How to Record Drums: Gated Reverb, Compression and Room Mics

Audio-Technica and Performer Magazine team up to provide practical how-to information on adding common effects to your drum recordings in the studio.

Welcome to the fourth and final part in a series that is aimed at providing real-world advice for setting up your home recording studio to record a full drum kit, co-presented by Performer Magazine and Audio-Technica. In this installment, we’ll take a closer look at some techniques you can use to add common effects to your drum recordings.

DON’T MISS OUR PREVIOUS ARTICLES ON RECORDING DRUMS:

Part 1: The Best Drum Microphones for Your Home Studio
Part 2: How to Record Drums: Snare and Kick Drums

Part 3: How to Record Drums: Miking Overhead Drums and Cymbals

GATED REVERB FOR DRUMS

The “gated” drum sound so closely identified with the 1980s was, as legend has it, discovered by accident as Phil Collins was tracking drum parts for the Peter Gabriel album often referred to as Melt (though it’s really self-titled). Now, the truth behind that is up for debate — the gated reverb sound was actually used on an XTC record as early as 1979, a year before Gabriel’s album — but what remains is an instantly identifiable sonic signature that you can recreate, even in a project or home studio environment.

The gated reverb sound is used as an effect to really make the drums sound punchy and clean, though a combination of employing reverb and noise gates. In the early days, this would have been achieved in a large commercial studio, as you needed a big live room with lots of natural reverberation and reflections for the effect to truly work properly. Nowadays, though, we can get a similar sound without the need for a live room.

To start, close mic the drums you’ll be applying the effect to. Again, no need to worry about room mics or ambient mics, since in a home or project studio, we’ll use hardware or software effects to create our reverb.

Take the audio you’re close-miking and run that into your reverb unit (either hardware or digital), then route that to your noise gate’s signal input.

Take the same close-miked audio from the step above, and feed that right into your noise gate’s key input.

From there, it’s just a matter of mixing to taste. You can take both the unprocessed (dry) and processed (wet) signals and combine them how you see fit for the style of the track. Experiment with each, and you’ll find what works best.

Typically, the effect is really used to accentuate the oomph of the snare drum (and secondarily, the kick). It’s a powerful impact when you hear it done well, and doesn’t necessarily have to be an “80s sound” if placed in a contemporary setting.

BONUS TIP: you can use a similar routing set-up for gigs, too, if you want to recreate the desired sound from your recorded tracks in a live setting.

BONUS PLAYLIST: An Ode to Gated Reverb Drums

COMPRESSION TIPS FOR DRUM RECORDINGS

Compression is one of those often-misunderstood terms when it comes to the studio. In a nutshell, audio compression (depending on your settings) reduces the signal (volume) of the loudest passages of your recording, and amplifies the quiet passages, so that the overall balance of the sound is somewhat “squished,” albeit in a musical way. Compression is one of the key tools used in the mastering stage of your music, and can be applied tastefully to your recorded drum tracks to great effect, as well, even before mastering.

One cool technique in the studio is to employ compression by mixing a dry signal with a compressed one to help subtly thicken the sound.

Start with your basic drum track. In your DAW, copy that to a new track so that you have two identical versions of your drums.

Next, you can either route that to a hardware compressor unit and then back into the DAW, or more simply use a compression plug-in within your DAW to affect the attack, release and threshold parameters to taste. A little goes a long way, though we do recommend slowing down the attack considerably.

Once you have the copied track where you want it, compression-wise, mix both versions together to taste. You’ll likely want to use this as a subtler effect in your mix, so the duplicated track with compression will typically end up a bit lower in the mix; but again, it’s all up to taste.

USING THE ROOM AS AN EFFECT ON YOUR DRUM RECORDINGS

We focus so much on close-miking techniques to really capture the punch of the snare, or attack of the cymbals, that we often overlook room miking as an effect on its own.

Back before mega-huge consoles and unlimited virtual tracks, drums were often recorded with a few simple room mics, in (gasp!) mono. And while you’re likely not putting out music in mono, try soloing your room mics during your drum tracking sessions to get a feel for what you’re capturing. One thing you can do is employ that “room” sound you’re picking up from your overhead mics as an effect during quieter passages of your songs.

Try this: let’s say a verse is really quiet and stripped back, compared to the rest of the song (dynamics ftw!); during those parts, experiment with mixing in the drum sound captured by your ambient or room mics, and utilize phase-shifter plug-ins or hardware effects to add a subtle “swirl” to the sound. What this can do is make the drum track feel more distant (in a good way) and textured in an interesting way, sonically. We recommend using very slow settings when it comes to phasers and flanger effects, as too much will make things sound like a jet engine taking off. Go for subtlety and you might be surprised at how interesting it can be when laid into a track’s quieter moments.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Now, keep in mind this is simply a primer to get you thinking about how to record drums in your studio, and how to apply some common effects on your drum tracks for more interesting mixes. We hope this installment provides some helpful tips and we recommend you check out our additional installments in the series, where we’ve tackled miking overheads and cymbals, recording snares and kick drums, and introduced you to the best types of mics to record your entire kit.

Check out all of those drum recording tips, presented by Audio-Technica, here.

And be sure to check out the entire range of Audio-Technica instrument microphones here and follow Audio-Technica on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

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