Processing snare (in a drum kit)

Those who come from the world of electronic music and samples may experience some shock when mixing a real, live drum kit!

Traditionally, sampled drums have been mixed with one sound per channel. There might be a kick channel, a snare channel, a hihat channel, and perhaps more channels for cymbals, toms and auxillery percussion. If you want the snare to sound a specific way, it is (relatively) simple to process the snare channel – adjusting the tone and dynamics of the sound – to transform it from its original form into the desired form.

When mixing a live drum kit, however, this is not such a simple process. If you come from an electronic or otherwise sampling background, you will probably be tempted to solo the snare channel. From there will will realise that the channel is much “dirtier” than you might be used to – the sound is very dry and raw, and there’s bleed from the rest of the drumkit! You might battle for some time with gates, EQs, compressors, and perhaps even transient shapers. When you are satisfied with your sound (or get close enough without going insane), you’ll unsolo the snare to hear it in context…

And be shocked that it sounds nothing like what you thought it would!

And soon enough, you’ll discover the second difference between mixing samples and mixing a live kit – more bleed! Specifically, the snare drum will be picked up by several channels. This will at least be the “snare” channel (the one you meticulously processed) and the overheads. The snare may also be coming through the tom channels, a hihat channel if you have one, and even the kick channel!

Zealously gating the bleed out of all the other tracks will ultimately produce something that doesn’t sound much like a live drum kit. Sorry – you can’t perfectly control every aspect of the sound!

It might be more appropriate to approach the drum kit as a single instrument instead of a collection of individual sounds. Listen to the whole drum kit and focus on the snare. That sound is coming from at least three channels – the snare channel and two overheads. Solo each channel individually and listen to how the channel contributes to the overall snare sound. When you’re imagining your desired snare sound and thinking about how to transform what you’re hearing into what you’re imagining, consider that you might have to make changes to more than one channel to achieve it. Also consider than no matter how much you may process a single channel, you will only be changing one component of the sound.

Finally, keep in mind that the more processing you apply, the less natural your sound becomes. Presumably, you’re using a live drum kit because you want the sound of a live drum kit in your song. If you process it so much that it sounds like a bunch of samples, you negate the main reason for using a live kit in the first place!


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