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Getting a Big Classic Rock Snare Sound

by Kernmount

Author's Note:
This is both a Tutorial/FAQ and a thread. It is by no means prescriptive and is meant to spawn a discussion about snare drums.
For an example of this treatment in action, please see 'Down' on My Songs Page.

I have an obsession with snare drums that probably requires psychotherapy and medication. It all started back in the mid-1980’s when I heard John Cougar Mellancamp’s Scarecrow. The whole album is literally built around Kenny Aronoff’s massive snare. It’s probably Mellencamp’s highpoint as a songwriter, where he was able to quell his indulgent songwriting long enough to let some important themes through. (Later, of course he'd return to writing complaint lyrics and building embarrassing arrangements with fiddles and other 'traditional' American instruments) Anyhow for me, Scarecrow's sound changed the way I think about popular music.

More than any other instrument in Modern Western popular music, the snare drum moderates our gutteral reactions. Often, I'll get comments from folks who'll say, "yeah, the song sounds good, but it's not my style of music." Then I swap out the treatment of the snare drum and let them listen to it again. I almost always get a different reaction.

IMHO, the snare drum is the most subconsciously emotional instrument in the modern music (<50 years) arsenal. Hip Hop folks will definitely take issue with this, and probably maintain that the dominance of the kick drum in recent history proves this false, however I still assert that the snare is the pulse of modern music


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With the rise of hip-hop and rap into pop music’s mainstream, we’ve seen an arguable decline of the big, massive, reverbie snare drum. Here’s a little massive snare drum history. Many maintain that the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts moved the snare to the center of a mix. For me I start counting popular music snare hits with Elvis Presley. In particular, it’s his interpretation oh Hound Dog (the song is virtually perfect, with its guitar solo moving to pure rock transcendence). Of course big snares go back much further than Elvis. Much of the Chicago Blues sound is built around a banging of the snare drum.

So how do you get a snare drum sound that can stand out against 2-3 guitars, bass, organ, and piano (not to mention the other parts of the drum kit)? Well here’s how I’ve been doing it in my sequencer, which, BTW, is an adaptation of how I used to do it back before our computer recorded everything.

In my example, I’m using all of Cubase SX 2.0.x’s built-in effects and processors. Obviously you’d get better mileage out of more advanced tools like Waves. However I can’t afford these.

Equipment Notes
  • Cubase SX 2.0.x
  • VST Reverb ‘A’ as an insert (see below)
  • VST Reverb ‘A’ as a send (for ‘Air’)
  • VST Multiband Compressor
  • Native Instruments Battery (using small stereo drum kit)
  • Using both the right and left hand samples


Reverb Effects

I like to use very large rooms with an extremely short decay. Many folks like using big rooms with a noise gate on the end of it, but for me this always seems like a waste of time and it makes your snare sound too 1980’s-sounding. There was an incredible abuse of gated reverb in the 1980’s, particularly with a lot of mainstream rock acts. Maybe today’s aversion to reverbed snares is a reaction to this. (Just have a listen to Springsteen's Born in the USA)


Some Notes
  • I used the effect’s dry to wet slider to control the ‘size’ of the snare in the mix. If it’s too wet, it will substantially muddy the mix. So use conservatively. This is one of the downsides of using a large room to treat the snare.
  • You can always ‘shrink’ the room size if the effect is too much for your tastes.

Multiband Compressors

Here’s something I didn’t have 10 years ago: a multiband compressor. In this example using Cubase’s built-in compressor, I’ve chose to go with more ‘pop’ to the snare. Hopefully you'll hear that in the sample. I chose this method because the mix is quite busy and I want the snare to cut through. If the mix (literally the arrangement) were simpler I could get away with a fatter, bass-ier snare which would be ideal.




Signal Chain

I’m constantly fooling around with the signal chain order. For the song that I’m using in this example, I chose to insert the Reverb in front of the Multiband comp. This tends to mute the reverb a tad and interestingly, it also modifies the decay. Back in my analog days, I’d always compress the crap out of the snare before sending to any additional effects.

I’m sending part of the signal to my effects bus which is essentially the same Reverb A, however with a longer decay. This helps fill-out the snares presence in the mix.


And lastly regarding the EQ, I typically do not add this much EQ to any of my instruments. I usually find myself subtracting more than adding. However it is really necessary to kick it up a few notches in some key area. Where you kick it up will depend heavily on the sample, of course, but tweaking the EQ in conjunction with the Multiband compressor can really alter the snare’s tone.


Ryan Kern-Mount
"Only puny secrets need protection. Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity" - Marshall McLuhan

* New 'round here?
* Can't afford a $500.00 sequencer? No Prob.
* My Gear
* My Songs

DIY-projects by Owel
Techniques of Lyric Writing by Doug
Getting a Big Classic Snare Sound by kernmount
Tips for Better Cymbals using Samples--by Hepcat 


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