The drum set is indeed an interesting sonic instrument; from the low boom of the bass drum and floor toms, the abrupt attack of the snare drum, to the high frequencies of the cymbals. For such a barrage of sound events, all of the components of a drum set play very well together, like the perfect musical percussive family.
There is, however, one small feature of the snare drum that has caused drummers, band mates and sound engineers everywhere a little frustration from time to time. The snare drum is a unique instrument within the drum family. On the underneath of the drum, there is a series of, usually twenty, steel snare wires that hug tightly to the bottom drum head. When striking the drum from the top, these wires vibrate and recoil abruptly, giving the snare drum its unique "pop", or "crack". It's a beautiful sound, and a major feature of this dynamic and sensitive work horse.
In order to not sound choked, the snare wires need to be a little loose - still snug against the drum head, but not tight enough to stifle and restrict the movement. Now there is a little unrest in our perfect percussive family. Directly above the snare drum sits at least one tom, and often two. When these toms are hit, the frequency of the tom, enhanced by the resonance of the bottom head, produces what is best described as a sonic wave that sweeps instantly downwards, causing the snare wires to rattle and vibrate, and thus producing the infamous snare buzz.
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The reason that snare drum buzz can be a little annoying to beginner drummers, is because it is most prominent when the drums are not blended with the wall of sound that occurs when other instruments are added to the mix. We are often playing alone when learning, so we hear small nuances that we might not notice if we were playing with others.
There are also other things that can trigger snare drum buzz, such as bass guitar notes, vocals coming through a PA system - pretty much any sonic event where the frequency is just right to upset our dynamic little friend. If you have come this far ready to find the solution, then I am very sorry to disappoint you. We call this the million dollar problem. Why? Because if you could design and patent a device that effectively curbs this little gremlin, then that is potentially what you could make. But before your rush out to the garage with your mad professor jacket and head lamp, please consider that you would have to defy the laws of sound first.
So here are some practical solutions to minimize snare buzz, and it's all pretty common sense stuff. Firstly, experiment with how tight you can have your snare drum wires without choking the drum, or at the other end of the spectrum, causing excessive buzz by being too loose. You can do this by tightening and loosening the snare wires using the dial on the snare drum strainer. Avoid placing tape over the snare wires - this will just choke the drum and be messy and difficult to remove. Nothing you do on the top of the snare drum (in terms of muffling and tuning) will alter snare buzz - it's down to the tension of the bottom head, and tightness of the wires themselves. If you are in a situation where you are not playing, and a vocal or instrumental part is causing buzz, simply place your fingers over the wires. Remember that when the drums are blended with other instruments, snare buzz is rarely heard - there are too many other sonic events that block it out.
One last thing to consider is that snare buzz is actually considered an organic feature of the drum set, and there are many musicians, recording engineers and producers that love the sound. Listen to the beginning of "I Want You Back" by the Jackson Five, and you will hear the wires rattling around in the background during the bass introduction. You'll need to listen carefully with a good headset, but you'll hear it. Back then, it would have been impossible to edit this out, whereas modern recording and editing technology can mask buzz to an extent. But even though this is the case, many choose to leave this little nuance alone. Yamaha have even added tom sounds to their electronic drum sets that feature a little snare buzz to provide truly authentic sound samples - such is the accepted organic nature of this sound.
If you have any questions relating to this article, or any aspect of learning the drums, please feel free to email [email protected].