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After my recent post about doctoring your snare sound in the studio, I feel obligated to mention something about the more important factor in studio snare sound: deciding WHEN to use a doctored sound. Like I said before, the snare tone is a crucial element in the overall feel and vibe of a track, so you don’t want to use a strange muffling technique just for the fun of it. The snare sound you choose needs to fit the song.

The main issue is context. In fact, this is true for music generally, not just studio snare tone. Context is king. A fill is not “cool” on it’s own… it is only cool when it fits well in the moment that you play it. Consequently, a fill that you hear on a record might be really cool in the song where you heard it, and not so cool in your own band’s song (especially if your song is a significantly different musical environment). The same is true of snare tone – the “coolness” of a snare sound is directly related to the context of the track you are playing.

So, how does a drummer develop a knack for picking the right snare tone for the studio? In my opinion, musical skills like this are always gained through listening. How often do you make a mental note on the kind of snare tone your favorite drummer is using on a given track? More importantly, how often do you pay attention to the characteristics of the rest of the song and how they might have impacted the decision to use a given snare tone? This kind of awareness in your listening will jump-start your ear for snare sound and context in a big way.

A good record to listen to along these lines would be John Mayer’s “Continuum.” Steve Jordan produced the album and played drums on the whole thing. The first 5 tracks all have noticeably different snare sounds, and they fit so well with the songs.

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In a pop/rock studio environment, the tone of your snare is the biggest factor in establishing a particular vibe or feel for a song (as far as the drummer is concerned). The entire sonic landscape of your groove will change as your snare tone changes. A rimshot is a great way to capture a vibrant and energetic sound… but that’s not always what you want. For example, the current “new face” on the female pop scene is Sara Bareilles, with her single “Love Song.” Matt Chamberlain played on that track (a player I greatly admire), and his snare is a big, fat rimshot with tons of life. However, track 7 on that disc (“Between the Lines”) is a totally different snare tone. Chamberlain used a dark, papery sound on track 7, with a lot less “crack” and a lot more “push.” It’s most likely a different drum entirely, but odds are it’s also heavily doctored.

A drummer will do a lot of weird things to a drum in the studio in order to capture the right sound.┬áHere’s a few of the “weird things” I do from time to time…

1) Newspaper. Throw a couple sheets of newspaper on your drum and just let them sit loosely on the head while you play. It’s a cool vintage sound that muffles some of the ring (depending on how many sheets you put on there). Notebook paper works too… but newspaper has a slightly different sound to it that I like better.

2) A towel. Or maybe a T-shirt… or a pillow case. They all have different thickness so try each one – my favorite is the pillowcase. Cut it up so it’s only 1-ply (but large enough to cover the whole drum) and then just drape it over the drumhead. This is another “muffled” sound but it’s characteristics are totally different than the newspaper.

3) A block of wood. More muffling with a different sound quality. I totally stole this from Steve Jordan when I saw him doing it on his DVD, “The Groove Is Here.” I’ve tried it a few times and it works great. Grab a somewhat thin piece of wood (like a 2×4 or something… maybe 6 inches long) and set if up on the top portion of the head (close to your rack tom). Tape it down a little so it doesn’t bounce. Guys will often use their wallet for a similar sound, but the wood block has it’s own vibe.

4) Your keys. Seriously… your car keys or something. This is another idea I picked up from my former teacher Dave King. Just set your keys on the head off to the side. It’s a really cool “synthetic” sound, like a drum machine or something. This same idea can work with a small tambourine.

5) Splash cymbal. This is one that I discovered on my own and it totally rules. Get a small splash (6-8″) and set it on the head off to the right. Then play the drum off to the other side, a little left of center. A really cool techno sound happens here, and you can mess around with hitting the splash itself from time to time as an accent.

Try each of these out for yourself… they all have different results and you should get a feel for the personality of each one.

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