This article originally ran in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Drum Business.
by Ben Meyer
Snare drums are easily the most recognizable voice in the drumkit. The practice of studio drummers using a different snare for every song, in order to change the overall voice of the kit, shows this theory in action. Some players have signature snare sounds that identify them immediately, where others aim for less-distinct tones that blend into the music. Drummers also tend to bring their own snare when playing backline kits, further illustrating the crucial role of the instrument in creating a distinct artistic voice. Here’s what you’ll need to know to help you choose the drum of your dreams.
First, let’s have a look at the different parts of a snare drum and what purpose they serve.
Aside from giving the drum most of its general appearance, the shell also has a huge impact on the sound. Shells are typically made of single or mixed wood species, including maple, birch, mahogany, bubinga, ash, and poplar, or metals, including brass, bronze, steel, and aluminum. More adventurous materials, like carbon fiber, titanium, acrylic, and even glass, are fairly common, as are many rare, indigenous wood species from around the globe.
While most wood shells are made from multiple thin plies formed into a rigid shell through heat and compression, others are made with a single thick, steam-bent ply. Some custom drum makers also use staves, or segments of wood, that are glued together to form the shell. Reinforcement rings are sometimes added to the top and bottom of thinner shells and can be made from the same wood species as the rest of the shell or from a different material.
Looking up what kind of snare was used on a few of your favorite recordings can help you nail down some of the sounds that different shells will yield. There are also tons of snare-demo videos on YouTube, as well as on most drum manufacturers’ websites. There’s a lot more than just shell composition that goes into creating a great snare sound, but this is certainly the foundation of the perfect drum.
Along with a few anomalies, die-cast and triple-flange metal hoops are what you’ll find on most snare drums today. There are a few differences between the two, aside from aesthetics. Die-cast hoops provide a sturdier feel, especially for loud rimshots. They also tend to make the drum ring less and produce fewer overtones. Conversely, triple-flange hoops will allow the drum to ring longer, produce more overtones, and yield greater snare sensitivity. More flexibility and less overall material contacting the drum accounts for these differences. Manufacturers often match hoops to shell designs depending on the characteristics of the shell, but ultimately it’s a matter of personal preference.
Wood hoops are another option and will generally warm up the sound of the drum and change the spectrum of overtones that it produces. They won’t hold up under heavy rimshots the way that metal hoops will, but they’re a nice aesthetic and tonal alternative. Yamaha, Taye, PDP, Gretsch, and others offer production models featuring wood hoops.
Lugs and Tension Rods
Lug designs can have an impact on the overall sound of the drum, but not as much as they did in years past, due to advances in design. Tube lugs place less metal in direct contact with the shell than split or long lugs, thus improving sustain and providing a slightly different sound. There’s a multitude of inventive split-lug designs, and these are often the most recognizable visual aspect of a particular manufacturer’s drums. A few cool innovative designs to check out are Yamaha’s Hook lug, O’Neill’s Kwik lug, Ego’s Quick Release lug, and lugs by Quick Action.
Other methods of tensioning a drumhead, such as rope systems, are used now and then, but tension rods are still the usual choice for drum designers. The rods themselves are fairly standardized, though DW uses a different thread count from everyone else, so be aware of this when selling replacement rods.
Some cool tension-rod locks are available if you’re having trouble with lugs backing out under heavy playing. Rimshot-Locs, Tuner Fish, or Gibraltar Lug Locks could help solve this problem.
These thin, fragile strands give the snare drum its characteristic sound by interacting with the snare-side head when the drum is stuck. Drumset snare drums typically use snares made of coiled wire, also known as snappy snares. These give the drum a bright sound, are very sensitive at all dynamic levels, and don’t muffle the sustain as much as other wire designs do.
Orchestral/concert band snare drums typically employ cable or imitation gut wires for a darker sound with less sustain. Marching and Scottish pipe band snare drums employ a synthetic gut wire made of plastic and sometimes include a second strainer that contacts the batter head for extreme snare response and a very dry sound.
If you’re looking to upgrade an existing drum, look at aftermarket wires, and try thirty- or forty-strand sets if you’re seeking a wider snare sound.
This contraption holds the snares against the snare-side head and provides a means to finely adjust the wire tension. While there are many innovative designs out there, all strainers include some type of mechanism for engaging/disengaging the wires, a fine tension adjustment, and a butt plate to anchor the snares on the side of the shell opposite from the strainer. Trick, Ngage, DW, and Dunnett offer unique replacement strainers that can be easily retrofitted to most drums.
These subtle yet crucial features are contours cut (wood shells) or bent (metal shells) into the bearing edge on the snare side of the shell to allow the wires to lay flat against the head. Without these, the snares would be buzzy and uncontrollable. Some snare beds, especially on vintage drums, are deeper than others. While exact specs vary by manufacturer, all snare drums should include them.
There is no shortage of options in this category, but here are a few guidelines that are helpful in suggesting the best heads for your musical and durability needs. Most players use either single- or double-ply coated batter heads on snare drums, while some prefer pre-muffled models to cut down on the need for dampening materials. Standard go-to models from Remo include Coated Ambassador, Coated Emperor, Emperor X, Coated Controlled Sound (CS) Reverse Dot, and Coated Pinstripe. Popular Evans models include G1 Coated, Genera HD Dry, EC Coated, and EC Reverse Dot Coated. Aquarian’s Texture Coated, Studio-X, and Triple Threat are also popular choices.
Muffling plays a key role in how the snare drum will end up sounding. Some players don’t use any, while some people muffle their snares to death. RTOM Moongel, gaff tape, Drum Magnetic, and RemOs are all good products to try.
There are many variations on the classic three-leg, basket-style snare stand, and some auxiliary snares come with L-arm-style mounting brackets. There’s also a plethora of suspension-mount models that will work for smaller snares. Positioning is very important to most players, as it helps them play consistently from gig to gig, so be sure to add a good-quality stand or mount when you purchase a new snare.
Now let’s look more closely at some of the different types of snare drums that you are likely to be interested in.
Often featuring wood shells, these drums typically feature metal cable snares. Strainers that offer individually selectable cable, snappy, and synthetic gut snare elements are also available, like the Grover G3. Coated or calfskin-type batter heads are standard, and players often employ a healthy amount of muffling.
These drums often employ snappy snares with an array of drumhead choices. A coated single-ply batter, with a few strips of gaffer’s tape or a Moongel, is a great place to start for general playing. Both wood and metal drums in various dimensions are possible, so there’s really no right or wrong. A 14″ drum between 5″ and 6.5″ deep is a great general choice, as it will cover most musical genres.
These high-tension drums are deeper than orchestral or drumset models and usually feature heads made of Kevlar so they can hold up under the extreme conditions of heavy playing, along with temperature and humidity fluctuation from outdoor use. Synthetic gut wires are found on most marching snares, and the hardware is typically made of lightweight aluminum. Most modern marching snares employ a free-floating design, where the hardware doesn’t touch the shell at any point. This helps protect the shell from damage due to the high head tensions used on marching percussion.
These drums are identical to most marching snare drums, except they feature a second set of snares that contact the underside of the batter head. This yields a very dry, crisp, and highly responsive sound.
These drums are primarily used for orchestral, concert band, and percussion-ensemble applications. Designed to resemble the sound of military drums from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, these models usually feature larger diameters and much greater depths than typical orchestral snare drums. Synthetic gut or cable snares are standard, and the drums are usually played at lower tunings. Pearl currently offers two outstanding field models.
These drums feature a shallower shell than standard snare drums and are used mostly in kit applications. Common piccolo depths range from 3″ to 4.5″. These shell sizes tend to have a higher pitch and faster response than drums 5″ in depth or greater, and generally produce less body and thump.
Like piccolo snares, these drums feature nonstandard shell dimensions. Common soprano snare shells measure between 5″ and 7″ deep and 10″ or 12″ in diameter. Generally these drums have a high-pitched sound with more body than what you get from a piccolo. Popcorn snares often come in shallower sizes.
The smallest and highest pitched of the lot, these drums can get down to 6″ in diameter and only a few inches deep. Some feature a traditional two-head design, while others have only one head and use a fanned snare that contacts the underside of the batter head. These drums can also be used to create convincing timbale-like tones when the snares are disengaged.
It’s a good idea to have the basics of changing drumheads and tuning at your fingertips. Here are a few tips.
- Remove the old head by backing off the tension evenly around the drum to avoid warping the hoop.
- Clean drumstick dust, dirt, and grime from inside the shell and around the bearing edges. Take a few seconds to feel around the bearing edge to be sure that there aren’t any defects. A serious dent in the bearing edge can make tuning more difficult.
- Center the new head on the shell and finger-tighten all lugs before using a drum key. This helps prevent stripping and will help you tune the head more evenly.
- Tighten each lug no more than a half turn at a time, using a crossing pattern. Once the head reaches a medium tension, place the drum on the floor, your lap, or a table to mute the opposite head, and begin tapping with your finger at the edge of the head near each tension rod. Even out the pitch of each lug until you get an even, ringing harmonic without wobbling overtones. Pressing firmly on the head between tunings will help ensure that the plastic is properly seated against the bearing edge.
Generally you’ll tune the snare-side head for snare response and the top head for feel and pitch. Tune the tension rods on either side of the snare beds a half turn looser than the rest of the head for the best snare response. Tune and muffle the top head to taste while keeping the pitch at all lugs the same.
Don’t forget to consider common add-ons, like extra heads, sticks, muffling materials, spare tension rods, and cases. Look up the specs on your favorite players’ snares and test out similar instruments, heads, and accessories that fit your budget. Good luck, and happy drumming!
And be sure to check out our other What You Need to Know About features here.