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Snare Drum Compendium - Start with the Best Sound

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Who can say that they do not like the crack of a snare drum with nice long pure sustain? The snare drum is by far one of the most important sounds in modern music; second only to the kick. From dubstep, to club, to hard rock, to tasteful funk, the snare drum is provides the back beat to the rhythm section. It is the perfect counter the kick and ultimately it needs to sound solid.


Also available in this series:

  1. The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio - Part 1
  2. The Kick Drum Compendium for the Home Studio - Part 2
  3. Snare Drum Compendium - Start with the Best Sound
  4. The Snare Drum Compendium - Recording and Mixing Techniques
  5. Drum Overhead Compendium: Toms and Cymbals
  6. Drum Overhead Compendium: Toms and Cymbals Part 2

However most home studio enthusiasts have less than ideal room acoustics, mic selection, etc. and will need all the tricks they can get in order to get the best snare sound possible. That is where this tutorial series comes in!

In this first tutorial we will examine the snare drum from the instrumental standpoint and how it functions musically and acoustically so we can have a better idea of how to record it. In the next tutorial we will then take our recorded snare and start processing it. You can't fake the perfect sound in the mix, it has to start with the drum itself.

Snares can unfortunately get very expensive but with you can get your sound exponentially better if you know what you are doing! So if you want to make the most of your snare drum then look no further. Without further adieu, let's smack some snares!


Functionally

The snare drum from an acoustical stand point operates much like any other drum. The batter head is struck and this causes the head to resonate back and forth. As the head resonates air is moved inside the drum and this causes the opposing head to resonate as well as the rest of the drum shell. This resonance produces the tone of the drum while the vibration of resonant head causes the snares to resonant and in turn creates the iconic striking sound of the snare. Finally, the fluctuating air pressure escapes from the small vent holes place in the drum.

Now why should we care about all of this? To start with, the snare drum is usually miced both top and bottom and each head has a very distinct sound when microphones are placed very close to them. In addition, if you know anything about resonance then you will know that it is created by oscillation. Since we mic the outside of the snare from both the batter head side and the resonant head side we run a huge risk of phase cancelation. Why you ask? Because the two heads will most likely be in opposite oscillation of one another (one causing compression and the other causing rarefaction).

Finally, if you were to sum them together in the computer you will most likely have unfixable phase cancellation. While with the kick drum we try to avoid having to use a phase inverter, with snare drums it is almost mandatory. If you use a phase inverter you may knock other frequencies out of phase that were not out of phase to begin with but thankfully this does not affect snare drums as much since their pitch is usually higher and less perceptible than a kicks.


The Tone Controls

Like every instrument, there are natural built in tone controls that allow us to shape the sound of the instrument. A drum however is a little more unique than most other instruments. What makes drums unique is that there is usually only one or two dynamic variable present in a drum; for the snare it is how the player hits the drum and the snare clutch. Every other tone control is static and will only change from either excessive use or cheap parts. This makes getting a solid unchanging sound much easier for drums than say a violin or voice.

Let's take a look at what these static tone controls are and how they affect the tone of the drum.

  • Batter Head: Greatly influences the sound of the initial attack of the kick drum. Generally much thicker than the resonant head. It also has some weight as to what the overall pitch of the drum is but nowhere near as much as the resonant head. It also has a bearing on what overtones are present depending on its tuning and material. The overall projection of the drums attack is controlled here.


  • Resonant Head: Controls some of the drums natural tone and has a large influence on the fundamental pitch of the drum. In addition, the length of the snares sustain is greatly influenced by this head. Finally it can greatly affect the harmonics and how much the harmonics ring.


  • Tuning Lugs: These lugs will help pitch the drum and what frequency the heads will vibrate at. The area around each lug has its own pitch that effects the overall pitch of the head. Ironically the lugs effect the opposite side of the drum more than the location of the lug.


  • Sticks: A sometimes overlooked part of the sound of a snare is what sticks are being used. Everything from the weight to the shape of the tip can subtly effect the tone which will add to the overall sound of snare. While easily changeable, generally drummers do not change thier sticks mid song so we can consider it a static element to the tone.


  • Snares: People often forget that there can be different kinds of snare on the bottom of the snare drum. Some give a very tight crisp sound while others can give a looser fatter sound. In addition, we can adjust the tightness of the snares against the resonant head to control how they react to the resonant head.


  • Dimensions: Controls the optimal range and sound of the drum. Deeper drums usually are lower in pitch as are wider ones. Of course different combinations will render different results.

Some of you may be asking why does this matter to me as a recording engineer? Well for starters we can get a general idea of how the snare will sound before ever hearing it. If you know what kind of heads are present and what the size of the drum that is being used then you are well on your way to knowing how the tone will sound. We can also better figure out ways to compensate for the tone of the snare via mic choice and positioning if another tone is desired. Finally, in a best case scenario we can go and change some of these aspects to get our ideal tone; new heads, snares, etc. Remember, a good snare sound starts at the drum not at the microphone!

For the batter head you will almost always find a coated strong 2-ply head that will give off a balance of attack and tone. However you can also have batter heads with built in foam rings and other dampeners which will shorten how long the head resonates and give a shorter more pronounced sound with more focus on the attack. If you want more emphasis on the attack and like a popping sound to the snare there are also Kevlar heads which sound closer to a marching snare (since they too have Kevlar heads).

Resonant heads usually are usually much thinner than the batter heads and are almost always clear. While you can get away with not having them on toms and kick, they of course are a must for snares in order to create the snare sound. If your resonant head is tuned low you will get a deeper looser sound with more snare ringing. If however you tune your resonant head higher you will usually end up with more harmonics, and a tighter snare sound. Of course there are always exceptions to these rules, we will look at more later.

The tuning lugs will be the most obvious method of tone control since by adjusting the tension of the head you can change the pitch of the head drastically and the overall tone of the drum. There are many different ideals people have about how the head lugs should be tuned. The primary idea to keep in mind when tuning is how the audience will hear it. If it is being close miced then you will need to worry about how it sounds from up close. If however you plan on taking the snare to a church without the aid of microphones then you will probably need to reconsider how you go about tuning your heads.

When it comes to the sticks it will really come down to a to playing vs sound preference. If you want a big beefy sound you are going to want to play with heavier sticks or at least sticks with more weight in the front of the stick. If however you need a lot of control and rebound to work with then thinner sticks with an appropriate tip would be in order.

When considering the snares themselves you have a few options to consider. You have your standard wire snares that are in a spring or coil shape but you can have snares that more like flat bands, ones designed to emulate the old fashioned gut strings and just about any combination you can dream up. If you need a drier tighter sound I would highly recommend looking into alternate snare wires than your standard wire coil.

Finally we have the dimensions of the snare which is arguably the most important aspect of the snare. If you really want a piccolo snare sound then you are going to need a piccolo snares dimensions. If you want a field drums sound then you obviously will need those dimensions. However not all of us have a range of snares to choose from so we end up having to make the most out the tuning of our snares which is what we will cover next.


The Tuning

Now armed with all this knowledge you can go make yourself a setup right? Ideally this would be the case but since you may not be a drummer yourself here is a good methodology to getting started with snare tuning.

Note that there are so many variables in creating a drum tone that not every possible combination of heads, tuning, beaters, etc. can be written down. Instead I will try to give you some good general places and ideas to work from. There will be a few variables I will keep constant for the audio samples as I do not own every single piece available and as a home studio engineer you probably do not either. My batter head will be a generic coated 2-ply which has been beat pretty well (let's be honest a lot of drummers don't change their heads as often as they should!), the resonant head clear is 1-ply, the snares are generic wire coil, and the snare is 5x14 inches.

For the recordings I will be using a pair of Audix i5s on the batter and resonate heads; the top mic is facing directly into the drum while the bottom mic is aiming more across. While there are of course other techniques and mic choices, that is not the point of this particular tutorial; we will cover that in the next installment. I choose these mics and micing techniques because they are common and easily accessible by those in the home studio realm. In addition, the i5 and the SM57 are almost (note almost) the same sounding mic. Once a gain structure was established, the gain was not touched again for the rest of the tunings. One more point to note, during the tuning phase a third i5 was used directly over the snare since the snare was removed from the kit for tuning.

For those of you itching to try some micing here are some pictures to help you place your mics...



  • To start tuning the snare place it upside down on a soft surface such as carpeted floor chair or anything else that will not resonate.

  • Next loosen the snare clutch and place a stick on the rims but underneath the snares in order to remove keep the snares off the head while tuning.


    You now have two options, you can either loosen the head till it has no sound and is just loose plastic or tighten the resonant head just to the point of being too tight (without popping it of course). Lets first look at the loosen method and then the over tightening method.

  • Once again make sure your head is loose enough to the point where all you get by gently tapping the head is a loose plastic noise.

  • Next tighten all the lugs till there is barely enough tightness to produce a tone; the goal here is achieve the lowest possible pitch of the drum.

  • Now clear the head of any wrinkles in the plastic but be careful not to overdo it since we are trying to maintain the lowest possible pitch.

  • Next tap the head near each of the lugs and find the most common note between the lugs; this will be the pitch of the head. Once that is found you need to correct the remaining lugs so that they match the others. The trick hear is not to tune the offensive lug, but instead the lug exactly opposite from it. You will hear more change it pitch by changing the opposite lug and oddly enough not affect the lug you are changing too much. You should end up with a reasonably defined full low tone. (Note I lifted the drum off the ground to showcase the full tone.)


  • The next step can be rather tricky as you may or may not have harmonics ringing in the tone. In addition, the harmonics might only sound present in different areas of the drum. Listen very carefully as you gently play the resonant head for any high pitched ringing in the drum. When you locate a rogue harmonic, use the same method as before by tuning the opposite lug until the harmonic stops ringing. When you are done double check the tone of the drum again.

  • After you are happy with the pitch of the resonant head it is time to flip the drum over and place it back on the snare stand. Now begin to tighten the batter head so that it is both comfortable to play and does not cause odd ringing with the resonant head. I would highly recommend keeping the snares off for this process. Some people may suggest tuning the batter head to a third or fifth above the resonant head but it may be too loose for playing comfort. Remember never to compromise playability.

With my drum being as large as it is I ended up with something closer to a field or tenor snare. Not usable for every style but for song that needs a deep punching snare it would work great. Note that in the second snare hit the snare was much quicker to decay. This was achieved by simply placing my wallet on the snare drum! You would be surprised how common a technique this is!

Let's now briefly look at the over tightening method. Assume the snare is back on the ground and the snares are lifted out of place again.

  • As I mentioned earlier be sure not to pop your snare from over tightening. After it is nice and tight begin to bring the lugs down to a common pitch (generally whichever lug has the lowest tone since you do not want to bring anything else up).

  • Once that is done clear the head of all harmonics unless of course you like a high pitched ring in your snare then by all means pick a harmonic you like and make the others fit it.

  • After that is done follow the same procedure as before for the batter head; make sure playability is most important.

Here is an example of my snare drum using this method with both the wallet off and on the snare...


Conclusion

Now hopefully you have a better idea of how to go about tuning the drums and the different options you can have. However, if you want to really see the benefit of tuning the drum right then all you need is a little compression to really push the nuances.

Finally here is an example of a snare I tuned up with a long pure high pitched note; same drum as before.

So what have we learned? That if you need to have a good idea of tone you want before you even go ahead and start tuning away. There are a lot of options available to us to shape and craft the tone of a snare. Spend some time and think about what tone would best fit the style of music you are going for and if you have the time to correct that tone then by all means do it!

But this is only half the battle. Next time we will cover how to record and mix the snare with only the few options available to us as home studio engineers. In addition I will show you a few tricks to help fake that good tone if the recording part isn't going to well for you.

Until next time! Thanks for reading!

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