Transient peaks! Transients are the high amplitude spikes found at the start of the waveforms, the initial spike, to put it simply.
So what does transient peaks got to do with achieving a dense but punchy snare?
Let me explain. During the days of analog recording, recording into tape usually helps with 'adding' sustain to the waveform, in other words, adding more 'meat' or density to the signal. Signals recorded through a digital platform, basically loses that characteristic of tape, while picking up on the transients instead.
The more aggressive the music, the harder the musicians are going to play their instruments, because thats what they want the music to represent through the monitors.
You're naturally going to have a higher peak level with drummers smashing away, which will later affect the way its compressed while mixing.
Here's a very brief explanation why you will get a, fatter and warmer tone if you have your transient peaks tamed and sustain added to the waveform.
While compressing a snare signal that has been recorded through tape, an initial tape compression has already been applied to tame the peaks of the snare, adding to the 'meat' of the snare. The compressor is then much more effective as it's compressing the 'meat' of the waveform as well, resulting in a fatter snare tone. Compared to a signal that was recorded through a digital platform, you would likely have to crank your compressor to do any compressing in the 'meat' due to the level differences in the peaks and 'meat'. This produces a snare tone that is thin and spiky. Btw, I'm not saying digitally recorded stuff is terrible and we should all go back to tape. NO! Both platforms have their pros and cons, to each his own.
So how do we deal with it? Obviously, using a tape emulation plug-in or just recording to tape helps but I've adopted these few techniques to help bring down my peak levels creating a denser, and apparently, louder snare.
To cut things short, saturation when used correctly generates harmonics and create a type of ‘soft-clipping’, making your audio source fuller, punchier and louder. There are different types of saturation out there - tape, tube, transistor saturations. So do read up about the characteristics of the different types of saturations and learn about what your preferred saturation plug-in has to offer before using it excessively on everything. Doesn’t work the same as Nutella.
Before saturation, peaks level read, -4.5dB
After saturation, peak level reads, -6.9dB
2. Parallel Compressing
On a separate Aux track, I'll apply a 1176 with All Button Mode/British Mode, fast attack, and usually slow release,which I’ll blend into the overall snare. What it's doing here is adding sustain and density to a traditionally ‘peaky’ snare.
The red clip is the raw recorded snare track while the blue clip is the compressed snare which I'll later blend to add density to my overall snare sound.
Pretty straight forward here but please don't assume it's wrong to use a limiter outside of mastering or applying it on the 2-buss. You can use a limiter on individual tracks as well. As with different analog or digital processors, it might add a certain color to the track, whether subtly or not. I generally use the FabFilter Pro-L for my limiting duties if I deem fit, and it's always last in the chain. Don't overuse it and distort your tracks btw.
I've provided an A/B sample below.
You will notice that the snare is thinner and peaky before any processing. We have a fatter, warmer snare with more body after processing.
These techniques and processing are not magical and in most cases, will only produce subtle results, BUT, every subtle little improvement at each stage will add up towards a better mix!