Its common to see gates prefixed with the word “noise,” in reference to their traditional use removing unwanted sound between musical parts. When a guitar is plugged into an amp with the drive turned up, the amp produces a consistent hum. We don’t hear the hum when the guitarist plays a riff because it gets masked in the overall tone. But once they stop playing, it becomes quite distracting, especially in context of a mix.
Instead of carefully scanning a recording to edit out the hum, we dial in a gate and set the threshold level (in dB) above the noise bleed but below the guitar signal. Using this setup, when the guitarist pauses between strums and the signal drops, the gate is triggered to attenuate the unwanted signal.
For some, this is where gates begin and end. But for this article, we’ll go beyond this one move and explore four different ways to use gates.
1. Conventional to experimental
To understand the mechanisms of a gate, its best to run through its traditional use as a cleaner-upper with audio examples. Listen to the guitar recording below—notice the fuzz between each strum? This is what I will remove with the gate module in Nectar 3.
The noise level between and even during each strum is reduced and we get a cleaner performance. While the silence at the end of each strum sounds unnatural soloed, this helps the mix retain clarity once more instruments and plugins are added.
By pulling the threshold higher (-5 dB) and shortening the release time, we start to get a sense of the kind of creative effects that can be done with gating. The rapid opening and closing of the gate causes what is called “signal chatter.”
2. Placing drums in a space
If you’re struggling to get your drums to stand out in a mix, try sending them through a large reverb, then cutting the reverb abruptly short with a gate. This studio effect was discovered in the 1980s by Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, and has since become a standard in pop and rock.
You have likely encountered the familiar scenario of putting too much reverb on drums—the kit gets cloudy and overpowers the mix. Place a gate after a reverb in your effects chain so it clamps down while the signal is still loud. Gate attack and release time determines how much of the reverb tail is kept in the mix before the gate closes down.
Conveniently, there is also a reverb module in Nectar 3. I set the decay time to two seconds and the wet signal to 56%. Audition the original raw drums, then the gated reverb version below.
Pro tip: remove some low end on the reverb output for a cleaner result.
3. Inject synths with rhythm
Most gates include a sidechain input. Feed a rhythmic loop into it to trigger unique sequencer-like patterns. Neutron 2’s Gate allows for a single input to be sidechained from three definable frequency bands. Use this option to give static drones and sustained chords a sense of movement so they don’t become too repetitive. Producers who lead toward ambient and dubby soundscapes, take note.
The sidechain input is a muted hi-hat pattern—it doesn’t need to be audible to trigger the gate, but you can keep it playing at the same time if you want. On the track with the gate I have the following keyboard sample.
When it comes to choosing settings for each frequency band, follow your own intuitive sense for what sounds good. Automate attack and release values to get a pulsating instrument.
4. Improve articulation
This technique is a combination of the two main themes explored so far: noise reduction and rhythmic shaping. If you’re struggling with an instrument part that won’t seem to fit in a mix because it’s too loose, try using a gate to tighten it up.
I find this useful for downloaded samples that have a baked in room tone or ambience that clash with the rest of my song. Here’s what I’m working with:
You can hear reverb tails on the hi-hats and percussion and the kick has a prominent low-end thump. There’s no use in trying to EQ these bits out—the loop will lose too much of its unique tonal characteristics. Instead, pull up the threshold on a gate until you hear the sound in question beginning to shrink in width. Then, adjust the release time as you see fit to widdle it down further.
A lot of the aggressive energy is attenuated and the loop will more easily fit into a number of electronic styles.