Understanding how to compress snare drum starts with properly preparing drum tracks for the compression.
Fix any minor performance and timing mistakes, align the phase, if necessary, and apply the EQ if you want to polish the sound even more. If you want to tame the peaks of your snare drum, use a fast attack and a fast release combined with a relatively low threshold.
If achieving a more balanced sound is what you desire, use a fast attack with a relatively slow release and a lower threshold. If you want to add more punch to the sound, use a slow attack and a slow release, and in all of the cases, use a ratio of 5:1 as a starting point.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Before the compression
Unfortunately enough, throwing a vintage opto compressor on a snare drum track won’t do you any good by itself. Usually, when it comes to properly mixing drum tracks, compression is one of the last stages of the process unless you’re lucky enough to record your drums through a vintage console or a hardware compressor unit.
There are quite a few things that could help to significantly improve the sound of our drums even before we apply the compression. You may consider cleaning up individual drum tracks and also editing them if you feel that it might be beneficial and EQing and gain staging might also be a lot of help.
And, of course, phase alignment could be a crucial step towards a perfect drum sound.
You might skip this step altogether if you’re using an analog drum machine or a virtual instrument. But if you’re dealing with live drum recordings, you have to pay attention to a few minor issues that might occur.
Firstly, if the timing isn’t perfect, you may consider quantizing the tracks if you feel that it’s in the way of tracks performance in general, but be careful not to overdo it so drums wouldn’t sound too artificial and, therefore, unconvincing.
Secondly, make sure that you’re pleased with the sound of drums in general because the tonal content of the recordings would be very hard to replace unless you’re using MIDI-triggers in the first place. And finally, cut off any excessive silence and anything that isn’t relevant to the composition.
You don’t have to worry about this step at all if you’re using a production-ready virtual instrument, but in all other cases, there might be some issues with phase alignment. Every time when multiple microphones are used to record a singular source and all of those mics are placed at a different distance from it, the audio will be recorded with a slight delay.
The further the microphones are from each other, the more delay there would be, which wouldn’t be a problem for most instruments, but drums could sound less pronounced. This happens because the delayed signal is not in phase with the main one. And to fix this problem, your best bet would be either to align the tracks manually or to use a specially dedicated plugin.
When you’re completely happy with the state of your drum tracks and there are no phase alignment issues to worry about, you’re ready to take the next very crucial step. Properly balancing your tracks not only will give you the most sonically pleasant picture but also will show you where and what type of compression should be used.
All you have to do is simply choose the track that would be a centerpiece of your composition and bring up the volume of other tracks in such a way that compliments the main track but also allows for other tracks to be heard perfectly clear. When it comes to drums specifically, start with the overheads and bring other tracks up to the level according to your taste, and don’t forget to balance snare mics together if you’ve used multiple in the first place.
Apply an EQ
If you’re perfectly happy with how your drums sound, there may not be a need for EQing tracks individually. Instead, EQing a drum bus might be of more benefit, but if you feel like some minor adjustments here and there might also help, go for it without hesitation.
If you want to add more body to your snare, boost somewhere around 200-400 Hz and if you feel like more punch is needed, a slight boost somewhere around 1 kHz should do the trick. If you want to add more air to the sound of your snare, add a shelf boost starting from 5 kHz and a low cut on 80 Hz can help to eliminate the kick drum from your snare mics.
How to compress a snare drum
Compressing a snare drum properly is so much easier when the initial goal is clear. Without soloing the snare drum and changing the initial gain of other tracks, listen to the composition as a whole and pay very close attention to the snare.
Try to understand what it’s lacking or what there is an abundance of and you’ll find that it’s usually one of 3 things or sometimes a couple of them simultaneously. There might be quite a few very loud transients that cut through the mix, or the snare, in general, could sound too snappy without any weight to it.
Or, on the contrary, there might be not enough punch to the sound of your snare, and whatever the case may be, a proper compression might solve all of those issues.
In order to apply proper compression, it’s better to understand it first and know exactly what each specific setting does to the dynamics of your track. Two of the key settings of every compressor are the attack and release, those will be most crucial in order to achieve perfect compression, especially when it comes to snare drum.
Attack simply tells the compressor when it should start to work and the release controls when the compression will end. The other important setting is a threshold, which controls at what exact volume of the incoming signal the compressor should be working.
And finally, there’s ratio that shows how much compression would be applied, where lower ratios make the compression more subtle and higher ratios make it more aggressive and obvious.
If, while carefully listening to the whole composition, you find that in some parts, a snare drum pops up unnaturally and not in a musical way, it could be fixed very easily.
Set a very high threshold in a way that would affect only the loudest peaks, usually, you should aim somewhere around 6 dB of gain reduction, but in some cases, you may go as high as 10. Then set a very fast attack and a fast release in order to leave the sustain of the snare drum unaffected. This will help you to tame the peaks without affecting the overall sound of the snare, in general.
Use whatever ratio you’re the most comfortable with, but we suggest starting somewhere around 5:1 in order for compression to sound more natural.
Make it sound balanced
If you’re pretty happy with the sound of your snare drum and just want to polish it a bit, you may consider using a fast attack and a slightly slower release. It would be even better to set your release in a more musical way so the compressor would work in a flow with the dynamics of the track.
Dividing 60 thousand by the BPM of your track will give you the exact length of your quarter note in milliseconds and from there, it’s quite easy to figure out the other lengths just by constantly dividing by two. In this particular case, you should use a lower threshold in order to compress most of the sound and not just the peaks.
And the same ratio of 5:1 should do just fine, but you may consider lowering it if compression feels too aggressive.
Add punch to the snare
As counterintuitive as it may seem, this is the most commonly used technique when it comes to compressing the snare drums. In order to add more punch to the snare drum, use a very slow attack so that all of the transients come through unaffected and a slow release.
You can set the release by using the technique described in the previous example so that the compression would sound more with the flow of the track. You can combine those attack and release settings with a moderately high threshold, but if you want your snare sound even snappier, you can bring the threshold down even more.
You can set the ratio according to how aggressively you want the compression to sound, but still, a ratio of 5:1 is a very good starting point.