Let’s face it—most of the time your drums are a large component of your mix. Your song won’t sound great if your drums don’t sound great. Truth is, it’s the drum tracks that provide much of the energy and emotion in modern music.
The snare drum is the single most important element in the drum mix. Sometimes it’s as important to the song as the lead vocal. Remember David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”? That snare drum made you want to dance—and buy his record.
A great snare drum sound can help sell your song. By great, I mean appropriate. There are a lot of musical styles and a lot of possible snare sounds. You want to match them up correctly. An aggressive pop-rock tune may want a bright snare with lots of reverb while a gospel tune may want a very warm, dry snare.
If you’re looking for a snare sound that really gets people’s attention, sits well in a mix and doesn’t fight with all the other elements of the mix, then you better roll up your sleeves because it’s going to take a while. This article will spell out your options—use it as a reference to check if you’ve thought about everything you should take into account before you settle on a snare sound.
Not all snare drums are created equal. They come in various sizes and are made of various materials. Session drummers usually bring a few snares to the date, just as session guitarists bring a few guitars. Your first big decision is the choice of snare drum.
Snares made of wood sound different from snares made of metal. Thin-shelled “piccolo” snares sound brighter than deep-dish snares. Discriminating drummers will pay up to $1300 for a Noble & Cooley Classic SS snare drum which comes in three different sizes. At the other end of the scale, my used Tama snare drum cost me about $100.
Snare drum heads come in various thicknesses and can be made out of various materials. Choice of heads can make a huge difference in the sound. If you don’t like what you are hearing, suggest that the drummer change his top snare head. New heads usually sound much better than old worn-out heads.
Tuning the heads is also crucial to their sound. Snare drums can be tuned to a pitch, almost like a guitar string. If the song is in E and the snare is pitched to Q-flat you may have a problem. Also, loosening a tuning lug or two can create a pitch that lowers as the drum decays—sort of a reverse “boing” sound.
The tension of the snares against the bottom head can determine how long and how loud they resonate. How hard the drummer hits the snare can affect its tone. Rim shots sound different from normal hits. There may even be an audible difference between a right-hand hit and a left-hand hit. Many factors affect the sound of the snare, including the room itself—and you haven’t even placed a microphone yet.
What a mic “hears” and what your ears hear in the room are two different things. First, mics aren’t ears. Second, no sane individual would put his ear as close to a snare drum as a mic gets. Third, mics can pick up annoying resonances, rattles and noises that are not apparent out in the room.
When your drummer is happy with his snare sound, you may have to make him change it once the mic grabs hold of it. Common changes include tuning up or down and applying dampening to the top head. Most snare drums have a knob you can twist to dampen them. Drummers also use plastic O-rings designed for this purpose, duct tape, and various feminine hygiene products.
Placing the right mic in the right spot is also extremely important. I usually put a Shure SM57 right over the rim of the snare pointing slightly downward, but other mics and placements will yield good results. Some engineers like to have a second mic on the bottom head to capture more of the sound of the snares. If you do this, reverse the polarity (flip the phase) on this second channel to see if it sounds better when combined with the other mic.
Sometimes the mic will pick up unwanted sympathetic vibrations from the toms when the snare is hit. Ask the drummer to hit the snare while putting his hand on each tom head to find the offending tom. Often it’s the bottom head that needs attention. You can dampen the head, retune the tom or point the snare mic away from it.
Once you have a nice signal coming from the mic you must follow it down the audio path and tweak everything it touches on the way to your recorder. Normally, you will run the snare mic into a channel of your board, or perhaps an external mic preamp. Both of these have Gain controls to avoid clipping their inputs.
Next you have to decide how much analog clipping sounds good on the snare. If you have an analog board, a little clipping may actually sound good. It can add a pleasing distortion and some compression, fattening up the sound. You have to dial it in by ear for this to work. My board is very friendly in this regard, but your board may or may not help you here. If your board is digital, clipping probably will not be your friend.
Now you must decide about eq. Changes here will affect the Gain level you just set so you may have to re-tweak that as you go. I never record a snare flat (with no eq). I have learned that in my studio we will always need some 10 kHz on the snare when mixing, so I add a goodly amount of it now. That really helps the snare to snap. It’s easier to remove a little 10 kHz later if you have too much of it than it is to add it when it’s not there.
Adjustments to eq affecting the body of the snare are made on a song-by-song basis. You can always find a fun frequency to boost, and sometimes an offensive frequency to cut. I like a snare with snap and body so I usually adjust the eq a little for every song. It’s essential to re-check it if the drummer changes snare drums between songs.
Analog vs. digital
I record to 2-inch tape and slam the needles hard on loud snare hits. What comes back off tape sounds glorious. I know that most of you who are reading this do not own a 2-inch 24-track machine, so please forgive me for rambling on about the advantages of tape when recording drums.
Hitting the tape hard when recording a snare drum is similar to clipping your analog board—it provides a natural-sounding distortion and compression. It’s not really an “effect,” because what you end up with is a lot like what your ears hear out in the room—a big fat sound.
Digital boards and recorders won’t do this for you, so you have to pump up the fatness in other ways. The problem is that drum sounds have an enormous attack spike followed by a relatively low-level sustained tone. You have to set your record levels low enough to avoid digital clipping on the attack, and as a result your drums end up sounding thin and weak.
You can address this while recording or later on when you are mixing, by applying some compression or limiting. I never compress snares or kick drums, but some folks do. A good trick seems to be to buss all of your drum tracks to a pair of channels and compress them heavily, then add them back into the mix behind the real drum tracks to fatten them up. I’ve never had to do that, but it may work for you.
Setting a compressor or limiter is an art. It should be done by ear, with an eye on the VU meter (or LED display). You want to control the level of the attack transients without muting their high-frequency content. Choosing the right compressor/limiter and setting its controls for threshold, compression, attack and release times is part of the art of recording. Always compare your compressed sound to the original to make sure you haven’t made things worse!
Compression has its pros and cons. If the drummer plays his snare hits at inconsistent volumes and you want them all to be the same, then compression is a good thing. If the drummer plays with some volume dynamics that contribute to his “feel” and you eliminate them from the mix, then compression is a bad thing.
On a digital deck your snare drum sound should remain the same until you erase it. On an analog deck it will degrade slightly every time the tape runs over the heads. That’s why the drums don’t have the sparkle they once had when it comes to mixing six months later. It’s a real bummer when that happens—and it always happens—so you end up boosting 10 kHz once more. This is the price you pay for the fat sound of analog. Pro engineers have been known to keep the original tapes in a vault and work off safety copies until it’s time to mix. Really.
Max your mix
Once your snare drum has been recorded the fun begins. Regardless of whether your studio is analog or digital the snare drum track is only one component of the final snare drum sound. By itself in a mix it is usually quite dry and boring. It’s what you do to the snare drum that makes it stand out.
Most engineers are familiar with putting reverb on a snare, but the reverb you choose—and how much of it you apply—can make a huge difference in your mix. Do you want the snare to sound like it’s in a small room or a concert hall? What about plate reverb? Spring reverb? Well, maybe not spring reverb, but backwards reverb can be a cool effect.
Choosing the best reverb box, choosing the right program and setting the parameters for length of decay, eq, diffusion, etc. can be time-consuming but well worth it. You want to dial in a sound that fits with the whole mix and makes musical sense. If the reverb on your snare is too loud it will detract from your mix. Hint: a little pre-delay on the reverb can make it seem more apparent without actually being any louder.
I usually will pan a snare track straight up and pan the stereo outputs of a Roland DEP-5 left and right. Every song gets its own specially tweaked program. Snare drums produce a waveform that many reverb units do not flatter, but I’ve had good results with this supposedly out-of-date box as a snare drum reverb. Those old toys can come in handy!
Another component of your snare drum sound is the wide array of sounds that you can trigger with it. Sample libraries have zillions of snare and tom hits to choose from. But you are not limited to drum sounds. Any sound or combination of sounds you can imagine can accompany your snare drum track. Car horns, metallic objects, breaking glass, animal noises—all of these can add that special something when mixed at low level into the snare sound. It’s easy to go wild here exploring the possibilities.
In addition to the range of sounds possible, there are arrangement tricks you can employ. If the snare hits on the 2 and the 4, you can make the two hits sound different. Snares in the choruses can sound different from the way they do in the verses. You get the idea.
The trick is in the triggering. Sometimes it’s not as easy as it appears. In the digital world there is software such as Digidesign’s SoundReplacer (a plug-in for Pro Tools) that will do it for you, but you still have to clean up the file after it has made its best guess. In the analog world you need some hardware. I use a Roland Octapad to trigger samples from an E-mu SP-1200 drum machine and an E-mu Proteus sound module, and there are many alternatives available.
To do this properly, first you need to set up a trigger track. Take a send from the original snare track and plug it into another channel of your board. Then boost the hi-mid eq and sweep it to find the frequency that seems to occur first on the attack of the snare. Then cut all the low-and mid-frequency content from this new track.
Then run it through a gate and set the gate to eliminate all non-snare drum noise. Then dial in a short release setting to produce a click. The output of the gate goes into another channel of your board. From there it goes to one or more trigger inputs of your triggering device, in my case the Octapad.
The Octapad sends MIDI note-on messages for each trigger input that receives a click. It is necessary to program it to send the proper note number for each trigger so that the tone module or drum machine will produce the right sample when the MIDI message is received. Also, it helps to have the receiving devices on different MIDI channels.
Triggering is a real challenge. There are false triggers, late triggers and weird-sounding triggers caused by drum rolls. If your snare track will not reliably trigger your samples on the fly you will have to create and print a reliable trigger track. What? You’re out of tracks? Shame on you!
To get a little more snap and presence out of your snare sound try adding a little bit of this trigger track to the mix. It can bring the sound forward without making it louder. To get more body in the snare sound you can apply this same technique using a lower frequency and a longer gate release time. Or you can trigger a pitched sine wave from a tone generator. Send the trigger track to the gate’s key input and route the tone generator through the gate. This trick can also be used to fatten up a kick drum track.
You can also pitch-shift a snare drum track down a fifth or an octave and add that into the mix to get more body. Try sending this pitch-shifted sound to your snare reverb for an eerie effect.
Dynamics and triggering
The snare drum can be a very expressive instrument with lots of volume dynamics. Little grace notes often appear between the big hits on the 2 and 4 and these little noises are important in making the track feel like it was played by a human. They also make it very difficult to trigger things reliably. Plus, it can sound strange when soft hits and loud hits trigger other sounds having no dynamics—that is, each triggered sound is at the same volume. Ideally your triggered sounds will follow the dynamics of your snare track. Good luck!
Some songs have sections where the drummer plays side-stick. Since side-stick hits are not as loud, the treatments you apply to his regular snare hits may not work for his side-stick hits. You may find it helpful to copy the side-stick sections to another track and treat them separately.
Orcastrating the snare
For my latest CD Orcastra (pronounced like “orchestra”) I dedicated seven channels of my board to Chet McCracken’s snare drum. I know that seems a bit extreme, but my board has 32 input channels and 16 groups so I could do this.
Surprise quiz: I recorded on Ampex 456 2-inch tape, but I rolled tape at 15 IPS instead of 30 IPS to:
(a) get better low-end on tape, (b) cut tape shuttling time in half, (c) preserve tape head life, (d) save money on tape, (e) all of the above.
The first channel was the snare track coming off the tape. This track got some eq and was panned straight up. It sounded pretty good all by itself, but it was not going to be all by itself so that didn’t really matter. I plugged a send from this channel into a second input channel. This channel was radically eq’d to isolate the attack transient and it was added into the mix. It was also sent to a gate and returned to a third channel so I could control its gain. This click sound was also part of the mix.
From here the signal was routed to the Octapad which triggered the drum machine and sound module samples—different ones on every song. The SP-1200 came back as channel 4 and was panned to the left. The Proteus came back as channel 5 and was panned to the right. Channels 6 and 7 were for reverb.
Your killer snare drum sound depends on a multitude of things, starting with the drum sticks used. Big fat ones will sound bigger and fatter than little skinny ones. Plastic-tipped sticks sound brighter than wood-tipped sticks, especially on cymbals. How the drum is hit makes a huge difference. You may want the drummer to hit rim shots on every hit if that works for the song.
Keep in mind that everything you do to create a great snare drum sound will be watered down by the sound of the snare in the overheads. In fact, the snare drum will show up in every drum mic, even the kick. Sometimes engineers use gates on the other mics to eliminate snare leakage but beware! The sound of gates opening and closing is very unnatural and can ruin your drum mix.
Drum mixes sound best when everything works together. When gates cause mics to turn on and off, the cymbal splash the mics pick up will go up and down in level. If you need a completely isolated snare drum track have your drummer play one as an overdub—and not play it on the basic track.
Finally, once you have created the perfect snare sound, you must find the proper level for the snare in the mix. In rock music it is usually about as loud as the kick drum, a hair underneath the vocal and never hidden behind the onslaught of guitars. If you can’t hear the wonderful snare you have created, then your mix is out of control.
When you can hear your great-sounding snare clearly in the mix—and everything else just as clearly—then, Grasshopper, you will have learned!
Jon Bare (firstname.lastname@example.org) loves the smell of oxide in the morning. You can smell it, too, at www.cdbaby.com/jonbare.