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Essential Listening: Snare Drums

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This post is part of a series called Essential Listening.
Essential Listening: Kick Drum Reverb
Essential Listening: Timeless Guitar Tones

Welcome back for another round of Essential Listening! Today we are going to continue our critical listening of drums by taking a look at famous and unique snare drum tones.

While not traditionally a sound we actively listen for when casually listening to a song, a good snare tone can make or break a recording. Further still, amazing snare drum tones draw your attention to them even if they are not at the forefront of the song. Plus, with how common the two and four snare drum sound is in pop, electronic, and rock music you would be crazy not strive for a killer snare sound.

So without further adieu, the snares!


Chad Smith and the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Photo by Laura Glass

Photo by Laura Glass

As one of the biggest rap/rock/fusion/funk groups to grace the world, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are musical icons. Aside from the bass player Flea, their drummer Chad Smith is one of the most iconic musicians in the rock world who is not a lead singer or guitar player. More importantly Chad Smith's snare tone is nigh legendary.

While it has a typical rock crack, Chad Smith's snare stands out due to the pop and ring it brings out during loud hits, and subtle buzz it produces on soft hits. If you are looking for a down to earth dynamic snare sound for funk, rock, or fusion then look no further!

Here are some points to listen for:

  • The ring and pop on the snare on back beat hits. This is brought out by a carefully tuned but cranked batter head, which brings out the harmonics of the drum more. A decent quality snare cranked up should be able to produce a similar effect.
  • The subtle buzz on the softer hits that lacks ring. To get this sound you need a sensitive snare side head and a tight set of snares that buzz just enough but not obnoxiously.
  • While sometimes hard to hear, part of Smith's sound is also from the reverb on the snare. It's just enough to give a sense of space without conflicting with anything else in the mix. In fact, is almost mimics the decay of the ring perfectly.

Rick Allen and Def Leppard

Photo by Matt Becker

Photo by Matt Becker

On the exact opposite side of the snare drum spectrum we have the larger than life snare of Rick Allen and Def Leppard. Where Chad Smith's snare strove for dynamics and a natural sound, Allen's sound instead looks to beat you over the head.

Given Rick Allen's loss of his arm prior to recording their hit album Hysteria, Allen's sound partially evolved out of the need electronic drums. With a deep explosive sound that never ceases, Rick Allen and Def Leppard developed the quintessential over the top snare tone.

Here are some points to listen for:

  • The explosive nature of the snare attacks. By using gates and properly blending  the top and bottom snare mics, Allen's snare seems to appear out of nothing with a heavy hitting smack that does not include a tick or psst tone.
  • The depth of the snare and its thick sound. The trick with Allen's snare sounds (and those many other hair metal drummers) is the use of a harmonizer effect (traditionally an Eventide unit). By duplicating the snare and shifting the frequencies, it produces an effect similar to double tracking a vocal, but with the benefit being perfectly tight and in time.
  • The width and space of the snare drum in the mix. Obviously a good reverb is to thank here. What is neat about the reverb used on Allen's snare is how it accentuates the explosive nature of the snare itself. While not obnoxiously bright, the verb on the snare does have a certain brightness to it that is often not present in most verbs on any source.

Pearl Jam and Alternative Rock

Photo by Craig Carper

Photo by Craig Carper

While the drummer seems to change, the snare tone does not. As one of the forerunners of 90's alternative rock, Pearl Jam helped bring about a new sound that rebelled against the hair metal sound of the 80's.

In particular, the snare sound both in the studio and on stage for Pearl Jam was perfect for a modern rock sound. Hard hitting and full of sustain without the ping, Pearl Jam's snare sound cuts without sacrificing body and tone. If you are in need of a modern rock snare that can cut through the mix then this is the snare for you!

Listen for the following:

  • The clear and hard hitting impact of the back beat. While the snare hits hard and cuts, it lacks the ping of Chad Smith's snare which would only get in the way in a hard rock band. To get this sound you would need a fairly tightly tuned snare that is still loose enough to allow depth to the sound. Couple that with a thicker head to negate the ping and you are close!
  • The full tone and sustain of in every hit whether loud or not-quite-as-loud. As above, the tuning is critical to achieve this sound: too tight and you get a obvious ring, too loose and it lacks a cutting tone. Additionally, where a lot of time the bottom snare mic is used for attack, the Pearl Jam snare sound uses more of the top mic. The bottom mic only there to give it enough buzz to indicate that it is in fact a snare drum.
  • As with a lot of snares, the importance of the reverb. While the Pearl Jam snare has plenty of sustain, it still gets help from the snare verb. However unlike Rick Allen's snare, the verb here his a little smoother to blend in naturally with the tone of the drum.

Skrillex and the Low-End Pop

Photo by Brennan Schnell

Photo by Brennan Schnell

How do you stand out in a genre filled with more kick and snare than rock? Make sure that snare stands out! The snare sound EDM producer Skrillex uses is one of many unique sounds the producer has developed in his sonic palette.

Unlike most snares who have a high pop or crack, Skrillex's snare instead is deep and low but still maintains a distinct pop. Couple that with a cleverly layered in buzz and you have a clear but wide ranged snare sound. If you are looking for deep fat snare with a pop then Skrillex offers an excellent role model.

Here are some points to listen for:

  • The deep and low resonant pop of the snare. Since it is obviously unnatural to achieve such a tight low pop, the sound is most easily produced by pitch shifting a similar snare sound down. Add some gating effects to minimize any odd decay that might be produced by the pitch shift and you are half way there.
  • The subtle but much-needed buzz sample on the attack. While the deep low snare is the bulk of the sound, it still needs some extra help to get a well define attack. By listening very closely you can hear an 808/noise-style snare chich. Layering that kind of sample in any snare is guaranteed to get you a cleaner attack.
  • The lack of any additional material in the same range as the deep sample. While a cool snare sound, it can easily get masked by other sounds in the low mids. In order to provide enough clarity for that sample, the mix needs to either be carved out there, or lack sounds in that range altogether.

Conclusion

Being such a staple in modern music, the tone of a snare drum can vary wildly.  But whether it is sampled, tight, or ringing, the correct sound must be used for a particular song or genre. Get the snare wrong and your track will just not have the impact it needs.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

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