What should a pipe band snare drum sound like?

We’ve all got differing opinions of what our drums should sound like.  This includes the journey to getting that sound – how we tune those bad boys!

Let’s take a look at some of the key terms :

Flat, pitchy, bright, dull, dry, loose, wet, snarey, tinny, tubby, metallic, rich, resonant, choked, and there are probably a plethora of other terms we use.  We’ve all seen them before, especially on the score sheets.

What do these terms mean and what are we actually trying to strive for when it comes to the sound of the Scottish snare drum?!  Well, at the end of the day, there is no right and wrong.  Everyone has a different ear, and different taste. Otherwise, we would all listen to the Rihanna, eat Burritos and drink Guinness.  OK, I’m just getting carried away but I’m a fan of them all, haha.

When it comes to drum tone – I know what I like.  Also, I know what I don’t like.  How I get there, well sometimes that depends on the drum, the heads and how it was set up originally.  I really feel like more drummers should get the opportunity to tune their own drum.  In my experience, there is usually one drummer in the corps who tunes all of the drums.  I totally see the benefits of this, as that one person can ensure every drum is treated the same.  However, it also means that 95% of pipe band drummers in the world don’t know how to tune their drum because they have simply never had the chance to.  I had no clue where to start with my drum up until a few years ago.  I have always been fortunate to have had my drum tuned, right back to my Monkstown Mossley days through to my Simon Fraser University days and now in my role as leading drummer with Canterbury.  Over the past few years Bruce Fraser has looked after my drums, and done a great job of it! But I have made more of an effort to ask questions, watch, learn and make mistakes.  430722_367590016605181_169198320_n

Every opportunity I’ve had, I’ve asked questions.  It’s the only way to build the knowledge. And as I alluded to above, I have made mistakes too.  Let’s face it though – how much damage can you really do? Well, not much.  Provided you take your time and follow some simple rules – you’ll be grand. I now have a better understanding of how to set my drum up to get the tone I want.  The biggest lesson I learned this year – don’t keep pushing the tension of the head to get a better sound. It simply doesn’t work like that.

So many drummers have told me that “The drum should be hard as concrete”.  In my experience – that’s rubbish.  In fact, I find that when you go too far with the tension on both heads, you get a sound that is reminiscent to a tin roof being bombarded with a bucket of stones.  The drum has a natural point where it sounds pleasant to the ear.  I know we have been on a mission to chase the bagpipe pitch, but we have still got to ensure our tone is pleasant and rich.  The other big risk of over-tensioning is “BANG”. We all know that terrible sound.

I would love to hear from you about what you think makes a drum sound great. My personal preference is a bright pitch (not through the roof tight though – this is too metallic for my liking), with a rich tonal quality from the bottom head and a great balance of snare response – loose but not falling off! A few sounds in recent years that I have really enjoyed – FMM 2014, 78th Frasers 2014, SFU 2008 and Shotts on more years than I can count.

Who’s right and who’s wrong? What is the perfect sound?


(Please check out the brand-spanking-new COME2DRUM website)


4 thoughts on “What should a pipe band snare drum sound like?

  1. James – I’d venture to suggest there is no perfect sound. How the snares compliment the rest of the drum corps and the piping is probably the thing to aim for. Those difficult to tune and keep tuned bagpipes will make your job a lot harder! Nice article – I enjoyed the read 🙂

  2. James:

    A pleasant tone coming off the drum, when standing a few feet behind or in front of the drum. No ringing or that infamous timbale sound. I like to hear the snares, can’t stand them too tight. I also like to hear the corps matched in sound. We have so many tools now to put that sound together. Let the bottom snare actually act like a snare. It’s the first thing I check when someone asks me to help tune their corps. Most of the bottom snares are as tight as a drawn bow string.

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