Drums are a living, breathing instrument and require ambiance around them to sing properly. Each space will convey a distinct vibe to the song—learn how to shape your drum reverbs for the sound you want.
By Mike Levine
If you’re fortunate enough to be able to record drums in a studio with a nice-sounding live room, you can capture lots of ambience for the kit during the tracking phase—particularly from room mics. But those of us who do most of our drum recording in home studios usually must depend on reverb added to the drums during the mix to place them in a good-sounding space.
The following tips will help you create reverb sounds for drum tracks ranging from multitrack kit recordings to stereo loops and samples.
Every song and mix is different, so the choice of which reverb type to use (plate, hall, room, chamber, etc.) is a song-dependent one. The question to ask yourself is: How will a particular flavor of reverb help achieve the sound and vibe you’re going?
As a general rule, rooms, chambers and small plates with decay times under about 2 seconds are useful for adding ambiance, whereas halls and larger plates, particularly with longer decay times, give you more of the sound of a large space like a club or arena. That said, you can change any reverb setting significantly by varying decay time, and the balance of wet to dry signal.
If you’re not sure going in what you’re looking for, experiment. Try some different reverb types, and various reverb plugins and see if something clicks for you and the song. For example, Waves H-Reverb (a hybrid reverb that combines elements of convolution and algorithmic reverb), offers many different reverb types in its preset menu. It’s convenient to step through them and listen for how they impact your kit and your song. Use the A/B feature of the Waves plugin interface to compare different settings.
To compare the sound of several different reverb types, here are four examples. In all of them, the drums are soloed dry for 2 measures and then the reverb kicks in for two measures. There’s a slight pause and then it repeats with the instruments in. Again, there’s no reverb on measures 1 and 2 and the reverb comes in on 3 and 4.
Example 1a: Waves Abbey Road Chambers, set to Chamber 2
Example 1b: The drum reverb is Waves Abbey Road Reverb Plates set to a very short damper (decay) setting
Example 1c: H-Reverb set to a tiled drum room
Example 1d: Waves Manny Marroquin Reverb set to a Medium Hall with the decay time turned down by 50%.
When you’re adding reverb to drums, just like with vocals, guitars, and virtually any mix element, you’ll find there are a lot of advantages to applying it through an aux send, rather than just inserting the plugin directly on an individual track. For example, if it’s on an aux, you can modify the reverb with additional plugins that go after it in the signal chain, such as compressors, distortion, EQ and even modulation (see tip 6 for more about this).
Using an aux also saves you CPU, because you can send multiple tracks to a single reverb. If you have a lot of tracks and don’t have a super-fast computer, your CPU resources can become an issue with too many reverbs open.
If you’re sending all your drums into a single reverb on an aux (and not using it for other elements), and you’ve created a pretty good balance of send levels from the various drum tracks, you can use the aux return channel as a master reverb fader for all the drums. That way, you can play with the overall amount of reverb while keeping the drum-to-drum reverb balance intact. You could also use the reverb’s output control for the same result.
If the acoustics of your studio are not creating satisfying drum ambiance and your tracks are lifeless and dry, you can use reverb to make your kit sound like it was recorded in a bigger, more reverberant space, while keeping it sounding natural and organic. Using the same reverb across the kit reinforces the perception that the drums are in a specific space.
Find a room, studio or chamber setting as a starting point, and apply it to all your tracks. A rough rule of thumb is to use the most on the snare, a lesser amount on the toms and overheads and the least on the kick, but it will depend on the song and the recording.
In the following example, you’ll hear a multitrack kit that was recorded in a basement with just four mics: kick, snare and stereo overheads. Because there was no room mic and the space it was recorded in wasn’t reverberant, the dry drums that you hear in the first two measures sound pretty flat and lifeless. Waves H-Reverb enters on measure 3 making it sound like it was recorded in a bigger live room.
Compared to vocals or other instruments, drum performances typically have more rhythmic complexity and lots of sharp transients. You’ve got a kick, snare, cymbals, toms, etc., all playing their separate patterns that cumulatively make up a drum beat.
As a result, reverb on the drums will be triggered over and over in a short space of time by those transients. If the decay time (aka “reverb time” or “RT60”) is too long, you’ll end up with washiness, muddiness and an overall indistinct sound.
You want to adjust the decay time so that it’s short enough to avoid the muddiness, but not so short that it doesn’t provide the ambiance you’re looking for. Here’s a good way to get a ballpark setting. Assuming the snare is playing backbeats on 2 and 4, set the decay time so that it doesn’t hang over into the next beat. You can even solo the snare temporarily so you can hear the reverb decaying and get your setting. Then, put the rest of the drums back in and then the rest of the tracks. Unless your arrangement is sparse, the reverb will stand out a lot less when everything is on.
Obviously, the faster the song, the shorter the decay will need to be because the backbeats will be closer together. You might be able to get away with a decay time that makes the reverb on the snare hits hangover from one to the next if you set the reverb send or return level lower (thus changing the ratio of wet to dry). Remember that the more “wet” your drums are, the more they’ll appear to recede towards the back of the virtual soundstage.
In a slow song, you have more leeway to use long decays, for example, on a snare or sidestick. Also, the more sparse the instrumentation, the more you can get away with longer decays if you want them because there’s less information in the mix and therefore more sonic room to work with.
At the slow tempo in the audio example, you can get away with longer decay times which you hear on the sidestick and then the snare.
Another way to keep the sonic clutter under control is to EQ out some of the bottom end from your reverb. Most reverbs have onboard EQs, but you could also insert a separate EQ plugin after the reverb on the aux return channel.
Rolling off at 300Hz or even higher will thin out the sound of the reverb and make the track sound less wet. You may have to turn up the send afterward to get to an equivalent perception of wetness—but you’ll be adding reverb in a higher frequency range, so it’s less likely to sound muddy.
If you’re going for that organic "kit in a big room sound," as we talked about in Tip #2, you might want to split the difference of how much you cut out of the low end. With the low-end cut, the kick drum, in particular, will sound less wet. You might want to turn the reverb send up a little on the kick to place it more “in the room.”
If you’re working with stereo (or mono) drum loops rather than multitrack drums, you don’t have control over the reverb sends for the individual drums. As a result, you may find it more difficult to dial in a happy medium that gives you enough reverb without the kick sounding overly ambient. In that case, cutting low end from the reverb may be your best bet for getting a usable sound.
Audio Example 4: A stereo drum loop’s kick drum causes a lot of boominess in an H-Reverb plate setting until measure 3, when the plugin’s built-in EQ’s low-shelf filter is set to 320Hz. The muddiness caused by the kick is significantly reduced.
You should also experiment with putting an EQ before the reverb on the return channel. Doing so allows you to change the frequency content of the signal before it hits the reverb. On drums, you could, for example, reduce the low frequencies where the kick resides before they even hit the reverb.
With your reverb coming from an aux return, you have the opportunity to modify it with other effects. Two effects that can have a textural impact on the sound are compression and saturation.
Example 5: In this example, the first two measures have drums with Abbey Road Reverb Plates. In measure 3, compression from Waves Scheps Omni Channel—which is inserted after the reverb—comes in. In measure 5, heavy saturation is also added from Scheps Omni Channel.
These effects should go after the reverb in the effects chain if you want them to modify the reverb tone. Adding a compressor can make your reverb signal sound lusher and thicker, and give the reverb some additional character. Some reverbs, such as Waves H-Reverb and Manny Marroquin Reverb have compressor sections built-in.
On H-Reverb, you have more than one compression option. For the thickening effect, choose the standard compression setting. You can also select Ducking, which lowers the reverb level automatically when the signal is present, and then brings it up when it’s not. Doing so allows the drum transients to cut through the mix more but still sound wet.
Saturation or distortion can give your reverb a more textural, grainy sound, which can be a cool effect.
Want more on mixing with reverb? Get tips on Creating Realistic Room Sounds with Reverb.
Want to get more tips straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter here.