From delicate brushwork to bombastic rim-shots, the snare drum’s wide dynamic range fills out the frequency spectrum between the cymbals and the bass drum. It’s important for the recording as a whole that you snare the perfect snare sound because it greatly influences the overall sound. Simply changing out the snare drum on a tune or processing it just a bit can have a dramatic effect.
The best way to capture a killer snare sound on a recording is to start with a well-tuned snare drum, a good player, and a decent room in which to record. Microphone and preamp selection and mike placement come next. Once you get the best sound possible to tape or hard disc, you can shape and manipulate it as desired with a variety of processing techniques. The approach you take will depend on the effect you’re going for, the style of music, how the snare sits in the mix, and whatever sonic fixes may be necessary. This tweaking ranges from equalization and compression to reverb and re-amping and more.
Since it all starts with the instrument, let’s do a quick review of the snare drum itself. In addition to the heads and the tuning, the material of the shell and its thickness, size, and depth all play a part in the sound of the snare drum. The snare should be complementary to the style and sound of the music being played.
Different woods offer different characteristics, from the warm, open sound of maple to the punchy, sharp attack of birch. Thicker shells are higher pitched and louder in general with a faster decay than more resonant, thinner shells. Shells made of metals, such as brass, bronze, aluminum, and steel, or materials such as acrylic or carbon fiber tend to be bright and are even louder with ample projection. In general, a shallower drum will have a brighter tone and a quicker response while deeper drums will have a lower, thicker tone and a slower response.
The heads you use also greatly affect the sound you get from the drum. A textured, single-ply, medium-weight head, such as a coated Remo Ambassador or Evans Genera 1 on the batter side and a light- or medium-weight snare-side head, such as a Remo Diplomat or Ambassador or something comparable, work great for a crisp, open, and responsive sound and natural sustain. This setup is used by most jazz drummers and rockers alike. However, a snare setup for a heavy rock session may do better with a 2-ply head for a meatier, thicker sound and more focused attack.
The relationship between the top and bottom heads and the shell shape will affect the overall sound you get from the drum. Begin by tuning the bottom head as evenly as possible, making sure, most importantly, that the tension is even across the snare bed. Also, make sure the snare wires are evenly seated in the snare bed. The tension of the top head fine-tunes the overall sound and affects the snare response as well as the “vibe” of the drum. Tuning it up tabletop tight gives you that snappy crack, and tuning it looser gives the snare drum a fatter tone; experiment to get what you’re after for the tune. While some ring to the snare drum adds life to the sound, keep in mind that too much ring can be obnoxious. As needed, you can control the ring with good tuning and mike placement.
It’s best to start with the best snare for the tune. You wouldn’t necessarily pick a 13" x 4" brass piccolo drum tuned up tight to get a meaty and monstrous hard-rock snare sound, nor would your first choice be an 8"-deep maple snare if you were going for something pert and bright. Some drummers will actually bring a selection of snares for different dynamics for each tune.
For a broader perspective, I spoke with several engineers about their favorite snare recording techniques: Steve Orlando and George Borden, both recording instructors at Ex’pression College For Digital Arts, and Myles Boisen, head engineer at Guerrilla Recording in Oakland, California. While everyone agrees there’s more than one way to approach recording a snare drum, the most straightforward method is to simply, well, stick a mike on it. The beauty of this approach is that you’ll experience less phase issues by using fewer microphones.
The most common choice for snare miking is a dynamic mike, such as the ubiquitous Shure SM57, because it can handle the high SPL, though you can also use a hardy condenser (Shure’s Beta 98 or Audix Micro-D). Boisen’s favorite dynamic mike for snare is the Electro-Voice EV408 because it has a tight supercardioid pattern and swiveling-head design, which make it better for rejecting adjacent sound sources (hi-hat and toms) and easier to place in tight spaces. He finds the EV408 provides clarity and midrange without too much bass-y thump. When using only one snare mike, Orlando often opts for a Shure Beta 56 or an Audix I-5, though when recording jazz, he prefers a Sennheiser e609 for its brightness.
Place the mike 2" away from the drum with the capsule either level with or between 1" to 1 1/2" above the rim pointing either across the head or angled toward it for different effects. The closer you place the mike to the head, the more focused the attack and the greater the degree of boosted lows from proximity effect. Aim the mike between the lugs for greater resonance.
By pulling the mike back a bit from the edge of the drum, you can capture more tone from the shell and the snares from underneath along with the stick hit for a more balanced natural sound. The further away from the drum, the more high-end the mike will capture and the more open the sound, but also more bleed from other sound sources. You can use a mike with a tighter pickup pattern (i.e. hypercardioid) and careful placement to reduce bleed from other instruments. Orlando fashioned a mini baffle from some foam and a pop filter to reject hi-hat bleed from the snare mike (see Fig. 1).