How to Use Compression on a Snare Drum

How to Use Compression on a Snare Drum

Without a good snare drum sound, it’s hard to envision a good-sounding song at all–the snare drum is the snap, pop, or even the ambiance of a track, depending on its use, but in all styles of music where it is featured, it’s an integral and important part of a song’s sound. Good production of the snare drum is extremely important to get a good tone.

One way to make a snare drum sound better and more complementary to a song is to apply compression, but mixing engineers must take a few precautions, as when using any effects. Here are some tips for adding a controlled, smart compression to snare drum recordings to make the drum sound better in a song’s mix.

  1. Why use compression? – The reason that compression is an important effect on a snare drum is fairly simple. A “hit” of a snare drum has a very loud, powerful initial sound, or transient, whereas the rest of the sound is fairly quiet. That’s why a snare drum sounds the way that it does. This doesn’t transfer extremely well to recordings, however–the snare drum is likely to sound quiet or weak, as the body of its wave forms is fairly weak. Compression makes the main body of the sound and the transient hit at about the same level, which makes the snare drum sound more powerful, full, and most importantly, consistent.
  2. Ratio – A strong compression ratio is recommended for snare drums, again because the sound needs to be evened out and the transient is so loud. 5:1 or 4:1 is typical, although you should experiment. Your miking technique and the style of the drummer will greatly effect the compression ratio, but by starting around the averages and moving around a bit you should be able to find a sound that you’re happy with.
  3. Attack time – When setting attack time on your compressor, it’s important to realize that the sound of a snare drum is hardest right at the beginning of the sound, so if you set the attack time too high, the compressor will completely miss the sound of the snare and you might as well not apply it at all. Experiment with different attack times to try to find a balanced snare drum sound that also doesn’t sound too fake or robotic, which can be a problem if the attack time is too low. It’s a good idea to start with only about a 1ms attack time, then gradually increase it to see what sounds the best.
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