How to Mix Hi-Hats: The Complete Guide

How to Mix Hi-Hats: The Complete Guide How to Mix Hi-Hats: The Complete Guide

Learning how to mix hi-hats is an art. Any mixing engineer knows that this drum subsection has its own set of sound qualities and considerations that should be factored into production. While hi-hats might be a small piece of the pie in comparison to other sounds, it's worth understanding their place as these percussion instruments occupy a wide range of the frequency spectrum that could interfere with just about any other instrument.

Fortunately, we've put together a complete guide on how to mix hi-hats so that you can start to get the most out of your sessions. Below, we'll break down the anatomy of the hi-hat sound and share several tips to help you shape transients and more.

Understanding The Hi-Hat Sound

Technically speaking, a hi-hat is a pedal combined with two cymbals affixed to a stand. It's part of the standard drum kit, and can be heard across a wide range of genres including hip hop, pop, rock, and jazz music. As an electronic producer, you might be working with hi hats exclusively as samples. In which case, you may notice some hi hats are labeled as "open" while others are labeled as "closed."

The open hi-hat refers to the sound of the hat when the pedal is not clamped, whereas the closed hi hat is the sound of the hat when the two cymbals are pressed together. In any case, hi-hats can be used to add any of the following to your mixes:

High Frequencies In The Drum Kit

Hi hats hold down the upper frequency range of the drum kit. They provide the needed contrast to the low heavy kick, and the mid-bodied snare. It's worth noting that many frequencies within the drum kit can easily overlap, which is why its so important to understand the philosophy behind mixing hi hats.

Setting The Rhythm

Since hi hats are part of the resident drum kit, they also hold a lot of rhythmic power. Hi hats are often placed on eight notes, sixteenth notes, and even thirty-second notes as fast time tickers interspersed between the rest of the drum kit.

Adding Shimmer

As the name suggests, hi hats are known to occupy the upper end of the frequency spectrum, which can add some needed shimmer and brightness to an otherwise overly warm mix. Hi hats are a great tool for adding moments of bright, crispness throughout select moments of your song.

There are plenty of hi-hat sounds to explore as shown through this video by the Drum Center of Portsmouth:

Where Do Hi Hats Sit In The Mix?

Hi hats are unique in that they can occupy quite a wide range across the frequency spectrum. In general, you can expect hi hats to lie anywhere between 300Hz to 17kHz of a mix. Most of the body of the hi hat will lie between 300Hz-500Hz, with the sparkle and shine coming in around 5kHz-10kHz. Each hi hat will have a different frequency spectrum distribution based on what types of cymbals it was recorded with.

7 Tips For Mixing Hi Hats

Learning how to mix hi hats is an ever-evolving process that will shift and change based on the context of your mix and your personal sonic preferences. Even so, here are some general guidelines to help your hi hats sound great in your mix:

Process Your Hi Hats Independently From The Rest of the Drum Kit

Creating a drum mix bus is common practice for good reason. Processing the drums altogether, even if it's just some light compression, can really help the kick, snare, toms, and hi-hats gel within the mix. However, it's important to keep in mind that hi hats introduce a lot of high frequencies other drum tracks simply do not occupy.

It's a good idea to process the other drum parts and your hi hat tracks independently before considering grouping the two together.

For instance, if you want your hi hats to really shine in a mix (maybe your trap hi hats hold down the rhythmic section of a song), you might consider putting a slight low pass filter on the rest of the drums to make space for the hats. You can always send your hi hats to a drum bus after you've processed it, but remember that the hi hat sound occupies a unique frequency range.

Hi hats can easily sound harsh when over done. You might consider adding a deesser to your hi hats to help cut back on the dissonant tones before group processing them with the rest of your drums.

Cut Out Unnecessary Low End

Hi hats and other tracks can hold a surprising amount of low end, which can easily cloud up your mix, especially if you're trying to highlight the brilliance of your hi hats. Consider utilizing a high pass filter on your hats to eliminate unnecessary low end and help your hats shine, especially in contrast to your low-frequency heavy kick drum hits and 808.

Taking out unwanted mud is always a great strategy when it comes to building a balanced mix. Low end frequencies are notorious for taking up a lot of space in a mix without adding much of their own value.

Get Into The Groove

One of the most challenging parts of electronic drum processing is creating the sense of a live performance. When a drummer plays the hi hats, or any part of a kit for that matter, he or she is not hitting the drums with equal robotic pressure. The drummer may also be slightly off timing wise - it's common to have certain parts a little bit early or a little late.

While we might think of these human player quirks as errors, they are also precisely what gives a song the feeling of live drums. Take a static hi hat loop or track to the next level by creating some variation from one programmed hat to the next. You could change the velocity values to adjust how hard each hat is hitting, or even move certain hats slightly early or late to the marked beat to create a more natural feel. When you add movement and variation, you're one step closer to creating a dynamic track that naturally captures your attention.

Stack The Layers

Creating a strong hi hat sound using one sample alone can be tricky, especially since hi hats can be pretty wide-ranging across the frequency spectrum. One way to create emphasis or simply build power behind your hi-hat track is to stack multiple hi hat samples on top of one another. This might provide the right balance you're looking for when it comes to mixing the hi-hat body and upper frequency brilliance.

Incorporate Automation

Build some variation in your mix by automating your hi hats strategically over the course of your song. For instance, you might experiment with panning hi hats during the chorus of your mix to create a wider feel. Just be sure to comb out any harsh high frequency sounds before sending out your hi-hats to effects.

If you're finding that your hi-hats are overpowering the mix only at certain points, consider ducking them out using a dynamic EQ. You can sidechain a frequency band so that your hi-hats duck down in response to a main melody or bass line, for example.

Add Texture

Who says hi hats can't be the star of the show? You can make small adjustments to the texture of your hats to give them a unique place within the mix. Using tools like a ring modulator can give your hi hat sounds a small boost within the drum bus, adding just enough spice to your track. Just be sure to EQ hi-hats after adding any effects to reduce any frequency ranges that sound harsh.

Hi-hats naturally stand out in a mix, so you shouldn't need to add too much effects to the natural sound to get what you're going for.

Be Careful With Time-Based Effects

Adding reverb or delay to your hi-hats might help them sit better in your mix, or it could drastically change the dynamics of your song. You want to be careful about adding too much reverb or delay to your hi-hats. Since hi hats tend to occupy a higher frequency range in comparison to the rest of the drums, they can easily overpower the ambient space and higher frequency ranges. If you do choose to use time-based effects, make sure you have a good starting point with a transient shaper before tacking on the reverb.

Hi hats can easily sound tinny or harsh to the ear if they aren't cleaned up accordingly. Transient shaping tools can help you clean up the hit of your hi hat before you reflect it across your entire mix with a time-based effect.

Mixing Hi Hats FAQ

Use these commonly asked questions and answers to help you make your hi hats shine throughout the recording process:

How do you make hi hats sit in the mix?

Making hi hats sit in the mix depends on the context you're working in. We recommend using reference tracks to help you compare and contrast your way into building the desired hi hat sound. Keep in mind that hi hats can range from 300Hz to 17kHz, so the way you process hats in one song can be wildly different in the next.

Can you mix hi-hat cymbals?

A hi hat consists of two cymbals and a pedal. Technically, any pair of cymbals could be classified as hi hats, so you can cater your hi hats to sound as open or closed as you'd like.

How can I make my hi hat sound better?

Does your high hat sound dull? Consider boosting around the 7K frequency mark to bring out the brilliance. Is your hi hat too harsh? Trying cutting down the frequencies around the 4K mark. There isn't one right way to mix hi hats, so it's key to make your mixing decisions based on the context of your song.

Hi hats are one of the most distinct sounds that naturally hold their own against other instruments. Mixing them properly so that they continue to hold space without overpowering the rest of the track takes plenty of discipline. Hopefully, these tips make it easier for you to find a good balance in your sessions.

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