Boxy snare drums are one of the most telltale signs that a mixer or engineer hasn’t quite figured out what they’re doing. The cause of boxiness in snare drums can vary greatly – everything from the wrong choice of microphone to how the snare was tuned. Getting in front of these issues at the time of tracking is the best way to address them, but sometimes it’s too late before you realize how bad the issue is.
The question then becomes: what can you do to fix a boxy snare drum in the mix?
Well, there are plenty of ways to approach this problem and a few specific fixes that work in just about every situation. Let’s look at what they are.
Tracking & Editing
If you happen to notice your mistake early on, it’s important to address it quickly. You’re not going to want to change things up halfway through a session, but if you’re only a take or two into a full day’s work, there’s nothing wrong with pausing for a minute to go over to the kit and make a few tweaks. Ideally this would happen as part of setup, but the band is going to respect you more for fixing the issue rather than pushing it off to the mix.
This rings doubly true for those sessions where you know someone else will be mixing. If the mixer tells the band your snare was garbage, let it be their (hopefully wrong) opinion rather than a certifiable fact.
In any case, the best time to address problems with your drum tracks, including boxy snare sounds, is as soon as you find there’s a problem. There’s nothing that says you can’t do a bit of editing to clean the track up and make it more malleable before you get to the mix. Just like you might pocket and tune a vocal ahead of the mix session, the same approach can be taken with drums. Incremental improvements lead to better results.
Caving Out the Problem
A boxy snare usually hides in plain sight. It lives right in the center of your lower-mid frequencies where you think you’re getting a nice, impactful THWACK of a drum hit – and that’s why beginners so often fail at getting rid of it.
Most of the time, the only way to get a less boxy snare is to clean up between 250 Hz and 500 Hz with subtractive EQ. By applying a wide band to this range with several dB of gain reduction, you can almost eliminate boxiness entirely. It will take some finesse to keep the power and punch of each hit but boosting the frequencies slightly below the range can often help offset the issue. Just don’t go too low or you’ll start to encroach on the bass frequencies and turn your snare from boxy to muddy.
If you find that cutting the boxy frequency range out of your snare leaves you with a lackluster sound that a 2nd EQ band can’t boost and fix, there’s another processor you’ll want to pair with your EQ to get the job done…
What many engineers and mixers have realized over decades of music production is that drums are all about the transients. A dull, muffled drum like what you’d hear in a 70s soft rock song evokes a completely different emotion than a hard-hitting rock snare would. And while EQ goes a long way to correct a boxy snare, it can be terrible for the snare’s transient. That’s where transient designers come in.
With a transient designer like Transify, you’re able to focus in on the transient of your snare – in some cases breaking the transient out into various bands for even further control. Boosting the attack of any given band (particularly the upper mids) is a great trick for crafting a more present, impactful snare.
By the same token, transient shaping can address issues with boxiness that EQ can’t always fix. For example, a snare with a super drawn out ring might benefit more from some sustain reduction (a control on most transient shaping plugins) rather than applying blanket EQ to the entire signal.
The next time you’re in a pinch – try both processors and see which one helps get you a less boxy snare sound. Often, you’ll find that you’ll use both interchangeably depending on the track and the overall sound you’re after. While we shouldn’t need to fix things in the mix all the time, these types of plugins enable us as mixers so we can fix the problem and get back to the bigger picture.
Another great quick fix for a boxy snare drum is to layer it with a sample. Production-quality samples are widely available from shops like Joey Sturgis Drums, or you can build your own library from past work. While they’re no substitute for getting the best possible sound at the source, they come in handy in a pinch and give us a benchmark to aspire to as we work.