As a primary driving force of the rhythm track for most modern music, the snare drum can sit nicely in your music mix or be a total nightmare. Hey, mixing drums isn’t always easy. Below are a handful of tips that you can approach as “things to try when mixing a snare drum”. There’s no singular, perfect snare drum sound – it has to fit the song – so some times one approach might work, and other times it might be a terrible choice. The point is to add a few ideas to your mixing toolkit that you can try.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t first mention the importance of the recorded snare drum sound. When recording a snare drum often times people get scared of “too much” happening: too much ring in the snare, too much body, too much low end, etc. Be careful NOT to process (EQ and compress) the snare too much to tape / disk when recording it. It’s perfectly fine to deaden it somewhat if the ring is out of control, but remember that the ring very much helps define the tone of the instrument, so if you remove it completely, then it becomes a dead sound without any character at all (but you probably don’t want to take the ring as far as the Metallica St. Anger snare sound). Bottom line is leave yourself enough tone and body when recording, then make the final decision with compression, gates and EQs in the mix. It’s OK for a snare drum to have ring or a big low end, I promise (and put up some room mics when recording drums if you can – HUGE help to give depth, life, etc. You don’t have to always use them in a mix, but room mics beat reverb(s) any day…. if you have a good live room.
- Ring in a snare. Snare ring usually lingers between as low as 500Hz and as high as 900Hz (start cutting with your EQ around 650Hz to start locating the ring). However, be careful as the low-end of this range is also where you’ll get body to your snare sound… you don’t want it to be too hollow sounding or thin, so don’t cut too much and do so with a narrow Q value.
- Snare attack. The stick of the attack is around where our ears are most sensitive 2-2.5kHz. This is the real “CRACK!” part of the attack sound. Pulling that frequency range back will soften the attack, boosting it can help bring it out, but be careful because too much of that range can make the actual snares sound very “plasticy” and brittle rather than the softer snares that people tend to like (more on snares sound below).
- Snare body / beef. It’s perfectly OK to have some low-end that you’d normally think should only be for the kick drum in your snare sound. Not “HUGE” or anything, but a little to give some more beef to the punch of the snare drum. You also have a lot of tone down there (90Hz – 150Hz) with which you can experiment a little bit. Again, don’t push it hard, but don’t always cut it, either. The low frequencies can help with the “biggness” of the snare in your drum mix.
- Snare body / boomy. The 200-500Hz range is tricky. There’s lots of body and fullness there, but there’s also the dreaded “boxy and boomy” frequencies (usually around 350Hz – 450Hz). So while cutting 350 can help tighten up the snare, it can also result in it lose a lot of fullness. Try narrow EQs and using compression before the EQ to see if that can help get some control over the lower frequencies before you start EQing in the signal chain.
- The snares in a snare drum (particularly if you double mic’d the snare drum and put one on top and bottom). Microphones on the bottom of a snare drum can sound very brittle and… well, bad, by themselves and without EQing. Blended softly with a top mic, though they can help your mix a lot. The plastic, brittle sound tends to sit between 1kHz and can sweep up as high as 3kHz. First try a wide Q and pulling that back. This will make the brighter, more airy sound of the snares come through more. Don’t go crazy because you normally don’t want to blend the bottom snare mic very high; just enough to make a subtle difference and ensure the snares are heard, but not dominant in your overall snare sound.
- Compression / Limiting. (also see hard vs soft limiter settings). Attack times are important: a really fast attack will ensure the first stick attack is compressed, whereas a slow attack will “let the stick through” and then compress the body and tone of the snare drum more. (if that doesn’t make sense: practice! take it tooo far and you’ll get breathing in your compression, but do it so that you get how attack and release times can impact your sound.) As you start to compress a snare drum you’ll also subtly lose some of the low frequencies (so try that rather than cutting with an EQ to see if it helps). It you put a really hard limiter on it, the ring of the snare will be greatly increased (wicked hard limiter, then boost your output gain a lot to compensate). That will give you more of an industrial sound. Depending on what the song is, you might need a tiny bit of compression, or a ton of it. Just be VERY careful to listen for increases in ring, lost of presence in the stick attack, and quick breathing of the compressor. No compression is better than over compression.