How to Compress a Snare Drum Properly
Second to lead vocals, the snare drum is probably the most important ingredient in a modern musical arrangement. This is especially true in rock, metal, and contemporary country genres.
Since the snare is one of the most audible elements of a drum kit, it's a huge part of what drives a song's beat.
There's a reason why discerning drummers carry their personal snare from session to session, even if they're going to be playing the studio's in-house drums. It's that important to their signature sound.
A compressor is a big — if not the biggest — tool you'll use to craft a larger-than-life snare sound. Compression is what injects a well-recorded snare drum with that elusive punch.
In this post, we'll dive into the proper way to compress a snare drum. We'll also touch on other steps you can take to ensure a pro-level snare track.
Get It Right at the Source
Before you start processing your snare drum, you need to solo the track and give it an honest listen. If the snare was recorded poorly, no amount of compression or processing is going to give you the studio-quality sound you're aiming for.
If you're dealing with a subpar snare, your best course of action is to re-record it. If this isn't possible (for example, you're mixing somebody else's project), you may want to investigate sample replacement.
Despite the term "sample replacement," you don't need to completely replace the original snare. Rather, you can use professionally engineered samples to bolster the original sound.
Once you achieve a solid snare sound, you'll be ready to move onto the next step.
Clean Up the Mud
A muddy snare track equals a muddy mix. That's why you should eliminate low-frequency mud and unwanted resonances before you start compressing your snare track.
While snare drums do contain a certain amount of low-frequency information, they're not bass instruments. Thus, you don't need to leave loads of low end in the track.
Low-frequency mud is easy to eliminate. Simply fire up your favorite EQ plug-in and apply a highpass filter to your snare track.
Start with a cutoff frequency around 30Hz and a slope around 12dB. Increase the cutoff frequency until your snare sounds too thin, then decrease the frequency until it sounds right.
You'll also want to resolve any unpleasant resonances. Resonances are frequency buildups that not only rob your snare track of dynamics and headroom, but they also lend weird sonic artifacts to your track.
And let's face it: nobody wants to deal with a muffled or harsh-sounding snare drum.
Our RESO plug-in is an easy-to-use solution for eradicating unwanted resonances — automatically.
Just place it on your snare track, click the Calculate Targets button, and RESO does the rest. It not only provides you with Target Nodes for killing the resonances, but it also gives you helpful setting suggestions for achieving a resonance-free track.
Squashing Your Snare: Where to Start
Now it's squashing time. So, load up your favorite compressor!
Whether you use a plug-in or hardware, the principles of using a compressor are the same. We're going to provide you with a practical starting point, after which you can continue tweaking until you attain the sound you're hearing in your head.
Most full-featured compressor plug-ins will deliver the result you're aiming for. If you're using hardware or analog-modeled software, SSL-, dbx 160-, and 1176-style compressors are a great choice for punchy, hard-hitting snares.
Start with your compressor set at a 4:1 ratio with a slow attack, and time your release so that it blends musically with the rest of your mix.
Next, adjust the threshold until you hear a distinct, punchy sound. Typically, 2dB–6dB of gain reduction is enough for an individual snare track.
These settings work equally well on top- and bottom-miked snares. That said, you'll typically achieve better results if you compress the top and bottom tracks separately.
It may also sound more natural if you leave the bottom-miked snare uncompressed. You be the judge — every mix is different!
Also, refrain from using generic plug-in presets without tweaking. Since the plug-in programmer didn't listen to your mix, they don't know what settings will sound best — let your ears be your guide instead.
My Snare Doesn't Sound Right — Troubleshooting Tips
My Snare Sounds Muffled and Distant
If your snare sounds muffled or distant after applying compression, try using a slower attack. It's likely that your compressor is swallowing your snare's transients.
Set the compressor so the transient pokes through before the gain reduction kicks in. This will maximize both the drum's attack and add the desired level of punchiness.
My Snare Contains Off-kilter Frequencies
If your snare sounds out of whack frequency-wise, an equalizer is the right tool to reach for. The key frequencies of a snare drum are around 100Hz for body, 1–5kHz for smack and bite, and 10kHz for top-end sizzle.
There's no reason to get heavy-handed with an equalizer. If your snare needs excessive EQ, it probably wasn't recorded well, and either re-recording or sample replacement is in order.
Any EQ plug-in can get the job done, but if you're tired of guesswork, take our MIXROOM plug-in for a test drive. MIXROOM is an easy-to-use EQ that gives you application-specific presets and target frequencies based on a reference track.
Just instantiate it on your snare track, choose an applicable channel preset, or create a custom target value with the Target icon on the bottom left corner of the plug-in's interface and import a reference track.
MIXROOM's Target EQ Curve lets you dial in a pro sound without any tedious trial and error. On top of that, you can use the Add Smart Bands button to implement EQ bands that match the Target EQ Curve.
Anyone searching for an intelligent starting point for EQ-ing snare drums (or anything else) will get lots of mileage out of MIXROOM.
My Snare Sounds Boring
If your snare sounds technically correct, but isn't adding excitement to your mix, you can use a character compressor or saturation plug-in to give it extra color and grit.
As far as character compressors go, Distressor-style models are ideal for colorful dynamics shaping. These comps deliver both 1176- and LA-2A-style compression, along with analog-inflected saturation — and snare drums love saturation
Beyond that, 1176-style comps, SSL-style comps, and API-style comps are renowned for their distinctive analog-tinged coloration.
Straight-up distortion plug-ins are also a great tool for spicing up a lifeless snare. In fact, studio engineers back in the day used to process snare drums through a RAT distortion stompbox to give them extra grit and texture.
So, fire up your favorite sound-mangling plug-in and have fun! And if the distortion seems too pronounced, try parallel processing.
My Snare Lacks Depth and Dimension
If the natural room sound on your snare track doesn't give it enough depth and dimension, soak it in some reverb. Plate algorithms work really well in this scenario.
In many cases, you'll want to use a stereo reverb on a bus for this purpose. That said, if the stereo reverb is altering your snare's panning and placement, try using a mono reverb on a track insert.
If the reverb is causing smearing and loss of articulation, try shortening the reverb's tail. You can also place a gate after the reverb to gain precise control over its cutoff.
You can use a subtle gated reverb to add depth to your snare, or you can go all out for a cool '80s-inspired effect.
Don't Forget Your Reference Track
When you listen to your mix for hours upon hours, it's easy to lose your perspective. That's why you should be using reference tracks.
A reference track is a professionally mixed and mastered song that you use to regain your perspective. This will give you a sonic reality check, and it will ensure that your snare drum sounds as great as — or better — than the next song your listener hears.
Using reference tracks is a breeze with our REFERENCE plug-in. You just import a reference track you'd like to emulate, preferably within the same genre you're working on.
After that, listen to the reference track's snare drum and use it as a guide for how yours should sound. This will help you with levels, it will inform your EQ decisions, and it will aid you greatly in nailing the right sound and behavior for your snare's compressor.
Snare drums and compressors go together like ham and eggs. In fact, compression is what gives professionally produced drum tracks their characteristic punchiness.
Apply our mixing tips and tricks, and you'll be well on your way to dominating everybody's playlist.