Thursday, June 18, 2009

Making 80's Gated Drum Sounds

There are certain production techniques (some might say "gimmicks"), that put an unmistakable date-of-birth stamp on the music they were used on. And while there is this risk of dating your music when you use gimmicks like this, the good news is, most production trends eventually come back into fashion again at a later date. So it never hurts to bone up on some of these techniques.

One such iconic technique is the so-called "Phil Collins drum sound". It's a fancy way of referring to using gated reverb on drums, and, in fact, is a bit of a misnomer. While it is true that the production technique became known to most people via tracks like "In the Air Tonight" (Phil Collins - ...Hits) on Phil Collins' "Face Value" album, the effect was actually pioneered earlier by producer Hugh Padgham when he was working on the Peter Gabriel track "Intruder" (Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel - Intruder) from Gabriel's third self-titled solo album. Granted, Phil Collins also happened to be the drummer on that track, but it was Padgham who created the effect itself that would go on to become an unmistakable fixture of 80's era drum production. So today, I'll show you how to recreate this type of effect in Logic (although you can follow along with any DAW, reverb, and noise gate).

1. Open up your DAW, and create a software instrument track. Assign this to whatever your favorite drum instrument is. Go ahead and sequence 4 bars of snare backbeats on the 2 and the 4 of each bar.

2. In the INSERTS section on the instrument's mixer channel, open up an instance of SPACE DESIGNER or whatever your reverb of choice is. For purposes of this exercise, we'll use SPACE DESIGNER's default setting, but any hall or more lengthy type of reverb will work.

3. After the instance of SPACE DESIGNER, add the NOISE GATE effect (found in the DYNAMICS sub-folder) as an insert below it. As the name implies, noise gates were originally designed to shut off the noise on a channel when there was no voice or instrument playing on it. Quite literally, it is a "gate" that only lets in the instrument or vocal parts you recorded, and shuts the volume down on the in between periods, thus preventing any noise on that track from contributing to the overall noise level of the song. (This isn't as much of an essential in the digital age since softsynths don't create any noise and most DAWS have some sort of command like Logic's STRIP SILENCE that allow you to cut this out in advance.) Anyway, the most important setting on a NOISE GATE is the threshold, which is the volume level that decides when this virtual gate is open versus when it closes. Padgham discovered that if he put a NOISE GATE after a reverb (usually the opposite was done), he could set the threshold so the reverb's tail got cut off in a pleasantly artificial way that actually added a nice edge of aggression to drum sounds.

4. So let's set up the NOISE GATE to create this effect, shall we? First, go ahead and set the NOISE GATE ATTACK setting to 0 ms. This is a percussive sound, so we want the gate to open immediately when the THRESHOLD level is exceeded.

5. Similarly, we want to turn the HOLD level down to 0 ms. You can tweak this later to adjust the envelope of the gate a bit, but for the most part, we want this to sound abrupt for right now.

6. Set the RELEASE setting to about 55.0 ms. This helps make the cutoff a little less severe, but you may find going all the way down to 0 ms sounds fine depending on how extreme an effect you are after.

7. Next, set the HYSTERESIS setting to -20.0 db. Not all GATE effects have this setting, but it is generally used to make the gating a bit less extreme. We're after the extreme effect, though, so drop that sucka to 0.

8. Finally, we adjust the most important setting, the THRESHOLD. This setting determines the volume level of the signal required to keep the GATE open. Because we want that short, chopped effect, we want a higher setting on the THRESHOLD. Try setting it around -15 db and seeing where that gets you. Again, the correct setting depends on how extreme an effect you are after and what the original signal is like. Tweak it to taste.

Here is an example showing a normal snare with a little ambience first, followed by a gated reverb snare. Back in the day this technique was use on kicks, snares, and toms, but keep in mind, a little goes a long way. It's not an effect you will want to use every day, but when you are after that extra 'oomph' it can really do the trick. (By the way, it can be cool on synths too... artists like Depeche Mode and Wumpscut used this on their earlier material quite a bit!)


Anu said...

"In The Air Tonight" is from "Face Value". "No Jacket Required" had "Sussudio" and several later hits.

The original sound came from hearing the room through the Listen Mic on SSL boards. There's a free "Listen Mic Compressor" (LMC) that SSL has made available.

You can also use the Freeverb VST, which has a gate built right in. The reverb itself is workable but not exceptional.

Tom said...

Good catch, Anu. Your knowledge of Phil Collins albums is definitely sharper than mine!

Anonymous said...

The drums were still gated like crazy either way...

Some more:
The famous drum fill, Collins contends, could have been anything. What is on the record is what came out at the moment. “When people talk about the ‘Phil Collins drum sound,’ that is actually a huge variety of drum sounds,” Collins says. “We never left the setup; we always broke it down and started again so we could end up somewhere different. The Townhouse Studio actually wasn't that live. It was quite tall, but not really a big room — probably smaller than most people's bedroom. The Genesis studio we designed had a much livelier, bigger room, glass and reflective surface. So when you listen to “In the Air Tonight,” it is not really that live, it's big. The snare drum and tom toms kind of bark, but it is made from a lot of compression with ambient mics as far away from the drums as possible, and those are noise-gated.”

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