Snaring The Killer Snare Drum Sound
MORE MIKES, MORE MIX OPTIONS
If you have the resources, you can try using two or three different mikes on the snare to provide more sonic options during mix down (see Fig. 2). Orlando, whose kit often looks like a presidential news conference with all the mikes bristling around it, likes to use three mikes on the snare, though he may not use all of them at once in the mix. His modus operandi is to place two mikes on the top head with their capsules carefully aligned, and a third mike underneath to capture the snares (or, if it’s a nice-sounding wood drum, he’ll opt to aim this mike toward the side of the shell to capture the resonance as well).
The top mikes he uses consist of a fuller sounding dynamic (Audix I-5 or Shure SM57) and either a condenser (Oktava MC-012 or Audio-Technica small-diaphragm condenser with pad engaged) or a brighter sounding dynamic (Shure Beta 56, Audix D-1, or Sennheiser e609). For the underside or side mike, he may reach for a D-1, Shure SM81, or SM57. Mixing in the bottom mike just a little bit can brighten up the sound and give more presence to the snares.
Watch out for phase issues when using multiple mikes; these can make the overall mix of the kit sound thin or hollow. For instance, the mike you place underneath the drum to catch the snares could interfere with the top mike when you go to blend the two together. Generally, flipping the phase on the underside mike usually solves the problem. Some external preamps feature polarity reversal switches, so if your mixer doesn’t have that option, try an external preamp, or if you have a program like Pro Tools, you can do it after the fact in the DAW. The latter option also allows you the convenience of nudging tracks to align with others if necessary. If a problem persists, opt to go with just one mike. Phase issues can also affect the sound when you mix overhead and close mikes. Make adjustments as necessary.
As for microphone preamps, a console pre will often do a fine job on the snare. Boisen prefers using a preamp that’s not too clean or high tech, citing that he likes a little dirt on the sound. He’ll sometimes employ a vintage Ampex tube pre because it adds some harmonic distortion and brings out the ring, which he likes. For brighter mikes, Orlando reaches for API preamps or ones that are comparably bright with an aggressive midrange.
For a chunkier sounding mike if he’s recording something like punk, he’ll go with a Chandler TG2 and overdrive it for the distortion effect. Overdriving a preamp simply means turning down the output gain while cranking the input until the signal clips a bit. The resultant slightly compressed and distorted effect really makes the snare cut. This is definitely an aggressive sound more suited to punk than jazz. Other faves include the Chameleon Labs preamp and the Mercury Grand Pre, or sometimes the affordable Electro Harmonix 12A47 because the tubes overdrive nicely.
Proper mike placement with perhaps a very short plate reverb will result in a natural-sounding snare. If the sound still needs some tweaking, either correctively to fix any problems, or creatively to make a sonic statement, here are some tips on ways to go about it depending on your angle.
Compressors are “leveling amplifiers” usually employed to tame dynamics in a recording by leveling the peaks and bringing up the quieter elements. If the drummer is inconsistent in hitting the snare drum, a little light compression can help level out the unevenness in the mix. The transient character of the drum will start to lose its impact with too much compression, however, so caution is advised so as not to squash the life out of it. A conservative setting with the ratio between 1.5:1 and 3:1 should suffice to bring up lower level content without flattening out the performance.
A great way to go about fattening up your sound without damaging the overall dynamics of the recorded snare drum is to use parallel compression. This technique involves mixing the unprocessed signal with a prodigiously compressed version of itself in order to add character and body to the sound, enhancing its presence in the mix without appreciably increasing the gain. Borden suggests using a heavy-handed compressor, such as the Distressor, to really thicken up the sound and gently ease the presence of the extremely processed signal behind the original, being careful not to overdo it.
To set up for parallel compression, don’t use the standard channel insert, but rather use an aux send or buss to send the snare-track signal out to the compressor input. Set the compressor to a ratio of 10:1 or more with a hard-knee setting to squish the pee out of the signal with a gain reduction between 15dB to 20dB. You can experiment with different ratios as well as attack and release times for different effects. And if you have the resources, try different compressors for different characteristics.