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Drums: Big Booms in Small Places

March 1, 2010

Not so long ago in a recording universe that wasnPearl drum set’t very far away, snare drums were king. Back then, if an engineer served up a massively humongous snare sound, the entire band would “ooo” and “ahh” and giggle hysterically, as if they had stumbled upon Prince’s top-secret notebook of super-sexy pickup lines. A great snare meant a hit song was a possibility. It elevated you above the losers who struggled to craft limp and wimpy snares. A big, honkin’ snare proved you had cracked the code for professional audio production, and that royalty checks, groupies, and repeat performances on Saturday Night Live were within your reach.

Today, a slew of those “louderthan- the-lead-vocal” snares processed with gated reverb may sound cheesy, but that doesn’t mean the concept of a mighty snare has gone the way of spandex and head bands. You can still craft a snare sound that can drive your groove quite aggressively without munching your vocal or guitar tracks— or succumbing to the reverb silliness of yore—by simply tweaking a few EQ and compression parameters. It also helps to understand how frequencies can interact to rob a particular sound of its space in the overall soundscape.

It’s Too Crowded in Here!

If you’ve thrown the kitchen sink into your production, sonically speaking, then you may have a helluva time clarifying individual instruments. For example, massive layers of bright, distorted guitars can swallow vocals, some lead instruments, and even cymbals. The denser the mix, the more work it will take to ensure every important sound is heard clearly and distinctly. And turning stuff way up in the mix isn’t usually a good tactic for bringing desired sounds to the foreground, because you may end up cranking several tracks until you’re on a carrousel of hurt. You know—the verse guitar goes up, which buries the vocal, so the vocal goes up, but now the synth pad seems too low, so you bring up the synths, which start messing with the impact of the guitars, and, oh my!

The best approach is to go easy on the overdubs and layers, ensuring that each instrument is afforded some distinctive real estate. But if you desire a mix of textural opulence, then just make sure that few—if any—elements are severely messing with the frequency of the snare drum. The typical snare has a center frequency range of between 1kHz-6kHz, which is also where some vocals and guitars can sit. There’s usually some bottom between 100Hz and 300Hz (where the toms, kick drum, bass, male vocal, and organ can have significant energy), and the snare crack appears around 8kHz (where the harmonics of guitars, vocals, and cymbals can reside). Don’t forget that rings and resonances may also appear, depending upon how the snare (or snare sample) was recorded.

Now that you know where everything basically sits, try not to have different instruments clash too bullishly within the same frequency range. Experiment with EQ, level adjustments, and even panning until the snare attack is righteously prominent. This might mean adjusting other tracks (guitars, vocals, etc.), or changing the sound of the snare itself. And by “level adjustments,” I don’t mean you should crank up the snare (remember our little talk about the “carrousel of hurt?”)—I mean you should consider turning down some of the other elements that may be sucking energy, tone, and impact from the snare track.


You don’t have to go crazy, here, but a little compression can tighten up the snare sound, making it easier to target fundamental frequencies that might be diluting the snare attack. Compression also helps the snare sound thicker and chunkier. If you’re using an individual snare sample, you may get away with absolutely crushing the snare until it sounds like a rhino hitting a FedEx truck. Just listen for any obnoxious pumping-andbreathing and other artifacts. If you don’t notice anything heinous, you’re good to go. But if you’ve recorded the snare along with a full drum kit, keep in mind that compression will also bring up the sounds of the kick drum, hi-hat, toms, cymbals, and any other sound that leaked through the snare mic. This situation will not help us in our quest to deliver a clean, clear, and raging snare swack.


Try to resist any temptation to smother the snare sound with a massive reverb that has a long decay. This should be obvious, but I still hear a lot of demos bearing snares that sound as if they were recorded in Madison Square Garden when it’s empty (and usually accompanied with vocals wetter than Niagara Falls and guitars echoing across a virtual Grand Canyon). Reverb doesn’t always make things sound “bigger,” and misuse of the effect can actually serve to blur or wash out an instrument. My recommendation is to use as little reverb as you can stomach. I often employ no reverb at all on a snare, as even sampled snares tend to have some ambient information included with the source sound. But if “no reverb” is too scary, at least leave the snare itself relatively dry, and fade a hall reverb far into the background to provide a sense of dimension. Assign the snare track, pre-fader, to your reverb of choice, and return the reverb on dedicated tracks so you can subtly blend in ambience without directly affecting the still “dry” snare attack. Of course, you can always dial up one of those ‘80s-style gated ‘verbs if you must have a big reverb that doesn’t flood all over each snare hit. Just kidding. Don’t do that.

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