Despite being an important part of mixing drums, getting your hi hat sound right is one of those tiny details that a lot of new producers overlook. Luckily, hi hat processing is a pretty simple part of the mixing and mastering process, so let’s break it down.
Finding the right sample
Getting a great sound starts with a great sample
Have a think about how you want the rhythm of your drum loop to feel. Do you want it to sound tight and punctual? Do you want it to sound loose and energetic? Your choice of hi hat samples will impact the end result.
Just like on a drum kit, drum machines usually have a few different hat sounds accessible at a time. So this isn’t a question of “shall I use this hi hat or that hi hat?”, it’s a question of “which hi hats go where?”
Closed hi hats with short tails create a tight, ‘snappy’ feel that pierces through your track. Open hi hats with long tails create a loose, energetic feel but can also blur rhythmic clarity.
Think about the impact you want to create and place your hats accordingly. The right hats in the right places will make your overall drum sound much easier to mix down.
Trimming the tails to size
Sometimes hi hats ring on a bit too long and sound out of place. To overcome this, you can trim and fade the audio clips to size until they sit properly in the track.
The same hi hat sample before and after trimming
If the sample is from a processed sample pack and features some kind of reverb, delay or ambient tail, we’d recommend trimming that off too. You are better off sending that sample to your own reverb than trying to make a resampled reverb sit in properly with your other ambient FX. We’ll cover that later.
Before we get into processing, here are a couple of things that will help your hi hat pattern feel more like live drums.
If you listen to a live drummer, you’ll notice they alternate between hitting the cymbals aggressively and softly.
This creates a sense of ‘swelling’ and ‘breathing’ in the volume and energy behind the beat. Automating the velocity of your hats will help replicate this feeling.
Set a high velocity for the main hits that dominate the rhythm. Set lower velocities for the more decorative ‘ghost hits’ at varying levels.
A hat sample landing slightly early or late can breathe life into a drum loop. Turn off your DAW’s grid and move some of your hats just off the lines to alter how the beat feels.
Pushing the hi hats forwards will create a ‘rushed’ or ‘jagged’ sound. Pushing the hi hats backwards will create a ‘swung’ or ‘lazy’ sound. Finding the right spot will help your hi hat sound to fit into the beat.
If you don’t want to do this manually, you can also alter the groove settings globally in most DAWs.
Alternatively, you can automate velocity and groove with a delay:
Create a simple hi-hat pattern, leaving out any lower-velocity ‘ghost-hits’.
Send your hat signal very quietly to a Send/Return channel loaded up with a delay unit and set the feedback low, so that you only hear one or two repetitions.
Set the delay timing to milliseconds and adjust to find the right level of ‘swing’. Then automate the amount of hi-hat signal sent through the delay to alternate between quieter hits and louder hits.
How to EQ hi hats
Hi hat EQ is simple. Use a gentle high-pass filter to remove frequencies from the bottom and mid-range. You only need frequencies from around 1-2KHz upwards.
This will free up headroom for your bass and improve clarity between the hats and the other elements in the track.
If you need to tame any harsh high frequency sounds, you can use a low pass filter or a tight EQ notch. Frequencies above 10K can be filtered out but lower ones will need the EQ notch, otherwise, the hats will lose too much top end.
De-esser plugins can also do a great job of reducing harsh frequencies and can be placed straight after the EQ.
How to compress hi hats
Hi hats have sharp transients and a lot of complex high frequencies that don’t deal well with heavy compression. Too much compression can ruin their shape and length, boosting frequencies that can be abrasive on your ear.
When you mix hi hats, send a very small amount of their signal to the same parallel compressor that your other drums are being heavily squashed by. The aim isn’t to squash the hats but to let them pass through the channel largely unchanged so that they are still present in the squashed drum channel.
In a nutshell, be very sparing. You only want -0.1 to -2dB of attenuation at most.
High-pitched sounds are panned far out to the sides, whilst low-pitched sounds take the centre. So your hats go far out left and/or right.
Your main hi-hat can be panned far to one side, with an alternative hat or another high-pitched percussive hit (shaker, cymbal) panned to the other. This will give a good sense of stereo width.
If you have picked an open hi-hat and a closed hi-hat, you might want to pan them both to the same side to replicate a real drum kit.
Beware that club and festival sound systems often reduce to mono, so it’s important to listen to your track in mono and check your hi hat still sits right.
Reverb /Room sound
Reverb, delay or ambient effects should be processed in parallel. This way you can control the volume of a separate channel that doesn’t soften the impact of your hi hat. You can also sidechain your reverb to the hi hat sound for more clarity between the hat and the effect.
For a natural ‘room sound’, you want to send your hi hat through a short reverb with a decay time of around 500-800ms. For a dubbed-out, spacious sound, you can set up a separate reverb with a much longer decay time of around 1-2 seconds.
If your reverb has a filter or EQ, you can shave off unwanted frequencies from the top and bottom in order to add more clarity.
Remember with reverb that less is more. Too much reverb can dampen the impact of the transients as well as eat up headroom, making your track sound quiet and washy. So be cautious with how much signal is sent through.
Hats off to you
Excuse the pun, but you’ve just learned how to get a fantastic hi hat sound that works in your track. Not too difficult after all!
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