Gear Reviews

Sonnox Drum Gate Review

Gating drums can be a tricky business, depending on how and where they’ve been recorded. Unless you’re in a good space with some decent separation, you can find yourself in a bit of a hole when it comes to gating in terms of dealing with boominess, all kinds of spill, and frequencies which are battling each other relentlessly. In these situations, when you apply gates to a kit with intent, you can run the risk of compromising on your transients and overall sonics.

A recent mix session we worked on included quite a lot of the above – the drum stems we received had been recorded in a pretty confined space over nine tracks: kick in and out; snare top and bottom; a stereo room mic; tom mics; and a pair of overheads. No mic on the hats, as the space was so tight.

The other issue was how dynamic the drummer was: a very talented, jazz/funk player, with lots of tom action and interesting progressions, and occasionally a bit heavy on the right foot, which caused a few headaches when it came to compressing and gating using our regular channel strip.

The kit hadn’t been recorded badly, it was just messy to deal with due to the recording conditions, and how busy the playing was. I guess when you’re asking a drummer to ad lib to jazz, you’re making a rod for your own back!

The Sonnox Drum Gate, I was soon to discover, can alleviate many of these issues, and is a really special plugin for a number of reasons. It’s not justa fantastic - and quite surgical - toolfor the pro user who knows his or her frequency ranges inside out, but it’s also a great tool for the amateur, who might need help tidying up a kit using a piece of software that isn’t daunting with 200 knobs on it.

Let’s start with the GUI: a lovely, intuitive look with three separate elements. We have Detection, Delay, and Leveller, along with three selectable drum icons: kick, snare, tom. Nice and straightforward. The plugin also offers a walkthrough where it points out which bit does what, and so on. I have a quick look, all seems fine, then I dig right in, pulling up the said drum session.

I have great control and separation over the toms with no compromise sonically whatsoever...

Can You Kick It?

First up, the kick (in) drum, which is the fatter of the two – and first element, Detection, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Using the vertical slider on the left hand side of the GUI, you can open the threshold to listen and indeed look for your desired spot, allowing you to locate the point at which the drum signal is starting to come through the gate. Next, the Decay element, which is adjustable via a horizontal bar along the bottom which displays the frequencies.

It’s brilliant experimenting with this and cutting and boosting signal where required; the graphics really help, but it’s what you hear (or not as the case may be) when you dial just a little extra in or out that really amazes me – it’s so responsive, and remarkably accurate.

After a little tweaking, I find if I bring the decay down to around 20%, cutting at 41Hz and again at 275Hz, it’s tight enough sounding with great separation, yet still allows for the feel and all the subtleties that go with this style of drumming.

The leveller is the third element, and perhaps the most amazing: you can tell the plugin to ‘listen’ to your drummer, and auto-set a target area in the frequency range to allow for a consistency of sound. For example, when I click ‘auto-set’, it is programmed to ‘listen’ to a dozen or so hits, then decide where the sweet spot should be. Incredible.

You can, of course, get highly meticulous and do your own levelling – and most users will - but the point I’m trying to make here is how quickly and effectively the Sonnox Drum Gate has turned a problematic drum mix into a great sounding multitrack.

It is also able to pick up the softer kicks and hits, and manage them as subtly or clinically as you desire. For kick (in), it was great being able to slide up and see how an 80Hz rather than 40Hz cut could focus on that ‘bite’ I was looking for to complement the main kick sound, and then I cut at 200Hz also, and still kept the feel and vibe. It took a lot of the dullness out of that second kick drum signal.

What entirely blows my mind is using it on a snare; the minute I apply it, I get a genuine ‘wow’ factor: job almost done just by turning it on. But again, letting the plugin ‘listen’ to the drummer and literally adapt settings in line with his style, is the real stroke of genius. The fact you have the Shorten Decay (on softer hits) option is so perfect for this drummer, too, because of his dynamism.

In terms of gain reduction, I’m at around -42dB, which is cutting off everything from the outside world, yet losing nothing tonally, and cutting none of the snare verb off, either, which I find to be a real sticking point using my regular channel strip’s gate. Another box ticked.

Finally, it’s toms, which have been a real pain on this project. Until now. Using the same process, in about a minute I’ve got wonderful control and separation over the toms with no audible compromise sonically, and what feels like zero transient loss. Because I’ve been so glued to my screen, it dawns on me that I haven’t yet A-Bd the kit with old settings against new, so I listen first without, and then with the Drum Gate dialled in - and as expected, it’s a complete transformation.

In conclusion, this is a special plugin that I can’t see myself not using on any future drum project – whether they’ve been recorded at Abbey Road, or in a shed..! Pro user or aspiring pro, definitely check it out.