The sound of the 1980’s is gated reverb. You could argue that it is MIDI production, or the synthesizer. You can argue about the obvious and obvious sounds, but a trained ear will hear something entirely different.
It all comes down to the drums, particularly the gated snare. They’re powerful. They can cut through the mix. They sound unlike anything you’ve ever heard, in nature or on a computer.
Even though synthwave is making a comeback in the 80’s, many musicians still love the sound of big drums to recreate that decade.
Let’s discuss the origins of this distinctive sound, how it was created, and how to recreate it with our best digital Audio Workstation software.
It is important to understand how the core effect works (see our article’What Is Reverb if necessary) and how you can use it with a noise gate in order to create the ambience we are referring to.
Reverb is simply a series of very fast delay echos which sound almost like an “emulation” of the original sound. These echoes slowly lose energy and volume, eventually becoming completely silent. Now you can proceed!
What is Gated Remembrance?
Gated reverb refers to audio signal processing techniques that use a loud reverb effect cut short by a noisegate instead of allowing it time to decay in amplitude.
It was unique in that most reverberation effects were used for simulating the acoustic properties of different rooms or locations. Even mechanical, synthetic ones such as plate and spring were used in a realistic way.
This sound was deliberately made to sound unnatural and unrealistic. It was intended to sound powerful and massive. reverse-reverb is the only alternative use for this effect. However, it’s still very useful.
Although experimentation could be done with this mixing technique on many instruments, it was widely accepted that drums were the best. This was the sound that became the hallmark of 1980’s pop music.
It is still used in music today to recreate the 1980’s sound.
Who and how did gated drums come to be?
Hugh Padgham, a studio engineer, and Steve Lillywhite, a record producer, created the gated reverb sound in 1979 during Townhouse Studios sessions with Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel and XTC.
Hugh Padgham discovered the song “Intruder”, by Peter Gabriel, while recording his third solo album. They were using an overhead drum mic to act as a talkback channel. This allows the engineer to speak with the artist through their headphones in the isolated instrument area.
Talkback microphone signals are usually compressed and have noise gates to allow the voices to be heard clearly above the background noise of the rest. Reverb can sometimes be applied to the talkback channel to make it more pleasant or smoother.
Talkback channels can be activated by pressing a button. This opens up the microphone for transmitting an audio signal. This amazing sound effect was created by Padgham opening the overhead microphone as Phil Collins played drums on the track.
This effect was used to drum the Intruder song, as well as many other songs by artists during that period. It is most notable on Phil Collins’ hugely popular single “In the Air Tonight.” The effect quickly spread to other studio engineers as well as artists’ albums. It was a fad that you couldn’t escape until the 1990’s when it began to fade.
How to create gated reverb drums
There isn’t much flexibility. You only have one choice: which type of reverb will you use. If you want to get the real sound, the methods are quite strict.
It is important to know that there are premium reverb plugs that can provide this effect without having to manually set it up. However, they don’t sound quite as natural. You should set it up at least once to get a feel for how it works. It’s very easy, and it takes only minutes.
THE NEW WAY – EFFECTS PROCESSORS IN THE BOX
Modern technology allows us to record as dry as we can and then mix it after the fact. This gives us more options, and allows us to experiment with ‘undo’ and other features. This is true even if drums are programmed using MIDI to trigger single-shot samples.
Although you could route your audio interface through a patchbay and hardware reverb unit to get the effect, most likely you will just drop a VST plug-in on the multitrack. You can choose which drums will receive the gated-reverb treatment. The snare drum will be treated at most.
1) CREATE A AUXILIARY BUSH & SEND THE ORIGINAL DRUMS TRACK TO IT
You will need to send the track’s send to an auxiliary bus in order to get the gated snare sound. You will need to add the following plugins to this aux bus:
- Noise Gate
The EQ will not be applied until you have created the effect. The EQ is there to add clarity to your mix. However, I would suggest that you do so while you are at it.
2) ADD THE REVERB AND HEAVILY COMPRESS IT
You can experiment with the sound of reverb here. Although I would recommend a neutral room reverb for now, you can experiment with all of them. A plate reverb can even work here. It all depends on what song you are using, so it is possible to use a different one each track.
To get the best reverb, set the Wet volume at 100% and Dry volume at 0%. This will ensure that you have as much as possible of the original source audio. To ensure that the volume doesn’t fluctuate too much, set a long sustain/release (approximately one second).
Next, turn on your compressor and make sure you are putting the reverb in full force. As a guideline, I would lower the threshold in the reverb body (instead only the peak) and use a minimum of a five to one ratio.
You can experiment with the settings as they will change every time. There are no set rules. You can use a quick attack without worrying about the release. You can also test it without a compressor.
3) SET UP THE NOISE GATE WITH A SIDECHAIN
Now, open the noise gate. Now you’ll see that this noise gate can’t be triggered with compressed reverb. You will need to use the sidechain functionality in order to cause the gate to open or close based upon the original drum track.
You can find out more about sidechaining in our What Is Sidechaining articles. You’ll learn how to do this, as well as other important information about noise gates. But here’s the key concept:
Instead of the noise gate using the reverb track at unvarying levels due to heavy compression, we will have it use the original drum track levels. The noise gate opens when the original snare drum strikes and lets the reverb shine through.
Set the Hold setting to approximately half a second. This setting can be adjusted to your taste depending on the song’s pace, but it’s a good start. Hold instructs the gatekeeper to keep it open for this time. Next, set the release speed to very fast. It should close quickly, but not abruptly.
Now you should have a gated effect that plays behind the original drum beat. To balance the volume with the original drum track, adjust the Hold setting of the gate.
4) USE EQUUALIZATION TO REGAIN MIX CLARITY
Most tutorials do not tell you that mixing on the auxiliary bus will require more work to ensure the mix doesn’t become a mess. To learn more, please read the article Mixing With Reverb. But I’ll give you my main tip right here.
To avoid the main drum sound, you’ll want to add a parametric equalizer to this reverb bus. A pre-delay can be added to allow the original drum sound to cut through. However, you will need to consider the sound’s body. An EQ curve such as the one shown above is a good starting point.
5) OUTPUT BOTH THE ORIGINAL DRUM & THE AUX BUS TO A NEW BUS
A final tip: I suggest switching both the drum track and the auxiliary bus containing all the plugins to a different bus. It can be labeled “Gated Snare”. This will preserve the volume balance between them.
If you need to adjust snare volume in overall mix, use the fader on the new bus. This will adjust both the original and gated reverb simultaneously, maintaining the balance that you have carefully created. Congrats, you’re done! Repeat it for any other drums you wish.
THE OLD WAY – ROOM MICS in the STUDIO
I am sharing the original method of creating gated echo for posterity and those who still believe in old school. This is the way to go if you prefer to mix straight out of the box, and then tape it live (you are braver than me).
This method works for all drum kits, so you can’t focus on any one drum. Stereo pair overhead microphones will be used, as well as close mics for the kick and snare. To capture the ambience of the room, you will need at least one ambience mic.
You can remove any acoustic treatments from walls, take out a few rugs, or pick a different room with more reflection to record in.
It’s simple from here. To get a consistent and detailed reverb in the room, you will compress the ambience microphones and pass it through a noise gate. The noise gate should be able to clamp down and mute the reverb smoothly, but it cannot rely on the ambience track.
Sidechaining the original close mic tracks and noise gate will tell the noise gate when to open or shut. It should open instantly after hearing the close microphone track. Next, adjust the hold to approximately half a second (adjust to taste or tempo) and close with a fast release. Release should be abrupt but smooth.
This would be done with the snare drum, and you could do it again for any drum that you have a close mic set up. After they are done, you can balance them and add equalization to your reverb track.
Gated Reverb will never go away!
Some people breathed a sigh relief when the 1990’s arrived. This effect soon fell out of favor. Some people felt a sense nostalgia immediately. The 80’s decade was soon referred to as “The Oldies.” It lasted another 20 years, and today there is a revival of this sound.
We will always have gated reverb. It’s now a cliché. It brings back memories of simpler times. It reminds us of retro-futurism, and how we used envision the future. It’s amazing to me personally and I know you will too. This tool should be used correctly. Keep it safe in your mixing box for future generations.