The relationship between the low thump of the kick and the high crack of the snare drum are what drive the rhythm of nearly every contemporary music hit of the 20th and 21st centuries. The snare is particularly infamous for being the bane of all mixing engineer’s tracks. Too loud and it pierces deep within the ear and causes frustration for the listener. Too quiet and the track won’t have that punch it needs to really invoke the listener’s emotion.
So what’s the correct balance? Why does your snare seem to sound “off” no matter what you try? Is there an exact preset to get the perfect snare every time? You might be surprised. Today I’ll talk about some tips you can bring into your mixing to ensure a fair balance between the snare and the rest of your sounds.
What it boils down to is that there’s no single rule you can follow to get your snare levels right every time. You must always listen to your mix. While you can learn by emulating others, in the end you have to find the snare sound that works for you within your unique mix.
The exact dB of your different instruments within the mix is something I don’t want to focus too heavily on here. You can scroll through a thousand music production forums and mixing articles on the internet and see a thousand different numbers thrown around for where your levels should be.
Anywhere from -15dB to -5dB, which is a massive difference entirely predicated on the advice of internet strangers with Ableton free trials or antiquated “industry standards” that are becoming more and more obsolete with how many self-taught internet producers dominate the top of the charts nowadays.
Generally speaking, you want your kick and snare to be at similar levels, without one overpowering the other. They are the centerpiece of your drums and integral to the rhythm of the entire track, so their levels should always be close together.
There are exceptions to this, like the rising popularity of the New York drill subgenre of hip-hop, which puts massive emphasis on the kick and bass with extremely small sounding snares creating this interesting push-and-pull between massive sound and quiet silence on the up and down beats (A good example of this being the Sleepy Hallow track “4or Daze”).
The reality is the loudness of your snare needs to be considered in relation to the loudness of the rest of your mix, and the type of music you’re producing can change where you want that loudness drastically.
From the hard hitting, distorted snares of EDM music to the soft and meticulous brush-hit snare of a jazz track, every genre brings it’s own challenges and needs for a great mix. These sonic differences should absolutely come into consideration with how you decide to mix your track.
The average top 40 song in 2021 is going to have the kick and snare prioritized as the stars of the show. Sometimes being so prevalent within the mix that most of the actual instrumentation is more or less sidelined in favor of ensuring the kick and snare, along with the bass and vocals, are the loudest and have the best balance between each other.
This is especially true of a lot of the most popular hip-hop and trap music right now. Listen to any of Drake or Young Thug’s most recent releases and you’ll hear a massive emphasis on that strong kick, snare and 808; with the samples used quietly looping away in the background.
In contrast, a more laid back jazz or r&b track might let the drums take more of a background role so the vocals and whatever instruments that accompany them, be it sensual guitar and bass or illustrious horns, can shine in the forefront. The drums would serve more to accentuate, the kick pumping up the downbeat with the bass and the snare bringing that quiet rhythm home.
Meanwhile a lot of modern rock is all about how loud and crunchy essentially the entire mix can be. Listen to Foo Fighters or Queens Of The Stone Age’s most recent output and you’ll hear the kick and the snare right at the same level, more or less melded together by compression, and oftentimes a little drowned out by the equally crunchy and distorted vocals and guitar-bass combo.
Listen to the mix
The key is to be observant of whatever genre you’d like to mix. When I was still learning to mix and running a DIY recording studio out of my garage, I took every new artist or band with a sound different to anything I’d recorded or mixed before as a challenge.
I remember once I had a bluegrass trio come in to record an EP. Before then I’d basically only ever mixed hip-hop and punk music.
I had tailored all of my mixing knowledge around these loud, rambunctious tracks meant to blow out speakers and fill every inch of a mosh pit with wave forms that look more like rectangles than waves.
Bluegrass, in contrast, is a very quiet genre. Full of plucky mandolin and banjo working together beautifully with fiddles and multi-layered vocal harmonies that could make a New Yorker feel like they were living in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
It was an enormous difficulty to mix at first as I had no idea how to adjust my mix around this quiet style of music. My solution was to listen to as much bluegrass as possible.
I’d spend days combing through albums in similar genres and listen very closely to observe the differences, some subtle and some glaringly not-so, in the timbre and balance of their sounds. From the Punch Brothers to the Avett Brothers to the Stanley Brothers (bluegrass is like %90 bands full of brothers), I studied as much as possible and slowly made adjustments to my own mixes based on what I was hearing.
There’s nothing wrong with learning from and being inspired by the great artists that have come before you. And once you’ve become comfortably familiar within the sound you can start adding your own flair to things. Experimenting and inventing new ways push the sound forward.
It’s an old cliche, classic to any new skill, but persistence and experience are the absolute keys to crafting great mixes. Odds are the first time you mix a snare it’s not going to sound like what you’re envisioning in your mind.
It probably won’t sound like that the first couple dozen times you mix.
It’s all about creating a mix, listening back to it, listening to it in relation to the songs you’re aspiring to create, and making small adjustments here and there to gradually get better over time.
For me, it took a couple years of chipping away at it whenever I could between work and school before I finally got to a place where I could say I’m no longer an amateur or aspiring audio engineer.
And still to this day I’ll have times where I make a dozen different mixes of a single track and don’t like the way the kick and snare sound.
The best thing I’ve found for those kinds of situations is to step away for a while. Maybe just for a couple hours or maybe a couple weeks, but clearing your head of that kind of tunnel vision every audio engineer can get staring at a screen for hours listening to the same sounds over and over again can give amazing new perspective on the direction the mix needs to take.
- Study the genre you want to mix.
- Explore and experiment once you’re comfortable.
- Don’t forget to step away if need be.
Keep the kick and the snare at similar volume levels and make them the stars of your show. Don’t be afraid to work with the drummer (Or producer if you’re making electronic or hip-hop) to get the snare to the right place if you just aren’t feeling the sound of the snare from the first recording.
A lot of engineers can be timid when it comes to approaching the artists with constructive criticism, especially if it’s a bigger name artist. They want their song to sound amazing, same as you, so throw your hat in the ring. If you can get people’s heads and feet moving just with a driving drum line, you’re doing something right.
That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day, right? That involuntary movement great music brings out of people. That pure and unbridled emotional energy created by good songwriters and launched into the stars by an audio engineer who can take the sound to the next level.