Four Creative Ideas for Sitting the Snare in a Mix
Snare drums. Usually, they’re an integral element of a song. It’s also one of those elements that has a reputation for not wanting to play nice with the balance of a mix. Sometimes you get a track to mix and for whatever reason (tonality, dynamics, performance, etc…) the snare just won’t sit in with the rest of the track. It feels detached. On top. It’s own weird separate entity. Straight volume, EQ, and compression are the usual suspects we turn to when trying to get a snare to blend in, but there are some other fun & creative techniques to help solve this problem as well. Here are a some of my favourite solutions in no particular order:
1) SLAP DELAY
Using a delay plugin (mono usually), I’ll insert it right on the snare track. Then using a 16th note (maybe a triplet) or something in the 80ms to 130ms range for a delay time, I’ll mix in anywhere from 2% to 10% of the delay with the dry signal (maybe more). I’ll also low pass the delay quite heavily (4kHz or less). This little bit of slap adds some length to snare and kind of pushes it back into the rest of the kit. Also, if the snare is sending to some reverb the verb will then help add some additional length and ambience, which might help even more. A bit of a variation on this idea is to use a pitch shift plugin of some sort (Soundtoys Microshift or Unfiltered Audio Fault come to mind) and add a pitched mono or stereo slap to the snare.
I’m always fascinated by how many problems distortion solves. Our ears love it, which I’m grateful for because distorting stuff is always a blast! So if a snare isn’t blending in I’ll reach for some sort of distortion or saturation plugin. Actually I should really say I’ll reach for more distortion. 90% of the time I’ll already be distorting the snare in some sort of capacity! Generally, I lean on the UAD Thermionic Culture Vulture, Waves Manny Marroquin Distortion, Soundtoys Decapitator, or trusty old Avid Lofi to get the job done here. The Waves Scheps Omnichannel and Elysia Karacter are new favourites for this task as well. Again, I will insert it directly onto the snare track. Most of the time I just want the distortion to be felt, but sometimes it needs to be audible. The distortion helps soften the transient, brings up some of the sustain, and adds some harmonic fuzz. I kind of think of it as blurring the lines of the snare (if that makes any sense) which helps connect it to the rest of the mix.
3) STEREO IMAGING
Sometimes just pushing the image a bit wider or reducing the centre information of the snare can help tuck it in. Like distortion, I think of this as a line blurring technique as well. Inserting directly onto the channel, I’ll use any number of magical widening plugins. Ozone Imager (FREE!), SPL Vitalizer MK2-T, or the bx_stereomaker are all excellent options. Once I’ve got the plugin on, I’ll just push the width until I hear the snare sit down into the mix. If you have a multi-band imager available, sometimes it’s great to just push the top or mids and leave to bottom mono for power. A bit variation here is to use a stereo delay either inserted directly or on a send and gently mix in some super short stereo delay. Maybe 3 or 5 milliseconds on the right and 13 or 17 ms on the right. Another option, which lives in both the imaging and volume worlds, is to use some mid/side volume control. Waves Center or the UAD Precision K-Stereo Ambience Recovery work great for this. You can pull down some of the mid information and push it out to the sides. So you can keep the impact, but change a bit of the focus.
4) AMBIENCE SQUEEZING
Technically, this falls into the category of compression, but it is creative parallel compression! This usually only works well with live snares or samples that have some ambience baked in. A dry snare sample may not work, but always worth a try! I’ll usually duplicate the snare track for this so I’ll have parallel control. Then on the parallel track, I’ll insert a compressor and then squeeze the living daylights out of the snare using some higher ratio, super fast attack, and fast to medium release settings. Essentially, I’m looking to totally obliterate the attack and sustain of the snare and just end up with ambience of it. This might take a bit of messing around with release times, but once I have the ambience I want out of the snare I might EQ or distort it to taste and then gently blend it back in until I hear it helping suck the snare back into the mix. Certainly just using some reverb is an alternative, but I find squeezing the ambience out of the existing snare can create something more interesting and unique! UAD 1176, Kush Pusher, or the Scheps Omnichannel are all great options here!
These are a few of my favourite techniques and the great thing about them is you don’t just have to use one of them at a time! Lots of times I’ll combine two or three of these to help get the snare living in the mix and create the vibe I’m looking for! If you have any cool and fun ways to help tuck a troublesome snare into a mix I’d love to hear it!