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How to Take Hip-Hop Snare Drums to the Next Level


In hip-hop there’s this idea of competitive sound. It’s pretty unique to the genre but it’s still pretty important, and it’s actually filtered into other genres as well. The idea is that part of the esteem of a producer in hip hop is having the strongest drums, or the most forward vocal sound, or you know the biggest sound in some way, shape, or form. And so it gets into this idea of competitive mixing.

So as a mix engineer, it’s very important for me to represent the producer in the best possible light. And you know, I want the reaction from people listening to be whoa! That producer’s got the most killin snares, etc.

I’m going to show you a couple of techniques you can use to add that little extra inch at the end of a record. First, I’m just going to play ” Where It’s At” listen to the snare drum.

The snare itself feels like it’s balanced in the right spot, but its a little underneath the vocal, it’s a little bit thinner sounding than the vocal, and so in order to get it to feel stronger I might need to add that little extra bit of somethin, somethin to get it to really stand out. And so that’s what this tutorial is about. How to add that extra little something at the end.

There’s a couple of ways that I like to do this, and I’m going to show you my normal go to way, and that is to use a limiter.

I want to point out a couple of things with this. First of all a limiter is going to soften your drum, and that’s not really want you want to do. So when you’re setting the limiter it’s really important that you’re very careful with what you’re trying to do on a snare drum. The idea here is basically I’m capping the limiter.

I’m not hearing any transient being pulled down. If I start hearing any transient being squashed out then I’m going to lose the power of the snare, and effectively I’m just turning it up. But what’s really important is getting that extra bit of thicker attack. So it’s almost as if, another way of saying it is if the attack of the snare is maybe only five milliseconds long, by compressing it over a very short, fast duration I might be able to get the length of the attack to be maybe seven, or eight milliseconds long, and that’s going to create a much bigger feel to the snare.

Let me break down what’s going on. First of all not that I really advise watching meters too much, but just to exemplify the point, watch the meter on the gain reduction as the snare hits.

It’s really only just tapping that first yellow bar. So it’s very subtle. Now the other thing to point out here is that I’m using the Sonnox Oxford Limiter, and this is my, my preferred limiter for doing this kind of a technique, because it has this little bonus section. This enhance feature right here, and I’m going to crank it up so you can hear what that’s doing.

It’s kind of like an EQ, and exciter kind of thing in that enhancement section. You really don’t need to over do it. I find that if you really can hear it then you have changed the total balance of the snare too much, and that’s not really what we’re trying to do. But just a little bit actually goes a long way.

I’m going to show you another way that you can do that. You can, instead of using the limiter you can use some kind of bit crushing, or distortion, or a little bit of saturation just to sort of give the same idea. And here I’m going to use the Oxford Inflator which is, is basically a distortion plugin, but it’s not distortion like a fuzz box, it’s distortion like harmonic distortion like sort of being controlled, and contoured as a way of making things appear bigger. So here’s the before, and after.

It’s kind of doing the same thing, I mean, it’s different, it sounds different, but it’s more or less accomplishing the same goal. The basic way this one is set up is I’m pulling up the input so it’s coming just short of coming in too hot, because this is a distortion plugin. It’s reacting to level. So the hotter the level, the more the saturation you’re going to get.

I’ve got 100% effect on, meaning you’re hearing not a blend of the wet, and dry. You’re hearing the completely saturated sound, but I have the curve which is kind of like, it’s sort of it changes the distortion, and also the compression curve of the sound. For drums, I find that the lower curves tend to be good. Mine set to negative 32 about here. I’ll turn it all the way up, you’ll hear the difference.

So when the curve is up in the positive you get a very distinct effect, but unfortunately it sort of pancakes the snare, and it changes the tone too much, and again we, we have our snare in the right place. So we’re not trying to change it. We’re just trying to make it, you know subtly give it a little extra something.

So yeah, there’s a couple techniques. You know you don’t have to use the Oxford plugins necessarily. They’re the ones I like to use, but basically you know, experiment with things. Limiters, saturators, used in subtle conjunction, and maybe with a little touch of extra EQ at the end, there’s something like that. You know, you don’t really hear the difference tonally speaking, but you definitely notice the presence of it get larger.


Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch:

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