To work properly in a mix, drums need to breathe. Of course, not every song will work with a Phil Collins-style gated reverb, just as not every song will work with the dry and organic sound of a room. Different spaces convey different vibes and learning how to dial in the correct reverb sound to convey the vibe you want is extremely important.
If you’re looking to take your drums and place them in the right “space” for a professional sound, continue reading to find out more about how to use reverb on drums.
Background on Drum Reverb
The very first instance of reverb on a drum kit was simply the room that the drums were recorded in. For many decades, engineers didn’t add any supplemental reverb to the dry drum signals during the mixing phase. Rather, engineers would use microphones to capture the room tone during the recording process and mix and manipulate the room tone to get different tones.
Listening to old Motown records, you hear quite a bit of room tone on the drums, even though a fair number of the recordings are in mono. That’s quite a contrast from drum tones of the 70s, which are dry and pillow-y.
Of course, even long before digital reverb, engineers were experimenting with unique drum tones. One of the most iconic drum tones of all time came from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks," where Glyn Johns and Jimmy Page had the idea to set a pair of microphones on the second floor of a stairwell to capture a larger-than-life tone.
During the 80s, engineers started to push the boundaries of what was possible in drum mixing. The sound of gated reverb was prevalent throughout the 80s thanks to artists like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. The idea was to create a unique reverb sound that couldn’t take place in nature.
From there on, the use of reverb on drums exploded. Different drums would receive different reverb treatments in a mix. A single tom fill might get a massive dose of plate reverb to let it stand out, while a snare could receive a reverse reverb treatment to give the feeling of push and pull.
With everything in digital form nowadays, the possibilities with drum reverb are near endless. Check out this post if you're interested in learning more about all the different types of reverb and how to use them.
General Overview of Reverb on Drums
When it comes to how you apply reverb to drums, there's a few things to bear in mind. First and foremost, you need to think about where the reverb is being used in your mix.
As we alluded to earlier, the most fundamental reverb actually comes from the space the drums are recorded in. If you've got Theo piton to be recording your drums live, consider how much live feel you want in the room. Microphone placement can also affect the size and feel of the drums. Closer mixing will sound drier. If you want to really pick up a lot of the room tone, try adding a room microphone far away from the kit, which will pick up lots of the reverberations.
Many drum samples you use will also come with some degree of reverb baked in, so be mindful of this and keep your ears open.
From there, you have a couple of options for adding reverb to your drums. You can insert the reverb directly onto your individual tracks, or use effects sends so apply the reverb to multiple channels. Or you can use a combination of both methods.
Using Effects Sends for Drum Reverb
Just as you would with vocals or guitars, it is best to apply reverb to drums using effects sends rather than with a simple insert. Having reverb on an effect send gives you more control over the tone, as you can modify and manipulate the sound of your reverb with plugins like EQ, compression, distortion, and modulation. Plus, you can save CPU power by sending multiple drum tracks to a single reverb rather than adding six reverb plugins to each piece of the kit.
If you decide to send all of your drums to a single room reverb, for example, you can create a good balance and use the fader on the aux return channel to control the overall volume.
Combination of Different Drum Reverbs
While the simplest reverb technique for drums might just be to send your various kit pieces to a single room reverb and call it a day, there are many benefits to having multiple reverbs on your drum kit. Snares love having their own reverb and plate reverbs love snares (the makings of a romance novel? I can just picture it now....)
You might consider sending your entire kit to a room with each piece getting slightly more or less reverb than others (probably less kick and more overheads). You might then choose to send your snare and toms to a plate, chamber, or hall depending on the vibe you are going for.
Of course, these reverbs don’t have to be going the entire duration of the song. You might choose to only send your snare and toms during certain fills or hits to accentuate them. With so much automation freedom, it is worth considering automation for your sends. Thankfully, this is all super easy to setup in most modern DAWs
Take Care With Reverb on Your Kick
As a general rule of thumb, mixing engineers love keeping their kick drums dry. This is especially true when it comes to dance or rock tracks. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should never put reverb on your kick. In fact, I believe there is a time and place for it. If you want to add reverb to your kick to give it a bit of air, it is good practice to add a high-pass filter to reverb so that you don’t get a spread or washy low end that could potentially muddy up your mix.
While it might not be the most relevant song anymore, a great example of reverb on a kick that I can think of is “E.T.” by Katy Perry.
Using the Abbey Road Reverb Technique on Drums
Again, when it comes to reverb on kick, or reverb on any drums for that matter, it is best to use high and low-pass filtering to get rid of any unnecessary frequency content. The Abbey Road Reverb Technique (the process of filtering out the highs and lows; typically between 400Hz and 6kHz) is a great technique for drum reverb, as it allows the reverb mids to act as the depth of the tone.
How do you blend an amazing drum kit reverb sound? Here's some of my favorite techniques for creating the perfect space for drums.
Best Drum Kit Reverb Techniques
The very first thing you must do when adding reverb to drums is find the right reverb. Every mix is unique and will require a different flavor. Generally, rooms, chambers, and small plates with decay times of less than two seconds sound great on drums and can create a sense of space of ambiance for them to live within the mix. Here's my review of the best reverb plugins available so you can get the perfect tones. Large plates or halls with long decay times are great for creating more space, similar to a club, stadium, or church. Of course, by changing the decay time or filtering the signal, you can greatly alter the sound of your reverb.
As a rule of thumb, when using room reverb, it is best to add more to the snare and toms, a bit less to the hi-hats and cymbals, and the least amount to the kick. However, you should listen to reference tracks to see how the reverb is divided up amongst the various kit pieces to get a sense of how you should mix your track.
The most important technique for getting a great drum reverb tone is to find the right decay time. Because of the rhythmic complexity and sharp transient nature of drums, drum reverb is triggered over and over in a short period of time. To avoid a muddy mix, you want your reverb to be short enough to let the drums hits come through, though not so short that you don’t get the effect you desire.
One form of best practice to follow is to make sure the decay of the reverb doesn’t hang over from one snare hit to the next. Getting your reverb to play in time with your track can help accentuate the rhythm. Of course, you might want a washy or claustrophobic reverb sound for some mixes, though getting your decay timed right is a solid starting point. Typically, the faster the track, the shorter the decay time.
Should I Use the Same Reverb As Other Instruments?
The answer to this question depends on your mix, so I’ll say yes and no. It really depends on the genre!
Yes to using the same reverb if you have an organic-sounding mix. Jazz music, folk music, or live-sounding records often benefit from having every instrument in the same “room” at different levels to create the sense that the whole band is playing in a singular space. However, for modern rock, pop, or EDM, using various reverbs can help create a larger and denser sonic character.
Compression Before Reverb?
Putting a compressor before your drum reverb is a great idea, as it can stop loud transients from poking through the mix. Plus, compression can help extend the tail of your kit pieces, giving you a larger-than-life sound. For example, you can extend the decay of a snare drum with a pre-verb compressor to make it sound beefier.
How to Create Drum Reverb Clarity - Use Your Pre-Delay!
Pre-delay is one of the most critical parameters on modern reverb plugins. For those who have never heard of pre-delay before, it refers to the amount of time between the original dry signal and the audible onset of the reverb’s early reflections. With pre-delay, you can achieve both clarity and space in your mix. Just as you would with your decay time, it is good practice to adjust the timing on your pre-delay so that it breathes in time with your mix.
I recommend using a pre-delay calculator like this one based on your track's bpm. The goal is to have the reverb wait to activate until after the initial hit of the drum occurs.
Best Drum Reverb Plugin for Room Reverb - UAD Ocean Way
UAD Ocean Way might be one of the best drum plugins on the market today, as it combines the elements of room modeling, microphone modeling, and source modeling. The plugin gives you the most authentic replication of one of the most famous studios on Earth.
If you're looking for realistic, authentic drum rooms or want all of your instruments to feel glued together, this should be one of your top choices!
You can send your drums to two different rooms, including Studio A and Studio B, all while positioning the three different microphone pairs in real-time. Having the ability to control naturally occurring behaviors such as proximity and mic bleed, gives you a much more realistic tone overall.
Note: using UAD plugins like Ocean Way requires a UAD audio interface, like the Apollo Solo.
Snare Reverb Tips
The snare is one of the most important instruments in modern music. When it comes to drum reverb, you've got to get it perfect, because it is often the most prominent part in a mix behind vocals. You don’t want to muck it up. Putting the wrong reverb on your snare or dialing in bad settings can give your mix a cheap or gimmicky sound.
As I said before, snares love plates. If you’re considering sending your snare to additional reverb beyond your room reverb, I recommend starting with a plate. Of course, you should start by flipping through different presets to find the right tone that fits the vibe of your mix before you start making additional adjustments.
Tips to Adjust your Snare Reverb Tail
To give your snare depth without creating a muddy or washy sound, it is good practice to time your snare reverb tail to your mix. Let’s pretend for a second that the mix you are working on has snare hits on the 2 and 4 counts. The snare that hits on the 2-count should go into the reverb and die out just before the 4 count hits. With this technique, you get depth and fatness whilst maintaining rhythmic clarity.
Best Snare Drum Reverb - Arturia Plate
One of our absolute favorite snare drum reverb plugins is the Arturia Plate. I could listen to snares running through plate reverbs all day, and the vintage, silky smooth resonance of the Arturia Rev Plate 140 plugin is something to behold. The beauty of this plugin is that you get all the bright and sweet, classic tones of a true plate reverb with the control of a digital plugin.
For example, you can use the mix knob to dial in your plate tone as an insert, or use futuristic features like pre-filtering, post-filtering, or integrated chorus, all of which can liven up your tone.
This plugin comes with three plate models, each of which has a unique sonic character, giving you more than one option for reverb needs.
Using The Room Mic to Add A Sense of Space
If the mix you’re working on has a room microphone, you should use it to your advantage. Room microphones can alter the sound of a drum mix like nothing else. You might choose to mix it in low or scrap it completely in a funk or punk rock mix. In a stadium rock or pop mix however, you might choose to dial it in heavily to give your drums a sense of space.
One extremely popular addition to room microphones is compression. Do a little experiment here. Take a compressor and stick it on your room mics as an insert. Dial the threshold back so that you’re getting a healthy dose of compression and listen to how the ambiance comes up and extends into absolute madness.
Most engineers will dial in anywhere from 6-10dB of compression on their room mics to get a bigger sound, though some like to absolutely crush their room microphones with 10dB of compression or more.
As a rule of thumb, it’s good to use a slow attack and slow release if the room that you recorded in sounds good to start. If you don’t like the sound of the room, you can use a fast attack and fast release to cut off the transients and make sure the tails aren’t as emphasized. Once you get your ideal compression, you can mix it into the rest of the drum kit.
If you'v got a Distressor-style compressor I'd recommend starting with that. Otherwise, 1176-style compressors are also great for slamming the room mic and adding some gritty saturation. Here's a review of my favorite compressor VSTs if you want to go further with this technique.
Special Reverb Drum Sound Effects
The famous saying is that there's no rules in music production - if it sounds good, it is good! And that's totally true!
But so far, the techniques for drum reverb that I've been sharing are focused on getting an amazing, professional sounding drum sound - the type that works for 90% of the songs out there.
In contrast, this is going to talk about some fun, special reverb drum sound effects you can add to your mixes to give them more character.
How to make a Gated Snare Reverb
To capture the sound of the 80s, send your snare to an effects send with a reverb plugin on it. Once you’ve found the perfect reverb sound, insert a noise gate after the plugin. You can now use the gate to control the amount of reverb you want to let through. To shape this gated reverb tone, you can use the attack and decay controls.
Begin by pulling the threshold up until the sound of the reverb disappears. Now, sidechain the gate to your snare so that the gate only opens up and allows the reverb to pass through when the snare hits.
To really nail this sound, you may also want to consider adding a high-shelf EQ boost to bring out some air in the reverb.
Halls for Cymbals
Sometimes you don’t need to put reverb on any of your shell pieces to get a larger-than-life sound. Large, splashy cymbals can help create drama and impact. If you have a heavy crash that hits on the beginning of your chorus, for example, you might consider throwing it into a hall reverb to get a dramatic sound and tail that doesn’t die off too quickly.
Make sure to low-pass your crash reverb so that you don’t end up with a ton of harsh upper harmonics.
Modulated reverb can add a bit of vibe to your track. My favorite portion of the kit to use modulated reverb on is the cymbals. You can use chorus or flange on your reverb to add sparkle and personality while getting rid of any unwanted harsh qualities.
Reverse Reverb for Drum Transitions
I remember listening to “The Stroke” by Billy Squier as a kid and being in awe of the strange push and pull of the snare. I had no idea why I loved it so much, but I knew there was something about that strange reverse sound that kept me coming back for more. It wasn’t until I got into production that I realized how important reverse sounds could be for mix transitions.
To get a reverse reverb on your drums, send your snare track to reverb and print or commit the reverb track. Take that printed audio and reverse it. You can now take those bits of reverse snare reverb audio snippets and place them in your mix to accentuate certain parts.
FAQ About How to Use Reverb on Drums
Here are some of the most common questions I get about drum reverb. If you've got a question that 's not covered below, please leave it in the comments and I'll be sure to answer it!
Should I Add Reverb to Drums?
Of course! That’s not to say that drums without reverb can’t be great either. Some of my favorite drum tones in the world are bone dry. However, it doesn’t always make sense for a mix. Sometimes you need a bit of air to give your drums life and character.
How Much Reverb On Drums?
To get a sense of how much reverb you should put on your drums, I highly recommend listening to professional mixes that are similar to yours. See how the reverb tone is mixed in. Is it stereo or mono? Are the tails long or short? Do you notice a lot of reverb, though the drums still have a sense of clarity? The engineer probably used a healthy dose of pre-delay.
When it comes to mixing reverb, listening is learning and can be far more rewarding than trying to approach such a dense topic blind.
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