Snare Drum Materials and Construction
We take a look at all the different shell materials available to drummers and compare and constrast the tones.
Ever wondered what a metal snare sounds like compared to a glass snare? Or how about a stone snare?! Wonder no more!
One of the snare drum’s main goals is to allow each drummer express their individuality. One of the main ways manufacturers cater for this is by experimenting with a wide array of shell materials. The various sonic characteristics of different materials heighten the individuality of their drums and allow them to create a wide range of tailored and unique sounding instruments.
One of the most commonly used snare drum materials is metal. Generally metals have a bright, open sound with complex overtones and are very good at cutting through the sound of other instruments. Many different types of metals are used to create drums that can sound wildly different.
Steel snare drums have a bright, open tone with long sustain. Their cutting rim shots and timbale-esque sound lend themselves well to Reggae, while their presence can be very effective in Rock. It is also the cheapest metal used for snares and is often (but not exclusively) found on lower end kits.
Aluminium creates a crisp and drier sound than steel, with less sustain. This allows for greater sensitivity of playing and is suited perfectly to the tight, busy and ghost noted playing of Funk and Jazz.
Brass has a similar crispness to that of Aluminium although it possesses a warmer sound with more low-end. This combination of weight and cutting attack works well for heavier rock and metal where the playing requires more definition.
Copper is darker sounding still but retains a snappy sound. It is very often used for orchestral snare drums.
Finally Bronze, also the most common metal used for cymbals, has a similar dark and warm sound to Copper (it is a mixture of Copper and Tin) but with more projection. Its sound is very useful when you want to cut through a mix but not have the snare sound too bright.
Many other materials are also used in snare drum construction but hold a more niche status. Some represent the cutting edge when it comes to experimenting with materials, whereas others are concepts that have disappeared from mainstream drum manufacture, but have a cult following and are being kept alive by a select few companies.
The latter can be said of Acrylic’s use as a shell material, made popular by Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. Acrylic is a plastic that creates drums with a dry, punchy and projecting sound, and wide tuning range. Unlike most niche materials it is as widely used for whole kits as it is just snares. The plastic can be made transparent or opaque and in a wide variety of colours and patterns which can create very aesthetically striking drums.
Carbon fibre and Kevlar are more rare, yet modern examples. They both create very loud drums, with accentuated high and low end, and lots of overtones. As they are a man made material they are also extremely consistent (unlike some woods) and can handle a wide tuning range.
Other stranger materials have also been used, such as:
- Stone – Its strength allows the shells to be made very thin which increases the drum’s sensitivity and resonance while lowering its pitch.
- Glass – Has very similar sound properties to Stone.
- Hemp – (yes Hemp!) Creates a drier and warmer sound like more traditional wood drums.
In general, the more unique the shell material is the more expensive the drum will be. This is mainly because mass production systems haven’t been put in place to produce the drums anywhere near as cost effectively as more commonplace woods and metals. As well as this you are also paying for the sought after exclusivity of having a drum and sound that is available to very few other people.
As always, once you have pinpointed the factors that change a drums sound (in this case material) you can mix-and-match and alter them in tandem to customise it further.
A popular example is mixing wood and metal in the shell construction. The most common configuration is having the shell divided into three sections horizontally. The top and bottom edges of the drum are made of metal with a band of wood sandwiched between. This combines the projection and attack of the metal with the warmth and body of the wood.
Another possibility would be to pair wood edges with a band of acrylic to dry up the sound and make the drum punchier (and look very cool).
Although examples of other mixtures are harder to come by, many custom drum companies would relish the challenge laid down by a customer to create something they may not yet have imagined.
The diversity amongst not only drummers, but also styles of music, paired with an enthusiasm to break new ground pushes manufactures to experiment and diversify the sound of the instruments they produce.
While there is no reason why a whole kit could not be made out of any of the materials mentioned above, it seems drum companies use the individuality required from a snare drum as a vehicle for experimentation with shell materials. Cutting edge snare drums are therefore a great place to look to get a glimpse of the possible future sounds of our drums.