How to Compress a Snare Drum for Rock Music


Image of chrome snare drum

If you’re anything like me then I can assume you’re always looking for the best original techniques for mixing your music at home or in the studio. Sometimes all it takes is for one person to share a tiny piece of information or a tip about the mix then BAM, it all clicks! 

Using compression and applying it to specific instruments is an element of mixing that to me is crucial in getting that full commercial sound we’re all looking for. 

Today we’re talking about using compression on a snare drum and how it can be super effective for getting that sweet consistent tone in your songs.

Using compression on a snare drum is very important especially if you’re trying to have a snare sounding full and consistent throughout the track.

Whether you’re using a light compression style or heavy, having some type of control over the snare will allow you to effectively place it in the mix without it being too hot or getting lost. Skipping the compressor can lead to an inconsistent snare sound across the board and could hide a lot of the genius being played by the musician.

There are a number of ways to compress your snare drum and it all depends on the vibe of the music you’re mixing. For rock music, I tend to do things on the more aggressive side of processing to add more punch. If the snare drum has a lot of dynamics that you want to control, then using a heavier threshold/Ratio can do just that. 

Going for that raw vibe? Then using a lighter threshold/smaller ratio is the way to go. It’s all about the perception of quieter and louder notes. At the end of the day, it comes down to taste and feel anyway. 

I personally always throw a compressor on my snare drum channel just because to me it makes it pop more. Giving it a lot more consistency throughout a song as well as keeping it from not getting lost in a mix full of other instruments. 

What are the different functions on a compressor?

Let’s talk about the different parameters on a compressor so you can feel confident when navigating its functions. 

No matter what kind of compressor you’re using whether it’s analog or digital you will usually find similar settings. So once you understand one compressor you can maneuver through pretty much any brand of compressor.

Threshold

The threshold parameter determines at which level the compressor starts working. If you set your threshold to -10db, the compressor will reduce the volume of every waveform that goes louder than -10db. A low threshold means that almost all of your audio will be compressed, while a high threshold means that only the loudest peaks will be compressed.

Wherever you set your threshold level, the compressor will begin to operate at that point. To find the sweet spot, play the loudest part of the song or a section that has a lot of dynamics.

Then apply the threshold until you see and feel the audio pushing against that ceiling you’ve created. 

Setting the threshold can be completely based on taste. Sometimes having it be really high and heavy can give you that unique sound you’re looking for. If you want it to be less noticeable and more subtle then it’s probably a good idea to set the threshold lower so it’s just lightly tapping the highest peaks produced by your snare. The audio that’s passing that ceiling point will be pulled back beneath the threshold point.

Ratio

The ratio determines how much compression you want your signal to have after it passes the threshold you’ve set. The compressor works harder or softer depending on the tone you’re looking for. 

If you set the ratio to as high as it can go, when the audio reaches the set threshold the compressor is going to control that peak aggressively making sure it doesn’t go louder than your set threshold point. 

For a snare drum I tend to set the ratio more in the middle. Between 3:1 maybe 5:1.

Again, a lot of compression decisions are based totally around taste. My advice is, try it all out. A B test the two different options and see which you like better. Which setting makes you feel the song grooving more naturally..

Release

The release of a compressor will allow you to control the speed in which the compressor will react to the sound after it has passed the threshold. Release time determines how long you want the compressor to take to reach its original starting point until the next time a sound passes through. 

A slower release is naturally going to create a smoother texture from the compressor. A good tip for getting a good release setting is to follow the tempo of the song. I like to let the compressor move either with the speed of the rhythm section or slightly behind it. This creates a nice swing type effect using compression.

Attack

Attack is simply the opposite of release. How fast do you want the compressor to react at the moment the sound is produced until it reaches the threshold.

How soon do you want the compressor to work when the sound enters the compressor. I think a rule of thumb for the majority of attack settings is to keep it fast. 10ms is a pretty safe place to start for snare drum.

Allowing the compressor to work relatively immediately as soon as the sound happens. It’s fast enough so the human ear can’t really hear the delay in the control of the compressor working.

Sidechain

I love using sidechaining! I think sidechaining is a CRUCIAL tool inside the compressor that gives you so much control and thickness in the mix as a whole. Sidechaining is the act of telling the compressor to duck (lowering or removing the currently played sound) when another sound or instrument occurs. 

Let’s say you set your key source on the compressor of your snare drum to be triggered by the kick. This means that every time the kick drum plays, your snare sound will lower in volume until the kick drum is gone. When you set up your sidechain, the threshold parameter will then dictate the amount of ducking you want to happen to your snare.

Sidechaining is a great tool to gain control and focus on a specific sound or moment. If you want the snare to always be heard no matter how loud something else got, you could set the snare to be your key source on a different channel or instrument that may be in the same frequency range. Making the snare be that focused sound in the mix that’s now ducking whatever sound you set the sidechain on. 

There’s definitely a lot to absorb on this one, but the best way to understand anything is to try it out at home and exaggerate the amount of it so you can really hear the ducking. Then dial it back until it feels natural.

Hear the change in how you’re affecting the audio. Once you set it up the way you like it, bypass the compressor to hear the original before and after the compressor.

Output/Makeup Gain

In the act of compressing a sound, in theory, we’re kind of saying, “hey loud sound, I don’t want you to get louder than the ceiling I’ve set for you. Either listen to me a lot or a little (Ratio), but either way I’ve set a threshold for you to not go past.”

Therefore whatever sound that passes the threshold and is being compressed down will naturally be lowered in actual volume and level. 

We call this gain reduction. 

The makeup gain or output is simply used to put back the gain (volume) that was reduced from our compression. You can usually get a sense of how much reduction is happening based on a needle bouncing or numbers on a graph reacting to the sound. 

In return this makes the quiet parts closer to the louder parts because now the entire sound of that audio is brought back up to the original gain of the sound.

Parallel Compression

Parallel compression is the idea of splitting the job of the compressor between two compressors allowing for them to not work as hard to get the same result. This could be great for adding textures between two different compressors and could also make detailed compression strategies more available. Definitely can get a really nice tone and smoothness by using parallel compression.

Leave the loud attack while boosting quieter sections

https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/parallel-compression

Knee

The Knee is all about the lead up to the threshold point you’ve set. Do you want the compressor to work immediately or gradually once at the threshold? The Knee can help soften thecompressors application as the sound makes its way to the threshold point. I like using a medium Knee simply to get that balanced effect of having the compressor not work too much or too little.

Hopefully this helps clean up any confusion about some of the basic parameters you’ll commonly find on most compressors. Now let’s dive into setting your snare compressor to get that dream sound you’ve been working for.

How to apply compression to your snare drum

1. Choose your Compressor

Find a compressor plug in and click on it so it’s active on the snare drum channel. There’s so many different brands of compressors as well as really cheap or free plugins to give you some different tastes without having to spend a lot of money. My favorite affordable tube compressor plug in is the “ Klanghelm MJUC”. This compressor is great for tone and saturation. A stock compressor can definitely do the trick though.

2. Find the loudest section of the song

Play a part in the song where the snare drum is either being used a lot or is being played at its loudest volume.

3. Set your Threshold

Identify your limits using the threshold knob to then set where you want the loudest snare

transients (peak) to be controlled. The subtleness of the threshold will be up to you.

4. Set your Ratio

Set the ratio roughly between 3:1 and 5:1. (Remember it’s all about how it makes you feel and what you hear. These are just starting points to get going.)

5. Apply Makeup Gain

Use the makeup gain to bring the volume of the snare back to the original gain it was before

compression happened. Watch the needle to determine how much gain reduction there is. 

Then push that gain back in by increasing the makeup gain.

6. Set your Attack and Release times

I like to keep the attack fast and release in time with the song. Sometimes it helps to move

your body with the snare while watching the needle to be able to time it out right. Like I said

earlier though I also like to set the release slightly slower than the tempo of the song to give a

little movement to the snare.

7. Set your Knee settings

Set a mild knee that works with the style of the song

8. Bypass and Compare

At this point I would try and bypass the compressor all together to hear the difference in what

you’ve done. This will give you a good idea if you’re going in a direction you like or if you need

to adjust the parameters a little more. Either to make it more aggressive or less.

9. Bring your snare into the mix

Once you like your compressor setting you can then pull down the fader on the channel all the way to then slowly bring it back into the mix to find your perfect spot for the drum. Now that the snare drum has some punch, tightness and control to it, finding that sweet spot in the mix should be much easier now because the sound of the snare is more consistent than before compression. 

To Sum it all up

Compression on a snare drum is just as important as compressing any other sound

or instrument in a project. Especially for genres like rock. 

The idea is to get control of the entire recording and to give it more energy in tone and density. Compression can bring a sound to life because you’re not only bringing the quieter parts of that sound up, but also the louder parts of that sound down. 

There are so many great sounding compressors that have so many different tones and saturation choices. Find some that work for you!

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