10 tips to create the perfect 80s snares

by Julien Tauban

The great 80's style snares are now back in fashion once again! I've been intensively studying 80s music and experimenting all kinds of techniques in the studio the last months while working on the sample library 80s Snares, and I thought I could share some of the best tricks I've learned along the way, along with some cool related links and videos. So here is a list of 10 tips that should help you recreate these typical sounds and hopefully inspire you to experiment and reapply these proven techniques in new creative ways:

1. Start with some typical samples

The sounds from drum machines like the Linn LM1, the Oberheim DMX, the TR808, TR505 or the Simmons SDS-5 are all over the place on tons of 80s music hits, so you'll definitely want to get your hands on one of these machines, or find some good sample sets. For a start, you can download this freebie (pay what you want) featuring 20 samples nicely captured from vintage 80s gear: these snares, toms and claps will be perfect for the techniques we will be exploring here.

For more 80s sounds, you can visit samples.kb6 to find an huge collection of free drum machine samples.

roland TR

My favourite 80s drum machine is the Roland TR505, it was released in 1986 with a small set of 16 punchy samples. The Bass Drum and the Snare Drum are instant 80s fun! It was the first drum machine I bought back in 1989. Nowadays, you can  find them for really cheap.

2. Capture fatter snare drums for a typical 80s vibe

If you're in the studio and want to record an acoustic snare drum with an 80s approach, check these techniques out:

- tune the snare low, so that you get a snare that sounds a bit more like a tom, a bit softer.

- use light muffling to control the ring and make sure the snare doesn't 'sing' 

- use proximity effect from dedicated microphones (shure SM57, sennheiser MD421 or beyerdynamic M88 were regularly used on snares back then)

- a lighter touch on the snare will bring better results. Also, avoid playing the rim (rim shots) to get a wider, less spiky attack

- deeper snares, in wood or metal, with the snares not too tight, will be more suitable.

- place a microphone in your room (a LDC like a AKG 414, or a SDC like a neumann km183) to capture lots of ambience that will be useful when you're mixing.

- use a bright condenser mic for the bottom snares. I like to use AKG 451b, 414 or C3000b for this, but a lot of mics will work, as long as they have a pad to make sure they don't distort. For a change, point this mic to the side of the snare, you'll get a more balanced signal.


3. Use gated digital reverb

This is the first step to 80's heaven : )  In your DAW, send a big amount of your snare drum to an auxiliary reverb. Most digital plugins will work well, and emulations of typical 80s digital reverbs (like the Lexicon 442) will bring even more authentic results. Choose a nice, long and rich preset, and turn down early reflections to get a smoother response. Then, add a gate after your reverb. Bring the gate attack all the way down, and lower the threshold. You can then fine-tune the hold and release parameter to shape the end of the snare sound.

You can hear quite well in this youtube video how the threshold and gate parameters (hold and release) affect the size of the sound (source: imamusicmogul)

Lets explore more tricks and build upon this!


4. Process the sound heavily before it is sent to the reverb

A great alternative to this gated reverb trick is to duplicate your snare track, and apply various amounts of compression, EQ, filters (...) to one of the tracks and use the reverb (+gate) at the end of this chain. The reverb is now used as insert, 100% wet, and you can blend in the raw, dry snare as you wish by simply controlling the volume of the first channel.

Don't hesitate to really manipulate the sound before the reverb so that you can achieve the special effect you are after.


5. Use parallel compression

Again, this common drum-processing trick is usually achieved by duplicating your snare track. Use big amounts of compression or limiting on one of the tracks, and blend it lightly under the original signal to give it some weight or increase its sustain. It's fun to overdo the compression, or use high amounts of limiting, or even clipping and saturation. Engineers using SSL consoles pioneered this technique, and SSL offers a very cool free plugin emulation of the famous 'listen mic compressor', the LMC-1

This trick will work with acoustic or electronic snare sounds, and you can even experiment with snares samples that already have reverb or room ambience, and use crazy amounts of EQ before the compressor.


6. Add a gated white noise on top of the snare sound

This is another very cool advanced technique, where you will use noise (either samples of white or pink noise, or the noise generator of your DAW) to add bite, power and 80s vibe to your regular snare. Check this video, where Dave Pensado from Pensado's Place shows you a common recording studio trick of gating white noise on a snare drum to enhance and/or change it's character and give it that 80's vibe: 

7. More claps

Claps are awesome! The typical 80s claps are from the Linn LM-1. That's the sound of Prince, we've heard it million times, it will add an instant 80s touch to your tracks. Another cool 80s clap sound is from the Simmons Clap Trap. Experiment pitching your clap samples: A cool trick to create wide claps is to duplicate a track, pan both hard left and right, and slightly pitch one of them (+1 or -1 semitone)

To add a bit more bite, room or organic feel to your electronic claps, layer a sample of a real handclap under your main electro clap. Download the Clap Pack to get a huge collection of varied real claps.

8. Layer various reverbs together

You'll probably get better results using the gated verb technique with a clean digital reverb without early reflections. On top of this, I almost always send various amounts from the snare(s) and other drum elements to a much shorter, brighter and wider ambience (almost no tail). I'll often use an EQ before (and sometimes after) that reverb to precisely shape the sound. To do most fine adjustments on the reverb sound (length, width, amounts of sends, eq...), I'll turn that channel up (like +6 dB). When things are all set, I turn it back down. For 80s sounds, it's better to make sure this short ambience can be well heard, it's part of the vibe! (NB: For modern or drier productions, you can turn down the level of this reverb until you don't hear it anymore, and then move it up just a touch, so that it adds a subtle 3D effect without being obvious) 

A modern alternative to the gated-verb trick is to use a convolution reverb and select an impulse response from a big room, hall or large plate. You can then finely adjust the decay slope to shape the length of the tail.



9. Creative layering

Some of the most memorable snare sounds of the 80s had actually not much in common with a normal snare drum. Whereas the 60s and 70s were most of the time all about capturing real sounds as faithfully as possible, the digital revolution of the 80s pushed the engineers, musicians and producers to use and abuse new tools, and compete against each other to create unheard, adventurous new sounds. Now it's your turn to explore new territories by layering original sounds underneath your snare. Use short analog bleeps, electro claps, tom samples, cross-stick sounds, found sounds... The fun part starts when you use some of the techniques described above on these layers! For inspiration, read how engineer David Z created one of the most memorable snare sound of the 80s for Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy": 


“I took the head off a snare drum and started whacking it with a wooden ruler, recording it through a Shure 57 microphone,” he says. “As I did that, I started twisting the hell out of the [API 550] EQ around 1 kHz on it, to the point where it was starting to sound more like a crash. I blended that with a snare I found in the Linn itself, which was a 12-bit machine, so it sounded pretty edgy to start with.” But the coup de grace for the sound was when Z pumped the processed and blended sample through an Auratone speaker set upside down atop another snare drum, which rattled the metal snares and gave the result some ambience and even more high end. The whole thing was limited slightly and then sent to a track on a roll of Ampex 456 running on a Studer A800 at 15 ips. Only a slight amount of reverb was added to the track later on. The sonic result was closer to a hollow wood block sound than any snare found on a conventional rock record, and in becoming, along with Gift's vocals, the signature of the song, it would go on to have many lives of its own subsequent to the single's run up the charts.'' 

source: mixonline.com


10. Add the final touch to your 80s snares

- adapt the reverb time to the tempo of your track to make the beat breathe and groove.

- route all elements of your snares to a bus to gel them together, using an EQ, a compressor or a limiter.

I also like to use a very slight touch of multi band compression to do that final trick. Mastering plugins or hardware work really well here. I usually bounce or rerecord the resulting sample into a new audio file for several reasons: first, I can work with a single stereo track of snare and then mute and move all the single channels (various snares, reverbs, buses, claps, extra samples...) to a unused track folder in my DAW, in order to keep the session tidy and clean. Second, i know I'll be glad to have instant access to that exact snare sound if I need it in the future for a different project. Third, I might want to do something fun with the snare sound for just a section of the song (like reversing it before a break, or filtering it during a bridge, or pitching it down for the outro), and having a simple audio file will make this fun and quick! 


That's it! I hope these tips will get you started, or just provide a bit of inspiration for your next track. Post a comment below and share your favourite trick to replicate these typical 80s sounds, or post links to your own 80s inspired music tracks!


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