The Beat Mercenary
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Drums have always been looked at as the foundation of a Hip Hop track. Because of this, there have been numerous productions that have some tremendous drum tracks, whether it be from living playing or a breakbeat.
Finding The Right One
Regardless of what method you choose, often times it can be difficult to find the right drums to use for your beat, especially the snare. You can argue that the kick, hat, tom, or any other drum sound is just as important, but it's the snare that really stands out. The kick is very important as well because you can have a very thin kick or one that thumps and fills out the low end.
But a snare is the most important because it's the one that's more in your face, so that is why it's best if you use one (or a few) to really give your drum track something special.
Layering is perhaps the best option for snares because it's also the quickest method. Often times I will grab a snare that sounds good but is lacking something; it could be too thin or too thick, so that's when I'll quickly take another snare and layer it on top, which will then give me a fuller-sounding snare.
Sometimes there are snares that are just bad, but in a way, good. For example, I had sampled a snare once and it sounded like an aluminium trash can being stabbed with a pitchfork, but I liked it anyway. It had a good sound to it and matched my project, but it was missing that "smack" sound. So I layered it with something else that was much tighter and not "tinny" at all. The result? A full, tight, smacking snare. Beautiful.
In the past I would often use EQ to give my snare a different sound, but I found that often it wouldn't give me the results that I was looking for. This is because it comes down to the "garbage in, garbage out" scenario, where even if you EQ something to death, it will still sound bad. So with an average sounding snare, there is no EQ in the world that will do it justice, unless I was preparing the snare to be layered with another one that sounded better to begin with.
You may be thinking to yourself, "Why not just use compression and be done with it?". Sure, I could compress the snare but that's not the point. The reason why I like to layer and EQ is because it gives me many more options, plus as I've just mentioned - I would probably still have to deal with the "garbage in, garbage out" situation. With compression, you can give your snare a much louder smack or make it sound TOO compressed - which you don't want. Instead, I compress it just a bit to give it a bit of "punch".
Work With Your Other Tracks
With all of the different options that you have to beat up and morph your snare drum, it of course, comes down to the beat itself and how you want the snare to sound in the mix. You obviously don't want a subtle snare sound if your beat is very fast and heavy, but if it's more laid back and mellow, of course.
This is where one of the best techniques comes into play - reverb. When it comes to doing your final mix, you don't want reverb all over the place, so it's important to ease back on how much reverb you use on your tracks, but you can definitely use it for your snare.
For example, most of the time reverb will be used on the vocal track, so if you have an emcee on top of your beat, you have to make sure the reverb on the snare doesn't clash with it, and vice versa. However, if you don't have to worry about a vocal track, then the reverb is a great way to spice up your snare.
Often times I will apply reverb to my snare because why not? For years I never bothered to do that but then I started doing it and it made a HUGE difference in how the entire beat sounded. Without the reverb, my beat sounded okay, but with it - pure dopalicious!
So the next time you make a beat and want to get a much better sounding snare, follow these steps:
Further Reading Related to Beat Making