Do you want your snares to sound punchy, wide and in tune with your song? Keep reading this article to find out how to achieve that huge snare sound we all love.
This is the extra detail that takes your production to the next level and makes it sound professional like the pop songs you hear on the radio.
If you'd like to listen to the audio examples, watch the video above. It's a step by step tutorial to achieve that memorable snare sound that will make your music stand out.
7 Steps to wide, punchy and tuned snares
Recently, while mixing a song, I realized that even though the snare already sounded good, it was missing something.
I pictured it wide, with different colors throughout the stereo field. Not just a mono snare sample. Not in this particular song.
Even though it was already tuned to the key of the song, compressed and gated to sound punchy, there was still room for enhancement.
Later that day, I did achieve the sound I wanted, and here's how you can do it in your songs too.
1. Tuning the snare to the key of the song
Tuning the snare to the key of your song is a good starting point. However, most people just use the Warp feature to tune drum hits.
I know I did that a lot in the past, and what you usually end up with is a flabby dead sounding snare.
That usually screws up the high frequencies and a bunch of frequencies that souldn't be involved in a simple task like tuning drums.
In fact, the only frequency you need to affect is the fundamental frequency.
But that's not an easy task.
So, to change the pitch of your snares while causing the least damage to the balance of it's sound, the best tool is a frequency shifter (included in Ableton Live)
Update: "I've updated to Live 11.1 — where's my Frequency Shifter now?"
The Frequency Shifter device can still be found here:
Places > Packs > Core Library > Devices > Audio Effects > Legacy
You can also achieve the same effect with the new Shifter device. Change it to Freq mode and tune your drum samples by adjusting the "Fine" knob.
A quick way to do that is to use a spectrum analyzer, like Voxengo Span to take a look at the fundamental frequency of your snare.
In this case the fundamental frequency is on a D, at 148 Hertz.
Then figure out which note you want to tune it to. I wanted to bring that particular snare down, all the way to B at 124 Hertz.
Between 148 and 124 there's a difference of 24 Hertz.
So all I have to do is configure my frequency shifter to decrease 24 Hertz from the signal.
That way it barely touches the high frequencies and we don't lose that buzz.
Done! Snare tuning problem solved. Now let's make that snare wide.
2. Making the snare wide in the stereo field
Even though this sample is centered in the stereo field, it's not entirely mono. Check this out:
There is good stereo content already but not enough for my taste. I like wide sounding snares like the one from the song Maps by Maroon 5.
And it still sounds too simple.
So how do I make this snare wide?
The most common approach here is to add a very wide reverb to a return track and send the snare audio there.
However, I really like layering snare samples.
Layering snare samples for a stereo widening effect
So the next thing I usually do is layer some more snare samples, just to thicken it and get more content in different parts of the frequency spectrum.
So I searched my sample library and found some other samples that could help fatten this sound:
I added 3 snare layers — a bottom snare in the center, and two hard-panned (left and right).
Here's a cool trick: if you have ghost snare hits, don't use the side layers on them for contrast. The differences in sound will make it look like a real drummer is playing.
It's starting to sound fuller, but it's time to add some bus processing to help them glue together.
Equalizing snare layers
So my approach is to group them up and equalize until it starts to resemble the kind of sound I'm going for — which in this track was the snare from a song by Adele.
I added a lot of low-mid frequencies there, at around 150 Hertz.
Usually I would also add distortion, probably with the saturator effect, but this one already sounds gritty and distorted, so I skipped the saturator this time.
Then compress if needed.
Compressing snare layers
Compressors are usually a good strategy to help different samples blend together. And I compressed these two with a very short attack to reduce the transient.
This song is not super aggressive, so I don't need this huge transient cutting through the mix.
I'm still going to place vocals on top and as a pop music producer I naturally want that to be the main element. In this song, everything else has to sit behind the vocals.
3. Gating the tail for a punchy snare with cohesive layers
That's when I noticed the extra snare layers were lasting longer than the main snare in the center, therefore they wouldn't blend in. They weren't cohesive.
So I used a gate plugin to chop the final buzz.
Now they sound like they belong together.
And this is the secret to the punchy snare. Chopping the sound suddenly gives it more impact.
Sidenote: the pitch and panning of the bottom snare layer change with every hit to create variation that helps programmed drums sound less artificial and robotic.
4. Dealing with phasing issues
After these fixes to the snare's pitch, stereo width and punchiness, I noticed there was a phase issue going on.
The side samples were out of phase — it sounded like they weren't even coming from the speakers.
And I used the Ozone Imager to make sure I wasn't hearing things.
Luckily it was an easy fix.
I just had to delay the left sample by a little bit, just enough to make the waves align so they wouldn't cancel each other.
And after that, the weird sound disappeared and the Ozone Imager gave me a visual confirmation that my layers were mostly in phase.
When you layer many snares, there's always some degree of phasing issues.
But you can deal with it by adjusting the timing of some layers until it's not distracting and it doesn't steal the punch. Keep it at minimal levels.
At that point, that snare sounded huge already. That's before touching the reverbs.
But we'll use them for cohesiveness and depth.
5. Extra layering trick for movement
Before we talk about reverb there's another neat trick I'd like to show you. This one is really cool, and it's going to serve 2 purposes:
- It will help the snare in the center blend together with the snares on the sides better. It will shorten the distance between them;
- It will add so much movement to your drums that they will never get boring.
I added this pink noise track:
Then rolled off some of the low frequencies and super high frequencies:
Next, configured it with a gate that's sidechained to the center snare:
The pink noise is gated, so it's quiet all the time, except for when the snare drum hits. Then the gate opens and lets the pink noise sound be heard.
And it's followed by an autopan with a rate that's not in sync with the BPM of the song.
It's a random rate, and it's not so fast. That means every time you hear the pink noise, it's going to be in a different place:
It makes it feel like the snare is moving around, but not too much because the autopan is not set to 100% percent.
It's set to 64% only. It never gets to the extreme sides. And I know it may sound too technical but you have to try this for youself.
This trick alone can save a boring track. Just be careful not to mix it too loud or else it will be too much movement and that will steal the show.
6. Snare reverb for cohesiveness and depth
I like to use more than one reverb on snares. For this song, I settled with two Valhalla vintage verbs.
The first one is a short 700 millisecond room reverb.
esides helping all those layers blend together, this reverb emphasizes the widening effect even more since it spreads across the entire stereo field.
The second reverb is a longer plate that I turned mono just to create more depth rather than width.
It creates a longer tail but it stays dead center, suggesting that the background is far away from the front.
The trick here is to really trim the high end to place it way in the back.
Can't go too loud with this one though. These things add up quickly and the mix may start sounding muddy.
And make sure to have a little pre-delay just so your snare doesn't get pushed into the background too much.
It has to have that kind of separation or else it will just bring the snare to the back of the mix.
That's not the effect I'm going for here, I want to suggest depth but also maintaining the punchiness.
Gating and ducking the Snare's reverb
On the chain following the snare reverb, you can use a noise gate to interrupt the sound before the next snare hits:
Another move that enhances the clarity is adding a compressor that's sidechained to the snare, ducking the reverb by a few decibels every time the snare hits.
Someone may think: "if you already have a gate, why do you need a sidechain compressor"?
Because there are some snare rolls in the song where the hits are closer together in time, so the gate isn't effective to chop the reverb before the next snare hit.
7. Sparse arrangement and Contrast
I know that after all these mixing moves, your snare will sound wide enough. But it could sound even wider by using contrast.
In other words, if you're really looking for that huge snare sound, the rest of the instrumental can't be as wide.
Then, in comparison, the snare would sound even wider. That's why in sparse arrangements, you can make anything sound super wide.
In this song's case it wouldn't be the best idea. The arrangement is busy, things are hard-panned everywhere — and that's before adding the vocals.
The snare is not a priority in this song, and this is as wide as it will go.
But for your songs, now you know a guaranteed trick to make them wider.
Nothing is keeping you from making them even wider than this if you have a sparse arrangement — if you leave enough room for it.
Now it's your turn
Now you know the 7 steps to get a snare that's fat, punchy, wide and properly tuned to the key of the song — with no phasing issues.
Well, that was a lot of work, huh?
Or you could simply get a sample pack with great snares — all that work was already done for you.
By the way, I'm very curious to hear what you come up with after reading this tutorial. I hope you're excited to plug this into your own productions.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comment section below.
For more tutorials and resources on crafting memorable pop music, visit my website.