Part 9: Snare Drums Tuning

Snare Drum

Tuning the snare is not different than with any drum, it’s just complicated or enhanced by the shell choice and snare wires. Lets start with what the shell tone is because from this you better understand the enhancements and limitations inherent in the drum shell tone prior to head choice.

Snare, Construction Brief

1. Brass: A very sharp edge to the sound and very rich with mellow overtones.

2. Steel: A step more towards bright with a very pronounced ring, allot of body and longer decay than brass.

3. Aluminum: Clear, open sounds with bright, crisp overtones and is capable of incredibly loud rimshots.

4. Bronze: A close cousin to brass with the overall character of woods, can be loud, a good all around drum.

5. Copper: A close cousin to the Aluminum drum only slightly warmer.

6. Anything Hammered: Same overall characteristics as the parent material, only slightly less resonance to varying degrees.

7. Metal Thickness: The 1mm shells are not as low to mid range resonant as thicker shells such as 3mm plus.

8. Metal Cast Drums: Very Loud and Resonant due to special cymbal alloys used in the casting process.

9. Wood drums, see “Construction Guidelines” above in the “Tom” section, they apply here too.

10. Small diameter means higher pitch.

11. Longer shell length means more power and shell resonance, longer decay.

12. Shallow depth means more articulate, less power due to decreased shell area.

13. Snare bed: A slight depression in the resonant side bearing edge to allow the snare to ride closer to the head.

14. Bearing edges of less than 45 degrees are not inferior, they simply make for a different sound, usually less resonant and darker in character the less the angle, 35 degree is popular on Birch Drums. Drums get brighter if the crown of the bearing edge is a tighter radius (sharper) than if the radius is flatter (may be desired on the toms and kick).

Snare, Drumheads – Batter side

Coatings and material type are as described in the section “Tom, Drumheads – Batter side”. There are some similarities here to that which is used for a tom. But there are also some real differences such as the Evan’s Genera Snare and Genera Dry vented series.

1. Single ply Thin Weight such as REMO Diplomat, Renaissance, FiberSkyn FD (FD extra thin), Evan’s Genera Concert Snare, all are coated and are great for very articulate, extremely sensitive, bright, open overtones (FiberSkyn warmer), not very durable. Special mention – Evan’s Genera Concert Staccato Snare, a drier very articulate version of the “thin” group.

2. Single ply unmuffled/unvented medium weight such as REMO Ambassador, Renaissance and FiberSkyn FA, Aquarian Satin Texture Coated and the Evans G1 series, UNO 58 1000. Uno 58 is brightest, FiberSkyn warmest. All-purpose head, accentuated overtones, articulate, takes punishment from all but very heavy hitters. Aquarian coating most durable. Special mention – Evan’s PowerCenter, all the virtues of a single ply head but has a perforated 5″ coated thin dot that will withstand high tunings and severe abuse without the dot coming off (only 14″).

3. Single ply muffled or Heavy Weight such as the REMO Emperor, Renaissance, PowerStroke, FiberSkyn F1 and the Aquarian Studio X series, Evan’s Genera Batter. The sound here goes more mellow compared to single ply with overtones becoming less prevalent on the initial attack and less or minimal sustain. There is still an element of ring to the drum.

4. Single ply muffled and very “Dry” or “Vented”. Evan’s has the most in the market for this category with the Genera Dry, Uno 58 1000 Dry, The sound has a sharper, quicker attack and is almost void of overtones. This head requires careful attention to tuning and generally will make the midrange tone of the shell material standout while limiting the low frequencies of the drum.

5. 2 ply muffled or wear resistant heads like REMO Pinstripe, Aquarian Performance II or Double Thins and the classic Evans G2, or anything with a “Power dot” on it, these produce a very short initial attack coupled with a very short sustain.

6. Heavily muffled with an oil barrier such as the Evans hydraulic. These heads are the most inherently “boxy” or “dull” of any. Almost void of any inherent sustain on their own.

Snare, Drumheads – Resonant side

Note: Obviously you can use any head, but it is correct to use a “Snare Side” head. If you use any head other than a “Snare Side” Head, it will be the equivalent of using a “Heavy” weight or thicker head and the result will be the lack of or absence of snare sound, buzzing, no sensitivity or all of the above.

1. Thin resonant heads: Heads like REMO Diplomat Snare Side and Evan’s Genera Hazy 200. These heads are great to increase snare response, sensitivity and crack while allowing ghost notes and rolls to become more articulate.

2. Medium weight heads: Heads such as REMO Ambassador, Renaissance, Aquarian Classic Clear Snare Side or Evan’s Hazy 300. These will have less sustain than the thinner counterparts such as the REMO Diplomat or Evans 200, the sound becomes more focused and not as bright and articulate. The Evan’s Genera 300 and Genera Glass 300 go drier in tone yet retain very good snare response while the Renaissance goes warmer.

3. Heavy Weight resonant heads: REMO Emperor, Evan’s 500 Hazy are both very dry heads and not real articulate. Clear/glass versions of these heads are a bit drier yet. Aquarian Hi-Performance Snare Side is built to counteract wear yet give response characteristics of the medium weight heads.

Snare Unit, General Guidelines

1. It is important to have the actual snare bed itself ride flat against the resonant head. If a drummer has used an inferior brand or replacement snare in the past, the place where the wires are held or soldered to the clip can be uneven or have sharp protrusions. This may have left the drummer feeling the thinner heads are not satisfactory because the poor condition of the snare itself actually caused the premature failure of the head. This is where the so called “Heavy Weight heads are usually employed. However, you might want to try the Aquarian Hi-Performance series here due to it’s unique construction, it gives protection where you “need” it yet retains some response of a medium weight Snare Side head.

2. Snare count, length and material have to be considered. While you can retrofit another snare to change the drum, be sure it really is the correct length and attaches to the strainer throw-off correctly.

3. Carbon steel is going to be brighter than stainless steel with cable, gut or a synthetic being much less bright.

4. Less curl to the wire equals less volume and more articulate (i.e. Cable snare units).

5. Wider snare units will be louder and potentially so sensitive that you won’t be able to control the sympathetic vibration buzz. So if you bought the wide one and tighten the heck out of it to eliminate the buzz, you just as well stay with the original one.

6. Snare units with a wider surface coupled with a second smaller set inside will provide a “fatter/wetter” sound.

7. If you hit a drum hard, there is a point at which you do not increase the overall snare drum volume and in fact the drum will sound as though it has less “crack” than at moderate volumes. This is because you now hear more of the “tom” or “timbales” sound of the drum by virtue of the fact that you’re hitting only the batter side.

8. The snare side is the excited side and it will only move so much when hit. So changing snares may or may not get you more volume or crack from the snare wire its self, depending upon how you hit.

9. To keep the tone of the drum yet get a warmer less powering snare sound, reduce the snare count to 10 strands, carbon steel. For less metallic, stainless, etc.

Snare Drum, Inspection and How to Issues

1. Drum has an intermittent buzz during play: Remove heads and thump on the shell with your hand or butt end of a stick. If the lugs buzz, isolate the offending lug and first try to remove it or them and see if stuffing cotton into the lug retainer helps stop the buzz. You can also look at taking some thin sheet rubber and placing it between the lug casing and the shell, be careful you do not move the lug too far away from the shell, the lugs must align freely with the hoop.

If you put the rubber in do it on all the lugs, not just the trouble lugs. If nothing buzzes without the heads, it is possible that the head itself is spent or seated wrong and this too can cause a buzz or distortion during play. The solution is to either replace the head or apply higher tension and try reseating the head. Look for loose bolts, etc. as well.

2. How to check snares wire units: Lay the snares, unrestrained on a flat surface. See if all the wires look very uniform, make sure 1 or 2 of the strands are not over stretched or curving out (this can happen on new units as well). If they are in doubt, go buy or choose another snare wire unit, otherwise control over the “buzz” and “crack” of the drum may be very difficult. Check that portion of the unit where the wire of the snare couples with the clip and look for less than uniform joints. No sharp protrusions, lumps, etc. should be present. If you observe protrusions or unevenness, sometimes filing them off works, but don’t remove too much or your likely to cause the wires to pull off the clip.

3. How to determine if a head is too old to use? Outside of an obvious split, make sure they’re not overly worn where the snare bed rides on the head (sometimes there’s a tiny hole or a milky color). Make sure the head is not warped or dished out from age or being over tensioned. If either of these conditions exists, replace the heads.

4. How to check hoops? Place them on a kitchen counter or other very flat surface (not glass or plastic, these are inherently unleveled) and see if they sit flat. If the hoop is stamped or a triple flanged hoop, push down on them to straighten, fix or replace. If the hoop is cast or wood, you run the risk of breaking the hoop if you push hard enough to actually cause a movement. Your only solution other than live with it will be to replace it. Check for round by measuring in a “+” pattern with a simple ruler at 90 degrees apart across the hoop. If the measurement is not the same, they are out of round.

Snare Drum, Tuning – Method 1 (Fat and Wet)

The following suggests any choice of head from the single ply medium weight muffled category such as the Evan’s Genera Batter, REMO PowerStroke or Aquarian Studio X, all Texture Coated coupled with the Genera Hazy 200 Snare or REMO Diplomat Clear resonant side. Objective, a controlled ring, focused sound, very good resonance with excellent articulation and stick response. For more “open”, resonant big band type sound, go with either a REMO Ambassador coated, EVANS G1 coated or Aquarian Satin Texture Coated.

Note: We are working for the drum sound without the snare wires installed.

1. Start by placing the bottom or resonant head on the drum, we want to tune the bottom without the top to the lowest clear tone exactly the same as described above under “Learning How, Resonant Side Tuning – The beginning” in the section “Tuning and Seating the Heads, All Drums”.

2. Once you have achieved the lowest pitch for this drum on the resonant head, now the procedure changes just a bit. On the resonant head, bring each lug up one half of one turn to one full turn on each lug and even out again. This is a good starting point.

3. On the batter head, continue to follow the tuning directions under “Batter Side Tuning” under the tom section, including installing and tuning the batter side as described under “Batter Side Tuning”.

4. Once you have achieved the lowest pitch for this drum on the batter head, now listen for the pitch and feel of the drum. I suggest you tune this head fairly high or 3 to 5 notes higher than your highest tom.

5. This gives excellent stick and brush response and even though the batter is now much higher in pitch than the resonant, it will still have that complex resonance produced by the resonant head being low. This overall feel or resonance of the pitch can be controlled by snare tension (discussed below).

6. If it’s too low in resonance after tuning the batter and applying the snares, you then crank the snare side up 1/4 to ½ turn per lug. Again, I suggest you do this after applying the snares. Once you get the desired resonance, stick response, etc. without the snare wires installed, its time to replace the snare bed.

7. Jump to “General Snare Tuning Guidelines” and then to “Installing The Snares” section.

Snare Drum, Tuning – Method 2 (Suitable for Pop top 40 drumming, Not Choked, Preferred by many studio Drummers):Note: Proceed without snares installed

1. Replace the heads exactly as described in Method 1.

2. Rather than tuning the batter/top head higher in pitch, tune it identically in pitch to the resonant/snare side head.

3. Now move just the bottom snare side head up in pitch about 3 notes higher than the batter head.

4. Jump to “General Snare Tuning Guidelines” and then to “Installing The Snares” section.

Snare Drum, Tuning – Method 3 (Highly Resonant, brings the most out of the shell)

Note: Proceed without snares installed

1. Replace the heads exactly as described in Method 1 and use single ply medium weight unmuffled texture coated heads on the batter and either Diplomat Clear or Evans Hazy 200 snare side. For warmer but more focused and a bit softer while resonant, use the Ambassador, Aquarian Classic, or Evan’s Hazy 300.

2. Rather than tuning the batter/top head higher in pitch, tune it identically in pitch to the resonant/snare side head.

3. Now move just the bottom snare side head up in pitch just ever so slightly and listen carefully to the tone of the zone you are in. Move tiny amounts and listen for that point of most resonance.

4. Jump to “General Snare Tuning Guidelines” and then to “Installing The Snares” section.

Snare Drum, Extra Tuning Guidelines

1. Work your way up through the tuning zones as you would a tom but rather than tuning the top head up in pitch, your tuning the bottom head up in pitch.

2. Work in a typical “X” fashion as best you can or better yet, use 2 keys 180 degrees apart. The thin snare side heads are easy to knock out of whack if you pull one side tighter than the other, so move up in small ¼ turn increments for best results.

3. Once you get the differential relationship be it for a “fat” or “pop” tuning, then you can move the entire drum up in pitch for a higher overall pitch. By this I mean that both heads must maintain the 2-3-note differential in tuning at all times. Minute changes in this relationship cause phase cancellations (or should) and as a result, usually by moving one head or the other minuscule amounts, you can cause the drum to kill allot of the overtones or accentuate them making the need for muffled heads less desirable.

4. If you want a fat wet sound, keep the resonant head low pitched regardless of the pitch of the batter.

5. If you want a more articulated, cutting sound, tune the bottom head up in pitch and keep the batter head lower in pitch than the resonant head.

6. The tension of the snare bed also controls that punch you can feel in your stomach. If the head is too tight, the snare can’t seat itself as well into the snare beds.

Snare Unit, Installation of

1. Place the snares a little off center towards the opposite side of the release side.

2. Tighten down the strings or strap paying close attention to the snare making sure its square to the hoop, not askew.

3. With the retainer in the on position but with the tension control screwed down (as if loosening the snares), pull the strings or straps again square to the hoop to moderate tension.

4. With the strainer now on, start to tighten while hitting the head, you’ll get to a sweet spot where the buzz of the snare and feel of the drum come together. If you tighten more, the drum becomes more articulate. The slightest adjustment here can make huge differences. I’m talking 1/16 of a turn or less on the tension adjustment for the strainer. If you are blessed with an adjustment on both side of the drum, move up equally, very important!

5. Experiment; at some point in the process you’ll hear the bottom or that feeling in your stomach suddenly jump out at you if that’s what you want. Don’t over tighten; it really doesn’t add much other than choking off the tone of the drum and killing stick response.

6. Even the slightest adjustments will make the tone/overtones come alive or die. See “The 5 Stages of Snare Sound” section.

Snare Unit, Sound and The 5 Stages of Working from loose to tighter:

1. Contact with buzz and sounding a little sloppy,

2. Fewer buzzes and a little dry sounding. Almost like over tightening.

3. Warmth starts to come out with a nice sort of “slap” of the snares,

4. Becomes more articulate and the warmth goes away, and

5. The garbage stage, extremely tight, choked, void of character, little to no response on the outside 3 inches of the batter head at low volumes, you’ve gone too far.

Snare Drum, Tips and Tricks

1. The stand affects the sound. With the drum sitting in your stand, don’t have the stand basket tight against the hoop of the drum, this restrains the inherent sound of the drum, it keeps the hoop and shell from vibrating freely.

2. As a drummer hits harder, the crack of the drum or volume of the snare does not rise but the pitch can change or the perception exists because more of the inherent tone of the batter head is now coming out. Therefore you might want to resort to micing the bottom if you cannot get that high-end crack you otherwise hear in the room.

3. If using a mic on both top and bottom you should be conscious of phase problems associated with the bottom mic, you might have to wire the resonant mic “out of phase”. Remember the heads ideally are moving in phase with each other, therefore when the batter is moving away from the upper mic, its moving towards the lower mic causing a phase change making a electrical phase reversal needed.

Snare Unit, Buzz Issues or Sympathetic Vibrations

There are many instances where the sympathetic resonances of the snare drum snares are problematic. Usually the tuning of nearby drums or the bass guitar, etc causes these. The cause of the problem is that the tuning of the snare is at or close to the frequency of the sympathetic vibration, that is, they’re too close in pitch. Retuning the snare may be the last thing you want to do now that you’ve found this incredible sound. But as is everything in sound, there may have to be compromises.

It can be quite complex to solve this problem because of the inherent overtones found in the snare. In doing some background research on this issue I found a site which I have linked below which explores this issue. But I will attempt to summarize what others have offered for solutions. I have found the first two tips work very well, but many have become overly concerned by this and really shouldn’t be. The buzz in many cases is the essential ingredient to getting the drum sound, such as a “fat” tuning and does not appear in the recording or the audience, as a buzz.

1. On the snare side of a ten-lug snare, detune both lugs on either side of the snare where it attaches to the shell until the head ripples. Then tune it back up until the ripple just disappears. This means you will have detuned 4 lugs. Now, compensate by over- tightening the remaining 6 lugs (3 on either side of the snares).

2. Find the offending instruments and retune it. Usually it’s one of the toms and the tuning of the tom is usually not as critical in the mix. Others report that if the toms are tuned a 5th away from the snare and then from each other, this can eliminate the problem. But this is only partly a solution, as the snare drum itself is very rich in overtones (independent of tuning) and removing one overtone (by retuning) is likely to introduce a new one!

3. A completely different approach put some very thin piece of paper or duct tape between the snare and the bottom head near the place where the snares attach to the retaining clip. You have to experiment a bit with thickness and placement, but it is possible to reduce the problem a lot.

4. Different heads. Calfskin heads were rather insensitive to this phenomenon. It is thinkable that the use of calfskin-like heads (e.g. REMO Renaissance or FiberSkyn 3) may reduce the effect.

5. Drape a towel or other heavy cloth from the bottom of the snare drum between the drum and the offending source if it is a nearby drum.

6. Wire snares are the most problematic. Try using cable snares such as those made by Grover, Patterson or Hinger. Traditional gut snares are also less likely to buzz. However, the sound may likely change to the drier as a result.