This post focuses on tracking the snare drum, both on its own and as part of a kit.
I’m going to do a series on recording various instruments, from drums to woodwinds, and I’ve decided to do the snare first. Drums are a tricky bunch of instruments. They’re loud, bleed like hell, and generally don’t sound anything on tape like they sound in the room. Snare is probably the most complex of the standard components of the drum set. The top head is usually fairly tight and the material of the shell can be anything from aluminum to solid maple, each with unique characteristics. The bottom has the snares, strips of metal that vibrate against the bottom head when the drum is hit, which gives the drum its distinctive rattle. The top head is where the attack happens, the bottom head is where the crunch happens, and the tone is shared between the two. This means that you really need at least two microphones to get a complete picture of a snare drum. I would argue you may even need three to get the best snare sounds.
Strategies to Approach Recording Snare
First of all, make sure the drum is tuned, preferably to a musical note that relates to the song to be recorded. Nothing sounds worse than a boingy, ringy snare (unless that’s really what you’re going for). Typically a snare tuning either aims to be a 70s style ‘thwump’ or a nice, crisp crack.
By far the most popular snare drum mic is the Shure SM57. The 57 has a boost in the upper mids that flatters the snare’s attack. It also has a nice natural low-end roll off to it. The fact that it is a dynamic mic gives it a solid, gutsy character that takes the edge off the attack, making it compress well. Another thing to consider when choosing a mic to record a drum that has a high SPL tolerance (something that can handle 120db or more). If you choose something that can’t handle the SPL, you’ll probably end up with a messy transient and distortion. The bottom mic is pretty flexible. A lot of people just shove whatever they can spare under there. I think an SM57 or a similar dynamic instrument mic is a good option down there as well. Some people like condensers underneath but I think they sound a bit too harsh.
What’s the third mic, you say? A high quality, high SPL rated small diaphragm condenser with a cardioid pattern positioned right next to the SM57 up top. The SM57 is a somewhat lofi sounding mic. Mixing the condenser with the 57 adds crack and subtlety. It has to be a pretty nice and flat-responding condenser, though, otherwise it will just sound harsh (something like a DPA is perfect).
The closer you position the top mics to the top head, the more attack and thump you’ll get (at the expense of air and space). The further you position the top mic, the more the snare will be able to breathe and the more of the room you’ll capture in the close mic. You’ll capture more tone closer to the rim and more attack closer to the center (or wherever the drummer tends to strike the head). If the snare is in a kit, tuck it just under the hat, pointing away from it to better isolate the snare signal from the hat. You’ll get more kick this way but the kick is further away frequency-wise and the snare and kick breathe together anyway.
The bottom mic is more flexible, athough, again, you want to minimize bleed. I usually point it straight up to the center of the snare. Make sure to invert the bottom mic’s phase, either at the console, in the DAW, or at the preamp.
If you’ve got the condenser arrangement, I usually use about 70% 57 and 30% condenser.
If you do it right, it should sound good on its own. I usually EQ some 10k in to add crack, suck out a little 150-300hz to remove some of the body, and roll off below 60hz. Remember – this is subtle tracking EQ. Leave the drastic stuff for mixing.
I hope this helps you get some awesome snare sounds!