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How much digital reverb do I need on my drum tracks?

Adding reverb to your drum tracks can make the drums sound more exciting. But get it wrong and all you will get is muddy confusion.

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A common mistake in early attempts at recording is to use too much reverb. A compact digital reverb unit, or even more compact plug-in, can produce more reverb than St. Paul's Cathedral, but would you want to listen to your rock, rap or dance music there? Probably not.

For popular music styles, you don't need long reverb tails. That kind of reverb is better suited to classical music.

Also, if you listen to professional recordings, you will rarely actually be aware of any reverb. It will be there - but you will not consciously hear it.

So short and subtle it is.

But drum tracks are a special case. We use reverb on drums to make them sound bigger than they are. This applies to real drums and single hit samples. It's interesting however to consider real acoustic drums where you have the opportunity of getting the sound right during the recording process even before you apply reverb.

With a real drum, it is usual to apply damping to shorten and 'tighten' the sound. But why then would you want to add reverb to lengthen it again? There are two answers to this. One is that reverb puts the drum into an acoustic space, albeit artificial. The other is that reverb adds sparkle to the stick sound. An underdamped drum simply booms; a properly damped drum with carefully applied reverb excites the ear.

It is also useful to consider the repetitive nature of drum playing. Suppose that the distance in time between consecutive hits is 200 milliseconds. It is pointless for the reverb to be longer than this or it would make the sound muddy as several reverb tails would overlap.

But if you set a reverb time as short as this on your digital reverb unit, then it will sound like the drum is in a telephone booth. The answer to this is just to be aware of overlapping reverbs. Set the reverb time and level so that the reverb doesn't make the sound muddy, while being aware that it easily can. If you have a gated reverb program, then set the hold time so that the reverb clusters around the initial strike, but is quickly gated away before the next drum hit.

You will find that the different drums of the kit benefit from different reverb programs. The kick drum probably won't need any reverb at at. The snare, being a short sound, might benefit from a longer reverb than the toms.

There's a lot to consider here. You don't just 'add reverb' to drums. It's like an expert chef carefully blending the seasoning of the food, tasting, then fine tuning again. Experience in drum recording will bring great benefits. Listen and learn.

By David Mellor Monday February 20, 2006
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