The first time a snare drum really stood out to me was “Under the Table and Dreaming“, the album that put Dave Matthews Band on the map. It’s a 1990s classic full of rich instrumentation, funky acoustic guitar parts … and drums! Drummers were drooling over everything Carter Beauford hit, and even a total beginner guitarist like me got caught up in that ominous “crack” on two and four that defined the intro to “Ants Marching”.
When it comes to drums I believe many sound techs fall for the kick first, but grow to love the snare the most. As we’ll see, the snare has lots of character and it largely resides in our most sensitive hearing range from 2-5 kHz – the same range where we hear most of our spoken consonants. I believe there’s a principle of proportionality in audio mixing where an instrument’s potential to sound amazing is balanced by its potential to rip your head off! This is certainly true of a snare drum.
Like we saw with the kick drum, the snare has at least three distinct sounds that are common to all drums: “thud”, “ring” and “attack”. Let’s break those down first.
The “thud” is easy to forget when working with a snare. Of course, the snare’s most crucial contribution is in the midrange, but midrange alone can easily sound thin and annoying. Look for the full-bodied “thud” around 125-150 Hz on a standard 14″ snare drum. Watch out for unwanted “boxiness” starting in just above that.
The “ring” is the lingering tone after the drum is hit, most likely between 500-900 Hz for a snare. Like every instrument on stage, it’s best controlled at the source. A snare is usually dampened with tape, a plastic ring or a “moon gel” to keep the “ring” in check. It’s fairly easy to spot when the snare has been allowed to ring out a little longer. Have a listen to “Superman’s Dead” by Our Lady Peace for an example of this sound. On the other end of the spectrum you can find literally decades worth of examples of snare drums with virtually no “ring”. Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” is a classic example.
The “attack” is the initial impulse when the stick strikes the drum head. It hangs out around 1-3 kHz, right in the annoyance range, so be careful about how loud this element is in relation to the everything else. Still, the attack should have an unmistakeable presence in the mix. In fact it’s usually the second most dominant sound in pop/rock recordings. You can test this theory next time you’re listening to music by turning down a song to the point just before you can’t hear it at all. The last sounds you’ll be able to make out will be the lead vocal and the snare drum. (Thanks to Dave Stagl at goingto11.com for that little tidbit)
The last element I’ll cover is the snares themselves, which aren’t found on other drums. The snares are the metal wires stretched across the bottom (resonant) drum head. They produce the “buzz” or “rattle” and also part of the character of the initial “crack” of the drum. They do their thing right around 5kHz. If they’re left a little loose they can buzz or rattle around for a little while too. When the situation allows, a second snare mic from below the drum aimed right at the wires is the best way to capture this sound. Of course, if you’re mixing at a Meeting House site you probably don’t have enough channels for it! Rest assured, you can still get a great sound with one mic.
If you’re new to this, my advice is to treat the snares as part of the bigger picture “attack” of the drum. As your critical listening improves you should start to distinguish the “attack” from the snares themselves.
So fire up those stereos, fuel them with good music and feast your ears on some snare drums! And feel free to talk this over with your drummer next Sunday. Even shiest musician is happy to talk about their gear!
Next week … bass.