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Anyone who has lived near a drummer can tell you. Drums are loud. When a drummer is practicing, everyone knows it. And drums are not exactly a low-maintenance instrument to travel with either. So why do we put up with it? Because when it comes down to it, the drum set is probably the most important instrument in most music after the vocals. Drums add an incredible amount of life and energy to a track, no matter what the genre. They are the drive, the heartbeat. They make you want to move and dance.
The Modern Drum Set
Ever since jazz bands of the early 20th century, the overall setup of the drum set has been surprisingly constant. Genres as diverse as heavy metal, funk, soul, rap, rock, pop, and more, all use drum sets that Louis Armstrong would recognize. Sure, some drummers add a half dozen toms or an extra kick pedal. Or an extra kick drum. And of course, the styles of drumming vary hugely across genres, to the extent that the drumming pattern can define a genre (four-on-the-floor anyone?) But, for about a hundred years now, drum kits have consisted of a kick drum, snare drum, toms, hi-hat, crash, and ride cymbal.
An excellent palette of sounds that can be combined in very different ways to create an infinite number of grooves. So iconic and so powerful. Even today, as electronic sounds become more and more common, most drum machines still feature sounds that resemble this set of acoustic sounds. And they are still used in similar roles too. Apparently, the drum set got it right.
The hi-hat might be the most interesting sound in the drum set. Amazingly powerful and versatile. And the instrument itself is like this magical steam-punk idea. Two cymbals facing each other, mounted on a mechanism that allows the player to vary the distance between the cymbals to change the tone. It looks like something created by an eccentric inventor. Most other elements of the drum set are primitive in comparison.
Yet hi-hats are so versatile and important! They provide this driving energy that floats above the irregular powerful strikes on the kick or snare. The hi-hat is often played endlessly, hypnotically, tying the song’s rhythm section together. Latin grooves like bossa novas established this constant 8th-note hi-hat rhythm in the 50s, rock and pop started copying it in the 60s, and now it’s ubiquitous across genres. Rock, punk, and metal often feature open hi-hat playing to add a loud, saturated element to the sound. Disco and funk tracks feature hi-hat playing with rhythmic closed-open patterns, motivating crowds to down more ‘ludes and keep dancing. Sure, the power comes from the kick and the snare, but the energy comes from the hi-hat.
So if hi-hats are so important, then you better do a great job producing them. No matter what genre you are working on, really well-done hi-hats can be the difference between a professional sound and an amateur mix. Of course, since they are present in so many genres of music, mixing hi-hats can have many approaches. I’ll paint with broad brushes and cover the basics though.
Gain-staging, the technical term for getting the overall levels balanced, should always be the first step in mixing. The hi-hat levels vary depending on genre. But having hi-hats too loud is a much more common mistake than having them too quiet. Often hi-hats are much lower in the mix than you may realize, but they are still audible because they are not competing with much in their frequency range.
Another great rule of thumb is that hi-hats should be lower in less saturated mixes, and higher in more saturated contexts. Even within one song, you can use automation to raise the hi-hat’s gain from the verse to the chorus, to add more energy once the chorus hits. Listening to reference tracks in the genre you are working is the best strategy here. Match the hi-hat levels appropriately.
How to EQ Hi-Hats
EQ is so, so important. In my opinion, if a song has great arrangement, solid levels and gain-staging, and well-balanced EQ across the tracks, then it will sound 95% finished. Every other effect, like compression, reverb, and distortion, will add that final “polish” but the song will sound coherent and powerful already.
The fundamental frequency of a hi-hat is actually quite low. When I played a natural and raw hi-hat sound on my DAW and watched the spectrum analyzer, I saw that the lowest frequencies of a typical closed hi-hat hit are in the 200-500 Hz range. However, in most songs, the hi-hat is best used in the 5k-20k range, or even the 10k-20k. In many songs, the hi-hat and the vocal sibilants are the most prominent sounds in the 10k-20k range.
Check Your Source
How you apply EQ to your hi-hats will depend on your source material. If you are working with live drums, there’s a good chance your hi-hats will mainly be in your overhead track. Or maybe you have a dedicated hi-hat mic, although this is not extremely common. Therefore, any EQ you apply to the hi-hat track will also apply to other cymbals and drum hits.
However, if you are EQing isolated drum samples or electronic samples, you may have the power to shape your hi-hat sound individually. That said, many sampled hi-hats may already have EQ applied with a high-pass filter and/or a boost in the highest frequencies. I recommend using a spectrum analyzer, or an EQ with spectrum analyzer function, to look at your hi-hats’ frequency response and make decisions accordingly.
When I’m EQing drum overheads, I’ll often make large cuts with lower Q values around 2k-5k or 2k-10k. This is mostly because other cymbals, like crash and ride, tend to ring and resonate in these areas, but it also removes a lot of unnecessary hi hat mid frequencies. I may boost 10k-20k with a higher Q value as well. The close mics on the other drums will make up for the cuts I made in the overhead track.
If I’m EQing samples or drum machine hi-hats, I’ll often high-pass the track. Again, it depends on whether the sample is already processed or not.
Method To The Madness
The main reason to EQ hi-hats in these ways is to remove unnecessary lower frequencies, to make room in the mix for other low- and mid-frequency instruments like guitars, bass, keyboards, and vocals. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach (nothing ever is with mixing!) If the drums are playing a section solo, you may want to leave the hi-hats alone, for a more raw and natural sound. In some genres, like funk, soul, and reggae, those mid frequencies in the hi-hat should also be left in, to create a chunky and soulful drum rhythm. Other instruments will be cut more in that frequency range.
The most important thing is to highlight frequency ranges of instruments when they are adding to your mix, but to subtract those ranges if they are getting in the way of other instruments. This should be your approach to EQ in general!
Compression is another effect that’s massively important. Yet there are as many approaches to compression as there are places to use it. Some genres rely more on compression. For example, modern pop, alt rock, jangle pop, hip hop, and other diverse genres often have heavy compression on every track. But attitudes towards compression also vary over time. In the 60s and in the 90s, for example, compression was very popular. These days I am seeing many engineers on forums bragging about using the least amount of compression they can, so things might be swinging the other way.
Hi-hats tend to add high-frequency texture and energy to a track. So over-compressed hi-hats can sound surprisingly lifeless, and actually start to suck the energy out of a track! On the other hand, if a track has a very saturated and full arrangement, hi-hats can get lost in the mix if they have no compression whatsoever.
For a great middle-of-the-road approach that works in many contexts, try parallel compression. This is one of my personal favorite techniques. It’s subtle and lively and powerful. Parallel compression, also known as Manhattan compression, involves doubling a signal, and playing one raw and one with compression. With hi-hats, this means that all the life and expression will be preserved in the raw track. But the compressed track will add extra thickness and padding, particularly at the quieter moments. Play with the balance of compressed and raw track to nail the feeling. Mix with your ears, not your eyes! I usually have the raw hi-hat track louder, and the compressed track much quieter. But it will always depend on the context.
When using compression on your hi-hats, you can also play with your compressor’s attack and release times. If the hi-hat is feeling too lifeless, try a longer attack. This way, the initial hi-hat strike will be unaffected by the compression and will maintain more dynamics. This is a form of “transient-shaping.” A shorter release time can make hi-hats sound really fat and in-your-face, as it brings out resonance. Attack and release times will depend on your mix, so play with different options to explore the different feelings you create.
Reverb and Delay on Hi-Hats
This is probably the most subjective topic of all when mixing hi-hats. It depends not only on genre, but on your use of reverb and delay on other tracks in the mix as well. Overall attitude towards reverb can vary. Some people like to send all tracks to a reverb bus, and apply the same light and natural reverb across the track. This gives the impression of a band playing in a real space together. Alternately, check out mixes like this Smiths song. Almost all of the instruments are extremely dry, but there is heavy reverb on the vocals, vintage spring reverb on the electric guitar, and some light gated reverb on the snare for that 80s sound.
The result is far from natural- is Morrissey alone in a huge auditorium while the rest of the band is playing in a closet? But it sounds fabulous. Reverb is used in extreme ways to contrast different textures.
Reverb on Hi-Hats
For hi-hats, no reverb or light reverb is typical. Too much reverb in the high frequencies of a track will make it lose definition and life. The whole track will feel murky. Often, very dry hi-hats sound great for drum tracks that are meant to be at the front of the mix, contrasting with reverb use on other tracks. But check out this lovely Crowded House track, Don’t Dream It’s Over. All the instruments, including hi-hat, have a pretty heavy natural reverb. The mix is not in-your-face, but it feels spacious and powerful. It almost has the feel of a live recording.
Delay on Hi-Hats
Delay on hi-hats is used to great effect in Let it Be. Classic Phil Spector production, the hi-hats have spacey delay when they enter in the second verse. In fact, when the drums fully enter for the second chorus, that space delay continues. But it is drawn way back in the mix, and the drum track feels very dry and in-your-face otherwise. Pay attention to the fact that although the hi-hat strikes are full and natural, the delay tails are actually low-passed so they sit further back in the mix. If they weren’t, then the drum track would sound busy and confusing once the full drum pattern starts in the second chorus!
Mixing Trap Hi-Hats
Hi-hats, already so crucial in other genres of music, are like the defining feature of trap music. Those super sharp 808 hats with castanet-like trills are the most instantly recognizable feature of trap.
Compared to other genres, trap hi-hats tend to be loud. They are very high-frequency, definitely high-passed if your samples aren’t already. In trap, the rest of the instrumental tends to be dark and unsaturated, with muted high-frequencies. Pretty much all the high-frequencies come from the vocals, claps/snare, and especially hi-hat.
The human ear is very sensitive to variations in tone. That’s why live drumming tends to sound so much more “alive,” for lack of a better term, than even the most realistic drum machine. A live drummer has infinite variation. Every single hit is slightly different. Trap, meanwhile, like most hip-hop, uses highly artificial-sounding drum machines as part of the “sound.” But this is where creative production comes in. Trap hi-hats are often produced with more depth than meets the ear.
Apply different effects at different times to the hi-hats! You can make a satisfyingly varied texture while maintaining that sharp and consistent feel. You can use automation, or make several hi-hat tracks and process the samples differently in each track, and have your pattern jump lane to lane. Try raising or lowering the pitch, adding analog or digital distortion, or adding reverb or delay to different hi-hat hits. This approach will add so much depth to your trap hi-hats!
Hi-hats are so important that there is a bar in LA called the Hi Hat. (Incidentally I’ve played a show there.) It’s no surprise that Los Angeles, where so much music is made, recognizes the contribution of the dependable hi-hat cymbal in this quirky way. Producing your hi-hats like a pro will bring you that much closer to creating professional-quality music. And if still you struggle, don’t be afraid to reach out to professional mixing and mastering services, which are often much more affordable than you might expect these days. These services are a great resource to learn by example, or if mixing is not really your thing, you can thrive by handing it off to a pro and focusing on your other talents. Keep working and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.