Production Tip: The How & Why of Punchy Drum Compression

Everyone wants punchy drums. This simple tutorial will show you how to get extra punch out of your kicks, or your kicks and snares for you breakbeaters, rockers, junglists, and dubstep badmen!  
Everyone knows that you need to use a compressor, but after dropping it on the channel, the punchiness is still elusive for some. Let me tell you the one big secret. The secret that will let your kicks punch people in the ears! 

It’s All About the Attack Time

NOTE: You should be using studio grade headphones or monitors to hear this effect best! 
If you look at a kick drum’s waveform you will see that it starts rather abruptly with a high peak and then tailors off. That’s where your punch resides. In order to get a beefier kick without losing the natural punch you need to let that peak pass through the compressor unaffected. You can do that with the attack setting on a compressor. 
Look at this kick. It is zoomed in enough for me to see the millisecond timeline. I can see that the punchy BEEF part of the kick starts to diminish around 30 milliseconds. That is a good indicator of where I should set me attack time. 
kick beef section
After getting that helpful bit of information, I can drop a compressor onto the channel or group. Turn the Ratio to 4.00:1 and the Attack to 30 milliseconds. Then, while the kick is being played, slowly start to pull down the threshold until you can start to hear that punch being amplified. Some people like to pull the threshold all the way down and then make their way back up, either way works, as long as you find the sweet spot!
Don’t forget to tune in the release to your liking as well.
For this particular hip hop style track I am working on, I have the compressor on the group/bus with the kick and snare. These are the settings, and I find it is adding a lot of punch and presence to both the kick and the snare. 
Audio Examples Below...
punchy drum compressor settings
You might go in and use the same method for the snare by adding its own compressor and using different settings, as the attack and release time will probably be different. But, for this track and this example I didn’t see the need.

Hearing the Changes Better

These types of mixing techniques can be quite small, but they are always improving the final product when done correctly. However, when adding compression, the track tends to get louder overall. This lends itself to the illusion that louder = better. 
A quick workaround for that is to use relative gain matching so you can properly A/B the before and after without the loudness change. 
To do that, drop a Maximizer VST onto the master and set the threshold and the output to the same level. That level should be just under the peak level output of the master before any mixing or mastering plugs, like our drum compressor. 
For example, my track before the drum compression was peaking at -2.37 dB. So, I dropped Loudmax, a free maximizer, onto the master channel and turned down both the threshold and output to -3 dB. In fact, Loudmax even has a linking parameter to make sure they are exactly the same. 
Now when I turn the compressor on and off I can get a more accurate sense of what it is doing to mix without it boosting the loudness when it’s activated and I won’t lose any loudness when I turn it off.  
loudmax relative gain settings

Listen to the Difference

Before Punchy Drum Compression -3 Peak dB, 24-bit, 41,000 kHz
After Punchy Drum Compression -3 Peak dB, 24-bit, 41,000 kHz

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