FIG. 1: You can add life to a dead-sounding snare track by "reamping" it. When the track plays through the speaker, it activates the snares, which are recorded with a small diaghragm condenser mic.
What would rock 'n' roll be without the backbeat? Well, among other things, it would be much harder for the average listener — and dancer — to follow. Chuck Berry (and later, the Beatles) had it right when they sang, “It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it.”
Thankfully, the backbeat comes in an infinite variety of flavors. The only requirement is that it be rock solid and reliable as a heartbeat. In this article, I will detail the key ingredients that go into making backbeats — in particular drums, tunings, playing styles, miking, and processing. I will then show how you can produce them in your own personal studio. The point is not so much to copy what has already been done (though that's always a great way to learn), but to expand your bag of tricks and become inspired to go the extra mile in your quest to create the perfect snare sound.
Here I have selected a diverse group of backbeats that span a wide range of snare sounds. I'll start with high-pitched snare-drum sounds and progress to lower-pitched ones. Keep in mind that there are many ways to create a particular sound, especially once the variables of signal processing are introduced. Still, helpful ground rules do exist. For example, always try to get the best possible sound on tape (or hard drive) rather than relying on processing after the fact.
Remember that the snare drum must complement the song — for example, a dry, high-pitched snare will sound silly on a heavy-metal track, no matter how well it is recorded and mixed. As the producer-engineer, it might be up to you to suggest an alternate snare to a drummer who shows up with an inappropriate drum.
Finally, remember that tuning is the best way to deal with a poor-sounding drum. Several good tutorials are available on the Web that deal with this topic. Even marginal-quality drums can be made to sound acceptable with careful tuning.
SHE DRIVES ME CRAZY
I've always admired the distinctive high-pitched snare drum on the Fine Young Cannibals' “She Drives Me Crazy.” According to David Z, who produced the song in 1989, the snare sound was derived by combining a drum loop with a recorded snare drum that was later “reamped.” Z created the drum loop using a Linn 9000 drum machine. He then sampled a real snare drum from the studio and combined that hit with the snare hit in the loop. However, the sound still lacked the edge he wanted, so Z reamped the recorded snare hit by sending it out to a small speaker positioned on top of a snare drum (with snares engaged) in order to generate some extra buzz. The whole contraption was then miked and the signal sent to tape.
One key to the great snare sound in “She Drives Me Crazy” is its consistency. Obviously, that is easy to achieve with a snare-drum sample but is more difficult when working with a live drummer. In addition to encouraging the drummer to play as evenly as possible, you should lightly compress the snare drum while recording (the track can be compressed more heavily during mixdown, if required). Experiment with the compressor's attack parameter to find the optimum setting. You want a hit with a well-defined initial transient and a sustained buzz from the snares.
As for drum choice, common sense dictates that a deep-shelled snare drum is not going to give you a high-pitched crack. Drums are funny, though, and can surprise you with the sounds they are capable of making at extreme tensions. Still, a piccolo snare drum (a drum with a shell depth between, say, two and four inches) will most readily provide the high-pitched sound that you're after.
Once you have the track on tape, it's time to enlist the services of a gate. Set the gate to a very fast attack, a medium-long sustain, a fast release, and the maximum ratio allowed (in order to have the drum emerge from, and return to, silence). Again, the object is to get the snare drum to sound as consistent as possible.
If you feel that there is still something missing, try reamping the snare track. To do that, route the snare signal to an amplifier (almost any amp will work), and from there to a small speaker. (Note that dedicated units such as the Reamp, Radial JD-7 Injector, and Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro can simplify the process of matching impedance and levels going to the amplifier.) Position the speaker cone-down on top of a snare drum (with the snares engaged). Next, mic the snares from beneath the drum, preferably with a condenser microphone (see Fig. 1). After combining that sound with the sample or the recorded snare hit, use EQ to fine-tune the overall sound. A slight boost in the 2 to 4 kHz range will help accentuate the note that makes the snare on “She Drives Me Crazy” so distinctive.
Reamping is always a great way to liven up a stale-sounding drum. For a more open sound, try room-miking the reamped snare by positioning the microphone — or even a stereo pair of mics — farther back from the drum. Another variation would be to lo-fi the sound by sending the snare signal to a guitar amp or other “colored” amplification source.
A cool thing you can do with a reamped track or any room-miked track is to gate it, and then key the gate. For most backbeat-type music, the snare drum will generally be the input to the key of the gate. Experiment with the different time factors (attack, hold, and decay) to find the right amount of gate-open time.
A popular snare sound in contemporary music comes from the Roland TR-808. This electronically generated (as opposed to sampled) sound is a fixture in much house, hip-hop, and dance music. A classic example of that sound can be heard on the Marvin Gaye song “Sexual Healing,” from the album Midnight Love (RCA, 1982). The snare sound is pretty dry, with a bit of plate reverb applied to the drum mix. While getting one's hands on an electronic snare drum with a TR-808 sound isn't difficult (there is hardly a drum module or keyboard that doesn't have a TR-808 snare sound onboard), you can also create the sound yourself using a real drum.
Start with a piccolo snare 3 to 4 inches deep and 12 to 14 inches in diameter. Tune the top head to a defined note that works with the key that the song is played in. The bottom head should be tuned evenly but should be fairly slack, and the snares should be somewhat loose. Mic the drum with a standard dynamic mic such as a Shure SM57. But rather than aiming the mic at the area on the head where the stick hits, aim it toward the rim of the drum with the capsule looking down at the head from above. Instruct the drummer to strike the drum consistently in the same spot and to strive for even dynamics. Also, the player must avoid hitting the rim or playing rim shots — this is not the place for a “rimmy” attack.
The objective is to capture a soft sound with a minimum of attack. If you have access to a noise gate featuring adjustable attack and decay parameters, set the gate so it's a bit slow to open, which will help you miss some of the initial attack. Put the decay on a medium-length setting.
The key element of the 808 snare sound is a “fizzy” character combined with a distinctive “snap” and a fairly short decay. A bit of moderate compression can help to even out the sound and tame any unwanted peaks. Make sure to roll off low frequencies below 400 Hz, especially if you are trying to emulate the sound of an 808 snare that is tuned to a higher pitch.
Another high-pitched snare sound that I really like is on XTC's “Yacht Dance,” from their album English Settlement (Virgin, 1982). The snares are disengaged on this track, making the drum sound more like a timbale or a high-tuned tom than a snare. A liberal dose of reverb has been added to give the drum some acoustic space and sustain in the mix. Compression helps the initial stick sound maintain clarity yet still merge smoothly into the sustained portion of the sound.
The key to achieving this sound lies in tuning the drum so that it will produce a sustained, pitched note. Experiment with tuning to find the drum's maximum resonance. Because the snares are “off,” the drum will already have more sustain than it would with the snares engaged. A shallow drum is not necessary for this sound — most snare drums, except for unusually deep-shelled ones, can be tuned to a sufficiently high note without choking. An excellent mic would be the Sennheiser MD 421, which will help to smooth out the sound.
Position the mic so that it aims toward the spot at which the stick hits the head. Make sure to capture both the low-pitched component of the snare sound (a doink sound) and the drum's decaying resonance. It's particularly important that the pitch of the drum work with the song key. Ideally, the drummer should play consistent rim-shots in order to give a nice snap to the sound.
At mixdown, compress the snare using a fast attack, medium ratio, and medium threshold so as to ensure a strong attack and long sustain. The ideal reverb for this drum is an EMT plate. If you don't have access to a real plate, use a digital simulation — most contemporary multi-effects processors provide a number of convincing plate-reverb algorithms. In my experience, though, Roland and Lexicon units work better for this type of sound than TC Electronic and Yamaha processors. Make sure to roll off a good bit of the high end to get the sound of a real plate — as a rule, digital simulations are overly bright as compared with the real thing.
DON'T STAND SO CLOSE
One of my favorite snare-drum sounds from the '80s can be heard on the Police's Zenyatta Mondatta album (A&M Records, 1980). On the opening track, “Don't Stand So Close to Me,” Stewart Copeland plays sidesticks through much of the tune, switching abruptly to rim-shot backbeats during the choruses.
Copeland's recognizable snare-drum sound derives less from signal processing than from drum type and tuning and playing style — his powerful and consistent rim-shots account for much of his signature sound. As for processing, the snare sound is fairly dry, mixed with a touch of plate reverb only.
Copeland was using a 14-by-5-inch brass-shelled snare drum at the time, and that's a good place to start if you're going for that sound. Copeland said he likes all of his drum heads tuned taut, both for the sound that it creates and for better playability. So start by tensioning the batter head until the drum begins to sound choked, then back off a bit. A Shure SM57 or similar dynamic mic, positioned so it is “looking” at a combination of top head and rim, will work fine. Compression, if used during tracking, should be set to a fairly slow attack so as to let through the initial transient of the stick hitting the rim. Try a low to medium ratio, which will help even out the overall sound. You might also need to compress further during mixdown.
GIVE IT AWAY
Another great snare sound can be heard on “Give It Away” from the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Warner Brothers, 1991). Produced by Rick Rubin and engineered by Brendan O'Brien, this song has drummer Chad Smith positively smacking the backbeat home. The snare sound is interesting, comprising a mid to high tone, a sharply gated sustain, and a load of artificial ambience.
Smith's signature Pearl drum was a fairly standard, steel-shelled, 14-by-5-inch model. Any good-quality steel snare drum should suffice — in this case, the sound of the drum is less important than the attendant processing.
The key element here is the attack. A standard dynamic mic such as a Shure SM57 or Sennheiser MD 421 will work fine, but a small-diaphragm condenser such as an Audio-Technica AT 4051 or Neumann KM 184 will do an even better job of capturing the attack. During mixdown, gate the track using a very fast attack (to ensure the transient passes through unscathed), a medium-long sustain (assuming your gate has a sustain parameter), and a fairly short decay. The rest of the sound is generated using reverb.
For the reverb, I recommend a small chamber or room sound. Grainier is better in this instance, so antiques such as Quantec Room Simulators, 12-bit Roland units, and ART O1As are fine. The important thing is to use a reverb that has a fast attack and short decay. Use the reverb's decay parameter to determine how long the snare-drum sound is. The reverb should be panned hard left and right for maximum stereo effect.
If the snare sound still lacks excitement, add a compressed combination of the snare and reverb. Route both the snare and reverb to an aux send and from there to a compressor channel. Return the compressor's output to a channel input (or aux return) that is routed to the stereo mix, and pan it dead center. Now bring up the level just to the point at which you can begin to hear the compressed signal and then back off a bit.
A near-legendary low-pitched snare sound can be heard on “D'yer Mak'er” from Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy (Atlantic, 1973). One reason drummer John Bonham's snare drum sounds so big on this track is that the recording made good use of the room's natural ambience. Tracked by the Rolling Stone's mobile truck at Mick Jagger's country estate, Stargroves, and mixed at Electric Ladyland studios by Eddie Kramer, this track has a distinct room sound that has rarely been matched — you can really hear the identity of the room stamped upon the tracks.
Though Bonzo was well known for using oversized drums and tuning them tautly, the snare on “D'yer Mak'er” sounds neither oversized nor excessively tensioned. But it does sound as though it was hit hard. As was common for the period, the drums were minimally miked — a kick mic placed within a foot or two of the drum, a tom/snare mic positioned looking down at the snare, and stereo room mics in the far corners of the room. Note that the modern “fix it in the mix” attitude did not yet hold sway — engineers were accustomed to getting the sound that would be on the record during the tracking. Committing to the final sound early in the recording process not only required that the drums sound great from the git-go, but also made it easier to choose the tones and textures of other instruments when it came time for overdubs.
Most of the drum sound you hear on “D'yer Mak'er” comes from the room microphones; the mics closer to the drums were used more to augment the room sound. Of course, most personal-studio recordists don't have the luxury of huge, high-ceilinged rooms to record in. Fortunately, there are techniques that can help you arrive at a bigger, better room sound, even in a small, boxy space.
First comes placement — both of the microphones and the drums. All rooms suffer to some extent from what are known as room modes, which are cancellations or augmentations in the frequency response that correlate to the room's dimensions. Room modes can work for or against you. The simplest way to get room modes working to your advantage is to use your ear — yes, in the singular. That is, when you're trying to gauge the sound of an instrument in a room, it's helpful to listen with one ear only. That's because, when you listen with both ears, the brain automatically triangulates the location of the sound source using localization cues such as time-of-arrival differences. Using one ear prevents that automatic calculation, allowing you to hear more what a single microphone picks up, thus giving you a better idea of what will print to tape (or hard drive).
The important thing is that the room mics capture a good balance of the elements of the drum kit. Due to room modes, the balance of elements can shift dramatically as you move around the room. So if, while listening with one ear, you're unable to find a spot in the room from which a good balance can be heard, move the drums to a different location and try again.
An easy way to enlarge the apparent size of a room is to slightly delay the room tracks — 5 to 25 milliseconds should suffice. That will approximate the time the sound waves would take to reach the room mics were they positioned in a large room. Make sure to delay both the left and right channels equally.
To best approximate Bonzo's snare sound on “D'yer Mak'er,” find the biggest room you can and place the drums at one end and the room mics at the other. Add spot microphones for kick and snare. For processing, use an optical, tube, or optical-tube compressor on the room-mic tracks. The Urei LA series is highly regarded for this task, but other models will also work. Use a slow attack on the compressor so as to let the transients through, and turn the threshold down low so you can really load up on the room sound.
Richard Alan Salzis a producer, engineer, and composer living in southern Vermont.