Dynamic Processing Part 1: The Gate

The Gate

Horizontal Processor

To put it very simply, a gate is a processor that only allows signals greater than a specified amplitude to be heard and signals less than a specified amplitude to be reduced or silenced. This processor is mainly used as a tool for removing unwanted lower level signals like bleed and noise from a track when the desired sound is not being played. A very common example is with a drum. When you place a microphone on a snare drum, that microphone will predominantly pick up the sound of the snare but it will also pick up the sounds of the other drums and cymbals to a lesser degree.

Snare Top original

As you can see and hear, there is a significant difference between the amplitudes of the snare vs. everything else. This volume difference is one of the main aspects that determine the potential quality of the gate’ process. Before we get into how to use the gate, lets look at the controls.

 Gate Controls


Attack – How quickly the gate opens once the signal becomes greater than the threshold.

Hold – How long the gate remains open once the signal becomes greater than the threshold.

Release – How quickly the gate closes once the signal becomes less than the threshold.

Range – How much signal level is allowed through when the gate is closed.

 These are the basic controls that are found on every gate. Some gates have additional controls that give you an added frequency dependant element of control. This process is not triggered by the signal breaching the threshold but more accurately by the amplitude of any frequency range or bandwidth that breaches the threshold. This is very useful when it comes to gating drums because each element of a drum kit has a different main frequency bandwidth. For example, the kick mainly occupies a lower frequency bandwidth than the snare. It is this difference that this feature gives you control over. This control happens through a process called “side chaining” which I will cover in more detail in a later post.

Another way to look at the gate and it’ controls is to look at the envelope that the gate creates and how it interacts with the envelope of the sound that it is applied to.

 Envelope Created by a Gate

It is important to understand that even though the primary purpose of the gate is to remove noise or bleed, it can only remove or affect the noise or bleed that occurs when the gate has not been triggered to open. Any noise or bleed that is present at the same time as the triggering signal will be heard as long as the gate is open. You should think of the gate as an automated volume controller. When the gate closes it is similar to turning the volume knob all the way down or fading the signal out and when the gate opens it is like turning the volume knob back up to its original level or fading the signal in. It is because of this turn up/turn down or fade in/fade out function that I categorize the gate as a horizontal processor. The gate will have the majority of it’ affect on the beginnings and the ends of a desired sound.

Next, lets look at how the gate interacts with the envelope of a snare.

The Gate’ affect on the Snare Envelope

The following diagram represents a snare being gated with the following settings.

Threshold – Set just above the sustain level.

Attack – Set to a fast value of (af) and set to a slow value (as).

Hold – Set to a value of (h) that extends into the snare’ release.

Release – Is shown with two different values, a fast value (rf) and a slow value (rs).

The top diagram shows the original snare envelop in thick black lines and the affect that the gate has on it in red dotted lines.

The bottom diagram shows what the gate is doing to the volume of the snare track.

 By looking at the diagram you can see that anything prior to the snare signal passing above the threshold is fully attenuated including the leading quiet portion of the snare. This is because it is the signal’ crossing of the threshold that triggers the gate to (open) where the speed at which the gate opens is determined by the attack. As you can see this causes a slight change in the natural attack of the snare. For the most part, this is not too big of a deal but if the attack of the gate is set to be too long, the natural attack of the snare will not be heard at all.

The next action to be triggered is for the gate to (close) when the signal passes below the threshold where the speed at which the gate closes is determined by the release. If we were to only have the gate to operate on these two points with very fast attack and decay times then the only thing that we will hear is the red shaded area between the (open) and (close) points. As you can guess, this does not sound anything like the original. You can adjust the release time from this point but since the release is a gradual reduction in amplitude, it will have an affect on the natural sustain of the signal. In order to retain this natural sustain you would need to delay the trigger for the gate to close, this delay is what the hold does.

Every naturally occurring sound will typically have a duration that is longer than it’ initial attack spike or transient. Because of this, it is pretty safe to allow the gate to stay open for a bit even though the signal has passed below the threshold. By keeping the gate open it allows the snare’ sustain to pass through unaltered and forces the gate’ release to be applied during the snare’ natural release where the affects of the processing will be less noticeable.

In the diagram I show two release times both of which are shorter than the natural release of the snare. Typically when gating a snare or a drum in general the goal is to match and retain the signal’ natural release and have control over all other leakage sounds after that. Controlling the leakage is what the range does.

The “range” controls how much of the leakage or bleed signal is heard while the gate is closed. If the range is set to zero, then nothing will be heard when the gate is closed. As you increase the range you will begin to hear more of the bleed signal until the bleed is back to it’ original volume.

 Setting the Gate

General Settings

The first thing that you need to set is where the threshold should be. Start by setting the attack, hold and decay to the fastest settings (lowest value) and set the range to it’ lowest value. This will allow you to only hear the signal that passes above the threshold. 


Try to set the threshold as low as possible, where the gate is only being triggered by snare. If you hear even the slightest tick of anything besides the snare triggering the gate then you need to raise the threshold a little.

Snare Top Threshold set


Most of the time you wouldn’t have to adjust this parameter to a slower setting but occasionally with a fast attack you will hear a tick every time the gate opens. This happens because there is too rapid of a change in amplitude similar to a bad edit where a waveform doesn’t begin on a zero point.


When processing percussive instruments it is a good idea to think about the rhythm of the song. With this in mind, try to set the hold to a value that is in time with the rhythm, long enough to contain the sustain but not so long that you hear the natural release of the snare. (I like to think of the sound of a dry 80’s electric snare hit)

Snare Top hold set


With this parameter you are bringing the natural release of the snare back in. Try to set the decay so that the gate closes just before the first hit of the unwanted sound.

Snare Top with Release


At this stage the gated snare can sound a bit unnatural because of the sudden start and abrupt end. By allowing a small amount of bleed to be heard will greatly improve the sound of the snare’ natural release.

Snare Top Range set

Gating Challenge

The gate is such a simple yet highly effective tool. By using a gate to clean up your kicks, snares and toms you can greatly improve the clarity of your drums. Back when I was figuring out how to use the gate, I would experiment by mixing a song without using gates at all and take note of the limitations, challenges and the sound. I would then mix the song again using gates and take notes. What I found was that despite the clarity benefits, there were some songs that sounded better without gating and some that sounded better with and just as I would tell my students, knowing the theory is useless without practical experience, so go forth, experiment and form your own opinion.


Improving your mix with reference material

Using reference songs can seem like such a small thing but it can have a huge impact on your end result. Back in 2000 I was producing a hip hop album in Vancouver Canada which is a city that is known for rock. When it was time for us to get the album mastered we took it to a local well known mastering engineer. When we got the finished masters back, we absolutely hated them not because he wasn’t good at what he does but because he was mastering our songs from a rock perspective not a hip hop perspective. Had he referenced some hip hop songs while mastering the results would have most likely been different.

What I learned from that and other experiences is that regardless of my experience of working with various genres, I need roughly 1-2 days to switch over to the right mindset of a different genre than the one I am working in. Having reference material from my next client not only gets me into the right mindset of the genre but it also tunes me into the specific wants of my client. When requesting reference material I think that it is important to ask 2 question;

  1. What songs do they like that are similar to theirs?

  2. What aspects of those songs do they find desirable?

Through the first question you get a sense of the clients desired volume and pan balances and effects. For example, you may notice that there is a common thread between reference songs like all of the lead vocals have a delay effect on them, the bass is more prominent than the drums, etc…

Through the second question you get a sense of the desired individual instrument sounds and effects. For example, the client really likes the guitar sound of Black Sabbath, Iron Man and the drum sound of Florence and the Machines, Heavy in your Arms, etc…

Finally, one of the perks about requesting reference material is that you sometimes get exposed to songs that you otherwise would have never heard. Hearing these songs in particular always gives me new perspectives and ideas for my recording and mixing process and fuels my continuing learning experience and creativity. Hopefully it will do the same for you.


Choosing the perfect set of monitor speakers

What is a good monitor speaker? It is a speaker that simply tells me what is or isn’t present in the sound of my recording. Seems pretty obvious but many times we make the decision of what to buy based more on the price rather than the sound. Even then, some peoples interpretation of the sound is limited to bright/dark and clear/fuzzy. Here are some additional aspects to look for that will help you to find the monitor that is right for you.

Frequency Response
When considering this aspect of a monitor you want it too be flat meaning that the monitor has a fairly even representation of all frequencies. This aspect can vary quite a bit between monitors depending on things such as the size of the bass driver, the tweeter, what they are made of, what the cabinet is made of, etc…

This has to do mostly with the reproduction of the mid to high frequencies or the speaker’ transient response. The majority of the directional cues are most prominent in this end of the frequency spectrum. Due to that, our perception of where a sound is coming from is dependent on the accuracy of the representation of those frequencies. Here is how you listen for it.
Most places that sell speakers have them set up in a listening room where the spacing between each set is fairly evenly consistent. Try to position yourself so that you form an equilateral triangle between you and the set of monitors you are listening to.
Get the sales person to play your favourite CD or a song that you are very familiar with and listen to each set individually. Try to imagine where the instruments are located in the stereo field. On some monitors, pinpointing the instruments positions will be very clear. Also take note of the stereo image width. You may find out that some monitors sound like their stereo image width sounds either; as wide as the speakers are spaced, narrower or wider.

This also has to do with the monitors ability to reproduce frequencies that are critical to the directional cues only this time we are focusing on distance or depth of field. Listening for this aspect is similar to listening for definition only that here your focus is on how deep you imagine the stage the band is playing on to be. You will find that some monitors sound like all of the instruments are on a shallow stage with no sense of depth and some will give you a sense of depth and the distance between instruments.

Yes, in the end it all comes down to you, your ears and your listening environment. Everyone has differently shaped ears and hears things differently. Monitors that I love, you may hate and neither of us are wrong.
Your listening environment also plays an important role. Even though I advertise on my blogs, I very highly recommend that you take your time and actually go to the store and base your decision on what you hear. Make sure that wherever you go that they will allow you to take the monitors home and return them if you need to. What can and does happen is that a set would sound great in the store but not so good in your environment. It will be pointless if those aspects that you liked in the store don’t transfer to your set up.

Here are my two favorite monitors. I own a pair of KRK Rokit 8 and I have always liked the Dynaudio studio monitor range. The reason why I like these monitors is because I have used and like the sound of them. The projects that I mix can be urban one day and rock the next. What I like about these two sets of monitors is that they both reproduce a frequency balance that extends far enough into the low end for me to get a sense of the sub frequencies. Whether or not you buy them through me,  I recommend that you go down to your local recording store and check them out. Let me know what you think.

Have fun listening and good luck.

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