1. Noise Gates

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1. Noise Gates Empty 1. Noise Gates

Post  James on Tue Jun 15, 2010 1:48 am

Compressors and gates are kind of tricky to use well. I didn't know how to use them at all until about a year ago, and I'm still learning new tricks.

They are dynamic effects, which means an effect that changes the dynamic range of the audio. By dynamic range I mean the difference between the loudest and quietest sounds. Distortion and EQ are also dynamic effects, but they're a little more straight-forward to use. Let's start with gates, it's easier to hear what's going on with them.

Think of a noise gate as an actual gate that can open or close, allowing sound to pass or blocking it. Go grab a gate plug-in and put it on some drum loop. To start off, set Attack, Hold, and Release to 0, or as close as it will allow. Set the Threshold and the gain/noise reduction as low as they'll go too. (Should be a negative #.) These are the five main controls for a gate, sometimes there will be more or less, but these are pretty universal.

The sound should be passing through unaffected. Gradually bring up the threshold level. The threshold is the cut-off level for the quietest sound that can open the gate, allowing sound through. Put it at some level where its allowing the louder drum hits to pass, but cutting out some sound. It should sound pretty choppy. Right now everything that wasn't allowed to pass through the gate is silent.

The Reduction control allows you to bring up the sounds that didn't pass. Sometimes gates with a reduction control are called "Expanders" because they're no longer just blocking sounds out, but actually expanding the dynamic range. Usually the top of the reduction scale is 0dB, meaning there's no change to sounds that don't pass through the gate. The bottom can be -60dB, -100dB, anything real low. The bottom is essentially silent. (Sometimes you may see a Reduction that also lets you select a positive value. This kinda flips the gate, so that sounds that don't open the gate get louder, rather than quieter.) Setting the reduction to say, -10dB, rather that silent can make the gate sound more natural and reduce the choppy sound.

The Attack, Hold, and Release controls are all related. They control what is called the envelope of the signal, which is kinda like a volume profile over time. (The envelope will come up again later.)

The attack determines how long it takes the gate to open completely. A 10ms attack time means it will take 10ms for the gate to go from silent to full volume once a sound is loud enough to open it. There are a few cool things you can do with the attack. If you want to cut out silence between drums, you'd most likely want a short attack, since drum hits don't last very long. If you want to soften up the initial hit of the drum, though, you can slow the attack time. You can also do this to other instruments to make them a little smoother. Sometimes it sounds good if a piano sounds too percussive. If you put a real slow attack on cymbals you can get this "wish"-y backwards feel.

The hold is how long the gate stays completely open after the attack is over with. The release is how long it takes for the gate to close after the hold period is over. These two really go hand in hand. With both set to 0, the gate will close instantly once the sound dips below the threshold. If you extend the hold and release you can, for example, let the gate stay open for a 1/16-note whenever a drum is hit and then close.

Gates are very useful but can be overused quickly. They're great for places where you need to mess with the envelope of a sound or cut out lots of little pieces of audio. Sometimes it's best to cut manually. For example, if you gate vocals to remove extra noise between lines, the gate may take off the end of a consonant or a desirable breath sound. If you gate a snare it's easy to lose some of the nuance. Toms are usually best gated or manually cut up. (Close mikes on toms are mostly for the initial attack of the drum, overheads are what get their ring, they're also incredibly important for the snare.)

If you ever see some plug-in labeled as a rhythmic gate or trance gate or something weird gate, it's essentially like a tremolo effect capable of more complex rhythms and tweakings.
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