Mixing snare drums has always been one of the more mysterious parts of achieving a modern, polished sounding drum mix. The snare drum is a very prominent element in almost any modern mix and it is probably going to be heard more times than any other percussive instrument in a song, so it has to sound punchy and driving, yet not overpowering or distracting.
Great rock/metal mixers like Chris Lord-Alge, Jack Joseph Puig, Andy Wallace, Joey Sturgis, Colin Richardson and many others have often left the world scratching their heads on how to achieve an equally impressive snare sound.
Here are just a few suggestions on how to achieve that ultimate snare sound you’ve been chasing all your life.
IT STARTS AT THE SOURCE
Let's face it - the importance of a well recorded drums played in a nice room by a good drummer cannot be stressed enough. Great drum recordings basically mix themselves, although there are things you can do to further enhance all of the great qualities you want in a snare drum sound, and steps you can take to get rid of the stuff that's unnecessary.
LEARN TO CONTROL CYMBAL BLEED
Every one of us has had to deal with one of the most irritating aspects of mixing a snare drum - cymbal bleed. There are steps you can take to minimize cymbal bleed in the recording stage, such as understanding microphone pickup patterns and placing the microphones in a particular way to get less direct cymbal bleed or using a microphone with a hypercardioid pickup pattern.
In the real world, you won't always have the perfect situation and chances are that often you will have to deal with a considerable amount of snare bleed that will become more apparent during compression.
One of the most obvious solutions to this problem would be gating the snare.
The more specific you can be in letting the gate know what exactly to trigger from, the cleaner the results will be. Usually a side-chain filter will help greatly in separating the snare transients from other drums.
If you have a drum trigger, you can use it to feed the side chain input of the gate and get very clean results with minimal fuss, as the trigger track will contain virtually no other sounds other than the drum it is attached to. A nice idea is to shift the trigger track a couple of milliseconds ahead of the snare hit, so that all of the transient is let through cleanly.
If you don't have a trigger pad, there are easy workarounds to that - basically every DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) has the capability to detect transients from a track and convert them to MIDI notes that can be fed into the gate.
Sometimes expanders are a better solution for the task, as they are more transparent and control the bleed in a lot less aggressive fashion. The core principles of gating apply here as well.
New technique from the rising studio-star Adam “Nolly” Getgood:
There is also an advanced technique for smart and very clean cymbal bleed reduction using a multiband expander - made popular by the up-and-coming mixer Adam “Nolly” Getgood - where the expander controls only the high frequencies of the snare track (triggered via a side-chain band pass filter at around 200-300 Hz), effectively ducking all of the bleed between the hits while keeping the sustain of the drum totally clean and natural. Combine this with a clean gate and you will achieve very impressive results.
EFFECTIVE TONE SHAPING WITH TACTICAL EQ MOVES
There is no “cookbook” or an ultimate trick for a great snare sound, as all EQ moves are relative, depending on the raw snare sound you have to begin with, but there are a few key things worth keeping in mind every time.
A good place to start is to route all your snare tracks to a single bus and process them as a whole, as opposed to EQing them separately, which can lead to phase problems. Before you start, check the polarity of your top and bottom mics - if the polarity is not correct, the sound will be weak, weird and thin no matter what you do.
Start by removing the frequencies you don't want in your sound. Usually you can high-pass the track to a point that's just below the “body” of the snare, say around 160-240 Hz, and fish for unwanted ringing in the 250-400 Hz range. Some snares and mics accentuate the hard and scratchy qualities of the snare wires around 2.5 kHz to 4 kHz, so some fishing could be done there as well.
“Don't just EQ for the sake of it, though - if it sounds good as it is then it sounds good!”
Typical areas to get boosted on a snare are around 200 Hz for a fatter low-end punch and 10 kHz to 14 kHz for a crisper top end.
SMART COMPRESSION – LEARN A FEW TRICKS
Compression can sometimes be more confusing than expected. It's almost impossible to give universal tips for snare compression settings, but there are a few key guidelines to watch out for.
It is very easy to over-compress a snare drum, especially if you are using presets on your plugins, as you have no idea of what track the preset was actually made on. Before you start compressing, you should have an idea of what you wish to achieve dynamics-wise. Try to define if the snare needs more sustain, more attack or the opposite.
Once you have a clear goal in mind, you can set the compressor up accordingly. It you need to enhance the sustain, go for a faster attack and slower release. If the snare needs more attack and punch, go for a slower attack and faster release.
A good way to find optimal settings for your snare compression is to exaggerate the compression so that you can hear it very well. Set the ratio very high and lower the threshold to achieve about 12 or more dB of gain reduction, and sweep the attack and release knobs to find the times that lock in with the groove and sound the best to you. After you've zeroed in the attack and release, set the ratio and threshold to less extreme settings and you're done.
The specifics of compression vary from unit to unit, as some sound more distorted and some sound cleaner with the same ratio and amount of gain reduction. Usually though, a rock snare is compressed at a 2:1 to 4:1 ratios with no more than 6 dB of gain reduction to be on the safe side. Some engineers prefer lower ratios and more dB of gain reduction, which equals a less squashed dynamics and a more open sound.
Don't be scared to not compress the snare bus at all, if you don't need it. Sometimes it's enough to compress only at the drum bus level.
“Keep in mind that compression is multiplicative - if you compress a snare with a 4:1 ratio going into a drum bus with a 2:1 ratio, you will end up with a snare that's actually compressed at a ratio of 8:1 - it's easy to overdo it.”
USING DRUM SAMPLES WISELY
Drum samples are a modern mixer's secret weapon - they can be used to create completely new kits, enhance the consistency and punch of a performance by blending them with the real kit, or they can be used to create a room sound by blending the real drum recording with a “fake” room to create the illusion of drums being recorded in a much larger space.
Whichever use of drum samples you choose, be sure to check the polarity of the samples against the real kit, otherwise you may end up making the sound a lot weaker and thinner.
Also – check for mistriggered hits, which although in a correct polarity, may still be out of phase because they are spit out a millisecond or two away from where they should be.
The safest way to do this is to print the samples to audio tracks and check them against the real tracks, making the necessary edits accordingly. A printed sample track will make sure that the samples stay where you want them to be instead of a sampler randomizing everything every time you play back the mix.
CLIPPING CAN BE A FRIEND – TAME THE TRANSIENTS
We've been told for years that clipping is a bad thing. Well sure, if you are clipping the input of your audio interface of your master bus, but a little bit of software clipping can help tame those spiky snare transients that can hit too hard and make your bus compressor do unnecessary work and create a weird pumping effect.
For a solid rock snare sound a little clipping goes a long way - you will “cut” off the inaudible part of the transient and free up a lot of headroom, leading to a cleaner and more powerful mix. Push it a little more and you will get some nice harmonic saturation.
“Make sure to clip at the end of the signal chain to keep levels consistent.”
Modern sounding snares have a lot going on in the mixing stage, although most of the processing is used to sculpt the sounds, not transform them beyond recognition. Some of these techniques are a little bit tricky to grasp at the beginning, but once you’ve experimented enough, you will have a few more powerful tricks up your sleeve to take your snare to the next level.