The snare drum is arguably the signature percussion sound of any music track. Snare drums are distinctive and unique and can make mixes pop out if mixed well or fall on their face if not. Getting a great snare sound requires understanding basic construction, adjustment, and tuning. Recording a snare drum also requires a little know-how, and with a bit of time and effort, you will be able to get a fantastic snare sound in your home studio.
Snare drums vary in size, shape, and design, but all have five recognizable components.
The snare drum consists of a top head (batter) and bottom head (resonant). The two heads resonate in harmony with the shell, and together they affect the tone and decay of the sound.
The hoops of a drum hold the heads in place. Most hoops are made from die-cast steel, but cheaper ones are pressed steel and can lose their shape if not adequately maintained.
Figure 1: Five Main Parts of The Snare Drum
The lugs on a snare drum are attached to the drum body to provide a secure fixing mechanism for the heads. The tension rods are threaded into the lugs and are tightened and loosened to tune or replace the heads.
Snare bodies are usually made from wood, steel, brass, or synthetic materials. They vary in size and have vent holes in them to allow the batter and resonant heads to move freely.
The snare wires are a set of spirally coiled wires that vibrate in sympathy with the resonant head. The more coils in the set, the more snap a snare drum makes and the less drum tone is heard.
Generally speaking, the lower the diameter, the higher and thinner the snare drum pitch. The greater the diameter, the deeper and fatter the sound. See Tables 1 and 2 for reference.
Table 1: Snare Drum Depths
Table 2: Snare Drum Diameters
Drum depths and diameters vary, and each drum produces its own character. Snares are sometimes considered genre-specific, but in reality, home studios don't get to choose from a 'snare shelf'. Instead, we’ll work with the drummer's own snare, or what we can borrow for a recording session.
Snare drum material affects the tone and timbre of the sound (see Table 3). Wood designs include single ply and multiple plies (which can range from 3 up to 40).
Metal designs are often made of alloys (a combination of two or more base metals) to provide a greater range of tonality. Below is a table of materials with ‘typical’ accentuated frequencies.
|Wood||Maple||⬤⬤||⬤||⬤||Wood snares tend to be
warm sounding due to the
accentuated low end.
|Steel||Steel||⬤||⬤||⬤⬤||Metal snares tend to sound
bright because of their
accentuated high range.
|Synthetic||Acrylic||⬤||⬤||⬤⬤||Synthetic Snare construction
varies greatly and it is difficult
to generalise their sound.
Table 3: Snare Drum Tones
Wires generally vary in gauge (diameter) and material. Lighter gauge wires are suitable for lighter playing - like jazz - while heavier gauge wires are suitable for heavier playing. The number of wires affects the amount of snap - the higher the number, the more the snap. The snare sound is also affected by the tension of the wires across the resonant head - the looser the tension, the more the snare will rattle.
The tension rods secure the hoop in place by screwing into the lugs. Some drums have metal or nylon washers between the tension rod head and the hoop. On many older drums, these are missing - replace them if you can, as they help to keep the drum in tune. Lugs vary in design, including tube lugs, pillar lugs, and single-point lugs. All lug designs have the same function.
Wooden snare drums are designed using varying bearing edges (see Figure 2). The amount that the bearing edge contacts the batter and resonant heads affect attack and the warmth of the drum’s sound. The rounded type, for example, naturally damps the sound, producing a very warm snare drum sound.
Figure 2: Snare Drum Bearing Edges
If the snare sound is 'a little off' and you can't tune or adjust it, check it for signs of damage. Check that:
The biggest names in heads are hard to miss, even for non-drummers. Remo, Evans and Aquarian top the billboards every time. From experience, drum heads don't get changed that often, so focus on making sure the snare batter and resonant heads are in good shape.
If you have the budget to put a new snare drum head on, for recording, go for something like the Remo Ambassador, Evans G1 or G2, or the Aquarian Studio X. However, if you're stuck with what you’ve got, spend a bit of extra time tuning the heads and getting the snare wire tension perfect.
There is no reason why an old head can’t end up sounding awesome. Just check the tension and tuning regularly if recoding all day.
We already discussed how the snare drum heads resonate in sympathy with each other and the shell when hit. And tuning a snare can make the difference between a good sound and a great one. If you don't have much experience tuning drums, follow the steps below, and you won't go far wrong.
The resonant head is going to be cranked up as tight as possible. A tight resonant head will help articulate the snare drum sound, especially for ghost notes and flams.
Figure 3: Snare Drum Bolt Tightening Order
Be careful with old or unbranded heads - they are likely to tear or break at the glue joints if overtightened.
We’ll discuss tightening the snare wires back up after we look at tuning the top head.
Follow the Steps 2 to 5 laid out for the resonant head above, except when tightening the bolts in Step 5, turn the drum key three-quarters of a turn, not three.
Now, in 1/8th turns (45°), again following Figure 3, tighten the bolts until you get a nice sounding drum (still without the snare on). The drum will sound like a low hollow tom - this is good.
Again, if you know how to adjust each tension bolt according to tone, do that - if you don’t, don’t worry.
Next, put on a magician's cape and pull out your favorite wand - repeat: “Expecto Talabris!”
Didn’t work, aye? Okay, here’s the real magic. Refer to figure 4:
Figure 4: Snare Drum Tuning
You should now have a very well tuned snare drum, perfect for that downbeat, fast rolls, and ghost notes.
Listen to the overtones of the drum and tame them if you can. Good, quality drums can be tuned far easier than budget ones. If you can't get rid of the overtones, don't worry, we’ll talk about additional damping later on.
Remember, be mindful of tuning the snare in harmony with the room - the recording space will play a large part in the finished sound.
Heads that have come straight off the production line need an extra step when fitting and tuning. The heads need to be pre-stretched to avoid problems with ‘bedding-in’ or ‘creep.’
Follow the steps set out above, overtightening the head three or four times, so:
You will probably hear some ‘crack’ sounds as you overtighten - this is normal. It’s the adhesive stretching and settling into place.
You should now have enough know-how to tune your snare to produce a very “recordable” sound. Many tuning methods discuss tuning the resonant and batter at pitches which complement each other. For example, 1/3rd or 1/5th apart. It's worth mentioning this, but don't get too hung up on it - if your snare sounds good, that's what matters.
Tip: For fine control of tensioning lugs, try the following hack (see Figure 5). This is particularly useful for making micro adjustments when using a budget snare or if the tension bolt threads are not fine enough.
Figure 5: Snare Drum Fine Control Tuning
Adjusting the snare wires is the last thing on our list to get the snare drum sounding great.
First of all, check for damage on the wires themselves. Sometimes one wire will split or become detached from its holding plate. In case of a broken wire, simply use wire cutters and cut the wire at both ends so that it is completely removed. Alternatively, if you have a spare, or can get a hold of a new one, replace it.
Now, with the lever engaged, adjust the snare wire tension so that the snare drum rattles when you strike it. Then, little by little, tighten the wire tension until the rattle just goes away. This setting is probably okay, but you can tighten or loosen a little to taste. Just don't over tighten the snare wire so that the sound is choked.
Check how the drum sounds with the single back beat hit, rolls, and ghost notes. Tighten the batter head a little if the drummer needs a harder, more responsive, playing surface.
If, after tuning and preparing your snare using the steps above, the snare is producing unwanted overtones, additional damping may be called for.
There are off-the-shelf products for damping, such as Evan’s E-Rings and Remo’s O-Rings, which can be bought separately or in packs of 4 in standard sizes. Also on the market are various brand versions of “moongel” - a silicon-based non-toxic gel that can be applied and removed effortlessly from drum heads.
There are also some overtone dampers that use magnets to hold down the drum hoop. These products all have the same function, which is to reduce the vibrations in the batter head, and therefore stop the higher frequency tones from ringing out.
The Principle of Damping: The more substantial the damper, the more the overtones are reduced. The same is true for the surface area: The higher the area in contact with the head, the more the overtones are reduced.
Off-the-shelf products offer a greater convenience for setup and removal, but there are a few other ways to achieve the same results. Here are some of the most notorious damping hacks (and one of my own!):
Figure 7: Snare Drum Damping
If you have followed all of the steps so far, the snare drum should be sounding great and should be ready for recording. But before we finish up, let's look at a couple more essential aspects of getting a great snare sound - The Drummer And The Drumstick.
The final sound of your finished mixed will be significantly affected by the performances of the musicians who played on it. The drummer is no exception. His or her performance will dictate a lot of how the final song will feel and groove.
The drummer that you end up recording with will either be a novice or a seasoned professional - or anything in between. He or she will have some recording experience or none at all. All of which should be taken into consideration when managing a recording session.
For the inexperienced drummer, patience and encouragement is king - keep the mood light and enjoyable, stay professional, record every take, and be prepared to put in some extra effort to nail each section of the song. This is a home studio after all - not Studio II at Sunset Sound!
Do not allow an inexperienced drummer to suddenly think as he or she is being recorded that now would be a good time to experiment with nylon-tip shapes, something beefier, something lighter, something longer. Encourage your drummer to stick (pun intended!) to what they know and what they are comfortable playing with. Encourage them to bring a spare pair with them.
Oh! and don’t forget to give them their wallet back when you’re done damping those overtones!
We are going to discuss placing and recording the top and bottom snare microphones. The sound of the snare drum also comes from the overhead and room microphones, however we will leave this for another time. There are plenty of online resources for overhead and room microphone placement and recording.
There is not much discussion regarding microphone choice for snare top snare bottom. Use a Shure SM57 for both - that’s two if you have them.
The SM57 is a uniform “cardioid pickup pattern dynamic microphone,” which means that it picks up sounds from directly in front of its diaphragm and works well to reduce noises and sounds from other sources - so it is ideal for dealing with bleed from the hi-hat or kick drum.
Place the microphone at about 10 o’clock on the snare drum. The final position will depend on your microphone stands, and drum set up. Do not put the microphone in an area that will interfere with your drummers playing. Set the microphone about 2 to 3 inches from the hoop. See figure 7.
There are two schools of thought on this subject:
Figure 8: Snare Drum Microphone Placements
I have had success using both setups, but these days for the sanre, I go for Setup B every time. However, use what works best for you - it’s easy enough to try out both configurations.
In setup A you will theoretically get a mix of drum and stick sounds. In setup B it will be “all” drum.
Place the microphone in “any” position that is practical but point the microphone directly at the snare wires. As a guide, position the microphone 2 to 3 inches away from the hoop and 2 to 3 inches from the resonant head, but move it around and try different positions to optimize your sound. Placing the bottom mic at a slight angle is also ok.
If you are auditioning different positions, be sure to check the phase between the top and bottom microphones. Alternatively, solo the bottom mic and go for something that gives the most amount of “rattle”- that is usually enough.
Tip: If the drum kit is set up on a carpet or mat, consider placing the snare drum stand on something solid. A round piece of MDF will do the job nicely. A solid MDF board will reflect the snare drum sound back towards the microphones and produce a thicker, heavier sound.
When you set up the close microphones for the snare drum, try to think about bleed from other sound sources. For example, the sound of the hi-hat being picked up by the top snare microphone. Anyway, eliminating all bleed from recorded tracks is going to be impossible but consider if you can do something to minimize the effect. For example, placing a pop filter between the hi-hat and the top snare microphone. (See our article on pop filters here.)
If you are lucky enough to be recording your snare through a pre-amp that’s excellent news, but if you only have two preamps (like me!) save them for the overheads. Personally, I can’t tell the difference between a top snare or bottom snare track with and without a preamp, but I can hear the difference on overheads.
Set up your microphone positions to reduce phase. The aim here is to get both microphones (top and bottom snare) the “same distance” away from the sound source where possible. Phase canceling occurs when one microphone works against another to reduce the audio signal.
For example, the bottom snare microphone makes the overall snare audio sound weak and hollow because it is out of phase with the top mic. In most cases, the bottom snare microphone will be out of phase, but don’t worry you can address this later after the tracks are in the DAW.
Now that everything is set up, and your finger is itchy to be pushing that record button, it’s time to think about recording levels. We are just going to assume that you are recording digitally straight to your favorite DAW.
The difference, and beauty, with digital systems, is that they don’t have a low signal to noise ratio like old analog systems-such as tape. And, what that means is that you don’t need to drive any signals “hard” into a digital system. This makes it very acceptable to record with a seemingly massive amount of headroom.
What is Headroom In Recording and Mixing? Headroom is the buffer between the nominal audio level and full-scale (FS) audio level. Exceeding the full-scale level will result in digital distortion and digital clipping, which is not recommended. Keep the recorded audio “dancing” around the nominal and make sure you stay under FS. Additionally, digital audio levels can be raised without (yes! without!) any loss in quality.
On your DAW set the recording meter to K-20. The K-20 meter gives a generous 20dBs of headroom. When recording, stay out of the “Red” (+4dB to +20dB) keeping it for the occasional over average, under controlled snare drum hit.
Most DAWs have the option to set metering for K-20. On Pro Tools and Presonus select the K-20 scale. On Logic Pro X you can drag the meters to any desired level.
We have already discussed the importance of the drummer’s role for creating a great sounding drum track. It’s never a bad idea to ask the drummer to play his part a few times before recording the first take. Doing this gives the drummer the chance to warm up and allows you to set the levels for recording in your DAW.
When you believe that the drummer is ready, it is time to record your first take. There are a few options for recording. One is, to record the whole song from start to finish - this is a preferred method as it seems to give a better performance. Another way is, to record a song in parts - for example, the intro, first verse, and first chorus, before recording the whole song. This second method is advantageous for inexperienced drummers.
Whichever method you decide to record the drummer, don’t forget that it is possible to make multiple takes of any part of the song. Most DAWs allow playlists to be created which provide convenient and easy management of numerous takes. Refer to your own DAW’s user instructions to find out how to do that.