Aid for the Concert Snare Drum: Problems and Solutions
Everyday a young, uninformed percussionist unknowingly transforms a beautiful and expensive concert snare drum into a very poorly sounding instrument. As professional performers and educators we generally do not take enough time to educate the student and the band director on how to properly care for and tune a symphonic snare drum. The key to reversing this trend is to expose both the band director and students to the sound of a well-tuned concert snare drum. This first hand exposure will make the directors aware of what to listen for and to expect of their students. Below are some common maintenance and repair problems and solutions. Most of this information will be common knowledge to the experienced percussionist, but can serve as useful information to the non-percussionist band and orchestra director as well.
In some cases the batter head is cranked so hard that a ratchet wrench is required to loosen the tension screws. The overall premise is "the more tension the better." It is not uncommon for a student to put an extreme amount of tension on the batter head and apply little tension to the bottom snare head.
A starting point is to have the student match the batter head to concert "A" pitch of the bells. Starting with no tension on the head, have the student gradually tighten the head using quarter turns on the tension screws. Tighten in the method of alternating twelve o'clock to six o'clock, three o'clock to nine o'clock, etc. Some performers may prefer tuning the top head to a slightly lower or higher pitch than "A." Make sure the head is in tune with itself by comparing the pitch on the head at each tension screw. Next, very gradually tighten the bottom snare head in the same manner until the pitch is slightly higher than the batter head. The pitch of the bottom head is sometimes difficult to hear and can be made more distinguishable by dampening the top (batter head) with your hand while lightly tapping the bottom head.
With the snares on medium tension, check to see if a nice crisp snare sound is produced when playing at very low dynamic levels. If it is a "mushy" sound, then there is not enough tension on the bottom head and/or the snares are not tight enough. If it is a "choked" sound, there is too much tension on the bottom head and/or the snares are too tight. Generally I prefer to have the bottom head slightly higher in pitch than the batter head because the sound is a little crisper to my ear. It is important to tighten the bottom snare head very gradually. This head is thin and can easily be broken by tightening too much or too fast.
The snare sound is "choked" and does not respond at low dynamic levels.
Have the student tighten the snares so they sound tight and responsive at low dynamic levels. Then, check at loud dynamic levels. If the sound tends to "spread" much at loud levels, slightly tighten the strainer until the sound is crisper. It is important to reach a happy medium between a responsive snare sound at low dynamics and a crisp sound at loud dynamics.
Tone controls should be very gradually tightened to take some of the "ring" out of the drum. Tone controls should not to be used as extra devices to tighten the drumhead or completely muffle the head. If used at all they should just lightly touch the head. I prefer to take tone controls out of drums and not use them. Often they will rattle over a period of time. Wrapping dental floss between the felt damper pad and the metal arm sometimes can cure this rattle. The use of an interior damper device stops the head from ringing at a spot on the head. This in turn creates an unwanted overtone. The damper also creates an area on the head that is not playable. The percussionist might be better off using the external dampers, which can be taken off the drum at will. A large metal washer covered with moleskin and secured to a tension rod with string serves this purpose very well. It can be placed anywhere on the drum and can be removed quickly if needed. This quick accessibility can be very handy in a performance situation.
Often the student will mistakenly use heads that are too thick. Sometimes students will use marching drumheads on a symphonic snare drum. Evidence of this is the use of two-ply, reinforced, thick, (maybe even Kevlar) on the batter head and occasionally on the bottom snare head. The concert snare does not "ring" at all and has no response except at a triple forte volume level.
The use of coated medium or thin weight heads on the batter head and clear medium or thin weight snare heads will cure this problem. I prefer using thin heads rather than medium heads on both the batter head and snare head. The thin heads in the Remo brand are labeled "Diplomat." This use of thin "Diplomat" heads can help make snare drums very responsive at soft dynamic levels. However, thin heads can be too light in some school situations, and students will often easily break them. The preference here might be the use of medium weight heads. This is an "Ambassador" weight in the Remo brand. "Renaissance" and "FibreSkyn" model Remo brand heads sound excellent. I have used have diplomat weight Remo brand "FiberSkyn" batter heads on my concert snare drums for years.
Another possibility is that the student may have taped the snares to the bottom snare head in an effort to get a tighter and crisper snare sound. Remove the tape! The obvious fact is that you cannot turn the snares off. They will buzz constantly through every horn passage in the band and will not respond well when played at low dynamic levels. We have to teach students to turn off the snares when not in use, especially in orchestral or concert band situations.
The other possibility is that the head has pulled out of the "flesh" hoop at one point, and there is tension only on part of the head. In this case the head is beyond repair and has to be replaced.
Craig Collison has served as professor of percussion at Arkansas State University since 1998. From 1997 to1998 he served as an assistant band director at Western Illinois University where he taught drum set and marching percussion. Craig was a member of the United States Air Force Concert Band in Washington D.C. from 1985 to 1996. He received his Masters degree from the University of North Texas and Bachelors degree from Washington State University. He is presently a member of the Arkansas Symphony in Little Rock, Arkansas. Craig has studied with Alan Abel, John Beck, and Robert Schietroma. He is a member of the Percussive Arts Education Committee.