Snare Drum Lab 101

snare drum lab

The snare drum is the most important drum in a drum set. It’s the drum we’re first instructed on and is the drum we hit most often. However, if you don’t have your own personal drum tech to keep your drum sounding great and working perfectly, you might appreciate a little advice and information about how to keep it performing at its best.   I teach in a big drum shop and every week drummers dissatisfied with their current drum’s sound walk out with a new snare drum hoping that will solve it. I often wonder how many of these drummers would benefit more from learning how to select the right heads and equipment for the music they play.

Buy It New Heads

It’s a good idea to replace heads periodically depending on how much wear they get. But how do you know when they’ve had enough? Parents of an eight-year-old who plays lightly could wait a couple of years, while a touring drummer who hits like a blacksmith may change them every few shows. Batter heads usually need to be replaced more often than the snare-side head, and as a result many drummers make the mistake of overlooking the condition of their bottom snare head. The snare-side head is usually about half the thickness of the batter head and its thinness helps it vibrate the wires but also makes it more susceptible to damage. Consequently, a hard-shell snare case can pay for itself over the years.

Make sure the bottom head on your snare is designed to be used as a snare-side head. Every month a teenage drummer comes into our shop complaining about his or her tubby snare sound only to have us point out the batter head being used as a resonant head.

Head Selection

Choosing heads depends entirely on your needs and the style of music that you play. If you are a light jazz drummer, a thin, single-ply head may give you the articulation and sound you require while a heavy metal drummer may care as much about durability as sound.

Most drumheads today are made from plastic (Mylar) and are offered with clear, opaque, frosted, or coated surfaces, single- or double-ply styles, reinforcement dots for extra strength, premuffled designs, and combinations of all these types. There are far too many types of drumheads available to give anything but some general tips on how they can affect the sound of your drum.

If you’re looking to change your sound through your head selection, note that it’s usually easier to make a drum sound fuller, darker, and more muffled than to make it brighter and livelier. For this reason crisper metal-shell drums are often more adaptable to tonal adjustment than darker-sounding wood drums.

Remo coated Ambassador batter head

New snare drums usually come outfitted with a medium-weight single-ply coated batter head because these offer a reasonable balance of durability with a bright, crisp sound while their coating allows them to be used with brushes. Remo’s Ambassador head is the industry standard of this type, though Attack’s 1-ply Medium Coated, Aquarian’s Texture Coated, and Evans G1 are all similar heads. Single-ply heads are often about 10mil thick but Evans recently introduced its more durable G Plus head that’s 12mil thick and G14 head that’s 14mil thick while still being single-ply.

Remo’s Diplomat is a single-ply head that’s even thinner at just 7.5mil and offers more brightness and sustain but less durability so it’s primarily chosen by jazz and orchestral snare drummers.

Jazz drummers and those using vintage-era drums might want to check out Aquarian’s American Vintage heads that are slightly oversized to fit certain older shells. Drummers who play a lot of brushes are also likely to be interested in the various models of Fiberskyn 3, Suede, and Skyntone heads that Remo offers as well as Evans J1 Etched heads.

If you’re a drummer who gigs frequently you may want more durability. Single-ply heads with reinforcement dots offer added durability and a bit of muffling without changing the tone too much. I prefer these with the dot placed beneath the head to enable playing with brushes.

Two-ply heads offer a more muffled and darker snare tone but can work well for rock drummers who need even more durability and muffling.

Premuffled heads come in single and double-ply varieties and have a muffling ring around their perimeter on the underside of the head. Sometimes these include reinforcement dots.

If you want an extremely dead ’70s-type sound out of your snare or toms consider Evans Hydraulic heads, which have two plies of film with a thin layer of oil between them. They can easily tame any 18" floor tom or church-bell snare they encounter.

Metal drummers will certainly be interested in the next two heads. Aquarian’s new Triple Threat combines three plies of 7mil drumhead film into one very durable head, and Evans, new Hybrid Coated is a combination of two unique high-tensile fibers that are more commonly seen in drum corps and sports a unique gray woven surface. It’s designed for extremely heavy hitters. I heard one of these used on a Lars Ulrich Tama Signature Bell Brass snare and the head completely changed the sound of the drum, tempering much of its raw, aggressive clang with a much more musical tonality.

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Calfskin drumheads were the only type of drumhead available until the 1950s when more durable plastic heads were introduced. You can still find calfskin heads at Earthtone (earthtoneheads.com) and Rebeats (rebeats.com), but unlike the heads of our great grandfathers’ era, the Earthtones are mounted on a metal rim and have a preformed crown that will sit on the bearing edge. Rebeats offers custom sizes for nonstandard drums including heads mounted on flesh hoops. The disadvantages of natural-skin heads is they can be affected by humidity, are less durable, incur the wrath of PETA memmbers and cost more than plastic heads. The advantages are incredible warmth and a fuller tone than you can typically get from a plastic head. If you want a truly vintage sound this may be the best way to get it.

Tuning

Before putting your new heads on your drum, wipe down the bearing edge with a soft cloth and inspect the inside of the drum for loose screws. You may wish to lubricate the tension screws with household oil. Seat the new head on the bearing edge, replace the hoop, and begin finger tightening the tension screws.

It will be easier to hear the pitch of the drum without the wires engaged. Tighten the lug at the 12 o’clock position a half turn with your drum key, then do the same with the lug opposite it at the 6 o’clock position, followed by the lugs closest to 3 and 9 o’clock, continuing with the remaining lugs just as you’d tighten the lug nuts on a car tire. Gradually bring the drum up to playing tension, tapping the head as you tighten it. Once your hear a pitch and have the tension close to where you want it, tap near the edge of the head in front of each lug and gradually raise the pitch of the lowest screws until they match the higher pitched ones.

Snare drums are usually tuned tightly to obtain their characteristic sound. Though most drummers don’t use tuners to tune their drums (and tune by ear and feel) if you’re inexperienced at this, tune your bottom head near the pitch of A, with the batter head tuned a step or two higher. If you’re the precise and analytical type you may be interested in the Tune-Bot electronic drum tuner (tune-bot.com) which reads the exact pitch at each lug. If you don’t want to invest much in a tuner, your current metronome may include a reference tuning tone of A = 440Hz.

Tune For The Music

Tight snare tuning is often chosen for faster, busier playing styles where articulation is needed and for those styles that have traditionally used high-pitched snares, such as reggae and ska. Other styles that often employ higher tunings include funk, punk, jazz-fusion, and progressive rock. Highly tuned snares project further, and ten-lug drums and smaller-diameter shells make this sound far easier to achieve.

Middle snare tunings are useful for more general-purpose playing and include pop, classic rock, alternative, country, roots rock, and folk.

Lower tunings are often selected for quieter songs with slower tempos and are favored for ballads or more introspective music and don’t project as well.

Tuning is ultimately a personal choice. Billy Cobham usually tunes his snare way up in the stratosphere and Billy Ward often tunes his snare so low you may suspect he’s lost his drum key. Both of these superb drummers have unique ideas of what makes for a great snare sound, and their radically different approaches reflect their particular musical needs and tastes.

Muffling Techniques

If your drum still has an excessive amount of ring you will need to muffle it or select a more dampened style of head. Unfortunately, many muffling methods reduce the brighter treble frequencies as they dampen the ring.

One of the common ways students muffle their drums is with drum ring products like Aquarian Studio Rings, Remo RemOs, and Evans E-Rings. These are Mylar rings that are laid on top of the drum to control and remove most of the drum overtones resulting in fat midrange snare sound. They work well but you may find they muffle the drum too much. Steve Gadd used a thick ring of this type duct taped to his snare head for countless hit recordings. It became a signature part of that fat ’70s and ’80s snare sound.

RTOM Moon Gel applied to batter head

RTOM Moon Gel damper pads are small soft self-sticking gel pads that can be placed on drumheads or cymbals to remove unwanted overtones. They work well and don’t leave residue behind.

Evans Min-EMAD muffling dampers are fabric strips that attach via Velcro to the drumhead and the drum rim to control overtones and vibration without changing the feel of the drumhead. Attach them closer to the edge of the head for less muffling and away from the rim for more.

Remo Active Snare Dampening System is an externally mounted mechanical drum gate that has a small pad on a rod/plunger assembly that attaches to your snare hoop and was developed in conjunction with fusion drummer Dave Weckl. When you hit the drum the pad and rod briefly lift off the drum allowing the drum to resonate freely and then drop to “gate” and cut-off the overtones. One advantage of this mechanical gate is it doesn’t affect the higher frequencies and can be adjusted to allow varying degrees of ring but must be removed when placed in a drum case.

The Drum Wallet is another free-floating “gating-effect”–type product that consists of a pouch filled with shot that’s anchored to two lugs.

Internal mufflers are often found inside vintage snare drums. These have a felt pad that is raised via a knob on the outside of the shell until they gradually make contact with the underside of the drumhead.

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Low-Tech DIY Muffling

Drummers still use items like napkins, masking tape, or even panty liners on a drumhead for muffling. Yes — panty liners!

The most common material used to muffle snare drums is duct or gaffer’s tape. Most professional drummers carry a roll with them and it now comes in many colors. I keep a small roll of black duct tape on my stick bag strap.

Usually, a strip of tape is applied to the edge of a head. Some drummers will fashion a low-tech drum “gate” out of the material and use 3"–4" of duct tape adhering two-thirds of it to itself and stick the remaining area with exposed adhesive to either the rim or the edge of the head, allowing the rest to lift and fall with each hit. The downside of tape is the sticky residue it can leave behind, though gaffer’s tape tends to remove pretty cleanly.

Foam insulating tape, double-sided foam mounting tape, and even felt furniture pads are sometimes used to muffle drumheads. Marching bands still use foam insulating tape (the type used around doors) since it’s cheap, readily available, and can be placed on the inside of the drumhead. I use a small amount of two-sided foam mounting tape on one of my workhorse snare drums. Why? It’s out of the way when I play brushes and doesn’t have to be removed when packing up.

Hoops

The hoops on your drum can have a noticeable affect on your sound.

Triple-flanged hoop

Today most drum hoops are triple-flanged steel hoops and these are known for offering more sustain and warmth than some other types of hoops. However, all triple-flanged hoops are not the same. Entry-level snare drums usually have thinner hoops that make rim-clicks more challenging to produce and under high tension these hoops can deform and go out of round. If you’d like to improve an entry-level drum, buying a thicker 2.3mm hoop will give a louder rim-click and should hold its shape for the life of the drum.

Die-cast hoops are even thicker than triple-flanged hoops and offer a loud and very cutting rim-click sound. They tend to reduce the high-end frequencies and sustain resulting in a more controlled snare sound which is often desirable.

Die-cast hoop

Wood hoops are a very old style of hoop that became popular again in the ’90s when Ayotte Drums reintroduced them. These tend to offer a bit more warmth than die-cast hoops while still offering a great rim-click sound, however, they can be damaged if you’re prone to heavy and constant rimshots.

You can modify and alter the characteristics of your drum by changing your current drum hoops. For example, if your drum has too much sustain and a weak rim-click, a die-cast hoop may be the perfect remedy. A dead dull drum that has a die-cast hoop can be livened up with a triple-flanged hoop.

Bearing Edges

The bearing edges are the top and bottom edges of your drum shells that the drumhead contacts. The shape of your bearing edge affects your drum’s sustain and sensitivity.

Batter-side bearing edge

If you have a metal-shell drum there isn’t much you can do since the bearing edge is thin and is difficult to work. However, if you have a wood-shell drum you can have your bearing edges recut. If the snare that came with your kit has never been as sensitive and responsive as you’d like, recutting the bearing edge to a sharper edge can help. Similarly, a drum with too many overtones might benefit from a rounder vintage-style edge that has greater contact with the head. To have the edges recut you’ll probably need to have it done professionally.

However, another recent option is the replacement bearing edges offered by Nu’Edg (nuedg.com). Theses edges can be dropped in place and don’t require you to recut your edges, giving you the option of changing the bearing edges to provide several different sounds from the same drum by simply removing the heads and setting a different one in place.

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Throw-offs

Throw-offs, or snare strainers, are the mechanisms that raise and lower the snare wires beneath the drum. They usually feature a lever and a fine-tuning knob to more precisely adjust the wire tension. The lever usually comes in a side throw (to one side or the other) or flip-down (away from the shell) designs, and of these I prefer the side throw since it doesn’t get in the way of your legs. Some very high-end end models feature aesthetically pleasing designs and indents in the fine-tuning knob to resist detensioning (i.e., Rocket Shells’ Ngage), the ability to swivel for righties or lefties, and a quick-release mechanism (Dunnett throw-off), or intermediate levered steps for additional throw-off tensions (Trick GS007M). Even basic throw-offs can offer many years of solid service. If your throw-off becomes damaged, replacing it is easy, but make sure the new model will fit into the existing holes on your drum and once replaced will still fit into your case.

Your local professional drum shop or DIY sites like precisiondrum.com, drummaker.com, and drumfoundry.com can get you the replacement parts you need.

Snare Wires

The characteristic sound of a snare drum is provided from the wires that press against the bottom head. Many drummers never think of replacing them until they notice them dangling beneath the drum. Most drum companies offer identical replacement wires for their drums but if you want to really tweak your sound check out Puresound wires. The company offers a wide range of products that can help you alleviate common problems or help tweak and personalize your snare sound. Does your drum lack articulation? Check out the Twisted series, which features double strands of snares twisted together, or the Super 30 series with, you guessed it, 30 strands of wire. Does your snare buzz whenever you hit your middle or high tom? The Equalizer series lacks the middle strands of wire resulting in less sympathetic vibration and a drier tone.

Snare wires are held in place by tape, wire, string, or ribbon, and all function well, but carry a spare. You can buy a spool of fabric ribbon cheaply at a fabric store that will supply you with a lifetime’s worth for just a few bucks.

Lastly, additional snare drums will give you more tonal options than a single drum can provide, especially if you select both wood and metal-shell drums and select drums of different sizes.

Quick-Reference Guide: Snare The Right Sound For Your Style

Funk
To get the classic funk sound, tune your drum tightly. A ten-lug drum will make this easier. A singly-ply head will work well, however, if you hit like Chad Smith, a reinforcement dot will add a much-needed durability boost. Try a metal shell for additional clarity and a shell diameter of 13" or 14" with a shallower depth from 3.5"–5.5". Keep the wire tension tight and apply light muffling for clarity. If you need it, die-cast hoops will add midrange to your sound and control the clang of your rimshots.

Classic Rock/Ballad
To get that ’70s-type sound try a deeper 6.5"–8" wood shell with a medium or lower range tuning. Triple-flanged hoops and double-ply heads will add warmth to your tone. Set the wires at a medium or slightly looser tension and don’t be afraid to add a little (or a lot) of muffling to the head.

Speed Metal
Here a 6.5" metal shell will prove ideal for a louder drummer who also needs clarity while blasting. A durable head like a reverse dot or double-ply is a good starting point and tighter tunings and snare wire tension will help your stick bounce quickly. Die-cast hoops will help give you a fatter tone.

Jazz
A textured or coated head is a must for brush playing and single-ply heads are the most common choice, unless you play louder styles like big band where a reinforced head may be necessary. Wood shells give more warmth and standard depths of 5"–5.5" will give the articulation you’ll need and help you control the volume. Medium or slightly higher tunings and a moderate snare tension will usually work well. Triple-flanged hoops will give a more open and warm tone.

Country
Today’s country is just like any other louder rock gig. Double-ply and dot heads are commonplace and die-cast hoops will help your rim-clicks come to life. A medium or slightly tighter tuning and snare tension should suit your style well. Brass snare shells 5.5"–6.5" deep are common as they offer both clarity and warmth.

Reggae
Tune high, way high. Ten-lug 14" steel-shelled snare drums have ruled, though 13"-diameter drums will work just as well and require less head tension. A die-cast hoop will help amplify your rim-clicks. Don’t be shy — go with a single-ply head and no muffling for extra clang in your rimshots!

Punk
Like metal, punk drummers need lots of durability so a reinforced double-ply head will put up with your thrashing. Tune high to cut through the amps and try a 6.5"-deep shell for volume. Die-cast hoops will help endure your constant rimshots.