Drum EQ Guide – How to Use EQ to Improve Your Drum Sound

Drum Equalizer GuideDrums are at the very core of a track’s rhythm and feel. The kick drum punctuates a track’s rhythm, the snare drives it forward and the cymbals and toms support the backbeat whilst providing rhythmic interest, effects and fills.

EQ is a fundamental tool that will vastly improve your drum sound. There’s no way of avoiding EQ – it doesn’t matter if your drums are samples like 808s or are acoustically recorded.

EQ drums properly for a crisper, sharper and more professional mix!

EQ: Why is it so Important for Drums?

The fundamental purpose of EQ is to equalize and balance a song’s frequency spectrum. EQ gives each instrument in a mix its own sense of space, improving a song’s dynamics, color, and tone.

The drum kit is by far the most complex instrument in terms of its stereo image and frequency content – it covers all frequencies from the lowest thud of a kick drum to the highest wisp of a splash cymbal. As a result, it’s tough to get all the drums sitting well alongside other instruments in the mix.

The solution? EQ. The first step to a killer drum sound is to EQ each individual drum track. It’ll vastly improve your drum sound and glue your entire song together.

The problem is, EQing drums isn’t just about low-passing and high-passing, it’s about targeting problem areas whilst keeping the fundamental pitch of the drums in-tact.

EQ is a tricky subject for most beginner producers but with experimentation, listening skill and knowledge, you’ll learn how to quickly dial-in the EQ settings that can completely transform your song.

EQ will change the way you approach production.

To Boost or to Attenuate? that is the Question…

A fundamental element of EQ is knowing whether to boost (increase) a signal or attenuate (decrease) a signal. When producers first start EQing, we often find them boosting signals in the hope that they can make something louder and more present in the mix but often, this is counterproductive, at least without also making counter-cuts to other areas.

Whilst knowing how and when to boost is important, EQ mostly focuses on attenuating signals to reduce the presence of unnecessary noise. By removing unneeded or undesirable noise, you can carve out space for sounds which need to occupy that space. Unnecessary noise could be overtones, bleed from other mics or unwanted resonance.

The concept of boosting and attenuating is particularly important to bear in mind when EQing drums as there are a lot of different frequencies to ‘slot’ together.

E.g. cymbals won’t need low-end content so attenuate, toms won’t need much high-end content so attenuate, and so on and so forth. By EQing properly, you’re sorting each part of the drum kit into its own space where it can breathe freely without compromising other sounds.

When we boost, we’re typically talking about 3dB to 5dB maximum. Attenuation can be a lot more dramatic with cuts up to 30 dB or more.

Quick Run-down on EQ Terminology

Most EQs contain 3 primary settings:

Frequency: This refers to the frequency that you’re either cutting or boosting.

Gain: This refers to the amount of gain that you’re adding or removing from the selected band/frequency.

Q: Q refers to the ‘width’ of the band that you’re cutting or boosting. A low-Q will be wide, affecting many frequencies at once, whereas a high-Q will be sharp and narrow, affecting a small part of the frequency spectrum.

TIP: Sweeping

Sweeping is a term you’ll hear often in connection to EQ. Sweeping allows you to ‘scan’ the frequency spectrum for either problematic or useful frequencies. Create a high-Q notch boost of about 10 to 15 dB and ‘sweep’ this across the entire spectrum, up and down. This will reveal frequencies that sound either particularly good or bad.

Photo: Example of a 15dB notch for sweeping. Once you’ve set this, you’ll turn the ‘FREQ’ dial to move the boost up and down the spectrum whilst listening to your track.

TIP: Fundamental Pitch

Drums have a fundamental pitch which makes up most of their impact and body. You can often find this frequency area by sweeping. Boosting the fundamental frequencies of a drum by say 3dB or so will generally make it sound fatter. On the contrary, cutting this fundamental frequency will leave your drum sounding lifeless and dull.

So without further ado, let’s see how you can use EQ to improve your drum sound today:

Kick Drums EQ Tips

The kick drum is the rhythmic core of most music. Along with the snare, the kick forms the most important component of the beat. Kick drums can be anything from huge and boomy to clicky and tight.

Here are some tips on EQing your kick drums:

20 Hz – 50 Hz: Some EDM-style kicks will have sub-bass content here but an excess of sub-bass around 20 Hz will not only eat into to your mix’s headroom but will also clash with any sub basslines. If you feel that your kick is too weighty in the ultra-low frequencies then cut below 30 to 40 Hz.


60 Hz–120 Hz: This area usually contains the fundamental pitch of the bass drum or kick – if you can locate this fundamental frequency then boosting will strongly accentuate the drum’s body.

120 Hz – 200 Hz: This area contains low-end punch. If your kick sounds a bit too resonant and boomy then boosting here and rolling off below the boosted frequency can accentuate its overall impact.

200 Hz – 400 Hz: This area is frequently referred to as ‘muddy’ but cutting it too much could ruin your kick’s impact. If you find that your kick clashes with synths or guitar parts then cutting around 250 Hz could resolve the problem.

500 Hz – 1 kHz: This area might contain weird electronic noise or the indiscreet sound of air moving in the bass drum itself. Sweep for problematic areas and cut them by 5dB or so with a high-Q.

2 kHz – 5 kHz: If you’re looking for a clicky kick tone then this is the area you’ll want to focus on. You could sweep to find the spot where you can hear the beater strike the head and boost by 3dB. If you’re looking for a low-end kick then cut a few dB here for added low-end emphasis focus.

6 kHz +: Above 6 kHz should only really be noise and mic bleed. Low-pass around 10 kHz and move it around to find the sweet cut-off point where enough kick ‘air’ is retained.

Above: Basic kick drum EQ where sub-bass under 30 Hz or so has been rolled off with a subtle boost the fundamental frequencies at around the 120 Hz mark,

Rack / Floor Toms EQ Tips

Toms is a really tricky area to EQ properly. The first thing to bear in mind is that toms come in all sizes from 18” floor toms all the way through to 6” rack and roto toms or octagons. The smaller the tom, the higher pitch its fundamental frequencies will be.

Acoustic recordings can often suffer from quite weak and resonant toms and EDM toms are often too big and bassy. The trick to EQing toms is to watch that you don’t cut the fundamental frequency of the drum – always try and leave this intact.

Here are some tips for EQing toms:

20 Hz–50 Hz: A floor tom’s lowest frequencies occupy this zone but then, this area will often also contain bleed from the bass drum. A low-pass around 25 to 30 Hz is often safe to eliminate some unneeded rumble but you could go as high as 50 Hz without removing important floor tom frequencies.

60 Hz – 200 Hz: This area contains low-end oomph. If you’ve got a lot of low-end sounds going on in your mix then it’s probably worth cutting this area quite harshly so your toms don’t cause problems. Floor toms with too much around 150 Hz might sound particularly flabby and resonant.

200 Hz – 500 Hz: The fundamental frequencies of many toms are contained within this zone. Sweep to discover where they are and then boost slightly. Once you’ve found the fundamental, you can be a bit more aggressive about cutting unnecessary low-end below that frequency. This might be especially useful for lower pitch toms which have come out sounding resonant. You can often lift them out of the mix by boosting their fundamental frequency slightly whilst cutting below that frequency.


600 Hz– 1 kHz: This area often contains dodgy tom overtones and noise. If your toms are sounding nice and fat already from a boost to their fundamental pitch then you can cut this area pretty harshly to get rid of the vague and unnecessary noise. Beware that this range will contain the fundamental frequencies of smaller toms, though.

2 kHz – 5 kHz: Sampled toms will often contain some white noise here to give them more presence. In an acoustic track, this area might contain stick noise. If you need more presence and click to your toms then sweep and boost slightly in this region. If your drums sound harsh then cutting around 4 kHz can roll back the noise and provide more focus.

6 kHz – 10 kHz: Higher toms will have a fair bit of presence in this area but frequencies above 10 kHz are where you can bank on finding noise and bleed from cymbals and hardware. Low-pass carefully but take extra care with small toms.

Above: This floor tom has a low fundamental frequency around 87 Hz. Frequencies below this have been cut sharply. Overtones have been reduced around 1 kHz and top end at 6500 Hz have been rolled off with a low-pass.

Snares EQ Tips

Snares supply the groove to a track. Rubbish snares let the entire team down so it’s really worth putting in the time to get them as crisp and defined as possible. Another tricky element to EQing snares is the peak volume of their transients – they’re amongst the loudest parts of a mix.

Here are some tips for EQing your snare:

20 Hz – 50 Hz: You shouldn’t have much sound information down here but on an acoustic snare track, you’ll likely hear bleed from the kick drum. Setting a high-pass around 50 Hz is often a safe bet.

If you recorded the bottom snare head separately then you can high pass this a lot higher at around 250 Hz.

120 Hz – 200 Hz: EDM snares might have some low-end impact here that helps them pop out amongst basslines and synths but some will contain an unneeded low-end thud which can be cut for added high-end cut.

200Hz – 500Hz: Whilst many will try and cut this area harshly to remove some muddy tones, it will also contain a lot of the snare’s body. If you desire a fat snare sound then you’ll want to try and leave this area alone. If you find that your snare clashes with mid-frequency sound in your track like synths then you may want to cut this band in favor of a more cutting snare.

600 Hz – 1 kHz: Focus on cutting this area to remove excess electronic noise in the case of an EDM kick. Beware, though, as this area will contain some mid-frequency bite and presence and overcutting will leave you to snare sounding hollow.

2 kHz – 8 kHz: This is where you’ll find your snare’s bite. On a bottom snare track, you’ll find the noise from the snares themselves and this will sometimes need taming with a low-Q reduction of 3dB or so.

10 kHz – 20 kHz: Nothing much here! You could set a low-pass at around 14 kHz to eliminate unnecessary ‘air’ but some snares rely on their higher frequencies for a bite.

Above: Snare drum EQ with a low pass at 180 Hz, slight boost to the fundamental at 220 Hz, hefty cut to overtones/noise at 700 Hz and a slight boost at 7400 Hz for an extra cut.

Overheads/Cymbal EQ Tips

Overheads are the most important components of an acoustic drum recording. In electronic productions, you’ll likely have an array of samples like hi-hats, shakers, and rides in place of overhead tracks.

Overheads need to be treated as a whole – they cover the whole kit. Always EQ overheads together to avoid phase issues. To do this, you should bus the outputs from your mono overhead tracks to a stereo bus (make sure you get the left and right inputs correct). You can then set an EQ on the stereo bus and EQ them together with one EQ.

Fortunately, overheads don’t often need excessive EQ but they can nearly always benefit from some small cuts here and there.

Here are some tips for EQing overheads:

20 Hz – 60 Hz: No common cymbal should create much audible noise in this region so set a steep high-pass right away to cut pointless low-end created from resonating drums and hardware.

70 Hz – 120 Hz: On an overhead recording, this area will contain noise from the kick and toms so it’s best to leave in-tact.

On a cymbal-only track, this area shouldn’t contain much sound at all. Set a high-pass to clear space for lower sounds in the mix.

200 Hz – 500 Hz: Too much content in this area can smother the definition of your entire recording. Really loud cymbals could contribute to an excess here so sweep and remove any strange sounding mud. Low-Q wide-band reductions of 5dB or so can also help bring more clarity into your overhead tracks. Single hi-hat and ride tracks shouldn’t contain much info here so cut away.


600 Hz – 1 kHz: Whilst this area contains the body of many drums on overhead tracks, it can also play host to rather annoying lower-end cymbal wash. Sweep and cut any problematic washy growls but be careful – the punch of toms will also be present in this area.

2 kHz – 10 kHz: This area is bright and glassy. The region around 4 kHz, in particular, is renowned for sounding quite nasty when too loud. Sweep to see what frequencies here really hurt your ears when boosted and cut them down by 5dB or so. If your overheads sound dull then you could try and boost above 4 kHz – say at 5 to 7 kHz. 
10 kHz – 20 kHz: More glassy brightness here. You can’t really do much to this area aside from low-pass super-high frequencies below 18 kHz.

If a cymbal-only track sounds way too bright then it’s likely that there’s too much fizz here. Many cymbals could benefit from cuts around 10 kHz to improve their focus.

Above: Cymbal EQ example with a high-pass at 415 Hz and a slight boost to the 6 kHz region for extra bite.

Conclusion

A properly EQ’d drum kit will bring your entire song to the next level.

EQing drums will assist your entire song in becoming all the more professional. Because drums cover the entire frequency spectrum, it’s really important to work hard on carving up acoustic space for each individual component of the drum kit. Doing this properly will glue everything together whilst preserving dynamics and headroom. Once you’ve finally EQ’d your kit properly, just compare the results to before you EQ’d it – we can guarantee that you’ll be amazed.

Also, often, you’re just a couple of boosts and cuts away from much better results so there really is no excuse – get EQing!

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