In the beginning, the list of microphones on drums was minimal, even in recording studios.
Before the arrival of rock and roll in the late 1950s, with its steady emphasis on the 2-and-4 backbeat, putting microphone near the snare was out of the question, and there weren’t many drum microphones on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The difference between country and western was the drums required to push western swing music, but it wasn’t until the Grand Ole Opry moved to Opryland in 1973 that entire drum sets were even allowed on stage.
By that time, mic’ing the snare was as normal as nailing the kick drum to the riser.
Early models commonly used on snare include the Shure 545 “Unidyne III” and Electro-Voice RE-15. Also introduced in the 1960s, the Shure SM57 dynamic remains the hardest working snare microphone and first choice of many of engineers.
Besides the obvious “We’ve always done that,” or “It’s what’s in the microphone box,” there’s a logical reason for this preference.
Many still employ the age-old method of checking the PA by repeating the mantra of “check, one-two” into a vocal microphone, and since there’s no discernable difference between the sound of an SM58 and a 57, it’s no surprise that the same engineer who tunes the system with a 58, finds the 57 sounds natural on snare (or any other close-mic’ed instrument).
If you deny an old sound guy a 57 to put on his snare, he’s as likely to use a 58 as anything else.
TUNING THE SNARE
Like the rest of the kit, if the snare sounds bad to begin with, you’re likely to end up with a louder, bad sounding drum. Though drastic EQ can sometimes make up for shortcomings and help a bad drum sound better, there’s no substitute for simply doing the deed of tuning the drum.
While entire books can be written on tuning drums, especially snares, a few easy rules are helpful, along with some simple tools.
Snare top heads (“batter”) are usually coated with a rough surface to give brushes more sizzle, while bottom heads (“resonant”) are uncoated and thinner.
Before mic’ing up a drum kit, it’s good to know how old the heads are and when they were last tuned. A drum can go from bad to good with a few minutes and a drum key, but this annoying chore should be tackled early, before others need to be in the room.
Both heads should be loosened and then tightened just enough to take the wrinkles out. By tapping the head lightly near each lug, the tension can be evened out so the tones all match.
Octava MK219 (click to enlarge)
Most methods for tuning the snare involve the bottom head being a few notes higher than the top head, A looser bottom head produces a fatter or “wetter” sound, while tighter produces a drier sound with more “pop.” The fundamental tone of each head affects the other, so small changes in one head can produce dramatic results, creating a sound that’s more muted, or more open, depending upon where you started out.
The timeworn method of tightening opposite pairs of lugs keeps the head centered and evenly tensioned. The best drum tool is a drum key, but the second-best is a second drum key, and those who subscribe to this method - as many eventually do often tie them together with a lanyard. A second key not only speeds up the process, it more evenly tensions the drum, making it easier to tune.
ARE YOU JELLIN’?
A snare drum with lots of resonance or ringing is often not what a live engineer wants, especially in a reverberant venue, Traditionally drummers (or their engineers) have resorted to adding a gaffe-tape damper, using a towel, or simply laying their wallet near the rim. Permanently installed cloth or felt often steals too much tone.
Another drum-roadie trick is the A-shaped ring. Either purchased as a drum shop product, or made from old heads, it creates a similar effect by dampening overtones. O-Rings and gaffe tape have been replaced by MoonGel, a stamp-sized sticky pad of blue gel plastic sold in 4-packs. Old drum techs will tell you they were using Blu-Tack adhesive art putty long before MoonGel arrived a decade ago.
MoonGel is drum magic and every microphone kit should have some in the same slot with the drum key.