Mixing Rock Snare Drums (7 Tips To Fix Your Garbage Snare)

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I’m guessing that a lot of people have probably seen that oh so relatable meme stating that you won’t be coming out of quarantine with lots of work finished because you’ll be EQing a snare for over 2 weeks! 

If it is relatable then there are definitely other things you could be doing to drastically speed that time up. Nobody should be spending that long EQing a snare?! Here’s what you could be doing.

7 Things You Could Be Doing Instead Of Spending 2 Weeks EQ’ing That Snare.

1. It’s probably phase-related

The easiest way to define phase is that it’s the relationship between multiple waveforms that are playing at the same time.

A waveform is a representation of an electronic signal – up & down, hot & cold, positive & negative, however you best understand what a waveform is doing. When waveforms on opposite sides of the center point meet (known as its polarity) they will cancel out.

If +10dB meets -10dB what does that equate to? Exactly. This is known as the absolute phase or rotational phase.

Hit that polarity reversal button and double-check that EVERYTHING is cooperating.

It’s OK if you occasionally miss something, the fact you recognized it and corrected it means you’re doing something right!

Another type of phase is known as the relative phase. This is when one sound source with multiple microphones placed around it meets each microphone at a different time due to distance.

A perfect example of this is the difference between a close microphone on a snare drum and having an overhead microphone further back over the kit.

If you look at the waveforms the transients will have a time difference that you can calculate in milliseconds or samples.

Some engineers leave this alone in post-production as long as the rotational phase relationship is accurate.

When preparing a mix, Tom Lord-Alge prefers to bring his overheads BACK in time with his snare drum transient to strengthen the character of the drum.

The trade-off may be a subtle change in timing but that may not be noticeable in most cases. Have a listen and see if it’s the direction you want to go in.

If you’re not working with a multi-track recording of a drum kit and are working with lots of layered samples instead, then you need to check that ALL of your samples start at the transient and that they have the same polarity.

Your audio file may be quantized to the grid but the waveform may only be audible a little later due to a millisecond or so of silence at the beginning.

In Logic you can double-click the waveform to open up the sample editor, go to file, and find the ‘’ detect transient’’ option.

You can then go to the key command editor and type in your own shortcut for slicing at the transient marker.

In Pro Tools you can enable the ‘’tab to transient’’ feature, press tab, press B (shortcut for separate/cut) and it’s done! Quantize these newly chopped audio files to the grid and you’re good to go.

2. Where is the snare located?!

This is an extension of the previous point. If you’re using multitrack files for your drums, it’s possible that the snare sound your hearing isn’t from the close mics.

The close microphone tracks are a part of the overall sound which can be made up of overheads, room mics AND bleed from other microphones around the kit.

You can use each to your advantage (yes, including the bleed!) and you should process each as a contribution to the complete snare sound (and for other drums).

Sometimes the snare can overwhelm overhead & room tracks so when it comes to improving the overall balance of the drum kit you may want to use a limiter to keep them under control. You can side-chain dynamic processors so that they only react when the snare is active!

3. Distortion

Distortion can be a handy tool when it comes to sculpting the harmonic structure of a sound. If you’re in the market for a new toy, check out my previous article outlining 6 distortion plugins you’re probably sleeping on.

Being very particular you could use distortion in parallel with your original sound source to create subtle changes, much like using an EQ. If you want to be really creative you could use guitar pedals on an aux send or use amp simulators.

Another parallel distortion technique is to push tape/console emulations into distortion.

I’ve recently used a technique where I sent a drum track to an aux with a tape emulation plugin on it, I maxed the input of the plugin and compensated with the output, sent the signal via pre-fader as high as I could and then blended the effect in with my original source. 

4. Parallel Compression

Most people have heard the term, a lot of people don’t use it. Probably because they didn’t really understand how/when to use it? I was once in that category.

It’s basically a compressor that SLAMS sound sources via an aux send which can be blended in with the original signal to enhance its character.

You could do this with a wet/dry blend control on a channel itself but some emulations sound different when this is done. It also means that you can’t send multiple sound sources to the same compressor.

– It’s good to experiment with different compressors based around different circuits as each circuit will react differently to the information it’s given.

For example, a basic trait of a VCA compressor is to react quickly and let through more low end than other types of compressors. Make sure you include transparent alternatives such as stock compressors or the FabFilter ProC.

5. Thicken with Samples

There are two obvious ways that you could use samples and it all depends on what effect you’re going for.

Layering samples to enhance the close microphones of a drum recording is a good way to fill the gaps of a direct sound. If done right, this can drastically improve the perceived quality of the close microphone. Chris Lord-Alge does this a lot – watch any tutorial of him processing drums and he’ll have a number of chosen samples layered together to enhance the original close mics. 

Layering room samples over the top of your original close microphones. You may already have some room mics in the mix but other things are going on at the same time meaning that the sustain of an individual element is often masked. By adding in dedicated room samples of an individual element you can enhance the size and sustain of that sound, making it sound EPIC. You can also process the samples separately to make them as obvious or as subtle as you like!

6. Side-chain White Noise

Create a dedicated track with a signal generator on it, select white noise, and then add a gate to the channel.

Send your original snare to an aux with a dead-end (meaning there’s no audible output of the aux itself) and then assign this aux channel to the side-chain insert of the gate.

The gate will only let the white noise through when the snare is audible! Use the attack, hold, and release parameters to make it as obvious as you like.

This can help create ‘’snap’’ if used properly, a lot like a glorified snare-bottom mic. You can do this technique with a sine wave generator to beef up a kick drum too.

7. Change the Snare

If you’re still lost by this point then it’s probably just the snare choice itself. Use it as a learning experience and try not to repeat the same mistake.

Your decision making and taste will develop with time so don’t be disheartened. Release the music and move on to bigger and better things!

Things to develop are your choice of snare type/size/material, the choice of heads, the tuning of the drum, and any other factors that make up its sound. If you’re working with samples then spend some time picking better samples!