How To Record a Snare Drum in Your Home Studio

by Jon Marc Weiss and Andre Calilhanna on August 29, 2012 · 16 comments

in Fast Forward,Recording & Mastering

When recording music in a home studio that includes a drum kit, getting a killer snare drum sound takes some time and attention before getting anything tracked. In our continuing “how to record” series, Echoes’ Andre Calilhanna talked with producer/engineer/studio owner Jon Marc Weiss to discuss techniques for getting a great snare drum sound.

When you’re miking a snare drum and listening to the tones from the drum, what are you trying to capture? What to you makes a fantastic sounding snare drum?
I want to hear a combination of the drum – the hit of the drum – and the snares almost equally as loud as the drum. In a standard 4/4 set up, you’re hearing the snare on the 2 and 4. That snare has a space to fill – it’s the answer to the space the kick drum is filling on the 1 and 3. The snare and the kick have to work together to pull the song forward. If you have a great kick sound, and the snare isn’t matching it, you’ll have this imbalance.

I think of kick and snare as “Boom! Crack!” The snare has gotta have that crack. It’s gotta have enough bottom that you feel it a little bit, but not enough that it’s going to step on the other instruments that are providing that lower end. But it’s a difficult question to answer, because every artist and song and type of music calls for a particular sound from the drum.

Like any instrument, drums can vary substantially in sound from one to another. I played with a drummer who was a marching band guy, and he had this deep snare drum that he tuned so tight, and there are other guys who go with a really floppy sounding snare. Do you work with the sound the guy’s bringing in, or do you try to achieve a certain sound?
As soon as a drummer is set up, I might have an idea of what kind of tone he likes. If they have a brass snare or metal snare as opposed to a wood snare or a short depth as compared to a really deep snare, I can get a feel for what their personal preferences are. It’s just like someone coming in with a Strat or a Les Paul or a Telecaster. Many studios have their own snare drums, and a lot of times you might try to convince the drummer to just go with that right from the start.

But the first thing I’m going to do is listen to the drummer play in the room. Before I put a microphone on it. Because every drummer plays with different velocities. Some guys hit the snare so hard, and if they do that, I’m going to change the way I mic that snare. I may change the kind of mics I use on that snare, the angle possibly, the number of mics, the distance of the mic to the drum head…

Ok, so let’s say you’ve got a guy who is walloping the snare drum, what do you do?
Sometimes, this is a good situation, because you’re getting less hi hat in the snare mic because it’s not as turned up. One of the biggest problems when you’re cutting a snare is you want to get that snap on the top and you’re throwing high end on it and unfortunately the hi hat is coming through. When you work with kits, you often will gate the snare – especially during a mix – and it’s hard to do that when the hi hat is bleeding through too much.

You should consider using a mic guard, which fits on a microphone stand, and it shields the mic from sound coming from the hi hat, and it makes the most amazing difference you can imagine. I’ve got one that is made of metal, and it has a hole cut so the mic fits through, and it’s lined with foam. And it’s cupped a bit, so it almost directs the sound into the mic. Back in the ’90s I used to use a homemade shield made out of cardboard.

But it’s happened a lot of times that, when somebody is just smashing the snare, that I’ve had to ask them to lay off the snare a little. If you’re in a small room, the snare drum is just taking over, it’s so loud in the overheads, it’s bleeding into all your mics. It’s hard to do, to tell someone, “Hey, change the way you play.” But often enough I’ve had to do that. Not only with how hard they play, but drummers who aren’t used to being in the studio don’t hit the snare in the exact same place every time, and then you get these discrepancies between the sound of every snare hit. It’s often their not being accustomed to having mics all over their kit and snare, and when you listen to something on tape, it’s like putting a magnifier on it, all the inconsistencies get magnified, and the snare tone is all over the place.

What about the drum mic? I always seem to have a Shure SM 57 on the snare.
The 57 does a good job on the snare, but there are so many great mics. I wouldn’t necessarily go to that mic first. You know what you’re going to get with it, but it’s not necessarily where you should stop. The AKG D1000E is one, it has a low frequency rolloff, which is a nice feature. There’s the Shure SM7B, which happens to make an incredible snare mic in situations with a deep snare. I’ve seen people do crazy things, like put $3,500 Neumanns above the snare drum – it depends on the budget and the tone you’re going after.

How many mics do you typically use on a snare?
If I have the choice, I’ll go with three mics on the snare, every time. Above, below, and on the side. My standard set up might be an SM 57 on the top. I always come from the hi hat side, so the mic cable is coming from the direction of the hi hat, because if you are using a 57 – or any unidirectional microphone – it’s picking up sound from directly in front of it and also helping to reject the sound coming from the hi hat. And I’m pointing the mic at the spot where the drummer hits the drum. You can get a different type of tone if you pull the mic off and have it closer to the rim. And of course, different mics can give you different tones, but that’s a whole conversation in itself.

Then I’ll put a small diaphragm condenser a half inch off the side of the drum, pointed directly at the middle of the drum between the rims. That gives you this beautiful sound that a lot of people are not hip to. It’s this chunky sound that you can use to fill in and make the speakers move just a little bit more. The mic on top is getting the “crack!” and the side of the snare is getting this “thwack!” It’s a sound with some body.

Then on the bottom I’m putting an AKG 414 to pick up the snares. A 45º mic angle is most common for the top snare position, and the bottom head. You don’t want to put it parallel to the head, or you could blow out your mic.

Are you finding you’re having people tune up that bottom head a lot before you’re recording?
I sometimes work with drummers for hours to get their drums tuned to where I think they’re going to reproduce correctly through microphones to the track. You’ve probably experienced this being a drummer. You have your kit, you practice with it, you gig with it, and it sounds great. All of a sudden you put a mic on the tom in a studio setting and it’s like “boooommmm” – it’s ringing like mad. If the drums are tuned correctly, you can work with that bit of boominess. But if it’s not right, it can really be a problem. And I’ve found that in the 20+ years I’ve been working with drummers, 75% of them don’t really know how to tune their drums for a recording situation.

Sometimes they’re ringing even when that drum isn’t even being hit, they’re reverberating – so you’re dampening things, you’re putting little pieces of tape on the drums, that little trick where you fold the masking, gaffer, or duct tape up and have that little flap, that loop sticking up. Somehow that does more than if you just have the tape directly on the head. But most guys don’t have their drums ready for recording.

That’s why the pro studios have guys on call who specialize in tuning drums.
Well, maybe some of the super A-list studios in LA and New York have that. Not too many studios have a person they can call to tune drums. The engineers usually do it. But most pro studios are going to have a kit, like a Yamaha Recording Custom set, in them. And 9 times out of 10, you’re going to want to use them. And if they have a kit, they may have multiple snares to choose from as well.

New heads are really important on a snare – especially if they are the power coated type. You get this snap out of a brand new head that you’re not going to get if it’s been beat on. It’s also easier to control the tuning on new head that hasn’t been all stretched out.

And honestly, I’ve changed the snare drum sound song to song. You know, maybe the next song is a little more downbeat, so I want something a little boxier and crisper. If it’s upbeat, maybe something with a higher sort of resonance, so I tune it up a bit.

Can you also achieve some of that with placement or a different blending of those three mics?
Yes, and there’s a decent amount of the snare going into the overheads as well, so it’s a combination of many microphones and balancing it all out. Sometimes you might want to roll off some of the low end from the snare drum to tighten it up a little. But, I’d caution folks not to work on the EQ of the snare drum while the overheads are not on. As soon as you bring the overheads in, you get a different sound. So bring up the room mics, then bring up the snare, top mic first, and then maybe the snare (bottom) mic, and get that to where you want it to be, and then go to the side mic for that extra “thwack.” Not everyone has three mics to devote to the snare, but that’s something a lot of the serious cats do. And back in the days of analog, those three mics were going down as one track. Now with digital, you might be able to have the three mics as separate tracks. But back in the day of 24-track tapes, I’d get yelled at if I tried to keep three tracks for snare.

One other thing to mention is that if you are putting a mic on the bottom head, it’s got to be out of phase with the top mic. You’ve got to hit the phase reverse on that or you’re going to have phase cancellation.

If you had only two mics to work with, which are you losing?
The side mic. Ultimately it’s not as important as the top and bottom.

And if you’re doing one, it’s the one up top.
Yeah. I have seen some situations where just the overheads and a bottom mic are used. Usually that’s in a jazz recording where an open sound, a natural sounding set up is more typical.

Jon Marc Weiss is the Senior IT Systems Engineer for Disc Makers and also an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with over 20 years’ experience. He owns and operates Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Hollywood, PA to develop local and national acts. Check out Kiva Productions on Facebook.

Andre Calilhanna is a writer, editor, and musician who contributes regularly to Disc Makers’ blog. His band Hijack has just recorded and released a new EP using many of the techniques found in our DIY posts.

Read more
How To Record A Great Vocal Take (August 2012)
How to Record Piano in Your Home Studio (May 2012)
How To Record Bass Guitar – Recording tips for the home studio and beyond (April 2012)
Psychology and the Music Producer – an audio engineer often has to do it all (April 2012)
Home Studio Posts: advice on how to record, music gear, guides, and pro insights (March 2012)

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Record a Snare Drum in Your Home StudioUniqueSquared Pro Audio Blog
June 22, 2013 at 4:59 pm
Home recording tips – 9 mic placements for recording a snare drum | The Music Biz
June 7, 2014 at 5:20 pm

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Chewewe55 September 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Really great info here.Thank you. I’m always looking for ways to improve my recorded snare sound, as well as my entire drum set.
I use the Spectra Sonics 611B Complimiter on my snare, which eliminates the use for two mics, which is great, since I’m limited to 8 XLR channels on my recorder. The 611B brings out the frequencies that the built in mic-pre doesn’t, and captures the “bottom mic” or “Snare wire” frequencies as well. The 611B operates as an independent peak limiter/ compressor or in combination. It brings out the character of any snare drum that I choose ( I have 9 snares that I choose from), and makes that character accessible for recording. See spectra-sonics.com for Specs. Its a great low cost solution for my small home studio setup.

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Rickymix September 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm

One thing I’m surprised nobody else ever mentions is the amount of wonderful snare sound that bleeds into the Tom mics. That’s where I like to get about half of my snare sound, along with attack from the top Snare mic and crack from the bottom Snare mic. You need to carefully gate the Tom mics or it’ll be a rumblefest. Key those gates off a buss consisting of all the Toms plus the Snare bottom.

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Paul Marangoni September 11, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Nothing interesting here. Next time, why not interview an engineer who is known for getting great drum sound on record? Ken Scott, Alan Parsons, Simon Phillips, Tom Lord-Alge, Hugh Padgam, etc.

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Djsuperguy September 11, 2012 at 3:12 pm

An interesting article on the technical side, but I find it frustrating that an engineer feels he has a say in my drum sound. If John Bonham or Buddy Rich were there would he tell him he should use the Yamaha drums? Yeah I know…these guys aren’t them…ok, but they have a sound and like it or not it’s the engineer’s job to reproduce their sound not to replace it. Don’t get me started on Drum Replacer or auto tune……

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Steve Jaccaud September 11, 2012 at 6:44 pm

I appreciate the effort, but firstly, I think this article is a little disingenuous with a title like “How to record a snare drum in your home studio” – featuring a professional engineer in a studio setting. When you’re a home recording drummer, you owe it to yourself to craft a drum sound given your mic, room, input and other constraints and then experiment. That starts with making sure it sounds good to your ears. You should be able to get a professional snare sound with just about any mic suitable for the task – and possibly without even using a close mic! Try your hand at overhead only techniques like Glyn Johns or Recorderman if you’ve only got a few mics to mess with. Etc. IN the end, are the drums congruent with the music or not? You may not need 24 tracks and complicated gain structures to get your dream sound in your home studio.

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Phil in Austin Tx September 11, 2012 at 8:09 pm

working in different studios on a regular basis as well as my home studio I find the three mic set up to be optimal but more than not see a two mic set up, top and bottom. Sometimes a Glenn Johns approach with the overhead GJ set up and a kic and snare mic only, works good if the drummer has good dynamic playing. I highly recommend buying the cheap plug-in called “Drumagog”, especially in a home studio where you may be getting decent snare sounds or not, it can save your life. By blending the drumagog (make your own samples or pull from great, free or not free libraries) with your sound can be magical. It’s quick and most likely this is the way you can achieve great snare sounds like the records you like and listen to. It just takes a little experimenting. Compression and eq can also be your friend but if you are familiar with the processed sounds of a Drumagog library you will find blending that, not fully replacing it, with your sound and performance can act more like processing than actual replacing. Try it, I think you will like it. I have had clients for records I have done at home and sent the tracks to them say, “how are you getting that sound, we hardly touched it processing wise”? I just keep that to myself and them keep calling, but it is no mystery of course.

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Phil in Austin Tx September 11, 2012 at 8:12 pm

sorry, “and they keep calling”…

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Chrys in LA September 12, 2012 at 11:56 am

What did this article have to do with recording a snare in a HOME STUDIO? Will this guy bring his Yamaha drums to my house? I realize this guy is on your payroll, but someone who really walks the walk would be a better expert on this subject. A waste of time to have read, a bigger waste of time to have responded!

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Jon Marc Weiss September 12, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Sorry this write up didn’t meet your expectations. I’ve
been walking the walk for 20 years now on many different levels. I’ve
personally recorded hundreds of drum tracks for both small time and national
artists. These articles are being created to give our customers some guidance
that we hope will help them get closer to a professional sounding demo. Some of our customers record at home and
others are paying for studio time, so we try to cover both sides of the
fence. I understand this information may
not be pertinent to all and ultimately I appreciate your feedback.

Reply

Marcus March 4, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Sorry,
I have to put a little something in here if you don’t mind.
The point I think some are trying to portray here as “A home recorder” is the budget minded. The Nady 4pc drum mic set up, CAD pencil mics for overheads. How to use them, well… That is what we are looking for. The “Art MP studio mic tube amp” with phase on/off and phantom power, peavy or behringer mixer. We will go out on a limb and say a Tascom 16 track digital recorder. We will LEAVE OUT pro tools. Some like it a little old school. If this gives a better idea what some are REALLY expecting to hear. As a “Home studio Recorder” even if not for just a snare. That is what “broke” works with. Thank you for this, As the studio gets older, some toys get better. So your input is not gone overlooked. Just added to the arsenal. Thank you again.

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Mike Upchurch September 13, 2012 at 8:26 pm

This is the first time I’ve seen my ancient (1970s) AKG D1000E’s recommended for anything! I use mine on toms, but after reading this will try one on the snare. High hat bleed is my biggest nemesis in drum tracking, and the mic guard you recommended is on my “must get” list now. Thanks for writing this.piece. Every little bit helps.

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Michael September 18, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Hey Jon, thanks for the refresher. Sometimes I even forget what used to work, or what some “drummer guy” suggested on a session, and “wow” never thought to do that. The D1KE is a reminder for sure, Another mic to add to the AKG snare mystic is the C451 EB/B. This pen mic offers optional capsules and elbows that position between the capsule and body. 135dB to155db max spec with use of the switchable pad, plus it features a 3-way variable roll off, Flat, 75hz, and 150hz.
http://www.akg.com/site/products/powerslave,id,223,pid,223,nodeid,2,_language,EN.html

In regard to the title and the masses. It is doubtful most reading this will have the benefit of home recording more than 8 tracks at once (if lucky 16 with a bridge). The chances of double or triple miking a snr are slim. Yet there are ways to to employ production techniques, which can include sampling your own snr with two or three mics after tracking. Or get this,, a single O/H…. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

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