It’s no overstatement to say that a good snare sound is essential to the backbone of almost any kind of pop record – whether that means hip hop, country, speed metal, R&B, punk rock, psychedelia, shoegaze, adult contemporary, jazz or straight up rock n’ roll. So every recording studio should have at least a couple of great-sounding snare drums tuned up and ready to go.
Deciding what snares to have on hand however, can be a daunting task to those who are unfamiliar with what’s out there. Even to the initiated, it can sometimes seem as if there are as many snare drums on the market as there are players.
Thankfully, there are a few stalwarts that never seem to go out of style, and every studio owner, engineer, producer and recording drummer would be well-served to get acquainted with them. Here are a few classics that could help establish the foundations of a small-but-versatile collection of snare drums for any studio.
Must-Have Snare Drum #1: Aluminum Shell, Standard-Size
The Signature Model: Ludwig Supraphonic 14” x 5”
The Ludwig Supraphonic is arguably the most-recorded snare drum in history. And it’s one of my own personal favorites. Its sound is iconic and instantly familiar: Bright, clear, powerful – anything but neat and clean. And its trademark resonance is just as satisfying and memorable as its attack.
If left unmuffled and equipped with a single-ply beater head, the decay of Supraphonic can sound wet – almost sloshy – although in an even and full-bodied kind of way. From there, it can be deadened down with moon gels or even wallets and tea towels if desired, without ever losing its trademark articulation and complexity.
To hear the sound of a well-tuned Supraphonic is to recognize it: This is the sound of a solid rock n’ roll backbeat. And the design and construction of this aluminum snare drum has remained essentially unchanged for more than 40 years. I personally own a 14” x 5” model and take it with me whenever I’m tracking drums at a studio that doesn’t have one.
If a studio had to have only one snare drum, it would be hard to go wrong with a Ludwig Supra. Not only is it familiar-sounding, but it’s flexible as well. The drum’s 10 lugs allow for a wide tuning range, and it can go from wet-and-ringy to dry-and-controlled, while remaining convincing at every stop along the way.
At around $450, brand new Supraphonics don’t come dirt cheap. But they can be a sensible and affordable choice for many studios, drummers and producers to have on hand.
For those who want to spend even less, vintage 8-lug Ludwig Acrolites and Ludwig Standards are easily found on the used market, often going for 25% – 50% of the cost of a new or vintage Supra. These models sound a little bit drier than the Supraphonic, lacking just a bit of its complex, trademark resonance, but they are certainly in the same family. They can even border on indistinguishable from the original when you’re going for more muffled or controlled drum sounds.
As far as new options go, Pearl makes a snare drum called the “Sensitone” that does a decent emulation of the Supra at about half the price. The aluminum version (and also the even brighter steel model) have a pretty convincing tone.
The standard Supraphonic can be heard on everything from classic rock records by The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Cream to jazz legends like Lionel Hampton and Joe Morello of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, to prolific studio drummers like Hal Blaine, who recorded on more #1 pop hits, between 1961 and 1976, than perhaps anyone else in the world. (His drumming can be heard on some of the biggest cuts from The Ronettes, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, Elvis, The Supremes, and both Frank and Nancy Sinatra.)
For those who want a bit more resonance and power (and a little less sensitivity from the snare-band on the resonant side) the 6.5” depth, favored by the likes of John Bonham and Alex Van Halen, is a perennial favorite.
Must-Have Snare Drum #2: Brass Shell, Extra-Deep
The Signature Model: Ludwig Black Beauty 14” x 6.5”
The second drum on our list of studio standards is also a Ludwig: the massive and drool-inducing Black Beauty, 14” x 6.5”.
If the standard Supraphonic is the sound of so many classic rock records, then the Black Beauty is the stock sound of rock of a heavier and more modern variety. Ironic then, that it’s actually based on an even older material used in drum construction.
In the first half of the 20th century, Ludwig’s metal snares were made out of brass, rather than the aluminum that has been used in the Supraphonic for so long. Brass offers a slightly different resonant character, and offers just a bit more low-end power and punch than an aluminum model of the same size.
Much like the aluminum Supraphonic, the sound of the solid brass Black Beauty is also iconic and instantly familiar – A “that sound” kind of drum. It is brash, bold, loud and powerful with a wide sweet spot on the head.
If you plan on working on a lot of heavier rock music, then the Black Beauty is a must-have. I find it a little less versatile than the Supra, but those are just my tastes, and whenever it does fit, it’s just the thing, and no other type of drum will quite do.
The Black Beauty is on the expensive side – often $700 or more depending on features and finishes. But it’s such a popular drum that there are many worthy homages to it. World Max and Porkpie make equivalent brass models that can be as little as half the price. And even Ludwig is in on the game of undercutting itself, making a lower-cost “Black Magic” model inspired by the originals.
For something a bit different, a vintage 14” x 5.5” chrome-over brass Rogers Powertone or Dynasonic can offer beefy power and brash articulation with a character all its own.
Another interesting substitute comes from an unexpected place: On a budget, you might try the common, affordable, sometimes unfashionable 6.5”-deep steel Pearl Export. It’s a different animal entirely, but to my ear it can do a great job of capturing the vibe of the big 80s power snare.
Must-Have Snare Drum #3: Wood Construction, Standard Size
The Signature Model: Slingerland Radio King, Single-Ply Maple 14” x 5”
It’s a bit harder to pick a single iconic wooden snare drum. Some say it’s Slingerland’s Radio King. Some say Gretsch, some say Rogers, and some prefer more modern updates from companies like Brady, DW, Tama or Spaun.
Whatever your preference, the high-class option is probably single-ply maple, which is a great way to go if you can afford one, and it’s a popular choice for a reason. A good sngle-ply maple can give a nice dry “crack” to the drum strike that’s impossible to achieve with even the best of metal snares.
If you’re recording less heavy drumming I’d easily recommend a good maple 14” x 5” snare drum ahead of the much-worshiped Black Beauty on the list, putting it neck-and-neck with the Supraphonic for the #1 “must-have” spot.
There are two general ways to go with this type of drum: vintage or modern. A vintage-style maple snare may have a little less resonance and volume thanks to older styles of hardware that don’t let the shell vibrate quite so freely.
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