Snaring The Killer Snare Drum Sound

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.

HEAR SNARE EVERYWHERE

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.

UNDER THE MICROPHONE

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).

Fig. 1. Mini-baffle to block out hi-hat bleed into the snare mike

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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).

Fig. 2. Multiple snare-mike placement

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.

PROCESSING TECHNIQUES

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.

DYNAMICS CONTROL

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.

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Bring the output of the compressor back into an open channel on the board or to an effects return so that you can mix the processed signal with the unprocessed original (see Fig. 3). With just the right blend, the snare will have more body while still sounding dynamic. Mixing in too much of the compressed signal will defeat the purpose of this technique to preserve the dynamics.

Fig. 3. Signal Flow: Parallel compression

THE KEY TO THE GATE

Most engineers I spoke with shy away from using a gate to clean up the track when trying to achieve an organic-sounding snare drum. But a gate can be a cool tool for creating certain effects. The secret is the key input. Key gating allows you to run one signal through the main I/O of the gate, such as a re-amped snare, while triggering the opening and closing of the gate with another sound source, namely the original snare hit. Blending this triggered sound in with the original signal can help to liven up a sampled drum loop or a dead-sounding snare drum.

To clarify, re-amping a snare drum involves sending the recorded track through a loudspeaker or a guitar amp in a room and miking the amplified sound, or placing the loudspeaker face down on another snare drum and miking it from underneath to capture the buzz of the activated snare wires. Pull the mike back farther into the room for a more diffuse effect. Send the actual recorded snare hits or sampled loop into the key input to trigger the opening of the gate and send the re-amped snare track into the main input of the gate. Run the output of the gate into an open channel on the board. Experiment with attack and release times to get the right sound, and blend the processed sound with the original track for a cool effect.

EQUALIZE IT

Strive to get the snare drum sound you’re after on the front end with tuning, mike placement, and room dynamics, and use equalization sparingly only as necessary to make the snare sound more defined and better balanced in the mix after the fact. Orlando tries to minimize the need for equalization later by using multiple mikes with different characteristics, dark and bright sounding, to add a more natural balance to his mixes. Bear in mind that it’s advisable to do any dynamics processing before you equalize because compression can alter the sound a bit.

One should be conservative when cutting and boosting frequencies because heavy-handedness in this department could sound unnatural. Try to err on the side of subtractive as opposed to additive EQ to avoid adding noise. If you’re trying to create a special effect by radically shaping your sound, then go ahead and play mad scientist. Just make sure you’re willing to own the monster you create.

Whether your approach is to fix a problem or creatively enhance some sonic aspect, you should EQ the snare sound while referencing it within the mix. Bring up the whole kit and all the other tracks when you make adjustments, soloing the snare as needed to help you hone in on the sound you want. The overhead mikes will make a big difference in the overall sound, so listen to how the snare drum sits in the mix when blended with the overheads. You may need to tailor the sound to cut or blend better with everything else.

Borden advises against enhancing frequencies already present in the snare drum, but rather adding some airiness with a bit of a high-frequency boost — either from standard high-frequency shelving or employing a “Baxandall” shelf, which is a continuously rising shelving type EQ created by centering the bell a parametric type EQ at 20kHz. Adding these high harmonics creates immediacy and intimacy to the sound, he says, yet also creates space.

Rely on your ears when EQing, but here are a few general EQ guidelines pertaining to snare drums. If you need to brighten up the snare drum sound, try adding a bit of high end between 2kHz and 4kHz and upwards of 6kHz and a little high shelving EQ. If the snare drum is irritatingly bright, try notching out somewhere between 1kHz and 4kHz. Orlando often finds himself cutting a bit at 2.5kHz to get rid of the “papery” sounding stuff. If the stick attack is lacking crispness, a small boost in this area can help.

Pay attention to the range between 250 and 800 Hz. Too much in this area and you lose definition because the relationship between the strike of the stick and the ring of the drum gets masked by too much low mid. Conversely, not enough of this crucial area and the drum sounds weak and lacks cajones and warmth.

Cutting the mids between 400Hz and 800Hz could help tame an overabundant ring. If the snare’s taking up too much space in the mix, it usually has too much whump between 200Hz and 500Hz. If it’s too thin, then that’s the range where it’s lacking. Adding bit of low shelving or a little low end around 200Hz to 250Hz can give a weak-sounding drum more oomph. If a snare drum has a low-mid, boxy sound, subtracting a few dB between 200Hz and 300Hz can tighten it up.

THE SNARE IN TIME AND SPACE

Time-based effects such as reverb and delay can add life to your snare in a mix — but be careful not to overdo it. Too long of a reverb tail on the snare will confound the mastering process because it’ll take up too much room in the mix. Factor in room mikes, overheads, and bleed from other mikes when adding any artificial ambience to the mix to avoid excess. The blend should sound natural and pleasing.

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The more reverb on the signal, the more distant it sounds; conversely, the drier the signal, the more intimate it sounds. Play around with the ratio of effects you have on each of the tracks you are processing to get more depth from your mix. Boisen recommends organic-sounding short room or ambient reverb, perhaps some spring reverb if you’re going for a vintage, old-school effect.

There are many options out there for adding artificial ambience, from outboard processors to plug-ins, but Borden maintains that nothing beats the natural ambience of a good room. If you have the luxury of a good room, use room mikes and go for natural. If the room is small, you can create the illusion of a bigger space by delaying the room-mike tracks between 5 and 20 milliseconds and mixing it in with the snare to the desired consistency of dry-to-wet signal.

DRAMATIC FANATIC

Dramatic processing such as echoing delays, EQ sweeps, distortion, and epic reverb can be fun if the project calls for it. But consider how it will affect the overall mix in the end. Once the novelty wears off, you’re stuck with the mix. Based on his experience, Boisen suggests that if you’re going out on a limb with radical processing, you do a backup mix that’s more conservative. That way, you’ll have options if the novelty does wear off.

If you’re looking for dirt and distortion, running the track through a Tech21 Sans Amp or Line 6 Amp Farm will certainly add some crunch to that snare. All manner of effects are at your disposal, from guitar stomp boxes and various effects processors to DAW plug-ins. Send the channels to be processed through, say, a pre-fader aux bus to the input of the processor, and bring the affected signal back into a separate channel to tweak it and mix it in with the original dry sound. Just make sure the blended snare sound sits well with the rest of the mix — not just the kit as a whole but with all the tracks.

A trick Borden uses to thicken up a snare drum sound is to use a delay to double the sound. By setting up a 15- to 20-millisecond delay with no regeneration (no repeating echo), the sound will be effectively doubled. The two hits will be too close together to sound like a flam, but will instead serve to fatten up the track.

Another approach besides parallel compression for evening out inconsistent levels from hit to hit is to use some plug-ins such as Digidesign’s Sound Replacer, Drum Agog, or Trillium Labs Drum Rehab. These programs will allow you to take a sample, or several samples, of a good strong hit and either replace the weaker hits with the samples or reinforce them so they sound more on par musically with the rest of the track. The program essentially analyzes the track and drops in the sample at the transients. Orlando recommends blending in the sample as opposed to straight-up replacement for a more natural sound.

SNARE-TASTIC

While a lot of engineers will often find one or two ways that work for them to capture a great snare and overall sound and stick with that, it’s always a good idea to step outside the bounds of one’s self-imposed groove and experiment with other techniques — especially if different approaches can help you say something different with a track. So be bold, and go snare that perfect snare sound.