As construction techniques have become more and more sophisticated, manufacturers have found ways to give their wood shells much freer movement and greater resonance, leading to increased volume and presence as well. But for all these advances build methods, it’s hard to say that one style is better than another. When it comes to sound, especially in the studio, the vintage and the familiar always have as much appeal as the new and the exciting.
Single-ply maple, of course, isn’t the only way to go. It’s just happens to be one of the most common and well-balanced choices for an all-around high-performance stock snare drum. Different materials offer different tones and textures.
One of the other common materials – particularly on entry-level and intermediate student kits – is a blend of mahogany with poplar or even basswood. An interesting and offbeat mahogany blend can sound thick and throaty in a way that can be just the thing sometimes.
If you have the cash for it, I’d recommend maple as a primary wood snare, but if you want an interesting backup or are strapped for resources, one of these more affordable composite wood drums can be a good call.
If you find a very old snare drum made of mahogany, it may be made of solid mahogany through and through. These are often just as nice as maple, but with a significantly darker and more full-bodied tone. They can have a very attractive sound if you’re attracted to textures that are bit smoother and more subdued.
There are a few other wood types that are popular as well: Birch and pure poplar offer a slightly “scooped” sound that’s clean, articulate and can record well. One of my sleeper favorites is oak, which also has a slight midrange scoop, but an overall balance that rivals maple for impact and versatility. The Yamaha Oak Custom is a very nice change of pace in my book.
Be careful – or at least aware – while purchasing used and vintage wood drums. Unlike metal snares, their bearing edges (the part of the shell that makes contact with the drumhead) can easily become badly worn with age. I’ve sometimes found wood drums with poorly defined or even awkwardly rebuilt bearing edges can sound interesting and growly in their own way. But even at their best, they’ll have a limited tuning range, and it can sometimes be very hard to hammer out dissonant resonances in them. I’d recommend a wood snare with worn out old bearing edges as a backup only or an alternate color only.
All the Rest: Exotic Materials, Alternate Sizes, Similar Drums with Experimental Heads
Long story short: Any studio would be well served with at least one great wood snare and one great metal snare at 14”x5”. Aluminum and maple are a natural starting place for these. For those who want something with a little more power, a brass snare is a no-brainer – Especially if it’s a big one.
Once you have these bases covered, it’s not a bad idea to look at snare drums that will really stretch your palette of colors.
More diminutive snares like 13”x3” piccolos, or (my preference) a small-but-deep “popcorn snare” at 10”x6” or 8.5”x5” are a radical departure from the rest. Some snares like Pearl’s custom Omar Hakim 13”x5” model can be a nice compromise between both worlds.
You can also go in the opposite direction and try some vintage field drums or modern marching snares that can reach up to 11” or 12” deep. And it’s valuable to realize that with a little DIY know-how, you may be able to convert just about any sized tom into a snare drum.
Lastly, if you have more than one of the same basic type drum of drum, don’t despair. Different heads can lead to dramatically different sounds. I have my Ludwig Supraphonic set up to be open, complex and resonant, and my quite similar Ludwig Standard tuned up with thicker heads that give it a fulfilling dry, muted “smack.”
There are plenty of good drums out there these days, but these classics are classics for good reason. I’d never part with my Supra, and I’m always looking for an excuse to put a brass Black Beauty or a nice vintage-style wood snare up on the stand.
Although we musician-types are typically known to be a free-spirited bunch, we can also be pretty conservative when it comes to tastes in gear and tone. The gear that sounds best to us is often that which sounds instantly familiar – whether that’s because of tubes, tape, transformers or algorithms, or because of familiar quirks of construction.
The world of snare drums is no different. There are a few shapes, sizes, materials and designs that instantly sound familiar and therefore “good” to most ears. The options listed above are a great place to start. But you never know: if your next great drum sound comes from a metal coffee can, a plastic paint tub or wooden cajon, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer, college professor, and journalist. He records and mixes all over NYC, masters at JLM, teaches at CUNY, is a regular contributor to SonicScoop, and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.