My previous article gave some of the first tips you should consider when you’re trying to give your drums a sense of depth. Here are some more advanced techniques you can try when you want to push your drums off into the distance.
• Type of reverb: Generally, it’s best to choose hall reverbs for creating a realistic sense of distance. Plate, room, or spring reverbs, for example, can serve other useful purposes, but they’re not designed to give as realistic of a sense of ambience as hall reverbs.
• Pre-Delay: Most reverb plugins have a pre-delay setting. It affects how long it takes for the reverberation tail to start after the dry sound goes off. Imagine someone speaking loudly in a church. If you’re in the front, you’ll hear the direct sound of the speaker noticeably faster than you’ll hear the speaker’s voice echo off the back of the church. That’s because the direct sound of the speaker will reach you very quickly since you’re sitting in the front, but the echoes will have to travel to the back wall of the church and all the way back again to your ears before you hear them. On the other hand, if you’re in the back of the church, the direct sound of the speaker and the echoes will reach you at about the same time—which means there’s a shorter pre-delay. So to create the impression of maximum distance, try a short pre-delay under 50 ms. To push a drum back a little in the mix but not too far, try longer pre-delay settings, like 80 – 150 ms or even longer.
• Increase the length/decay time: Most reverb plugins allow you to control the length of the reverb tail. In the real world, if a sound reverberates in a larger space, the reverb tail continues on for a larger amount of time. So if you increase the length of the reverb tail, it creates the perception that your drums are further away. If you use this technique, you should make sure to turn up the high frequency damping in your reverb plugin. This setting allows the high frequencies to come through in the beginning of the reverb, but quickly muffles them as the reverb tail continues. In the real world, the high frequencies dampen faster than the low frequencies in a reverb tail (I touched on this in the last article). A long reverb tail without any high frequency damping may sound like a cool effect that can be useful for other purposes, but it won’t work well for creating a realistic sense of distance.
• Room Size: Some reverb plugins contain a “room size” setting. As you might expect, turning up the room size tweaks a variety of settings in the reverb to make it sound like your drums are reverberating in a bigger space. So turning up the room size can help push your drums further back in the mix.
Imagine a choir standing 15 feet in front of you and singing. They’ll sound nice and wide—the sound will seem to fill up the room. (Check out my articles on widening to learn why a choir sounds wide, and how you can use the same techniques to make your drums sound wide too).
But imagine that the same choir is now 100 yards away from you. As I discussed in the last article, they’ll sound quieter, of course. And they’ll sound more muffled—the high frequencies in their singing will be dampened. But they also won’t sound so wide. It’s kind of like how if you stand right in front of a movie screen, the screen takes up your entire field of vision, but if you stood a half mile away, the movie screen would only take up a small dot in your field of vision.
The bottom line is, your brain can’t perceive a sound as being wide and far away at the same time. So if you’re using widening techniques on your drums, you won’t be able to push them very far back in the mix. Take it easy on the widening for elements you want in the background.
Even simple panning can limit how far away you can make your drums sound. In general, you want your overall mix to be wide in the front, and more centered the further away elements are in a mix. It’s like standing on a road and looking as it goes straight back into the horizon—it gets more and more narrow the further away the road goes. So for drums that you want pushed back in the mix, pan narrower, or don’t pan at all.
Also, make sure use a post-pan send for drums that you do pan and send to reverb. That way the reverberation will come from the same position as your drum sound. If you don’t do that, the reverb from your drum will come from the center even though your drum is panned, which won’t make sense to your brain when it’s trying to perceive how far away the drum sound seems to be.
Remember, all sound has three properties—frequency, timing or phase, and amplitude. We’ve discussed how the frequencies of sounds change over distance (the high frequencies tend to dampen faster than the low frequencies). And reverbs and delays allow us to simulate the echoes that are spread out over time when a sound travels a long distance.
The way that distance changes the last property of sound—amplitude—is that distance tends to smooth out the amplitude changes of a sound. If someone sings five feet away from you, you can hear all of the subtle details of the dynamics of their performance. You can hear how the consonant sounds might sound louder than the sustained vowel sounds, how notes in different parts of their register might have different volumes, and so on. But when you hear a sound from a long distance away, you have a harder time hearing all the subtleties of the sound’s dynamics.
That means that in order to convincingly push a sound into the background, it can’t be too dynamic. One way to smooth out the dynamics of a sound source is with a compressor with a fast attack and a long release. The compressor will catch and smooth out the dynamic peaks in your sound, which will allow you to use the other techniques I’ve discussed to push your sound into the distance.
A final consideration to make is that, like everything else in music, creating a sense of depth is easier when you use contrast. If you try to push every element of your mix back into the distance, your mix will just sound muddy and washed out. Instead, try to create a balance, with some elements up close and some far in the distance. You can make your percussion sound like it’s much farther away by contrast if you mix your snare to be in your face, right in the front and center of the mix.
Try using a couple of these techniques on your next mix to see if you can push your drums further back in the mix than you’ve been able to before. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about any of these techniques. And if you have any of your own techniques for creating a sense of ambience in your drums, or pushing your drums into the background, please let us know in the comments.