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Getting the snare drum to sit just right in the mix is one of the hardest things to do as a tracking and mixing engineer. Nine times out of 10, the final tone starts at the source, so you’ll want to take some time and get it right while tracking rather than trying to fix it in the mix. In this blog, I’m going to explain a couple different techniques for getting that final snare tone during the tracking process.
It all starts with picking the right snare drum for the song, if the snare is wrong, no amount of tweaking will make it perfect. It’s always good to have a couple different snare drums around during the tracking process, as the tone can drastically change depending on the depth, diameter, type of shell material, hoop style and heads. Before you go crazy trying to tweak one snare to fit every song, try another drum.
Although it can eat up time during the tracking process, it will save you more in the mixing stage if you have the right snare for the song. If you’re the engineer or producer on the record and suggest that there could be a better snare for the song, (most of the time) the artist will appreciate you going the extra mile to make their song the best it can be.
Once you’ve found the right snare for the song, make sure to take some time and properly tune the top and bottom head specifically for that song. Most drummers just set up their kit and play, which works most of the time in a heavy rock tune where the notes of the drums are being eaten up by the electric guitars and bass. But anything where the natural sound of the drums is exposed, you’ll want to be sure to tune the snare and toms to the key of the song.
Watch our new video featuring five tips for getting a snare drum to sit perfectly in a song and continue reading below to get more details on each trick.
Wide Open Snare
When drums are wide open with no dampening, they ring every time another drum or cymbal on the kit is hit. Although it may not be in the forefront of the mix, the snare and toms are generating an overtone that has a musical pitch. For example, if your song is in C Major, and the overtone of your snare drum is a Bb or Db, it’s going to have some clashing from time to time with the chordal instruments and vocals.
Once you know the key of the song, you can tune a drum with any tuner that has a microphone on it, or pitch pipe. To know what note the drum is resonating, hold the tuner close to the drum and lightly tap the edge of the top head near a lug. The tuner will then tell you the pitch of that drum. I won’t go into detail on how to properly tune a drum, but if you’re unsure, be sure to check out some tutorial videos on YouTube.
There is no perfect way to tune a drum set, most of the time they’re tuned by ear and feel which works just fine. One method that’s worked well for me is tuning my snare drum to the tonic of the songs key, then tune my toms down in thirds. For example, in the key of C Major my snare drum would be tuned to C, my rack tom would be A then the floor tom would be F.
The intervals can change from thirds to fifths to give a different color between the toms. For the theory heads, notice in the example above how the toms make a major 3rd on the 4th interval of the scale, which works well with build ups and light fills in a musical way.
Now that you’ve got that all dialed in but still looking to further shape the snare, try applying some of the following techniques.
They’re used to control the ringing of the snare drum. Ring isn’t always a bad thing, it helps add some size and sustain to the snare once all the other instruments get blended in the track. If you kill too much of the ring in the tracking process, the snare will sound like a piece of paper in the final mix, but sometimes you need to tame it just a bit to make it sit just right.
Applying a Moongel just under the snare top microphone is a good way to soften up the snare and tame some of the ring. A Moongel is the easiest thing to apply this method, but anything like a couple pieces of tape or a small folded up piece of paper taped to the head will do the trick.
The Moongel applies a small amount of weight to the top head, which will dampen about 50% of the overall ringing. If the track has a lot of heavy guitars on it, this will pretty much eliminate the ability for the ring of snare to cut through the track, but still have some sustain and body.
The Moongel is applied underneath the snare top microphone because that’s where most of the ring will be picked up, as that position will apply the most dampening in relation to the microphone. If you’re looking for some more ring to come through, move the Moongel away from the microphone, but still near the rim of the drum.
Another method is to apply a dampening ring to eliminate 100% of the snare ring. There’s a couple different ways to do this. Back in the day, drummers used to cut the rim off an old snare head and lay it across the top head of their snare. This applies dampening across the entire surface of the drum and makes it very dead in the track.
Having something covering the entire surface of the drum can mess with the feel, so drummers began cutting a hole out of the old head so it lays as a ring around the edge of the drum rather than covering the entire surface. Now the area they hit is a single head, and the ring around the hoop is killing the overtone. Nowadays, companies such as Remo and Evans make pre-made plastic rings you can buy for any size drum on your kit.
When the snare is that dead, it can be hit with extreme amounts of EQ and compression to add more crack or low end without amplifying the overtones of the drum. This is a great method for tracking Motown, soul, R&B, hip-hop, pop and funk tracks.
The wallet technique has been tried and true for generations. It’s something that we always have on us when working around the studio, and typically the perfect mass to achieve a tone somewhere between the Moongel and a dampening ring.
Depending on what type of wallet you have, it can be positioned in a couple different ways. A good starting point is applying it to the same spot you would put a Moongel, as this will kill most of the ring directly under the microphone, but allow the rest of the drum to breathe a bit.
If you have a big ole dad wallet with years of business cards, receipts and photos of your kids, you can try folding one side of the wallet over the rim, and leave the other side under the snare top mic. Same as the Moongel, if you’re looking for a little more ring, try moving the wallet away from the snare top microphone.
As mentioned earlier, this will give you a tone somewhere between the Moongel and dampening ring. Since the mass of a wallet is larger than a Moon Gel, more weight is applied to the top head so less ring is apparent and around 25% of the ring will remain.
This can allow you to still apply some heavy EQ and compression without bringing out too much of the overtone, but the little bit that’s left will help add some depth and length to the snare in the mix.
Flipping the Snare Upside Down
This isn’t something that will always work, but I’ve done this a couple times and it totally saved the day. You actually flip the entire snare drum upside down so that the bottom of the drum (snares and all) is facing upwards. This will eliminate all of the overtones of the drum, but make the drum much brighter with nearly zero sustain, much like the sound of a marching snare. It can be harder to play like this because the snares run across the center of what is now the top head, making it harder to do rim shots and ghost rolls.
Since the snares are pressing down on the top head rather than hanging below the drum, they have no time to sustain and the weight is working as a dampening ring which prevents an overtone. This is a good method where the drums need to be super tight and keep the beat, but not get in the way of the chordal instruments.
From an engineering standpoint, you need to think the roles of the top and bottom microphone are now reversed. The top microphone will now work for all the crack. If you have the luxury of using an EQ while tracking, it’s good to crank 220Hz to add some body and notch somewhere between 5kHz and 7kHz to get rid of some of the harsh frequencies.
The bottom microphone will be used for the low end and body. The head will still generate some overtones, but not nearly as much compared to hitting it with a stick. Since the resonant head is usually much thinner than a batter head, when you hit it from the top of the drum, it’s not pushing as much air through the shell which will result in less sustain.
This technique is greatly complimented by the proper use of EQ and compression, and is to be used if you’re looking for a lot of top end from the drum with very little sustain. It may take some time to dial in, but if the situation ever arises where you need an insane amount of crack with no overtones, hopefully, this technique will do the trick.
I hope you find some of these techniques useful in one of your upcoming sessions. Since most of us are working with so many different drummers on multiple genres of music, it’s always good to have a few tricks up your sleeve to ensure the best possible outcome for the track you’re working on.