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It takes lots of practice to get a snare mix right. After vocals, snares are one of the most commanding sounds in modern mixes, but also prone to become sharp with careless processing. In this article, I’ll share five tips I use to bring snare drums to life, and help them cut through the mix in a pleasing way.
1. Filter out cymbal bleed with a gate
Most jazz and classical recordings aim to capture the nuances of musicians and their acoustic environment. Effects and editing are meant to enhance the natural coloration of instruments from the room, not reshape them.
Pop and contemporary styles of music, on the other hand, are less concerned with “real world” acoustics, and typically prefer each sound to be isolated for maximum sonic control. This is particularly true for mixing drums. Acoustic snares with lots of cymbal bleed can certainly make a mix sound messy. So can poorly edited drum machine samples, though there are techniques to create techniques to avoid this.
Sometimes, a click hanging around a fraction of a second after the snare fades to silence overlaps with a kick drum. This is pretty easy for a producer to overlook when they are in the zone. But during a snare fill or when other instruments drop out leaving just the drum sound, you can usually hear it. A noise gate will attenuate the signals that hang below the set threshold, making it an ideal tool to get rid of noise and hiss. Be careful not to set the threshold too high though, as this will chop off an important part of the snare.
Clamping down on the tail can also have the inverse effect of making the transient sharper, which saves you from overdoing it with compression to get the impact you want. Which leads us to our next point.
2. Make it snap with a transient shaper
You can use the plug-in to boost the attack of a snare that needs bite or soften the transient when there is too much smack. Decreasing the sustain can remove the sound of the room while upping the sustain will bring out low-level details and splatter the signal. There are lots of ways to use the Transient Shaper in Neutron to help mix drums.
By engaging the individual frequency bands on Transient Shaper, a whole new level of precision is possible. Let’s take a snare with an unpleasant resonant peak. One way to fix this is to bring down the sustain portion of the mid-range, reducing the unpleasantness and redirecting the ear’s focus toward the higher frequencies.
Need a little sharpness now? Increase both the attack and sustain of the higher frequencies until you hear the desired results. This often does the job without throwing off the frequency balance in the way EQ or compression does.
3. Fake it ‘till you make it
If you drag some great modern hip-hop and electronic snare samples into an audio editor, you’ll notice they aren’t a single, giant transient, but a number of short transients one after another.
When you're struggling to get a powerful snare and the usual tools (EQ, compression, transients shaping) aren’t doing the trick, try the following technique.
Copy and paste the initial hit of your snare three or four times over, allowing the last hit to decay in full, then consolidate the entire clip. You’ll get a short stutter leading into the main snare that livens it up. Look at the difference in waveform and then listen to the audio below.
An engineer might be able to tell that the second sound is actually a group of snares stitched together, but most listeners won’t. Either way, it's a useful technique to squeeze out a little more attitude from drums.
4. Unmask snares from other percussive elements
The way a snare sounds in a song has a lot to do with its sonic relationships to other mix elements. This is true for all instruments, but since the snare is basically the next lead element after a vocal, it requires additional attention.
The bottoms of snares, for example, can overlap with the upper harmonics of kicks and basslines, while the tops of snares can cross paths with hi-hats, cymbals, and tambourines. Deep pads and synths get tangled up too.
There are a number of ways to deal with frequency masking and snares. As you may have already guessed, picking the right remedy depends on the song’s character and genre. In a dubstep tune, you probably want the snare to crash down and dominate the mix for the brief moment it's there. Using a dynamic EQ or sidechain compression to drop the synths and bass in level whenever the snare is played will clear the runway and prevent any major conflicts.
In a hip-hop or pop track, you might need to sacrifice some of the texture and grit of the snare with subtractive EQ to make room for the vocal, which is the shining star of the music.
To make better decisions here, try Nectar’s Unmasking tool, which carves space for the lead vocal by automatically dulling problematic frequencies on competing instruments like snares. Neutron, Nectar, or Relay need to be instantiated on the non-lead vocal tracks for the plug-in to do its job.
An alternative route is to use Neutron's Mix Assistant, which will balance the levels of your entire mix based around a focus track. If you set the vocal as the focus, the other tracks in your session will be placed at lower gain levels for an initial balance of elements when you’re just getting started. We've created helpful session templates for popular DAWs to get you out the door in no time with Mix Assistant.
5. Buff with compression
The transient-heavy character of snares makes them a challenge to mix. If they sound plain, you may bring them up in level and find they are now aggressive sounding snares that draw too much attention to themselves. So, you bring them back down and pull up the high end. But now, you realize they sound overly harsh.
If you find yourself stuck here, pull up your favorite compressor (make sure to avoid common compression mistakes) and dial in a fast attack time under 5 ms, and a medium release around 150 ms to soften the transient and emphasize the sustain. Depending on the threshold you set, you’ll get a rattling movement at the tail of the snare that can be a lot of fun for the right song. You should be able to hear it in the example below, exaggerated for the purpose of demonstration.
Notice how the snare rings out a little longer in the second part? Use this when you want presence without sounding too punchy or dramatic.
These are five tips I frequently use when mixing snare drums in my own music production, which covers modern hip-hop and electronic. Given the wide variety of snare sounds, I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. That being said, these techniques will certainly improve your mix, if not give you some new ideas to put a fresh spin on!