Along with the kick, the snare is a huge part of the backbone of a song. It creates energy and serves as a point of reference or anchor for the listener. As such, your snare needs to cut through the mix and be a constant presence. A reliable way to accomplish this is using snare compression, so let’s talk about the perfect settings to quickly dial into your snare.
Applying a compressor to your snare can actually help the initial transients be more present as well as beef up the ringing sound.
Let’s take a look at my recommend snare compression settings and go through each setting one by one to better explain why and what effect they create.
The ratio knob is at the heart of every compressor. It essentially dictates how hard that compressor works, or how much gain reduction you want. I wrote on a post on the compressor ratio explained, so refer to that for more information.
How much compression you want to apply to your snare will generally vary from genre to genre. A lower ratio is going to yield a more subtle effect, like just creating a bit more glue. A harder ratio will make the snare cut through more with more thickness.
Setting this ratio too high will make the snare sound out of place; I recommend setting it around 3 to 1 as a ratio, meaning every dB the signal goes over the threshold you set (explained below), it will reduce the output by 3 dB.
This typically gives my snares a bit more thickness, body, and presence in the mix without being too much. If you have a particular weak snare, you might need to go higher on your ratio.
As I covered in my tutorial of the compressor’s knee, this is essentially informing the compressor how strictly it should follow the threshold.
A hard knee means that the compressor won’t open or begin doing its job until the threshold is met. Once that threshold is met, it compresses at the exact ratio you’ve set.
Conversely, a softer knee opens more gradually ahead of the threshold and begins compressing at a lower ratio. That ratio increases the closer it gets to the set threshold.
A hard knee increases the odds that the listener will hear the compressor working whereas a softer knee makes it more transparent and more subtle.
When compressing a snare, I like a mid-range setting for the knee. With some genres like electronica you likely want a harder knee for more of a pumping and obvious sound.
As I alluded to earlier, the threshold dictates at which point the signal will begin being compressed. If a snare was recorded by a live drummer, there’s likely going to be a decent amount of dynamic range in the performance, meaning the difference between the quietest and loudest points in the entire take.
I like to set the threshold so that I’m averaging 4 or 5dB of gain reduction. You might need more for a more dynamic performance, and if you’re using samples you’ll likely need less.
A lot of why we’re using snare compression in the first place is to ensure that the snare doesn’t disappear at any point in the song. With that in mind, adjust the threshold until you have a nice, constant presence in your snare.
Attack time is always important, but it’s especially so when compressing a snare. If your attack time is too fast, meaning the compressor turns on too quickly when it receives signal, it will squash the transients and you’ll lose the punch of the snare.
You want to adjust this so that the crack of the upper mid range transients are untouched and more of the subsequent body of the snare is brought out for that thickness.
I like a relatively slower attack time of roughly 50ms as I find that this is enough time to let the transients pass through untouched while getting the thickness on the backend.
The compression dictates how long that compression remains in effect. Leaving this longer on a snare will give you more thickness from the body but you’ll lose some of the snappiness of the compression that you want.
A relatively faster release time of 50ms is a healthy compromise in most cases to get the best of both worlds, more presence and thickness while keeping it responsive and clean.
Lastly, adjust your output gain as necessary to make up for any gain reduction the compressor creates.
Be sure that it’s the same level going out that it is going in so that you’re getting an honest impression of what the compressor is doing so that you can do an honest A/B split test between the two.