Sound Radix’s Drum Leveler (available for Windows and Mac OS, as VST/AU/AAX/RTAS plugin, $149) is a powerful dynamics processing tool specifically for drums, designed to deal with some of the challenges faced in mixing that normal compressors/expanders can’t.
Its beat detection algorithm processes each individual drum beat, using a target level system to achieve full control over the audio source, whether a spot mic on a real kit, or a full electronic loop. Taking advantage of the digital domain allows the plugin to control beats without affecting their initial transients, allowing for impressively transparent and versatile processing.
The plugin, first released in 2014, is regularly updated and still one of the most brilliant tools for discerning mix engineers. Here’s our hands-on review…
Not Your Average Compressor
Opening the plugin up at first is a little daunting – it certainly doesn’t look like most compressors. There are some new controls, but enough that are familiar to dive in and get started.
I first dropped Drum Leveler straight onto the snare mic of an angry punky track played by a rather inconsistent drummer (yours truly). Even without the manual, it was pretty straightforward to use.
Manipulating the Threshold, Target Level and Compression controls I was able to force every hit to consistency. With Compression at 100%, every single snare hit came out at exactly the same level, perfect for ensuring your drums sit where you want them in a dense mix. The Hold and Recovery settings allow for precise control over how much of the hit is processed, which can be quite useful for taming the ring on the drum in question.
Once you give the manual a browse things get really interesting. One thing in particular I like is the ‘double’ threshold, A “Lo” which behaves as a normal compressor threshold, and a “Hi” above which no processing happens. This works really well for pulling ghost notes out of a snare track, and with the side chain filter you can avoid pulling out bleed from a kick or hi-hat with it. Conversely, if you wanted to increase the difference between snare hits and ghosts, the Compression control also works as an expander when set to a negative value.
Using the built-in gate along with side chain controls, it’s possible to pull out individual drums from stereo sources such as loops. I had a go with a few of Logic’s built-in loops and the results were very impressive. I was able to use the side chain to find a part of the spectrum with only kick or snare, and use that to trigger the gate. This has its limits, as when the gate opens it lets the full spectrum through, but I was certainly able to get some very useful results out of it.
For stereo loops, the built-in M/S mode makes it easier to reduce cymbal or hi-hat sounds when you’re after the mono kick or snare signal. I also found that you can set the gate to a positive value, instantly achieving that pumping sound on overheads. You can also use a side chain input for this – if you wanted just your kick, or another percussive instrument, to cause the effect.
Using this side chain method with compression rather than the gate gives you level control over individual components. This is a great tool for rebalancing the sound of the kit if you don’t have access to individual stems. I was able to adjust the snare level of the loop by quite a way without it having an adverse effect on other sounds, and could even remove it entirely (although of course it removed everything when the snare hit happened).
Check out the video tutorial below to learn more about the most recent update.
Overall, I’ve been really impressed with Drum Leveler and the sonic toolkit it provides. Whether you’re mixing drums and want just a little bit more consistency, or pulling quieter rhythmic elements out in the mix, or quickly splicing apart a loop, this plugin makes a normally time-consuming and largely unrewarding process quick and easy. The way it handles transients lends itself to surgical alterations without having a detrimental effect on the original sound of the drum, and for that I’m sure many will adopt Drum Leveler as a regular part of their mixing workflow.