The snare drum is arguably the most important instrument of the drum set. Get a good snare drum sound and your recording will jump out of the speakers. Get it wrong and the drummer may as well be bashing on an old cornflakes packet.
Firstly there is the choice of drum. Well, normally you don't get a choice. Some drummers will bring more than one snare drum to the session, but 99% or more will only have one. So you had better be able to get a good sound out of that.
Hopefully the drummer will be able to tune his or her own drums effectively. But the tuning of the snare drum in particular is also of interest to the engineer and producer. The drummer may tune the snare wonderfully, but the result doesn't 'sit' in the track properly. The producer will then have to intervene and persuade the drummer to seek a compromise. To be able do that, the producer must have a certain amount of skill in drum tuning.
Drum tuning can be done by feel. A seasoned drummer can feel the tension in the head as he or she turns the key.
Drum tuning can be done by ear. There are two sorts of 'ear' here. One is having an ear for when the overall sound is right, and right for the song. The other is being able to tap the drum gently close to each lug and fine-tune the tension of that lug in response to the sound. This is a skill that takes a long time to learn well.
Fortunately there are aids to tuning. You can use a torque key. You set the key to the tension you seek, then it will click when it reaches that tension. The idea is that you can set the tension on each lug evenly. Some say that torque keys don't work, but perhaps that's because they are not using them correctly, or have unrealistic expectations. It's worth knowing about them however, and seeing how they work.
There is also a device that goes one step further than the torque key and measures the actual tension of the head next to the lug. Move the device around the head and set each lug individually, then check again. It takes a little time but the result will be a drum that is technically very well in tune. At that point, if you have the experience and skill, you may want to make a few very finely detailed tweaks by ear.
Tuning isn't the only thing that influences the sound of the drum, there is also the choice of head. There are many different drum heads available. It would be impossible to try them all in a session, but at the very least you should know what kinds of differences you should expect. So if you try three different heads, you will get an idea for the degree of influence that choice of head has. It's also worth experiencing the difference between a head that is brand new out of the box, and one that is so worn that it is almost completely worn out. That will help you calibrate your expectations of how a head should sound over its useful lifespan.
Once the drum itself is set up to perfection, there is the choice of microphone to be considered. Well, this is a whole topic in its own right. However, it is well worth hearing the difference between a dynamic and capacitor microphone.
The 'industry standard' snare drum microphone seems to be the Shure SM57. You might have your own personal preference, but it is always a good idea to get the 'sound of the industry' inside your head. If you can master the sounds that top industry professionals achieve, then you can branch out in whatever other direction you wish.
Often the snare drum mic is put in the 'usual' position. You will have seen it already countless times. The reason there is a 'usual' position is that it is the most practical position that accounts for the availability of access through the other drums and stands, and also is less likely that the mic will get hit by a drum stick.
But it would be extremely useful to know how the usual position sounds in relation to the other possible positions. Is it important, for instance, to angle the mic towards the center of the head? Would the mic sound better a little higher? There are so many possibilities, and if you haven't tried them all, then how can you feel confident that your drum sound is good enough?
What about putting a mic under the drum to catch the rattle of the snare wires? Where should you put it – close, or further away? Should you invert the signal from this mic, or is it just a myth that you have to?
Oh, we didn't consider damping did we? Depending on the drum, the head, the player and the style of music, the snare drum might sound great as it is. But often the sound is too 'ringy' and goes on too long,
The answer is to absorb some of the vibration of the head through damping, which simply means placing something on top of the head that will do just that.
You can buy 'o-rings' that are specifically made for the job. Use one, or two if you prefer a more damped sound.
Or you can place or attach some absorbent material on the head. Cloth is versatile. Chamois leather is a little more upmarket. How much the head is covered, and how much weight of material is allowed to come into contact with the head, will vastly alter the sound.
Every sound engineer or music producer should, at least once in their life, explore the snare drum thoroughly, in all of the aspects mentioned.
Fortunately there is a shortcut…
Audio Masterclass students will soon have access to a video tutorial that demonstrates more than a hundred snare drum recordings, showing variations of all of the techniques mentioned above. The photo that illustrates this article is taken from the video.
This video tutorial totally demystifies the snare drum and exposes techniques and sounds that drummers would probably rather have kept to themselves.
The video tutorial will be available free of charge to all current Audio Masterclass students, and to new enrollers (enrollment starts again in early September).
But you don't have to be an Audio Masterclass student to learn all of this. Just get yourself a snare drum and experiment. Seeing and hearing is one thing, doing it for yourself is strongly recommended.