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The Snare Drum Compendium - Recording and Mixing Techniques

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Welcome back snare junkies! Today we are going to continue are look into realm of snare drums in the home recording setting and how to get the most out of it.


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

Last time we examined first how the snare functions acoustically and musically and we took a crack at tuning up the snare. If you are not happy with the snare tuning you got don't worry too much we will be looking at different recording and mixing techniques to help offset a poor quality drum.

Nothing can ever replace a quality drum with a quality mic through a quality pre and conversion and coming out a quality speaker, period. But we can get really close! So if you need a few tricks to get the most out of your home snare then take the dive and jump in!


Recording the Snare

There are many opinions and techniques for recording the snare drum. Some engineers prefer the standard two SM57 approach while others may aim for using the overheads for the snare sound. In addition other engineers may use a single LDC (large diaphragm condenser) microphone for a snare.

In truth anyone of these techniques could work and just about any combination of the techniques could work. What matters is what context is the snare being played? If you are going for a hard hitting rock track then you would mostly use the microphones placed right up in the snare. If however you are doing jazz then you may use mostly the overheads with only a tiny bit of the snare accent mics blended in.

However before we can really decide which technique is better for a given situation we first need to understand the techniques themselves!


Recording the Snare: Old Reliable

When recording the snare you have to at least look at the most widely used snare drum technique of a mic on top and a mic on bottom; usually a SM57. When in doubt this will be the go to technique for any engineer recording a snare drum.

The core of this technique is that a microphone placed on the top and bottom of the snare, aimed either down into the rim of the snare or aimed across the head. You will always use a dynamic microphone for this job, period; the sheer volume produced by a snare will overload most condensers. Because you need a dynamic and you are putting your mics right in the firing line of the drummers sticks, you usually will reach for and SM57 or equivalent microphone that could take the potential abuse.

What makes this technique so wonderful is how easy it is to tweak and how many sound options you can get for mixing. Very small adjustments on the mic placement can have huge audible differences with this technique.

If you aim the top mic directly into the batter head near the rim then you will end up with a lot of focus on the harmonics while aiming more across or pulling away from the edge a little bit will balance out the harmonics and fundamental pitch. This same idea also goes for the resonant head underneath as well but there is another consideration that you need to take into account with the resonant head; the snares.

Depending on where you aim the underside mic you can either get a lot of snare crackle or not much at all. While the crack of the snares can be nice, if the snares are cheap ones that ring too long or are easily excited by the toms, you will end up with a fizzy annoying high end ring in your snare sound. Generally speaking, the cheaper the drum the more you will not want to directly mic the snares themselves.

One final note, phase. You have to be very careful with this technique in regards to the phase of the two microphones. Chances are the mics will be almost 180 degrees out of phase and one of the mics will need phase inverted before you can properly mix them. Always be on the lookout (hear out?) for phasing problems!

Here are some examples of this technique in various positions for your learning pleasure...

  • Both mics aimed across:


  • Top mic aimed across and bottom facing in:

  • Both mics facing in:


Recording the Snare: From Above

While the previous technique is great for a whole wide array of situations, it doesn't always sound the most natural. The reason it tends to sound a little less true to the drum itself is because the sound has less time to develop. We never listen to a snare drum with our ears right up in the drum but we usually place a microphone there. Simply pulling the microphone back will render a much more natural sound hence why we usually use the overheads for this situation.

The drawback of course is that we do not have anywhere near as much processing control of the snare. However we can choose a wide array of microphones for this job since we are far enough back to now utilize ribbon and condenser microphones.

The trick with technique is balancing out the rest of drum kit. If you need a really tight stereo image and want a slightly more present snare sound then you need to get the overhead lower and closer to the kit. If you are ok with a little more bleed and want a more roomy sound then pull your overheads back.

Here are some examples of this technique with different microphones in different positions for your reference. While I would never suggest the i5 (or SM57) for OH purposes, I included it so you could compare it to the other techniques. In addition I will be using the CAD ICM K14 which is a reasonably common home recording mic and I included the Chameleon Labs TS-1 MKII for some variety.

  • Standard OH Position with i5:


  • Standard OH Position with 417:

  • Standard OH Position with TS-1:

  • XY Position with TS-1:

  • XY Position with i5:

  • XY Position with 417:


Recording the Snare: Glyn Johns

This technique is more of an overall drum kit technique but can be an awesome alternate technique and bears mentioning. This technique was invented by engineer Glyn Johns and requires a tape measure to ensure perfect phase.

Essentially you need to place an overhead microphone directly over the center of the kick pedal and another aimed directly across the kit at the drummer's right side. The top mic needs to be 40 inches from the pedal and the side mic needs to be 40 inches from the center of the snare. Once you have these aligned you add a single snare accent mic in the place of your choosing.

While it simply is just a variation of the overhead technique, it has very specific guidelines which is why I believe it deserves its own place. I would highly recommend condensers or ribbons if you have a matched pair for this job and use more colored microphones if the kit is less than adequate sounding on its own.

You do need to be careful with the panning in this situation, as we do not have an even stereo field. I would suggest panning the top microphone halfway to the right and the side mic all the way to the left; adjust to taste.

Here are some examples of this technique with different microphones for your reference. Once again the i5 is only for references sake with the old reliable technnique.

  • Johns with 417:


  • Johns with i5:


Recording the Snare: On the Side

This technique is a wonderful option for those of you who want an up close snare sound but maybe are not digging the old reliable. Essentially what we do here is mic the snare drum from the side to get more of the sound of the drum as a whole and not just the heads.

You can use any type of microphone for this job but I would be very careful if you want to try ribbons as you do not want the drummer to accidently smack the ribbon. I find that condensers work well for this job and if you are having troubles with hi-hat bleed then use a hyper cardiod pattern since it has good side rejection.

Generally with this technique you control the tone by where the microphone is aiming and how high or low it is relative to the drum. If you aim your mic directly at the shell you will get bright sound and more full balanced tone when moving it up towards the rim. If you move the mic either closer or further from the snare then you can control how much room and drum bleed you have in the snare mic and shape the tone a little as well.

Keep in mind of the porthole on the snare so when the air escapes the drum it does not blow right into the diaphragm.

Here are some examples of this technique with the TS-1 in different positions for your reference...

  • Side Top with TS-1:


  • Side Mid with TS-1:

  • Side Bottom with TS-1:


Processing the Snare

So now that we have gotten the best snare sound we can for our circumstances we are probably going to need a little processing. When processing snares you generally are going to contend with harmonic content, volume, and space and that is how we are going to look at processing a snare. Lets first start with volume and dynamics...


Processing the Snare: Harmonic Content

Snares are somewhat like distorted guitars when it comes to their harmonic content and what space it takes up in the audio spectrum; they take up a lot! However unlike a distorted guitar, they decay quickly and do not change pitch mid song (usually).

A rich cracking snare is going to have a lot more harmonic content to it than a purer resonant sounding snare, and are much easier to re-pitch. That's right I said re-pitch. When you EQ a drum, in particular a snare, you essentially are playing with what the perceived pitch of the drum is since they only last for a fraction of second. Now you cannot re-pitch a snare too drastically, but if it isn't sitting tight in a mix you can adjust the perceived pitch enough to make it sit a little nicer.

Here are some guidelines for EQing a snare to achieve different sounds...

  • If you have too much kick leakage high pass everything below 100 Hz (usually a good idea anyways).

  • For a thicker or thinner snare play around in the 120-250 Hz region depending on the drum. This the region where you generally can re-pitch the drum to some extent.

  • When dealing with harmonic ringing look around the 300-1000 Hz range to either accentuate the ring or try and tame it.

  • If you need more or less attack examine the 2-5 kHz region. Reducing this range will give you a smoother fatter sound while boosting this range will give you more crack and punch.

  • If you need more sizzle or air to the snare look at boosting around 10k and up. Obviously if you have too much then just reduce this range instead.

Now that we have these ranges we need to decide what kind of equalizer to use. If you were really happy with the natural sound of the snare then I would recommend a cleaner more clinical style EQ, probably one that is linear phase. If however you think it really needs some color to cover up its blemishes then a program EQ like a Pultec clone would be a good choice. If you need more color or material to work with then perhaps some harmonic saturation is in order.

Harmonic saturation can be killer on a snare for either fattening up the low end or really bringing out the crack. There are many harmonic saturation plugins out there to choose from but to be careful. Some of these plugins are essentially just static EQs and waveshapers that don't sound all that pleasing.

If you place your saturator before the EQ it will give you more harmonic content to work with inside your EQ where as if you place it after the EQ you will accentuate your EQ a little more. I highly recommend using a non-linear stateful style saturator that only adds harmonics based on what kind of content is put in it.

What this means is it will only add harmonics relative to what is already there and not just add the same kind of harmonics regardless of whether it is a bass guitar or a flute. A very good free VST for this is Variety of Sounds ThrillseekerLA compressor, which has a separate harmonic stage. Simply turn off the compressor portion and you have beautiful stateful saturation.

Here are some examples of the harmonic saturation on the snare are different frequency ranges...


  • Before Processing
  • Full Range:
  • Below 500 Hz Range:
  • 500 Hz Range:
  • 800 Hz Range:
  • 2-5 kHz Range:
  • Above 5 kHz Range:

  • Processing the Snare: Dynamics and Volume

    Ah back to the old compression wars. The snare drum is always at the forefront of the battle because generally speaking people like hearing it smashed beyond belief through a compressor. However it can get very fatiguing to the ears when we do this to anything, especially a punching drum like a snare or kick.

    When it comes to home recording you really need to ask yourself first, "Should I compress?" And secondly, if you decide to compress, "How should I compress?"

    The problem with compression with home-recorded snares is that if the snare sounds less than perfect you can really end up bringing out the imperfections in the snare. One way around this is to use New York style compression where you duplicate the signal and only compress one, thus allowing you to blend between the two.

    If you happen to have a compressor with a mix knob on it this will allow you to do the same thing. If you do feel the need to compress the snare then take a look at some of these suggestions...

    • For a thicker snare with more sustain set your attack speed to around 5ms or so and give it a quick release as well so you smash down the initial attack. This will give you more room to bring the gain up and make the snares sustain more pronounced.
    • For a sharp crack and very little sustain set the attack to somewhere around 10ms or so and give it a slower release of around 10-20ms; this will compress the signal after the initial attack has already happened. By doing this you end up compressing the sustain and place more emphasis on the attack.
    • When using the above techniques make sure your Threshold setting does not cover the entire range of the snare; you only want the compressor to react to the peaks for the above techniques. If however you really need to smash the heck out of the snare then drop the Threshold so that your compressor will be more sensitive to incoming audio.

    • If you need more gentle leveling as opposed to hard compressing or limiting then make sure you do not overdue it on the ratio. While a simple 2:1 ratio might seem small, it is in fact still a pretty decent amount of compression. For jazz and other lighter music I would highly recommend keeping an eye on the ratio if you really feel the need to compress.

    • Be careful when choosing your compressor. Some plugins are based off optical compressors, which while may say they can react around 5ms, may still be a little slower to the nature of optical compressors. I would highly recommend a VCA or FET style compressor for snares since they are so transient in nature and need something that can react to them.

    While we have gone over compressors there are still one more volume and dynamic style effect we can use to our advantage, the transient shaper. These tools analyze the incoming audio and either accentuate the peaks or dull the peaks volume so that the attack appears either sharper or smoother.

    This is helpful for adding more attack to a rounder snare or taming a really sharp snare. I highly recommend the free plugin from FLUX audio called Bitter Sweet II if want to tinker around with transient design.


    Here is our snare sample with the transient accentuated...

    This is how the snare sounds with the transient smoothed over...


    Processing the Snare: Space

    Finally we come to issue of space and what kind of room our snare drum should be in. If you have a lot of room sound in your snare tracks then there is not a whole lot you can do to change that. You can of course add different reverbs and ambiences to help cover up the room if you are not thrilled with it but that will only work so much. If however your snare track is dry without a lot of room sound then your custom reverbs and ambiences will become the room.

    You can divide the space the snare will sit in into either ambiences or reverbs. An ambience is going have a tighter more focused sound and is designed to sound like a type of room. A reverb on the other hand usually has a longer decay and will designed to emulate a hall in some form. There is no such thing as one particular type that works best for all situations, it is always song dependent.

    Another consideration to keep in mind are the use of delay. Whether on its own or in conjunction with a reverb or ambience, a delay can add a greater sense of space that the ambience or reverb on its own may not be able to deliver. In larger sounding rooms, part of what makes the room sound so large is the time it takes for the reflections off the walls to come back and reach your ears after the sound of the drum has faded away.

    A predelay in the reverb plugin or using a separate delay plugin can replicate this nicely. Have a look at these following recipes and see what fits your situation the best...

    • For a tight smooth room sound use a fairly diffuse ambience (if using a convolution reverb a wood room works well) and set a tiny bit of predelay; only a few ms if that. Excellent for pop rock, funk, etc.
    • If you need a tight but more live sounding room use a ambience that replicates a concrete room. These generally are less diffusive and have more high-end content than the wood room. This can work excellent for metal drums that are not blazing fast.
    • For a bigger but still roomy sound use the above techniques but add just a tiny bit of delay before the ambience plugin. This will make the room sound large but not hall sized. This setup can work well if you trying to get a sound somewhere between a studio and a small stage.
    • If you need a soft pad like reverb in the background then add a nice long diffuse reverb, probably a second or two long. Next bring it down in volume so it blends into the back ground; good for modern pop ballads which still need a fairly dry drum sound.
    • When you need a reverb for a rock ballad then add a nice large tailed reverb and adjust the top end content to make it sound either more like wood or like stone (less high content vs more high content). Also be sure to adjust the diffusion between highly diffuse and barely diffuse to make it sound either more wood or more stone.
    • Finally for a big stadium sound you will need a long fairly diffuse reverb with a decent bit of delay before hand to replicate the shear size of a stadium or arena.

    Conclusion

    So what have we learned? That you need to have a good snare sound before you can really get the most out of your mic placement and processing. However there are still plenty of techniques available to get a decent snare sound in a home setup regardless of your situation.

    Spend some time and think about what processing and recording techniques would best fit the style of music you are going for. Above everything else make sure you fix your problems before you hit record if at all possible! Thanks for reading and happy recording!

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