Gating drums is a common and useful technique when mixing drums to remove bleed and noise from individual kit pieces. This allows you to more effective process your kick, snare, hi-hat, etc. Let’s talk how to gate drums for a clean and professional sound, just like the pros.
How to Gate Drums
A gate in mixing works by setting a minimum threshold in volume which a sound must meet and exceed. If no one instrument stands out above the others, a gate won’t work.
As such (and it may sound obvious), but gating drums only works when you used and recorded to multiple microphones/inputs. Only by isolating your drum kit by pieces can you get each piece as the prominent sound on each track. There will still be bleed, but that won’t be as loud as the instrument the mic is directly on, and we can use the gate to filter out the background bleed.
Gated Drums Settings
Here are the ideal settings for gated drums. Let’s go by each of the gated drums settings to explain why they’re set where they are:
Threshold – The main thing you’ll need to adjust obviously is the threshold. As I mentioned earlier, this is the minimum level required before the gate will open and let sound through. Setting the threshold too high will mean that your signal never meets the threshold, and the track will essentially remain silent by way of the closed gate.
Finding the sweet spot for your particular threshold will vary from track to track and piece to piece. The sweet spot is basically setting it 1dB below the quietest instance of the track you want to trigger. So in the case of the snare, you want to find the softest snare hit in your song and set the threshold just below it. This is the most efficient way to keep your snare clean, filtering out all other sounds as often as possible, while not taking away from the snare itself.
Return – This is specific setting on some gates like Ableton Live’s stock gate. This allows you to set a different closing point than the opening point which is the threshold. Creating a little difference here, typically of 3-5dB, can yield more natural results.
Lookahead – The lookahead helps the gate detect the upcoming peak, and the longer lookahead you set the better. Note that while you can get more natural results with a longer lookahead like 10ms, this can come at the expense of your CPU (see my tips on reducing CPU in mixing).
Hold – As I explained in comparing hold and release, the hold feature adds time after the threshold point (or return point) has been reached on the way down. This keeps the gate completely open for that added time. We want to keep our gate relatively responsive and snappy but also natural, so just having a bit of release time will yield the best results.
Release – A release time of roughly 5ms works well on in how to gate drums for naturally closing back up the gate once the threshold or return level has been reached (again, on the way down). This keeps the bleed out and the gate closed until that particular track triggers it to open up again as necessary.
Note that you won’t always be able to filter ALL the bleed out. This is particularly true when you have snares and kicks triggering simultaneously on the same beat.
Still, repeating these settings (but adjusting the threshold as necessary) will help you clean up the majority of the bleed on each of your drums.
Putting this first in your signal chain will then allow you to EQ, compress, or do anything else you want without worrying about applying that effect to bleed from the other instruments. This keeps your entire kit and, as a result, your entire mix that much cleaner.