I always say the snare drum is one of the most important elements in your mix because it’s one of the most important elements of the drum kit. Second only to the kick, the snare is essential for keeping time, driving the song, and forming the backbone of the entire song. If anything about the snare is off, your mix instantly loses purpose and focus. Let’s talk how to mix snare from top to bottom to keep your snare visible in your mix.
How to Mix Snare
We’ll go through the full processing chain, but let’s start with how to keep those transients alive to cut through the mix.
Transients are the higher frequency information we hear first when we hear a sound (see what are transients for more information).
The transient punch of the snare is that stick on skin crack which exists around the 5k area.
We can boost the snare here to bring out more of that transient when we need the snare to assert itself more in the mix.
When that’s or just turning the snare up isn’t enough, we can actually fake that transient crack of a snare using white noise. I covered this sneaky trick in my tutorial on how to add audio transients to virtually any instrument.
Once your snare is asserting itself enough in the mix, let’s talk about how to EQ our snare in full.
Generally the first if not one of the first effects in your mix chain is EQ (see EQ or compression first).
We can use it to sculpt the sound of our snare, getting rid of the non-musical and noisy parts of the frequency profile.
I put together an entire snare EQ cheat sheet, but here’s the overview:
High Pass Around 70Hz – Nothing musical is happening here. Just room sounds, bleed from the kick, etc. Sweep upwards in this area with a high pass filter with a slope of 12-24dB/oct until it starts to sound noticeably different, then dial it back a few Hz.
Boost or Cut at 150-200Hz – Boosting or cutting at 150-200Hz adds thickness or clarity, respectively.
Cut at 400Hz – If your snare is sounding boxy and dull, try a cut in the 400Hz area.
Boost or Cut at 800Hz – Boosting or cutting at 800Hz adds roundness or reduces that annoying ringing sound, respectively.
Cut at 3.5k – A dynamic cut here mitigates snare buzz when it acts up if that’s a problem.
Boost at 5k – I covered this a second ago in the transient section, but you can help the snare cut through the mix more effectively with a small boost at 5k.
Low Pass at 15k – Similar to our high pass on the low end, we can low pass around 15k without sacrificing anything on our snare, keeping that space for the air on our vocals, cymbals, etc.
Snare compression helps to give us a more rounded snare sound. It also helps to create or draw out the decay on the snare so we get a bit more sustain rather than it dying off immediately:
Threshold – Set the compressor threshold so that you’re averaging 5dB of gain reduction of average. This is also determined by the ratio.
Ratio – I like an average compressor ratio of 3:1 or 4:1. Combined with the following settings, this will give us a nice fat and sustained snare sound.
Knee – The compressor knee determines how strictly the threshold we set is adhered to. Setting this to a minimum of 0dB means that compression abruptly starts at the threshold and not a dB before. I like an average compressor knee of 18dB on my snare to begin to compress at a lower rate as the signal approaches that threshold.
Attack – A slower attack of about 50ms gives the snare’s aforementioned transients plenty of time to cut through before the compressor clamps down on it. You don’t have to go quite that long; experiment going down as low as 5ms. As long as you still get that initial crack, you’re in good shape.
Release – A relatively slower release of 50 to 100ms keeps that compression engaged which keeps that snare fat without stepping on the next transient.
An important element in how to mix snare drums is bringing out or even creating some extra decay.
We got a lot of that with the compression, but snare reverb is helpful in adding a little extra decay to your snare:
As you can see from the above image, a relatively short decay/size, filtered, and a brighter reverb works well to keep things clean while giving your snare some extra size and decay.
Regarding the size, you can adjust the width to taste, depending on how much you’ve got going on in the stereo field. At the very least a little width is recommended as it helps add to the palpable sustain.
Set the predelay to 10-20ms to create a tiny bit of separation between the dry snare and the reverb to maintain the transient punch of the snare.
You might even try some gated reverb on drums to keep that reverb tighter and restrained. This keeps the reverb cleaner, but you’re giving up the sustain by way of cutting off the reverb tail.
The drive and mix knobs are more to taste to dial in the tone you want, but it’s pretty simple to soften and thicken out a snare with this plugin.
I also occasionally make use of a second iteration of this plugin to add some light distortion to those upper mid/upper frequencies to help it cut through a bit more. It’s not an every mix occurrence; it’s just another approach to transient supplementation.
As I covered in my complete drum panning guide, the snare should be panned in the center position.
Like I mentioned in opening, the snare keeps the beat and drives the energy for your track with the kick. You don’t want the snare’s presence to wane depending on where someone is standing relative to the stereo mix.
Keeping the snare panned up the middle keeps it at full volume regardless of how someone is listening to the mix.
The volume of your snare will depend on the rest of the mix. This is where references especially come in handy (see how to use references when mixing).
While they’re useful for dialing in the exact sound that you want for your snare, they can help you set the level relative to the rest of your mix.
Hearing a snare in the context of a professional mix, this can help you adjust when you find that yours is too buried or prominent in your own mix.
How to Mix Snare Tips
- Boost snare transients at 5k or artificially add them with white noise or harmonics to help your snare cut through the mix.
- High pass at 70Hz, cut or boost at 150-200Hz to add clarity or body, cut boxiness at 400Hz, cut or boost at 800Hz to attenuate ringing or add roundness, dynamic cut at 3.5k to attenuate buzz, low pass around 15k.
- Try a 4:1 compression ratio, 5-10ms attack, 50ms release, 18dB knee, and set your threshold to achieve roughly 5dB of gain reduction on hits.
- Add a short .5 second reverb, filtered above and below 600Hz and 6000Hz, 10-20ms predelay, and color and set width to taste.
- Try some mid-heavy saturation to add some thickness and roundness to the body of a thin snare.
- Pan the snare up the middle to ensure it stays up front, and use reference tracks to help you set your level just right relative to the rest of your mix.