Everyone loves a superb snare sound. Even those who don’t know it; listeners involuntarily tap and clap along to the backbeat, and if it cuts through a track with power and style then it can make the hairs on your neck stand up. In fact, drummers and music producers are generally very particular about snare sounds, both in live performances and when recording or mixing a song in the studio. It can be one of the true defining ‘sonic signatures’ of a recording, and we often crave the ‘perfect snare sound’ in the same way that a guitarist spends years developing their ideal tone combination of guitar, effects pedals and amplifiers, or a pianist might be excited to play one type of piano but feel another, however expensive, just doesn’t fit their style. To us drummers, we have our snares and we are very passionate about them!
Of course, there isn’t a single ‘perfect snare’ – and we’re lucky that there are so many different types out there to experiment with; made of solid materials, heavy wood, ply constructions, steel, bronze, titanium, even clear perspex. And what’s more, we can put different types of drumheads on to change the sound characteristics, and even when we have our perfect combination, every snare can be tuned in hundreds of different ways! So how do we make sense of finding the perfect snare sound, and how do we go about finding it with our very own snare drums. Well, first let’s strip it back to simple principles… there are two most valuable things to consider when snare drum tuning, as with all drum tuning, which is:
- To ensure that the drumheads are tuned evenly and accurately
- To tune the snare to a pitch that is to your personal preference
When considering the first point – of evenness and accuracy – like all drums, we want the drumheads to be evenly tuned so that they vibrate with a smooth vibration profile, uniform overtones at each lug position, and no beat frequencies such as those we discussed in the Lug Tuning tutorial. Equally, we want the two drumheads to be tuned well relative to each other, as discussed in the Resonant Head Tuning tutorial previously; we don’t want one drumhead really tight and the other really slack, we want both to be operating in a similar range of tension, so that they work together and create a strong pitch for the drum.
The second point – tuning the pitch to personal preference – is the fun bit. All drums sound great at a few different frequencies, tuned low and powerful or tuned high and cutting, it really depends on your personal taste and the type of music you are playing. So it’s worth tuning a snare to two or three different pitches and deciding for yourself which suits your style and music – you may even find that different snare pitches work best on different songs. Here’s a quick pointer for starters: if using a standard 14” snare, you’ll most likely find it sounds great tuned low with a pitch of about 160 Hz and tuned high at a pitch of about 200 Hz, and also anywhere in between. Any lower than 160 Hz on a 14″ snare is a bit boomy for a good snare sound, and pushing much higher than 200 Hz starts to get to the point where the drumheads are so tight they become choked and may even break. Of course, thinner drumheads and smaller diameter snares can go up to higher frequencies, so if you are using a 12” or 13” snare, then you’ll need to experiment to find the perfect range – you can do that following the same approach as in this tutorial video here, which demonstrates a solid oak De Broize custom snare:
The video shows tuning a snare from scratch, starting with completely loose lugs on both the batter and resonant drumheads. There is a fairly systematic approach shown in the video, as follows in this 12-step process:
- Start with all lugs loose on both batter and resonant drumheads
- Tighten the batter head lugs all to ‘finger tight’, to ensure that each lug has a similar tightness – even though this will still be too loose for the drumhead to vibrate properly
- Give each lug a 90 or 180 degree turn with the drum key, using a star form approach, this brings the drumhead up to a sensible tightness so it can vibrate.
- Perform steps 1 and 2 on the resonant drumhead also.
- With the snare wires off, take a reading at the centre of the drum, the pitch will no doubt be too low for a really good snare sound.
- Aim to tune the drum up to your preferred pitch. At this point you need to perform the same action to both the batter and resonant drumheads, to ensure they stay fairly evenly tuned relative to each other. To do this, give each lug on the batter head a quarter turn (90 degrees) and then do the same on the resonant drumhead.
- Again, with the snare wires off, listen to the pitch of the drum and take a reading at the centre of the drum with iDrumTune, it should have gone up from the previous reading and the drum should start to sound quite good. Put the snare wires on and see how you feel about the overall sound.
- Now double check the evenness of the batter head with Lug Tuning mode and the snare wires off. You will need to be sure that you are analysing the F1 (overtone/edge) frequency at each lug position. To find out what the F1 frequency overtone is, you might need to take a reading with the spectrum analyser, to see how it differs from the center (F0) frequency. You might also need to use iDrumTune’s Target Filter feature, to ensure that you are analysing the F1 frequency when in Lug Tuning mode. Go around the drum and make sure all the lugs are within 1 or 2 Hz of each other.
- You might want to experiment taking the drum to a higher frequency. So give each lug another quarter turn, again using a star pattern – again, do this on both the batter and resonant drumheads.
- Now assess the pitch again with iDrumTune’s Pitch Tuning mode – it will be higher again in frequency than the previous setup. Maybe you prefer the drum at this pitch, or maybe you want to try to take it higher still. You need to keep going up in small increments, tuning up both the batter and resonant heads by similar amounts. Be careful to identify when the drumhead is getting to its limit, you don’t want to tighten it to the point where it breaks!
- Once you have the drum at a fundamental pitch that you really like, tune the snare wires off and perform the Lug Tuning, to make sure the drumhead is evenly tuned. It’s less important to perform Lug Tuning on the resonant drumhead, but you can do this too.
- Finally, it’s worth double checking the Resonant Tuning Factor of the drumheads by using Resonant Tuning mode in iDrumTune. They should be in a good place if you have followed these steps, but we recommend aiming for an RTF value of 1.5 ideally – though some drums sound great with RTF at about 1.6 or a little higher.
Here’s another video following the first parts of the 12-step approach, this time quickly and easily tuning up a steel Ludwig Supralite from scratch:
And the following video shows the latter points of the 12-step process in action too, performing some final lug tuning and resonant head tuning to get the perfect end result.
The reason we perform the analysis with iDrumTune with the snare wires removed/off is that it allows the drumheads to vibrate more freely and for both the app, and our ears, to get a good understanding of the tone of the drum. That way we can make good accurate judgements on how evenly the drumheads are tuned and make a good judgement of the overall pitch from day to day and between sessions. Of course, make your final judgement on your preferred pitch to tune too based on the sound with the wires switched on. It’s good advice to tension the snare wires so that they are not loose and rattling, but equally not too tightly locked against the resonant head, which chokes the drum and stops the heads vibrating properly in unison. Of course, there are no rules in realty – so if you like the way it sounds, that’s great! The iDrumTune app is great to help you first to be sure the snare’s drumheads are evenly and accurately tuned, to help you understand what snare tunings you personally like the sound of, and to be sure that you are able to achieve that sound on all occasions, from day-to-day, when changing drumheads or between studio sessions.
The iDrumTune app also allows us to make comparisons and judgements between the sounds of different drums. It’s very hard to compare the sound of one drum to another, without being sure they are tuned identically. Only when you can be sure that two drums are tuned to exactly the same pitch and overtones can you decide if you prefer the sound of one or another. The iDrumTune app makes this very easy. In the following video, we take three 14” snare drums, all of different shell depths and with different shell materials and built using different construction methods (and all with slightly different drumhead types), and we tune them all exactly the same. The iDrumTune app allows us to be sure that they are all tuned to exactly the same frequencies, and then we can make a judgement on which we prefer the sound of and which might best suit the style of music we are playing.
The three 14” snare drums compared are as follows:
- De Broize Custom, solid oak, 6.5” depth, coated Remo Black Spot drumhead
- Ludwig Supralite, steel, 6.5” depth, coated Ludwig standard snare drumhead
- Tama Superstar, 6-ply birch, 5.5” depth, coated Remo Pinstripe drumhead
What’s great, is that when these drums are tuned well, they all sound fantastic at a number of different pitches. In the video we see them all tuned from 160 Hz to 200 Hz, and although they all have a different character, they are all good and some people will prefer some over others. In summary, subjectively from our perspective, The De Broize drum has a very warm character, which no doubt comes from the solid wood design, and provides a really good balance of tone between depth and sharpness, meaning it works great for many genres and styles and has a sonic ‘richness’ that many drummers and studio producers crave. The steel Ludwig unsurprisingly has a really cutting character and some detailed overtones that do not become overpowering of the fundamental pitch – this drum will work great for rock and metal when cranked high but also as a very musical sounding drum when tuned lower, so can suit other styles and genres too. The Tama Superstar is surprisingly good for a budget snare and stands up alongside the more expensive drums. It seems to come into its own when cranked to higher frequencies and the damped (Remo Pinstripe) drumhead allows the overtones to stay controlled, giving the drum a controlled pitch and overall tone that can suit many styles and genres.
An interesting point from filming the comparison video above, is that, in the room and in the AKG C414 overhead microphone (off screen), the drums sounded really quite similar with just subtle perceivable differences in sonic characteristics. But when the close Shure Beta 57 microphone sound was mixed into the playback (as in the final video), the differences between the drums and their different drumheads becomes a lot more apparent. This shows the benefit and sonic opportunities when a close mic on a snare for a recoding session, which is regarded as a creative skill in its own right.
Given that each drum is tuned identically in each comparison, the difference in the sound we hear between each drum is called the ‘timbre’ of the sound. Timbre means everything else in the sound that can’t be defined by the tuning (pitch and related overtones) or the volume. The point being that we can manipulate (tune) the drumheads to vibrate exactly the same for each drum, but they still sound different, owing to the drum depth, materials and construction methods used. It applies exactly the same for all instruments – a perfect middle C note can be played on two pianos, but will sound subtly different depending on how the piano was built. Equally, a middle C on a trumpet is identical in pitch and tuning to the same note on a clarinet, but the timbre of the instrument defines the unmistakable difference between the two sounds. It’s also valuable to note, as with all vibrating musical devices, particularly strings and drumheads, that the heaver heads (and this includes 2-ply heads) have a lower frequency range than lighter drumheads, so if you want to tune your snare up to even higher frequencies than those shown in the video, consider using a thinner or lighter drumheads on the batter side.
In this tutorial on snare tuning, we brought together a few concepts around drum tuning that we have covered individually in earlier tutorials. So, if some of the information here is not 100% clear or obvious, it may be worth going back to our earlier tutorials on the following subjects:
- Setting drumheads and tuning ‘finger tight’ in our Drum Tuning 101 tutorial
- Understanding the fundamental (F0) and overtone (F1) frequencies of a cylindrical drum
- Evening the drumheads with Lug Tuning
- Checking the relative tuning of the two drumheads with Tuning the Resonant Drumhead
- Using the iDrumTune Spectrum Analyser and Target Filter features
Feel free to send us details of what frequencies you tune your snares to, by posting in this tutorial’s comments thread or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to build a database of different snares and potential tuning settings based on your own experiences!
By Professor Rob Toulson – Professor of Musical Acoustics and Inventor of iDrumTune Pro.
iDrumTune Pro is available in the Apple and Google Play App Stores for iOS and Android.