Six Steps To A Superior Snare Sound

In theory, getting a good snare sound is pretty simple—you just put a hypercardioid dynamic mic up on the top of the drum and you’re good to go, right? Well, yes . . . and no. While you do yourself no disservice by first grabbing your trusty SM57, mic placement can be quite tricky when you’re looking for maximum drum isolation and an awesome sound.
Author:
Publish date:

PUT IT WHERE IT BELONGS

First things first: You should always rely on room mics and overheads to capture ambience—not individual mics devoted to individual kit components. Given this, I recommend getting approximately 80 percent of your sound dialed in with your overheads and room mics, then bringing your close mics (i.e., kick, snare, tom) in during the mix to “help” your overall drum sound, as opposed to simply trying to build your mix one drum at a time.

After dialing in your overheads and room mics, get to work on your close snare mic. Most engineers will attest that a good first approximation for a snare mic is as follows: Place the mic at the “audience side” of the drum (about 10 o’clock) at a 45 degree angle, pointed as far away from the hi-hat as possible, with the capsule roughly an inch and a half above the head. The angle of the mic and the space between the mic and the head is variable, depending on whether or not you want a more “roomy” sound (in that case, try a 60 degree angle to get more of the area surrounding the drum) or more low end (the closer the mic sits to the drum, the greater the low end). Moving the mic more toward the rim of the drum will give more “ring,” which can be beneficial if you play a lot of rim shots in a performance and you really want that snare “overtone” to be present in your tracks. And if you want a snare sound with tons of attack, make sure the mic points to the area of the head that the stick strikes most often (i.e., the sweet spot).

It’s not advisable to position the mic at an angle greater than 60 degrees, as a deep angle is key to avoiding pesky bleed from other parts of the kit. Also, don’t bring the mic capsule up beyond just a few inches from the head, as you’ll run a greater risk of experiencing phase issues.

TAKE TWO

If you’re not digging the sound you get from one single snare mic, you can always add in another to help get a richer sound. One popular method often used on some of your favorite recordings is what is known as the “over-and-under” technique (Figure 1). The moniker assigned to this technique is self-explanatory: You put one mic on top of the snare, and another mic underneath. Why? Because miking the bottom head of the drum will result in more snare rattle, which can be a cool effect, and will also give your track additional “snap.”

When applying the “under” mic, make sure to place it in a similar manner to your top mic (same relative angle and spacing of capsule to head). You must also flip the “under” mic out of phase compared to your “over” mic, lest you end up with a thin sound. Furthermore, as the purpose of the bottom mic is to get a different sound than what the top mic produces, consider using a mic that is very nuanced in the high end (such as an AKG 451) to get a lot of “thwack” and rattle.

A condenser that can handle high SPLs [Sound Pressure Levels] can be really cool as an “under” mic as well, especially if you’re going for a real jazzy sound. If you opt for a condenser, use one with a hypercardioid pattern so you’re not getting any bleed from your inside kick head (I’ve found the Audio-Technica 4053a and Neumann KM185 both work really well in this application). And keep your preamp gain down, cowboy. You don’t want your signal to be too hot and distorted.

KEEP ’EM SEPARATED

Always assign each snare mic to its own channel so that you have the maximum amount of flexibility during mixdown; you’ll want to be able to manipulate each individual track without compromising your entire drum sound. Be mindful of your levels when tracking—there are tons of transients in a snare. And don’t freak out and throw your Nintendo controller across the room if it sounds off-kilter at first. The snare mic itself isn’t likely to capture the same sound your ear hears in the room; it’s the combination of the snare with the signals of the overhead mics that give the drum mix believability.

COMPRESSION TIME

If your levels are still consistently unruly, it’s compression time. A little will do you most of the time—you don’t want to crush the snare sound. Set your ratio at 2:1 or 3:1 with a high threshold. Doing this should quell your “excited hits” without making your snare sound lifeless.

But compression isn’t just for taming peaks and keeping drummers that forgot their Ritalin in check. You can also greatly affect the envelope, or shape, of the snare sound in cool ways by creatively applying compression. Setting the ratio high (4:1 is recommended) with a low threshold and a medium attack will help give your snare sound more punch in a busy mix. And cranking the release will keep your snare loud as the signal decays, which can be flattering to machine gun-esque snare lines (death metal Hessians take note).

BOOKING THEM BANDS

You’ll probably need to EQ your snare a bit, as your rough track usually won’t sit perfectly in your mix (Figure 2). Boosting a bit in the 100–200Hz range is recommended if there aren’t enough lows to your snare sound. Conversely, cutting in that range will help combat any excess lows you may have in your track due to proximity effect (some of the mud lives around 50Hz, so be sure to cut from that area as well if your snare is sounding messy). Pulling out some of the lower midrange frequencies (between 300–700Hz) will usually help combat “boxy-ness.” Add just a bit in the upper-mids (between 3–7kHz) to add some extra attack . . . and give a nudge upwards between 7–10kHz if you want to accentuate the highs with a bit of “air,” without bringing in the “Rosie O’Donnell effect” of constantly sounding harsh and annoying.

’VERB IS THE WORD

Ah, reverb—the icing on the cake. Reverb and snare go together like me and scotch on a Sunday afternoon—meaning that it can be a wonderful thing, but only if not overdone. Too much . . . and you’re looking at jail time.

Well, maybe not jail time per se, but a sloppy time nonetheless. While you can get away with adding more reverb to a snare (the drum doesn’t have any serious lows to exaggerate), it’s still best to go light and easy on the effects if your goal is to keep your track sounding natural.

Plate reverbs (and emulations) are my personal faves, as they are fast, bright, and don’t produce a bunch of early reflections. Fast reverbs tend to lend themselves well to snare tracks, except when used in songs that are really spacious and slow. So if you’re not performing a John Cage cover, keep the attack fast and the decay short and sweet as well, following the standard reverb philosophy that the faster the track, the shorter the ’verbs (i.e., around 0.5 seconds).