How to Use Expanders to Tighten a Drum Mix
A special shoutout to davidglennrecording.com for inspiring this video. This is going to be about expanders. Dave was doing a live chat, and the subject came up, and I thought that I would add my own two cents into the conversation.
So what is the purpose of an expander, say, as opposed to a gate? Well, and expander is basically a gate, except for it’s a lighter version of a gate. So if there’s compressors, and then the extreme version of a compressor is a limiter, this is the other way around. You’ve got an expander, and the extreme version of an expander is a gate.
So what it’s going to do is make a quiet sound even quieter. Well, why would we want to do that? Well, sometimes we’ve got excess quiet sounds in a signal that we don’t want to totally eliminate, but we just need to tame down. One common area where you might run into that is the shaping of drums. Sometimes you will have drums that don’t have the right sustain. Maybe the tail goes on a little bit too long, or maybe it doesn’t decay quite fast enough.
We can adjust that a little bit. So, I’m going to play this example. I’m going to play it with my expanders on, and then I’m going to show you just the settings and a quick little solo of what it’s really doing.
So here’s the before.
[mix, before expander]
[mix, after expander]
So I’m going to play it again, and I want you to listen with this in mind.
The sound is going to change in a way where you don’t hear a humongous change, but it suddenly sounds more organized and clean, and you can kind of pick everything out a little bit better.
So keep that in mind as you hear the before and after. Think cleanliness and organization.
[mix, before and after expander]
I haven’t changed any kind of EQ or anything like that. All I’m changing is the tail dynamics. The sustain and release of the drums.
So here’s what’s going on. I’ll pull up one example. Let’s take a listen to this deep snare here.
You hear that this snare sample has a very long reverb tail. Now, I don’t want to totally kill that tail, because that’s going to give depth and character to this deep snare that I like.
But, it is a little bit long for the track, and it’s also going to create a clash between the drier snares that exist in a different space.
So what I’m going to do is pull up this C1 gate and put it into expander mode, and instead of going down to a negative infinity noise floor, I’m going to go down to a negative 17 decibel noise floor, which is significantly quieter, but isn’t going to totally eliminate the sound 100%.
So before, then after.
[snare, before and after expander]
Right? So we still feel that sort of fatness to the snare. We still have a good amount of decay and sustain in there, we just don’t have that forever trailing release that sounds washy and maybe doesn’t totally get along with the record.
Then we’ve got similar things going on with the hi-hat.
Right? It’s much tighter. Suddenly, we don’t have that reverb — excess reverb in the samples. So while these don’t make huge, profound changes, as we start adding this up, as we start doing this through the course of multiple snare layers, it actually does make a pretty sizable difference.
So one more time, before and after.
[mix, before and after expanders]
So that’s one example of where you might use an expander, and there’s certainly others, but this is just a common one that I run into that I want to show you guys. It’s really great for tightening things up, getting things to feel organized together in like, one solid thing, and also good for sort of unmasking other elements.
You know, when I do this the vocal becomes clearer, so I get a punchier, tighter snare sound, I get a clearer vocal, and I don’t have to do any EQ that’ll change the balance of things, because maybe I don’t want to change the EQ balance of things.
So alright guys, I hope that you learned something. Until next time.