When it comes to recording and mixing acoustic drums in the context of modern, punchy record production, a key difficulty is sufficiently isolating individual drums for processing and beefing up.
Bleed (or “spill”) is that natural tendency of a microphone placed next to say, a snare drum, to pick up adjacent instrument sounds such as kick drum and hi hat. Lots of bleed makes it difficult to tailor the tone and level of individual drums, and a crashy, harsh kit sound can result if you apply even moderate amounts of EQ. Adding some compression into the mix only makes this this situation worse.
Bleed can be mitigated by using directional microphones and placing each mic so you reject the spill. The problem is that drum kits are tightly packed into a small footprint, so mic placement will never be a complete solution. Because of this, noise gates have long been a staple for mixers in pursuit of a modern, processed and impactful drum tone.
Arguably, the go to noise gate in the traditional analog studio has been the Drawmer DS201 for over 30 years. I still regard it as the one by which all others must be judged, analog or digital.
The Drawmer, and the plugins that imitate its operation, are essentially a simple gain stage that turns down the signal whenever it drops below a certain point. If you have a good snare recording,with a consistent drummer and your mics are positioned to optimize rejection, the level of the signal will far outweigh the bleed level of the adjacent drums, and the noise gate will switch on and off at the right times.
The DS201 and plugins like it use a simple, frequency-based side chain filter so that you could restrict the frequencies that trigger the opening of the gate, for even better results.
Sadly, even this great gate can allow the occasional stray note notes to break through, and with the addition of eq and effects on that channel there can be some dreadfully glitchy artifacts. (A classic example is a crash cymbal jumping out in the mix as it slips through the gate.)
Noise gates adding to your mix problems can be a source of hair-tearing frustration, and eliminating these false triggers can take some significant editing, or some serious compromise in the tone and sustain of your drum.
This is where the Wilkinson Audio DeBleeder comes in. It takes a new approach to triggering the gate, which is custom-tailored to the unique resonant quality of each individual drum.
Features and Use
The Wilkinson DeBleeder is essentially an enhanced-feature noise gate, designed for a single purpose: Removing bleed from percussion tracks.
Not only did this plugin act as an especially clean, flexible and easily-targeted gate for most of the drum recordings I tested it with, but it also offers the ability to filter the tone around your main source, allowing you to control and shape the sound of the bleed itself.
The “AUD” (or audition) button allows you to monitor the sidechain as you dial in the fundamental frequency of the drum, using the plugin’s novel “Fundamental” knob.
Instead of the standard approach to setting a gate, in which you select an upper and lower range for the side chain, this Fundamental control allows you to zero in on just those frequencies associated with the drum’s resonance, treating everything outside of those naturally occurring harmonic frequencies as bleed. You can further narrow down the detection circuit (or make it less picky) by adjusting the “Bandwidth” control.
One important issue to note is that while the fundamental frequency for most drums and conventional percussion instruments is essentially constant, that’s not the case for melodic or chordal instruments! So this unique feature (which makes the Wilkinson DeBleeder so effective on drums) doesn’t necessarily translate to other types of instruments.
The next control, “Range”, narrows or widens the range of frequencies that the DeBleeder will reduce. When adjusting this control on a snare drum track with a significant amount of hi-hat bleed present, setting the Range all the way to the left allowed the the hi-hat bleed to come through largely unaffected, while turning the knob hard right dramatically reduced the bleed, without compromising the tone of the snare drum too much.
Once you’ve used these controls to determine what frequencies the plugin will be treating as bleed, the “Reduction” knob will set just how much of the bleed is filtered away. Set it to the left, and more bleed passes through the filters, giving a nice open sound. Set it to the right, and the bleed is entirely filtered away.
The Reduction control can be further refined by using a neat hard and soft “Knee” selector at this point. (The soft knee minimizing the amount of annoying ghost notes breaking through the gate.) There’s also a “Threshold” control here, allowing you to adjust the point at which the drum will be gated cleanly. Finally, an adjustable “Release” knob makes the gate’s closure sounds as natural (or as abbreviated) as you like.
Here’s the good news: With the DeBleeder a snare drum, even when heavily gated, sounds great—in fact, uncannily like a sample.
I found that as long as you have a good signal-to-spill ratio, you can gate very cleanly without artifacts.
On kick, snare top and bottom, toms it performed beautifully, with no artifacts. The DeBleeder wasn’t as much good in trying to rid hi-hat channels of their snare bleed however, in part because the snare was almost equal in volume to the hats, and in part because a hi-hat lacks the clear fundamental frequency of a more resonant, drum-like percussion instrument. On this kind of source, a more conventional gate may actually do a better job.
Summing it Up
In the past, I never really ever found anything that improved upon the classic Drawmer DS201, and have long searched for a worthy replacement. The Wilkinson DeBleeder however, is definitely a game changer for me. And, at just $60, it’s less than 1/10th the cost of that classic Drawmer noise gate.
You’ll still need to be a decent and diligent engineer to take full advantage of this plugin. But being able to take a recording from open and natural to highly filtered and punchy in just a few moves is going to be a massive time saver.