Recording the kick and snare drum properly are absolutely fundamental to getting a good kit sound, and will make mixing so much easier. Having a crisp sounding snare drum right from the microphone means you don’t have to work so hard eq’ing and compressing it later on, and chances are it will sit in the mix much better for it.
If you have a few different snare drums, then it’s definitely worth bringing two or three to the recording session. It will give you more choice on the drum sound, and you may find that some snare drums work with a particular style of song than others. The best way to check, is through the microphone(s) on the kit so record a bit of the sound check and then have a listen to the snare sound. Experiment and swap them around until you find one that works.
Tuning and Tone
Since the snare is almost certainly going to be a focal point in the mix, take the time to make sure you’re getting the best out of it before you hit record. I would argue that every engineer needs to know how to tune a snare drum, or at least the principle behind it so you know what tones you can get, and hear when it’s not right. (It’s well worth putting a drum key on your keyring too, for when the drummer doesn’t bring one!) Here are a few pointers from Travis Whitmore on how to choose the right tone:
- Bottom Head Tuned Higher Than Top: This type of tuning is my favorite as well as the more popular sound among session drummers. This will give the drum a nice crack, yet still controlled and articulated.
- Top Head Tuned Higher Than Bottom: Gives a nice full wet and fat sound to your snare. This will give your drum an excellent stick and brush response.
- Tune Both Heads Exactly the Same: This tuning method will produce an equal amount of snare presence and produces a full-bodied, more resonant sound.
For more detail on how to define your snare drum tone, check out this article by Travis on different drum heads etc.
Similar to the kick drum, your snare mics are likely to be fairly close to the drum skin, so bear in mind they will have to handle high SPL’s. That probably means discounting most condenser mics that don’t have a pad built in.
SM57’s are absolutely legendary as snare mics, and are the favourite amongst many engineers. Not only are they a great choice because of their natural dynamic compression, but for the home recording enthusiast they should come in under budget. There are various dynamic mics from the likes of Shure etc. that are worth considering, but there are too many to list here and honestly you’re probably better off with a ’57 anyway.
If you want something with a little more top end crispness, then try a small diaphragm condenser. A KM84 would be nice, but probably out of budget so try something along the lines of a Behringer C2.
For more choice, have a look at our snare drum microphones comparison page.
Be careful when putting mics out over snare drums and toms, they need to be in a place that is going to sound good but almost more importantly won’t get hit by a flying drumstick.
- Top mic’ing
This is the most common way to mic a snare drum, and is simply one mic about 2 inches about the drum rim, aimed at the skin about 2 inches in from the rim. Dynamic mics sound great here, and will give you a really punchy sound. By moving the mic further towards the centre of the drum, you can pick up more tone and sustain but it is much more likely to be hit. Condensers can work here but depend a lot on the individual drum, and do need to be placed with even more care as they tend to be more fragile than dynamic mics.
- Under mic’ing
This technique is used to pick up a lot more of the actual snare sound from under the drum. It sounds very crisp and bright but almost always needs a top mic to complement it, and to provide enough tone. When choosing a mic to place here, considering how close it will to be to the kick drum a cardioid usually seems most appropriate. Angle the mic in such a way as to point away from the kick and towards the underside of the snare drum, but towards the drum skin and not the actual wire snare (as this will probably be too ‘raspy’ and ‘buzzy’ to be very useful)
Hopefully, that should be enough info to get you onto the road to a decent drum sound, without breaking the bank. We will revisit this again later with some advanced mic techniques for you.
[image via NathanaelB]