Shop Talk

Tuning Your Snare Drum

by Gary Montgomery

A common complaint among many drummers is excessive snare drum rattling and buzzing when striking another drum in the set. Another familiar complaint is, “my snare drum just never sounds crisp enough.” Bear in mind that there will always be some degree of buzzing from the snares which simply cannot be prevented. However, most of the problems with the snare drum can be remedied, and are generally caused by incorrect tuning and inability to achieve a correct balance between the two heads and the snare wires.

Much has been written on tuning techniques and it has generally been accepted that heads should be tensioned evenly. The pitch emitted from the head in front of each tension rod should be uniform. With tom-toms, the balance between the top and bottom head is a critical factor in the tone and pitch of the drum.

There are three main alternatives: Top head tight-bottom head loose; top head loose-bottom head tight; or both heads with equal tension. The snare drum, however, requires much more attention than other drums because of the effect snare wires or gut have on the sound of the drum. To decide which alternative to use to achieve the sound and response you’re after, it is necessary to examine the snare action principle closely.

When the batter head is struck, air is forced downwards which forces the snare head and the snare wire downwards. The bottom head snaps back to its normal position followed by the snare wire thus producing the characteristic “snap” as it makes contact with the bottom head. If the bottom head is very loose, there is little or no resistance to the rush of air and so the head moves freely downwards. The snare reaction is also very slow and weak. As the bottom head is tightened, resistance to the air becomes greater and there is less movement of the head, resulting in a faster recovery time and producing a drier, snappier sound. The sound with a loose head is best described as wet or soggy. If the bottom head is over-tensioned and the downwards motion completely restricted, the snare wire will hardly move at all and so fail to produce any lively snap.

Also, consider what the tension of the snare wire does to the sound. With a normal “flop-off snare release, the strainer stretches the wires and applies pressure upon the bottom head, as well. This of course, creates a great deal of tension on the drum shell. The snare-rail type assembly eliminates shell tension. The wire stretching is accomplished on the assembly itself. The adjustor on the release mechanism merely applies upward pressure against the head. This normally results in a much crisper sound. Not everyone likes this sound, but most people prefer the pin-point definition it affords.

The full length parallel-action snare mechanism acts in much the same way, but requires more sophisticated machinery either inside or outside the drum. It has the advantage, however, of preventing the snare wire from bouncing against the head when it’s used as a tom-tom.

If we take the first example of tuning where we have a sloppy snare head, and apply a very tight snare wire, the skin actually becomes choked. As the snares are loosened, the drum starts to sound wetter. If the head is tightened, then tighten the snare wire as well, otherwise a rattling or hum may ensue.

When tuning the snare drum, place it on a carpet or a bed and release the snare completely to remove the overtones from the opposite head. Tune the top head until it reaches satisfactory tension. Turn the drum over and tension this head evenly, while holding the snare wires away from the head. It’s simply a matter of experimentation to decide on the degree of tension you prefer. Remember, you may need to use the snare drum as an extra tom-tom, so the sound should be tested on tom-tom as well.

Don’t assume that once you’ve worked out a tuning system for your snare drum, that it will work exactly the same with every other snare drum. Shell materials, the weight of the snare wire, and the type of heads are significant to the final sound.

Remember also, the fantastic sound you get in your practice room may sound terrible in the club. This can be most frustrating. However, if you follow the above suggestions and carefully experiment at home, you should be able to adjust your sound to suit any situation. Experiment logically with your drum, and you will soon be able to achieve any sound you desire.