It’s all well and good to learn how to mix certain instruments, but we’re taking it one step further: showing how to mix certain instruments within certain genres.
Let’s start with one of the most important drum sounds: the snare drum. Not only does the snare help dictate the tempo, feel, and flavor of the music; its treatment in the mix also informs the genre. In this article, you’ll learn about five different types of snare drums and how to mix them.
Click below to jump to one of these five snare sounds:
Here’s the unfortunate truth about mixing snares, which must serve as both a warning and a preamble: everything depends first and foremost on the drums. The quality of the drums themselves—and the quality of the drummer—will have a huge impact on the eventual sound.
How the drums have been mic’d and recorded, the room in which you’re recording, and the way you treat the overheads and room mics all also have palpable effects on the sound of your snare drum. Due to gating and panning decisions, the toms and hi-hats can also bolster the snare.
All of these elements must be in-tune to secure a truly authentic sound: a dead sounding ‘70s kit, for example, is mic’d quite differently from a mid-‘90s kit. The sound is more isolating, thanks to the proliferation of spot mics and available space in consoles at the time.
Provided you’re not merely salvaging the drums, there is some wiggle room. It helps to shoot for a reference too, so some references shall be provided as we move from genre to genre.
You hear this snare sound in music from Gin Blossoms and Blues Traveler—it has its roots in college rock and grunge, but is distinctly glossier than its progenitors. As heard in the references “Follow Me Down” by The Pretty Reckless and “Hey Jealousy” by Gin Blossoms, we can glean something in the sound: the high snares themselves, the fuzzy vibrations which denote “snareness,” are not so prevalent. We hear a good midrange crack, a little low-mid beef, and compression that evens things out—but not too much. This moderate compression controls the snare without making it sound like it’s played by a machine.
First, depending on the snare, let’s tamp down some resonances, as these snares don’t really ring out at specific frequencies, like they might in a 311 song. You can use Track Assistant in Neutron 3 to automatically find and curtail these resonances.
Then, give a gentle boost in the 800 Hz–1.2 kHz range, as well as a gentle boost between 150–300 Hz (please do keep in mind that these are ranges—it will change depending on the mix, the drum, the song, the recording, etc).
Be careful not to mask any guitars as you add this low-mid boost. The same goes for the high-mid boost and the vocals: they shouldn’t conflict either. We don’t need to significantly boost the high end, as we don’t need to hear those snares themselves so distinctly.
For compression, the key is not to just even out the snare’s loudness, but the duration of the hit too. This is done with judicious use of the attack parameter. It may help to crank a higher threshold than you’ll eventually use, and sweep the attack until you hear just the right amount of transient linger before the compressor ducks everything down. Your release knob must then be tuned to allow the compressor to recover before the next hit. Back the threshold up until everything sounds natural, and tweak the release knob to make sure the hit recovers in time.
To allow the transient to poke through the mix, mix in some parallel compression on a send, using more aggressive settings.
Reverberation should be felt rather than heard; aim to reinforce space with room or chamber sounds, rather than create a shimmery wash with a plate sound.
We know the sound very well here—it’s been lambasted for the better part of a quarter century, but it’s still necessary to evoke every now and then. For this sound, I often reference the work of Alan Parsons in the ‘80s, particularly the record Stereotomy.
These snares were typically more meaty than you’d think, tuned lower than you’d guess. They were often mixed with a sample, frequently from a Fairlight, and both snare and sample would be sent to a gated reverb to crystalize the effect. Luckily, the lineage of this gated reverb sound extends right to Exponential Audio reverbs.
So, how do we get this sound? Observe this drum beat:
It’s not a very eighties-sounding groove, and it was recorded in a big, open way. Still, we can try to give it the snare sound we’re after.
First, let’s what we suggested in the previous tip: let’s duck out the resonances, add some low midrange, emphasize the crack, and even the snare out with compression.
Next, we must send the snare to an auxiliary channel, and gate the send only so we hear the snare.
Now we add reverb, and this time we may choose something longer and lingering, such as this Percussion Plate preset from NIMBUS.
Finally, we add a gate after the reverb, like so:
We’re not done though. We still have two more operations: the first is to send our bottom snare to an auxiliary track, and to delay it by 11–71 ms.
If you don’t have a bottom snare, simply split the original snare into two channels. On one, filter out everything below about 7–8 kHz, and add some harmonic distortion to emphasize the crispy snares themselves. This is your top snare. The other copy is your bottom snare, and can be delayed by that 11–71 ms.
Next, we send the delayed bottom snare to the reverb.
Now we must add our sample. If you happen to have a Fairlight or a sample of a Fairlight snare lying around, that will work. Any DAW with drum-replacement tech—such as Logic—or any other drum replacement software can be of help.
You can also use white noise to bolster the snare in a similar way. Set up a track with a test oscillator playing white noise, and gate it, using a sidechain filter, to the snare, so its duration is like so:
The sample sounds relatively unblended on its own, so we have to EQ it a bit to fit it in. A little reverb applied directly to the track will also help us blend the sample with the snares.
Finally, we bus the snares and sample to the same aux track, give it a little EQ, and use some of the Transient Shaper module in Neutron 3 for it all to blend together:
Treat the other drums accordingly, and you should get something more in line with the genre.
Evinced by songs such as “Feel Like Making Love,” the tight RnB snare has far less in the low mids than the previous two examples. Chances are it will be naturally tight—as in, not ringing, not sustaining—by virtue of how it’s tuned and played.
I had a mix with this kind of snare come through last summer, even though it wasn’t a strict RnB project. The drums, however, were rooted in an RnB sound that has a strong genesis in gospel music: listen here.
Let me take you through the processing chain for that song. These were the drums, as they were presented, without plug-ins, set up with a decent balance:
As you can hear, the drums are already recorded in the proper style, so they don’t need much to get the rest of the way there. Chances are, if you’re going for this style, the drums will have already been recorded for it, or the producer will have selected kits that give you what you need.
First, I dealt with the overheads to tamp down some harshness that wouldn’t sound good for the snare.
Then, I smashed the heck out of the room mic with the following settings:
I’m using the overheads and smashed room together to give space and heft to the snare sound.
I processed the snare itself with Sculptor and some EQ adding a little low mid for some umph:
From there, it was about adding reverb and parallel compression to taste, until we got this:
You might have noticed from the previous example that the snare was a bit ringy. That might be of benefit to us if we were going for the ‘90s ringing snare, a sound prevalent in many alt-rock and numetal arrangements. It’s a high and tight snare with a prominent ring, but still a lot of smack in the attack.
The danger in securing this ring comes from overemphasizing it. Sure, we can use our ears to find the resonant frequencies and boost them, but this may give us too much of what we want, and just sound unprofessional.
With iZotope tools, I prefer an indirect approach. First, I look for the ring—resonant frequency—in the mono room mic and emphasize it there. Observe our dry room sound.
There’s some ring here, and we can emphasize it with the following settings in series:
That gives us this sound:
And blended with the overheads—from which we derive the bulk of our drums—it sounds like this:
Our second move is to mult the snare to a new track, and give it the following settings, followed by some tape excitation:
This gives us the following:
Blended with a more conservatively mixed snare, we get this:
And all of it, together, rings out thus:
Of course, the best way to get a ‘90s ringing drum sound is to start from the source—a kit with fresh heads, and a drummer playing rim shots. But provided it’s recorded well, you can go a long way with these tips.
For this sound, we’re referencing songs like “1000 Deaths” by D’Angelo and “Five Years” by David Bowie. Notice the genre differences between those two songs: one’s a rock tune, the other’s an RnB tune trying for a Sly and the Family Stone feel (There’s a Riot Going On, specifically). What they have in common is a relatively dead sound with low-mid heft and some high-end snare action.
To go about getting this sound, try reducing the Sustain on Neutron’s Transient Shaper in single band operation.
As a general rule, see if a bump in the low midrange might help. Somewhere between 150–300 Hz is a good place to start looking.
You’re going to want something fizzy and airy on the highs. You can try some high-end tape saturation in Neutron 3 in parallel, or you can go the mult route:
Mult the snare to another track, use a high pass filter at around 8 kHz or so to split the snare, boost the attack a bit with a transient shaper, give it some excitation with the Exciter module in Tape mode, and blend the multed track in ever so slightly with the original.
This can go a long way to securing that dead, nevertheless fizzy sound.
Again, I must repeat the unfortunate disclaimer, that much depends on the audio you’re given at the start of the process. In the best of circumstances, these tips will help you focus the sound in the right direction.
I must add something else to the conclusion here: there are so many snare drums I left on the cutting room floor, from metal to prog to americana and more. If you’re interested, let us know!