For years, I've been tortured by drum gates. First, in the analog realm, where I'd be mixing poorly-recorded tracks (sometimes my fault) and I'd attempt to use gates to add punch and clarity to my drum mixes, only to have them frequently open at the wrong times or pump nasty cymbal wash or hi-hat back into the blend in the worst-sounding way. I assumed digital, computer-based recording would provide us with smarter tools, but I never heard any plug-in gate work as effectively as I wished. In my opinion it took right up until now to do so, with Sonnox's Oxford Drum Gate.

Intelligent detection is the initial key to gating drums this effectively. Yes, we've all tried sidechain/key inputs on gates to keep snare out of kicks and vice versa, but it only worked up to a point. The Kick, Snare, Tom, "Matched Transients" button presets on the Detection pane (there are three panes we'll discuss) start us out in the right direction. You'll see the hits scrolling by, and marker arrows will show you where transients are and if they are opening the gate. If we're not getting a close enough detection, we can "match transients" by selecting a snippet of what we do want to hear in the track, pressing the "Learn Unmatched" button, and playing the source into the plug-in. You can add multiple instances as well, so dynamic playing that no gate before could figure out can be gated properly. "Oh, heck yes!" you might be saying by now.

The Decay pane is the second most important feature of the Oxford Drum Gate. A frequency-dependent decay viewed via spectral waterfall plot shows us what tonal ranges are sustaining, and also when the next hit – like hearing a bit of snare in a kick track – appears. You can see where snare ring notes exist, and tailor those with an easy-to-set Resonant Decay to sound the way you'd prefer in the mix. With kick, I found myself tuning the sustain length (and at what resonant frequencies) while playing back an entire mix, allowing me to sculpt the way the bottom end was working and how the kick and bass worked together in the song. With toms, I was able to sustain the low end and not let crash or ride cymbals bleed in, helping to restore the power of the drum and cleaning up the overall mix.

The Leveller pane is the one I honestly paid the least attention to, though I will be messing with it more as time goes by. Think of it as a very versatile limiter, with a lot of control to allow drum hits to become closer in volume to each other – this could save some poor recordings I get sent at times. It seems to do more than just flatten out all the levels, in an intelligent way via "dual target control." Leveller can also be pushed the "wrong" way via the Split control, like using a gate to duck, and I was able to make a statically played part sound more dynamic. Hmmm... might be useful with programmed drums?

The "extra" feature I like is MIDI Out, where you can send MIDI to a plug-in (or external device) or also to capture MIDI (like Massey's DRT [Tape Op #85]) and use it to trigger other plug-ins. I exported a gated snare track to MIDI and dropped in on the EZdrummer 2 [#101] instrument plug-in (my fave programmable drums) and it was perfect, even on a track with ghost notes and such. You can fine tune the gate to get even better results for triggering, if needed, but I simply used the one I'd set for mixing the audio.

There are more layers of control and features I didn't even cover here. If you want it, it's likely able to do it. There's a helpful bar below all the action, with information to help you understand and run Oxford Drum Gate (the plug-in takes up more screen space than some). I didn't download and open the manual or watch a video until I was writing this review, and most aspects I'd figured out during mix sessions. In fact, overall this plug-in was far easier to implement and get great results from than I was expecting, and it ended up on my mix sessions from the moment I first tried it out.

The Oxford Drum Gate is an amazingly-powerful plug-in that was designed properly, and with the real world in mind. I'll be hard pressed to not use it when mixing, unless the song has no drums. Flat out, Sonnox has raised the bar for anyone hoping to release a drum gate plug-in in the future, and I'd purchase Oxford Drum Gate in a heartbeat if I were you.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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