Getting a great snare sound is a crucial aspect of the whole drum recording experience. The snare drives the back beat and is the backbone of the whole drum sound. In order to capture the full sound of the snare drum you must know how to capture and use the snare drum's most important sound, the snares. If the snare drum didn't have the snares rattling underneath it would just be a really shallow sounding tom. The best way to capture the snare sound properly is to not use one microphones but two. One on top and one below.
Image by Halocyn
Why Point a Microphone Under There?
Snare drums have a distinct sound. However, most people recognize a snare drum sound from a distance. A microphone pointed directly at one from a few inches away will hear the snare quite differently than the average human being.
The combination of the attack on the topside along with the rattles of the snares creates that distinct snare drum whack we've all grown to know and love. Therefore, using two microphones can be beneficial in capturing the different sounds each side of the snare supplies. These two microphones combined with the overhead mics provide the overall snare sound in a natural sounding drum sound.
Type of Microphone
You can use any type of microphone to capture the sound of the snare, but a good bet is to use a small condenser to capture the high frequency rattles of the snare rattles. Even though the safe bet for snare drum miking is usually the trusty SM57 (or a dynamic mic of a similar nature), small condensers have a faster transient response meaning they can more accurately translate the rattling of the snares. Something like a AKG 451 or SM81 is a good bet to get that high energy snap of the snares.
Since you don't have to worry about the drummer accidentally hitting the microphone like you would with the top mic, you can place it as close to the drum and at any angle you prefer. Place it like you would the top mic and listen to the result. A few listens to different positions will give you a good indication of what kind of sound you are looking for.
If you are using a condenser it's a good idea to place a -10 or -20 pad on the microphone so that it won't distort as easily. A heavy hitting drummer will definitely overdrive a condenser microphone very easily.
When using two different microphones for the same sound source, you inevitably run into phase problems. Without going into the issue of phase problems too much let me just say that you will most definitely have phase issues with two microphones pointing at each other with the snare drum in the middle. Luckily, it's a very easy problem to fix.
If you are recording with a mixer that has a phase switch you can just flip the switch on the under-snare microphone and forget all about it. If you are running your drum tracks into a computer your audio software probably has a way for you to “invert” the phase of your under-snare track. In Pro-Tools you can insert and EQ plug-in that has an invert phase switch and Logic Pro allows you to invert the phase in the Sample Editor. I touched upon this issues in my drum mixing article on Audiotuts a while back, An Effective Guide to Drum Mixing.
Image by Vierdrie
What Does It Sound Like?
It's easy to get a better grasp of how the whole thing sounds like by listening. In the following audio samples I'll walk you through both the under and over-snare microphones as well as the whole drum kit mixed together in order for you to get an understanding of how the whole thing sound.
We never really hear the snare like the microphones hear the snare. The microphone is put very close to it and to put your ear in the same position and have your drummer hit the snare a few times would most certainly result in some short-term hearing loss. However, we can easily use microphones as substitutes for our ears. The following samples have a little EQ and compression on them as well as gates to take out the extra bleed from the drum-kit.
The Over Microphone
The microphone that's positioned over the snare picks up the thicker whack attack of the snare but not as much of the snare.
The Under Microphone
This microphone picks up all the rattle of the snares and not so much the attack of the drum. I find this sound pretty unappealing but it has its uses in conjunction with all the other elements.
Both Microphones Together
When both the snares are at the same volume you can still hear the rattling of the snares overpowering the sound of the drum. Maybe some of you might like the sound of it but I feel like it needs to be leveled off a little bit.
Snares Mixed Together
I've pulled back the volume of the under-snare microphone a little bit and given the over-snare a little room to breathe. The attack comes through nicely but you can still hear the snares underneath giving the snare a fuller sound than using only either one of those microphones.
Snares Complete With the Kit
Obviously, it's much better to gauge the sound of the snares when you have the overheads in the equation. The overheads (and room) microphones play a big part in the overall sound of the snare drum so I've gone and mixed three different versions of my drum sound: first with no under-snare microphone, second with both microphones at the same level and the third as a nice sounding final drum sound.
Only Top Snare
Both Microphones at the same level
Combining the top snare microphone alongside the under-snare microphone will result in a more recognizable snare sound. The top microphone usually captures the attack pretty well but does a poor job of capturing the snare rattles. Blending the two microphones together and adding them to the overhead sound will create that distinct snare drum sound we know and love.