Mixing Snare Drum | How to Get a Punchy Snare Sound

Mixing Snare Drum | How to Get a Punchy Snare Sound

The snare drum is mostly one of the most important sounds in a mix, and in this tutorial I reveal all the secrets for mixing snare drum and getting a punchy sound all the time.

Before we get started I just want to Thank everyone who supported my previous post about mixing the kick.

That post got a lot of love and positive feedback on reddit and facebook.

Even on this post I want to make sure that I give you a complete guide that will help you achieve great results in any situation or genre.

So, follow along as I show you how to get a huge snare sound.

1. Choose or Record the Right Snare Sound

If you would like to save yourself a lot of time when mixing a snare drum then you have to get the sound that you’re going for straight from the source.

Whether you’re working with live recordings, designing your own snare or using samples, if the source doesn’t sound good then you’ll have a hard time making it sound great in the mix.

I remember seeing a comment on a Youtube video from someone complaining that Grammy winning engineers always use sounds that are well recorded and that's why their mixes sound great.

Trust me, I wanted to comment but I didn’t even know where to start because my comment would be way too long trying to explain that you can't fix a turd.

If you want to compete with the best then spend more time during recording, sound design or choosing a great sample. If you're working on a client's project then find out if they can work more on the snare or replace it with a better one.

If you put garbage in, then you get garbage out.

2. Snare Drum Tuning

Shaping the tone of the drum is very important to get it to sit well in the mix.

For live recordings, I would recommend you to tune the snare before hitting the record button and would never recommend tuning it in the mixing stage.

Tuning live drums during mixing can mess up the timbre and character. So, make sure that you do it during recording. If you have the opportunity to re-record then do it.

If you would like to learn how to tune a live snare then check this tutorial from MusicRadar: https://www.musicradar.com/tuition/drums/how-to-tune-a-snare-drum

If you can’t re-record then you can use pitch to tune your drums, including samples.

Before mixing snare drum make sure it's playing in the root key of the song. If it’s too far off from the root key then use any key, as long as it’s in the scale of the root key.

Your goal shouldn’t be to mess up the timbre or get the key perfect; you just want to make sure that it fits the rest of the instrumentation and vocals, in terms of key.

When layering different samples to get one huge snare sound then make sure that the samples are in the same key. That will make it much easier for you to blend them together.

3. Check Phase Issues

If you’re still confused about what phase is then to simply explain it I would say it’s the relationship between multiple waveforms that are playing at the same time.

If your sounds are not in-phase they’ll cancel each other.

To fix that you simply hit the polarity reversal button. Most DAWs come with this built-in and you can also use plugins to flip the polarity.

Another type of phase is known as the relative phase.

This usually happens because of the distance between close microphones and overhead mics.

To fix this, then you have to manually move your distant mics to line them up with your close mics.

There are plugins such as InPhase by Waves Audio that can make this process a bit easier.

Phase issues don’t only apply to live recordings, even if you’re layering different types of snare sounds you always have to check the polarity and that the transients are aligned.

If your sounds are cancelling each other then no matter how much processing you add, the snare will never sound huge, punchy or cut through.

I would also recommend that you check phase issues while listening to everything playing to hear how it affects the entire mix.

4. Use Gates to Remove Cymbal and Hi-Hat Bleed

When it comes to live recordings, the snare drum mic will often pick up too much cymbals and hi-hats.

In other situations you will find that compression will ruin ghost notes by increasing the decay and choke the snare (which will kill the attack).

With sampled drums, you might find that the snare has a long decay or has reverb which you want to cut off a bit.

You can use gates or expanders to fix all those problems.

I would recommend using a gate plugin that has a look-ahead feature to make sure that you get a clean gate effect without messing up the transients / attack.

Gates can be very dangerous, they’ll not only kill transients but they can mess up a good performance. So, when using gates make sure that you automate the threshold on the bridge, breakdown, rolls etc.

That way you’ll get a much cleaner sound without killing the life out of your snare or make the drummer sound like an amateur.

5. Mixing Snare EQ Guide (Including top and bottom snare)

If you don’t want to use a gate plugin to remove mic bleed, maybe you’re mixing music such as jazz and want to keep the mic bleed, then you can use an EQ to create a low pass filter at around 12kHz.

If that’s making the snare dull then use a high shelf cut to reduce the top end instead of a low pass filter which will remove those top frequencies completely.

Equalizing a snare should never take long and doesn’t require a lot.

The key is to keep it simple.

Top Snare EQ

The top snare is mostly used to help the snare cut through the mix, add some presents and attack.

That means you won’t be needing anything that is below 100Hz. You need to use an HPF (high pass filter) to get rid of all the low-end rumble.

I see a lot of people going crazy with it by pushing the HPF up to 150Hz, there’s nothing wrong with that but you should only go that far if it’s helping the kick and bass sound more clear. If not, then you will run the risk of getting a thin sounding snare.

Another area that you would want to remove, if the top snare is not already sounding thin, you need to remove the mud and boxy frequencies.

For the top snare this is usually around the 500Hz to 800Hz frequency range.

Finally, you’ll need to add some air and give the snare some shine by creating a high shelf boost around the 8kHz range.

When mixing snare drum and you find that it's lacking some attack then you can emphasize the attack by boosting around 2kHz to around 4.5kHz.

That should bring up the attack and presence to help the snare pop.

Bottom Snare EQ

For the bottom snare, the goal is always to get a huge and fuller sounding snare drum. In some situations you'll want to emphasize the ringing of the drum sound.

We’ll achieve that by bringing up the body of the snare. I’m not talking about bringing up the fundamental frequency.

This is usually below the fundamental frequency, around the 150Hz range.

You also want to get rid of all the rumble by creating an HPF to remove everything that is below 100Hz. There’s really no need to go above that or else you risk making the bottom snare sound wimpy.

Since this is a bottom snare, I always use an LPF (low pass filter) to remove everything above 12kHz to make space for high frequency sounds. This is not a must though, it’s just a matter of taste or preference and what works best for the song.

Next up, you need to find and remove any muddy frequencies. For the bottom snare this is usually around the 300Hz to 500Hz range.

Take it easy on your Q-Factor (bandwidth) when removing mud, you don’t want to use a Q-Factor that is too wide.

If you go for a Q-Factor that is too narrow then make sure the cut is big (-10dB to -15dB). But a Q-Factor that is between narrow and wide, with a moderate cut should solve the problem.

Next up, you need to add some shine to the bottom snare as well. Just because it’s a bottom snare that doesn’t mean it won’t benefit from getting a high shelf boost.

Create a high shelf boost around the 5kHz range to add some shine and sparkle to the bottom snare.

Sample Snare EQ

In some cases when you're mixing snare drum you might not have top and bottom mics. Then you’ll need to EQ that differently.

It’s not easy to share the right EQ settings in this situation because there are many different snare sounds out there.

But here are a few guidelines that should help.

  • If your snare is sounding too thin then create a boost around 120Hz-200Hz, this part of the spectrum fills out the snare drum and makes it sound warmer. 
  • To get a snappy snare sound then add a boost around 6kHz-8kHz this will also add presence to the snare drum.
  • 250Hz-400Hz is the muddy area of the snare drum. 
  • 2kHz to 3.5kHz is where you’ll find the crunch of the snare drum.
  • Also add some air to your snare to make it shine by making a high shelf boost at 10kHz.

Sometimes you might find that the eq settings are not the problem but other sounds are overpowering the snare drum.

In that case, make space for the snare by cutting some frequencies on other sounds that are clashing with the snare.

Mixing Snare Drum | EQ Snare Top and Bottom

6. Snare Drum Compression

When it comes to compression, you have to decide whether you want something that is punchy or if you want a smoother sound.

1. Smooth - you can achieve this by using a fast attack and slow release, high threshold, with a ratio of 4:1 to 6:1.
2. Punchy - to achieve this you need a slow attack to let the transients go through and a fast release with a high ratio of 3:1 to 4:1.

Top Snare Compression

For the top snare, the sound you want to aim for is a punchy compression effect.

Use a slow attack to allow the transients to go through. This will bring up the attack of the snare and affect the decay / tail.

A fast release will allow the compressor to stop affecting the signal quickly to avoid increasing the decay or affecting the transients of the next snare hit.

A good ratio setting will be something around 3:1 to 4:1, and set the threshold to taste (you’ll hear it when it’s too much or not enough).

That will result in a punchy snare.

Bottom Snare Compression

For the bottom snare, we do not want the transients to be prominent or punch from this snare track.

The sound to aim for is a smooth compression effect.

To achieve that, you’ll need to use a fast attack to tame out the transients. You don’t want an attack that is too fast because that will start introducing unwanted artifacts and clipping.

So, make the attack fast without choking the snare.

The release needs to be slow enough to bring up the decay a bit or too much, not too much that it’s too obvious and ends up overlapping to the next snare hit. If the release is not slow enough, you’ll get a horrible pumping effect.

You’ll need a high ratio of 4:1 up to 6:1 and not more than 8:1, because anything above 8:1 is no longer compression, that’s more of a limiter.

The threshold also needs to be high for the bottom snare or else you end up with what’s called “splat”. This doesn’t sound good, so make sure that you have more than -6dB of gain reduction.

That should give you a smooth sounding snare sound.

If you’re just working on a single snare drum sound then what you would usually go for (in most cases) is the punchy effect, but with a high threshold.

How To Compress Snare Top and Bottom

7. Use Transient Shapers

If your snare still falls flat then a transient shaper will be your friend.

If you choose to use a transient shaper, then I would recommend using it before you add any EQ or compression.

The transient shaper combines the results you would get by using both EQ and compression.

A transient shaper tool will allow you to control the attack and release much more easily, so this is the option I would recommend for those who don’t understand compressors or still confused by where to cut or boost.

But if you’re working with live recorded drums then you’ll still need to use compression to control dynamics, a transient shaper won’t help you control the loud and soft parts (volume difference throughout the arrangement of the song).

Understanding EQ and compression is crucial to get flexibility and be able to control everything to taste without limiting yourself.

Another big issue with transient shapers is that they can add unwanted artifacts, so when choosing one, make sure that it's high quality.

8. Parallel Compressing a Snare

A great way to increase the room of a snare is to use a fast parallel compressor effect. Something like the 1176 (or an emulation) type compressor works great for this.

Basically, parallel compression allows you to blend an unprocessed 'dry', or lightly compressed signal with a heavily compressed version of the same signal.

This allows you to make your snare sound huge in a mix.

Use this technique to control attack and sustain.

Mixing snare drum with parallel compression is a great technique if you’re working on a dense mix.

Always automate your parallel channel in sections where the song sounds quieter then bring it back up when all sounds are playing to help the snare pop.

Make sure that you’re compressing hard enough, anything above -10dB of gain reduction will work and make the attack very fast.

To get additional control over your processed signal, add an EQ to sculpt the signal further to better fit the mix. 

Mixing Snare Drum Complete Guide: How to get a perfect sounding snare on every mix...

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9. Adding Reverb on the Snare

To help add a sense of space and depth to a snare you’ll need to use a reverb effect.

What you don’t want to do is to have the snare swimming inside a reverb because that will push the snare at the back of the mix which will make it hard for the snare to cut through a dense mix.

In most cases you want the snare, just like the vocals, to be upfront in the mix.

I also recommend using an Aux or Fx channel for the reverb instead of inserting the reverb on the insert slot of the snare channel.

This will give you much more flexibility and a cleaner sound that you can control.

On the aux channel, always EQ the reverb to help it fit the song.

A good starting point is to create an HPF to remove unwanted low frequencies. A cut in the lower mids will remove the muddy frequencies. A cut in the higher mids will reduce any harsh frequencies.

Next thing you want to add in your reverb aux is saturation to add character, warmth and some attitude to the reverb effect.

Compression will also help control the dynamics to make sure that the reverb doesn’t poke the listeners ears where the snare gets louder in the arrangement.

Always make sure that the decay time of the snare doesn’t overlap to the next snare hit. Short to medium room or plate reverbs always sound good on the snare.

How To Get Reverb On Snare Drum

10. Add Saturation to the Snare Drum

To get some grit and crunch then add some saturation or distortion.

This will beef up the snare by adding harmonics and it’s an excellent way to energize it and make it sound fatter / fuller.

A lot of people tend to overdo this, just make sure that the saturation doesn’t sound too obvious that it ends up creating a crackling sound, unless that's what you’re going for.

The goal here is to add some personality, warmth and character while helping the snare to cut through nicely.

It's also a great idea to do this in parallel so that you can have control and flexibility. Always add an HPF and LPF EQ in your saturation aux channel to avoid aliasing (refers to the distortion or artifact that results when a signal reconstructed from samples is different from the original continuous signal.) unless you're using a good plugin that has an oversampling feature.

But not only to avoid aliasing, your saturation will sound cleaner and you will be able to control the saturation effect to make it fit the mix.

Conclusion

I really hope that by now you have everything that you need to get a huge snare for all your mixes and you'll never get stuck when mixing snare drum.

One other thing that I would like to add is that if you’re working on recorded material, you can use triggers if the recorded material is not sounding great. Don’t be afraid to use samples to help your live recording cut through a mix.

Just make sure that you automate your samples when it comes to complex rhythms which have ghost notes, rolls and fills because drum samples will become noticeable and sound amateur.

Another great way to guarantee that you get positive results is to use reference material. Take a moment to listen to how other engineers mix the snare in the type of genre that you’re currently working on.

That’s all for now.

I would like you to leave a comment below to let me know which of these tips you’ll be applying on your next mix.

Good luck with your mixes.