their ways and methods of mixing and balancing music.

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