How to record a snare drum
If there's one thing that gives a lot of engineers the horn when it comes to a recording, that is the snare sound. Normal people don’t get it, but hey. Nowadays, people augment drums with samples all the time so don't take as much care with recording the snare in the first place...but the snare is the drummers voice in a lot of cases. You can even identify some drummers by their snare sound, whether it's the near universal hatred of Lars Ulrich's trashy bucket snare on Death Magnetic, to Alex Van Halen's warm block of wood “thonk!” - Phil Collins decade-ruining gated verb, to Stuart Copeland's cracky ska-esque ping, to...the list goes on. As ever, garbage in, garbage out is the rule, so a well tuned (or at least tuned!) snare with a fresh head will make your and my life better from the start. I’m talking to to you kids show up with a coated head I can see through! Same goes for the actual drum - its good to have a few options. Steel sounds different to wood, a piccolo sounds different to a Black Beauty. Use the right tool for the job if you can. Head types also matter. You’ll need a coated head if you want to use brushes, and something like a single ply Remo Ambassador works from jazz to rock…just don’t expect the life or beastliness for something like an double ply Aquarian….again these choices are pretty personal.
Mic wise, a trusty SM57 (or whatever you have) at a 45 degree angle pointing towards the centre two or three fingers above the hoop will get you on the right track, paired with the same under the snare, the same distance away from the lower head. Check phase by soloing them together and flip the lower mic pre's phase if needed. Choose whichever option gives you more low end, and that’s the combo closest to being in phase.
If you haven't got a phase switch - make a cable. Get a short XLR cable, unsolder and swap pins 2 & 3. Instant phase reverse tool! See I told you I would tell you sh!t they don't teach you in recording school. Mark it so you KNOW that's your reverse cable.
I like to use the same mic for top and bottom as there isn't a huge difference in tone to worry about later. This mic is placed to reject as much hi-hat as possible; look on the side of your SM57 - the cardiod pattern looks like a heart with two little indents - the indent in the polar pattern is where you want the hat to be positioned. Even better if you can come from the OTHER side or front of the drum but this of course depends on how your drummer sets up his kit. The hi-hat is the satan of the drum kit and snare sound. The second you add top end that sucker is in your face.
I have worked in studios where there just weren't enough mics pretty often, so what if you can't mic the bottom of the snare?
You have several choices. One - don't worry. A lot of classic rock was recorded with absolutely no bottom snare mic. Maybe you just don't need it. Or here are a few tricks: play the snare track back later through a guitar amp with the snare sitting upside down on top of the speaker and record it. It works and you will even get those ghost notes. You could add a fake snare bottom by using a plugin called WavesFactory SnareBuzz which is actually FREE! Third, you add a sample later. You won't be getting those ghost notes but you will get that bright splat we were previously missing.
You can also try a mic pointing AT the shell, at the little vent holes on the side for added shell tone; the air doesn't seem to bother the mic, and it's more a useful point of reference if you need to move the snare later. You can also set a condenser looking across the head, just peeking over the hoop - also worth a try if you are looking for a brighter tone.
You can also add a small diaphragm condenser as close as possible to the capsule of the dynamic for added brightness, often seen taped to the barrel of the first mic for ease of positioning and to get those capsules close so we are in phase. There's also a case for taping a bit of sponge to the top side of the mic to shield it from the hat. I have even seen a little wooden paddle used for the same purpose. If you haven't figured it out by now: WE HATE THE HI HAT.
Ok, so now we have some mics on our snare, and we get to the most ancient of questions asked by our forefathers: To tape or not to duct tape?
Moon Gel is a better alternative to gaffer tape most of the time which is why you can never find it when you need it. As a killer engineer ninja, you will probably want to buy some and have it in your stash to save the day. How much dampening is needed depends entirely on the tune, and the tuning of the drum. If it's a ska track, why not let it ring - you'd be surprised how much ring just goes away once a few instruments are in the mix, so don't get too worried about dampening and killing the liveness of the drum. Weirdly enough the drummer is usually the best judge of this. There are countless methods, from big triangles of tape, to little folded swatches, to a leather wallet sitting on the snare like a boss.
Gating when you record
I hate this unless someone really knows what they are doing as invariably they screw it up. It can work on kicks (if you set the attack time too short it can actually add a percussive click) can work on toms, but please...leave that snare alone!
EQ and compression
Can you EQ? Yes, sure. I see no problem in getting the snare to sound as good as possible when recording. just bear in mind with top end the more top end you add the more hat you are going to get, so maybe you might want to hold off for now. But there is nothing with dialling in some body, or some attack. The preamp-only generation is paranoid of EQ-ing anything on the way in. Don’t be. Load up one of your favourite snare samples and listen to it, Then your flat mic input. Exactly - work to be done! For me, compression can wait til later. UNLESS we are screwed and our snare sounds terrible which I will cover in a minute. There's also the matter of level - and a difference between analog and digital recording. Drums still sound better to me coming off tape. You would often over-record the snare to get some tape compression whereas the best plan now is to leave plenty of headroom when recording digitally, then fake analog-ize (tm) it later with one of the many options we now have.
Should you be working in a real studio and they have such a beast you could also try a shotgun mic if they have one pointing directly down at the centre of the snare.
You can also take a single ribbon mic located low down, positioned between the kick and hi-hat turned towards the snare. Move the position until you get the balance you feel is best...and that can be your entire drum sound and in fact WAS on a lot of records. (I stole this from working with Mark Ronson who stole it from Salaam Remi according to him...who stole it from someone else...and now it's your turn) It's also pretty cool to record and blend in with your other drums, and provides an instant lo-fi alternative if you aren't making a retro throwback record.
Houston we have a problem
But what if nothing works?! Two of the coolest snares I ever got in my life were the product of necessity. Terrible sounding drums, worn out heads, tons of tape, flabby, nothing traditional worked to make these pieces of garbage work. Here is where too much EQ and too much compression can be your friend and you can forget about what I said about the gate. Maybe a super gated highly compressed blast of nasty is just what you need once the overheads are in the drum mix! Just get it done. Have fun, experiment, be heavy handed as you like until you get...something that works