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The snap, crackle, and pop stuck out like a sore thumb as part of hits spread across three decades. Songs like “Every Breath You Take,” “Two Princes,” “Unsung,” “You Got Me,” “Down,” “What’s My Age Again,” and “Like I Love You,” among others, were all propelled by the crisp spasms of the cranked snare drum.
Dry, tight, and piercing, with a bright metallic sheen that hovers long after it’s struck. It is both a sucker punch and a mysterious fragrance that never seems to dissipate. Elusive and obtrusive, the cranked snare can resemble a timbale, a doumbek, an 808 clap, but also popping popcorn, the crack of a whip, and a Louisville slugger making contact with a fastball. The sound of the cranked snare is so conspicuous it has a tendency to distract even casual listeners from any other sounds with which it happens to co-exist.
I first encountered that sound when it emerged from the voids of American top 40 radio and basic cable between 1997 and 2000. The pre-Napster CD era coincided with puberty, which seemed to hit every boy in my grade except me. A devastating illness in my family turned life at home upside-down and I regularly found myself in trouble at school. I found solace in the rush of colliding with sounds that stopped me dead in my tracks.
I often faked ill so I could stay home to increase my chances of stumbling upon new sounds that opened up rifts in the crushing monotony of day-to-day life. My brain etched these sounds deep into itself, replaying them on endless loops in stunning clarity for days. The unconscious repetition stripped the sounds of their original meaning, transforming them into sacred sound objects in my imagination.
The private and solitary act of anticipating whether a song might have a cranked snare became an obsession that bordered on compulsion. Those glorious moments I came into contact with the sound offered temporary relief. I focused intently to soak up each tightly coiled “thwack” in as much detail as possible because I was never exactly sure when we’d meet again.
More so than melody, harmony, or rhythm, I realize in hindsight that I was more fascinated by the liberating potential of sound itself, the arrangement of novel sounds in space, and how sound could convey some kind of ethos. So, equally important to the pungent memory of the cranked snare was the attitude it seemed to project: defiant, tough, streetwise, modern, maverick, and male.
It embodied egotistical power in the face of any obstacle. Yet the liberation at which the cranked snare hinted during its ‘90s prime equated “freedom” with heroic displays of technical brilliance — rebels as virtuoso “gunslingers.”
Now when I encounter recordings of the cranked snare from the mid-late ‘90s, I react strongly to the attention it commands, the sonic space it occupies, and the hubris it invokes. The cranked snare strikes a disobedient posture, particularly in the contexts where I encountered it, but something about its presence always made me feel like there was more to it than what met the ear.
On recordings, the experience of the classic ‘90s cranked snare is all attack — EQ’d and compressed within an inch of its life as was the style of the time. So much of what I still find fascinating about the sound was the linoleum sheen of late 90s hard rock and metal production. The snare sound was designed to obliterate, but on the other side of each strike was a celestial overtone — a halo that hung above the chaos.
Standard snares are generally tuned to minimize or eliminate overtones, but cranked snares are tuned to accentuate them. The sound is a feat of engineering but the overtone hints at the inherent disorder of the acoustic experience. I began to think about the overtone as the gesture that actually makes good on the cranked snare’s rebellious promise — a reminder that even at its most organized, sound is “living matter,” to quote the composer Edgard Varèse, that will always exist just beyond our control.
The deeper I reflected on my memory of the cranked snare separate from music, the more pronounced the overtone became in my recollection of the sound. I was convinced of the cranked snare’s rebellious possibilities and conflicted about its place in the culture.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the cranked snare’s cultural peak, it’s time to interrogate why it continues to be such a divisive sound. I talked to some of its most high-profile practitioners to better understand the cranked snare in both studio and live settings, its drum corps roots, and its relationship to hip-hop and dance music.
What’s Behind the Sound?
If the kick drum has always represented a stabilizing force — what Captain Beefheart once referred to as the “mama heartbeat” — from its 12th century roots and onward, the snare drum was designed to provide critical signals, often in conjunction with military maneuvers.
Just as the military snare became larger and louder to meet the exponential demands of war, the cranked snare evolved in response to the sonic battles being waged within the muddy acoustics of ‘70s arenas and concert halls.
The most obvious attribute that separates a cranked snare from a “standard” one is a higher pitch, which Police drummer Stewart Copeland explained was designed to cut through anything.
Copeland’s snare sound was heavily informed by reggae, but in the context of hi-fi pop music, the snare functioned less like an instrument used to demarcate rhythmic grids and more like a machete slicing a path through untamed wilderness — and creating more chaos in its wake. In a 2012 interview with Drumcool, Copeland remarked that his snare drum was tuned tight enough to “bring a bird down from the sky.” He elaborates on the physical effects of the sound:
Sometimes I’ll come off stage at a gig and pull my earplugs out, the audience is still making a noise. “OK, let’s give them one more” and I’ll forget to put them back in and count it off, one, two, three, four, CRACK! OWWWWW! And there’s blood gushing from my ear.
In a 1982 interview with Modern Drummer, Police drum tech Jeff Seitz elaborates on how Copeland’s signature sound evolved to address the live situations the band found itself in:
Stewart tunes his drums completely different than rock drummers of the past. From 1970 to 1980 there became this fad of sort of very deep pitched sounding drums, more like a rumbling kind of sound. It first started with Led Zeppelin and like that and then the studios really jumped on it. It became all this dampening and tuning the heads so you actually got a note; a nice, round, pitched note and in a studio or a small hall, that concept can work because you’re not dealing with the amount of bass rumble or certain frequency sounds you get in a big hall.
Consequently, drummers who went into big halls like that with drums sounding like that, a lot of the sound dropped off because it was just rumbling around. Now, Stewart is into a very tight sound and he also plays a lot of the rim of every drum he hits, including the snare. I mean, most rock drummers play rimshots all the time, but when Stewart plays his tom-toms, he’s hitting the rims as well. So he’s going for a very, very percussive attack/crack sound and I think you can notice the drums just barking out at you. He developed that concept by going to a lot of concerts and noticing that a lot of drummers’ tom-toms didn’t make it.
311’s Chad Sexton explains that the iconic sound is the result of three major factors: the tuning of the snare drum, the way the drummer hits it (i.e. rimshots), and the producer’s touch.
In fact, the role of production in shaping the sound of the cranked snare can’t be overstated. In order for that “crack” to truly cut in recordings, drummers and producers often relied on a combination of EQ — particularly in the 200 and 7k hz ranges — compression, and occasionally mixing in trigger signals from samples.
Once the cranked snare sound has been sculpted, it becomes more slippery. On one hand, it takes up an enormous amount of sonic real estate, as Sexton explains:
You wouldn’t kind of guess that it does, but [my snare] takes up a lot of the frequency spectrum. if you’re listening to one of our mixes in the studio where we have control over each track and you take the snare drum out of the mix, you would be amazed. You’d be like, ‘You’re kidding me? It takes up that much room in the mix?’ If you erase it, it’s like half of the mix.
On the other hand, Sexton notes that the sound is so dependent on the individual player’s sensitivity that it can be easily swallowed up:
If I’m a little bit off in my execution of my notes, it sounds absolutely horrible. When I play with the band, you have all this bass and you have all this distorted guitar. Then you have vocals, which take up the entire frequency range and can cover up a lot of the details of the actual tones of the instruments. The resonance of my snare is pretty much taken away by the vastness and the frequency range of the other instruments in my band.
This is where the depth and body of standard-sized snare drums prevent the sound from vanishing into thin air. It’s also why specialty or “effect” snares were never responsible for the iconic sound — as many people, myself included, have mistakenly speculated.
Piccolo snares, which tend to be extremely shallow (usually around 3.5–4” in depth), offer quick responses often at the expense of body and volume. John Stanier of Helmet, Battles, and Tomahawk explains that he was never a fan of the piccolo.
Piccolo snares seemed to be missing the point; they were way too high and didn’t ring. I really did not like them at all. [The ideal sound] has the perfect balance between a nice ring and a much higher pitch. I loved my Tama 14×6 brass snare with no muffling!
Soprano a.k.a. popcorn snares are slightly deeper than piccolos at 5–7” and deliver a full-bodied “pop.”
Marching snares are rich in upper harmonics and use Kevlar heads to cope with changes in temperature during outdoor use.
According to Sexton, the evolution of the modern cranked snare began when big band drummers accustomed to deeper, more resonant drums started tuning higher in order to more clearly articulate the intricacies of their playing.
Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, [big band drummers] are playing six-stroke rolls and all this tricky stuff on a resonant snare drum and it just becomes a blur. I think as time went on, the drummers probably thought, ‘I want people to hear what I’m playing. I’m not playing [imitates wash of noise]; I’m playing all these definitive fast notes.’
Inspired in part by Copeland and ?uestlove, Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier was also attracted to the cranked snare’s ability to articulate fine detail. However, contrary to its reputation as a pulverizing sound, Saunier observed that the cranked snare’s unforgiving nature offered a much wider dynamic range:
[The cranked snare] actually encouraged me to play quieter, which was and is a constant necessity because Deerhoof’s singer Satomi [Matsuzaki] is very quiet and my stage volume can get too loud. I know it doesn’t make sense — a high-tuned, unmuffled snare is so much louder than a low-tuned, muffled one. But actually whenever I tried tuning it low, I found I had to hit much harder all the time, and all the small details were lost. When the head was tight and bouncy, it rewarded me whenever I did small stuff.
In the 60s, snare drums tightened up as drummers took center stage. Just listen to Tony Williams on Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” (1964), Ginger Baker on Cream’s “White Room” (1968), or Clyde Stubblefield on James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit Loose” (1969), which served as the template for much of the music that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century and into this one.
The tight snares of the ‘60s gave way to more resonant sounds of the ‘70s (see: Glyn Johns’ recordings of John Bonham). The ‘70s were also when Drum Corps International formalized a partnership among most of the major competitive drum and bugle corps that veterans’ organizations like the American Legion and VFW sponsored for men returning from World War I. These corps included the Cavaliers, the Troopers, the Blue Stars, Madison Scouts, and the Santa Clara Vanguard.
While drum corps has always been a niche pursuit, DCI evolved over the next two decades into an influential presence within global youth activity in North America, reaching millions via broadcasts, corporate sponsorships, and educational initiatives.
According to a CNN profile from 2010, the “staid military drill[s]” associated with drum corps transformed over time into “fast-paced, whiplash moves and physical demands equivalent more to a college gymnastics team than a chamber music program.” Madison Scouts artistic director Jim Mason remarked, “Drum corps used to be more of a neighborhood group rehearsing in garages … now it’s gotten so professional and just keeps escalating.”
Tracing the roots of the modern cranked snare drum, there is a compelling case for its origins in suburban drum corps culture where the tightness of marching snares enabled them to cut through the din of large marching bands and the “ring” allowed them to cut across vast distances.
The emphasis drum corps places on accuracy and conformity makes it tough to disentangle the cranked snare from its lineage as a Swiss mercenary instrument — Clyde Stubblefield’s snare sound was famously inspired by a childhood experience at an Armed Forces parade in early ‘50s Chattanooga.
There is an interesting tension between the discipline of the culture from which the cranked snare emerged and the unruliness of its acoustics. If this sound was a direct outgrowth of drum corps culture, I wondered if the cranked snare could still authentically communicate a spirit of rebellion. Didn’t its drum corps lineage automatically transform the cranked snare’s defiant spirit into one of obedience, particularly because the regimen was so grueling?
In a 1994 Modern Drummer interview, Stanier reminisced about his regiments with Fort Lauderdale’s Florida Wave and the University of Florida’s Sun Coast Sound, where his snare was cranked so high it would occasionally give him shocks in his forearm:
We’d do long rolls for forty-five minutes; our hands would be on fire. I’ll admit that a lot of it — color guard, the uniforms — is really corny, and the judging is so anal-retentive that you’ll get points taken off if your sticks are slightly out of unison among twelve drummers. But the drum parts are amazing.
As Sexton sees it, drum corps remains one of the rare high-profile musical platforms where progressive ideals could flourish. While musical feats in the early days of DCI erred on the side of perfectly executed 128-measure rolls, drum corps have gradually upped the ante to incorporate a wide variety of rhythmic and compositional complexity into their charts. There are moments where the Blue Devils resemble Red Fish Blue Fish performing the avant-garde percussion music of composers like Xenakis or Stockhausen.
One could argue that the militarized aesthetic of drum corps is precisely what gives young musicians the freedom to go wild within the tradition. Sexton, who marched for 5 years with the Sky Ryders, explains how drum corps gave him an opportunity to come into his own as a musician and person:
You watch any rehearsal from the Blue Devils drumline or Carolina Crown or Bluecoats, what they’re playing is insane. They are pushing the envelope. The drum writing is so spectacular, clever, and fun. It’s such a great thing for rhythm and drumming. What I love about [drum corps] — it almost makes me emotional — is these are kids who are 16–21 who have to dedicate themselves. They have to sacrifice. They don’t get paid. They’re serving the music.
As an outsider looking in, the progressive ideals of drum corps seem largely musical. It may come as no surprise that the opportunities drum corps offers its practitioners are often stratified along socioeconomic lines. Drum corps participants can expect to pay upwards of $3,000 in training and performance fees.
In a 2015 profile on drumline culture, Los Angeles-based drummer Joshua Alfaro talks candidly about the gap he sees in drum corps demographics:
Competitive drumlines are typically found in schools with large bands and big budgets, capable of spending on instruments, musical training, choreography, elaborate uniforms, and travel. Alfaro says [drum corps] tend to hit the same well-heeled, discipline-centered demographic that goes for gymnastics and figure skating. “You don’t see many at-risk kids doing drumline,” he said.
As the relative popularity of drum corps culture spread quickly through certain segments of the country in the 1980s, an extreme pop binary emerged that matched the opulence and optimism of the Reagan era: 80s snare drums were either smothered in thick gated reverb (see: “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins) or rendered as sharp, high-pitched cracks (see: “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police).
When Cranked Snares Reigned
To my ears, the ‘80s cranked snare presented a version of modern music whose highest virtues were virtuosity and severity. For all the modern possibilities the cranked snare implied when it first came on the scene, as the decade rolled on the sound became associated with that most orthodox of music industry archetypes: the chopsy clinician.
Jazz-fusion drummers like Dave Weckl, who became a titan of trade magazines and instructional VHS tapes via his work with Chick Corea Elektrik Band, catalyzed the sound into an insular culture that appeared to make no attempts to appeal to anyone outside of it. At its worst, this subculture of drummers was united by a desire to see how fast and complicated they could play in a kind of music as extreme sports.
As Weckl explains, many drummers who followed in his footsteps seemed to miss the memo about the ultimate value of spending so much time in the shed:
For me it’s always been enjoyable to try to achieve a high level of technical ability at the kit. How it’s USED is another matter. The MUSIC should always be the first to be served and supported.
Not every drummer from this particular community had the same monomaniacal desire to pursue chops for their own sake. Jojo Mayer, a Swiss-born drummer who has played with the likes of John Medeski and Meshell Ndegeocello, is also a notable figure on the drum instruction circuit. Mayer considers the complexities of this culture’s fraught reputation:
Many people are suckers for physical accomplishments because they are easier to understand than conceptual or emotional achievements. Fast successions of notes acoustically translate more clearly in medium and higher registers. My own drive to develop technique was mainly informed by curiosity in the full potential to serve an artistic vision.
In the 90s, a generation of rock/pop drummers reared on drum corps and 80s fusion records heard the cranked snare in the context of hip-hop and electronic music. Chad Sexton explains:
[The snare sound] sort of had to do with that rap influence. Sampled snare drums aren’t really resonant; back in the day, all the electronic sounds and samples were way drier and way more like a tone or an attack.
John Stanier reminisced about the co-mingling of fusion and hip-hop influences in his signature sound:
I was sickened by the Winger/Guns N’ Roses/Ratt low snare sound. At the end of the day, I really just wanted my snare to sound like Lenny White in Return to Forever or Bill Bruford from Yes. So many of those records were being sampled anyways and I was exposed to a ton of hip-hop as soon as I arrived in New York — it was everywhere!
JoJo Mayer talks about how drum n’ bass inspired his interest in a higher-pitched snare:
[Electronic music] changed the game on how particular percussive sounds related to the sonic balance and structure in music. Back then, I attempted to reverse engineer those sounds acoustically. It not only required a good deal of R&D with gear but also quite a bit of adjustment playing-wise. It’s tricky to get the desired effect and not a sound that has more resemblance with a woodblock than a snare. But generally, the higher snare sounds inspired different phrasing, texture, aesthetics, and new musical syntax.
In a 2010 interview with Modern Drummer, ?uestlove talks about how the Illadelph Halflife sessions epitomized the era of using live drums to emulate samples:
This phase was more about engineering and figuring how to get a programmed sound without using machines than it was about drumming. The answer: gating, decaying, and perfect rhythm are your best friends. Cats can gospel roll all they want — I wanna see someone duplicate this exact break with no programming.
This dry, atomizing attack was featured prominently among utopian jam bands (Spin Doctors, Dave Matthews Band, Soul Coughing) and misanthropic heavy music (KoRn, Coal Chamber, Staind) alike. Sexton, Stanier, Tim “Herb” Alexander from Primus, Abe Cunningham from Deftones, and Dave Matthews Band’s Carter Beauford were among the new generation of drummers creating a new context for the cranked snare.
Sexton shared the ideals he sought to bring to his snare sound:
I think there’s possibly a deep-rooted wanting of things to be different in this world. I want my snare drum to be the crack that helps make a change, to wake people up. I want that change so bad, which is why I’m whacking the shit out of this snare drum, to be heard and cause a vibration that either helps people wake up or sends a notice that we need help down here.
In a familiar cultural cycle, a new sound that pointed toward possibilities was gradually denuded as the decade wore on. Cranked snares emerged in the ‘90s as creative tributes to sampled drums, then backslid into a symbol of military discipline and white male bombast. Stanier lamented this phase in drum culture that he played a critical role in inspiring through his work with Helmet:
“Strap It On” and “Betty” had extreme snare sounds, but that added to the overall vibe and fortified our musical manifesto, which wasn’t about violence at all — quite the contrary. Eventually everyone was using [the cranked snare sound] and it lost some of its power and spirit.
The Death of the Cranked Snare
When hip-hop emerged as the dominant popular musical form at the beginning of this century, it signaled a major paradigm shift in terms of the necessity of live drumming on recordings, which called into question the acoustic space required to sustain it.
Cranked snares were typically recorded in three-dimensional spaces with the goal to present listeners with a reasonable facsimile of “real” acoustic space. But in order to continue pushing forward or at least stay current, the cranked snare — a temperamental three-dimensional sound object sensitive to atmosphere and temperature — needed to approximate the two-dimensional, digital acoustic future that lay ahead with the MPC sample and MIDI data point.
Drums in early 2000s hip-hop, pop, and R&B productions were still being programmed to imitate the sound and feel of real drummers. As the dominant culture transitioned from live instruments to DJs and producers, the exception became the rule: live drummers were now tasked to mimic the robotic stiffness of drum machines, play alongside them, or were buried underneath them.
Spanky McCurdy, a Philadelphia-based drummer who has worked closely with Lady Gaga, Lauryn Hill, and Justin Timberlake, is one musician who embraced the evolution:
The shift [has been] quite exciting for me. Given your trust with your artist, it allows you to morph into a machine. [With] Gaga, for example, I played all of the patterns, but I also had the freedom to create around those patterns.
While drummers like McCurdy were energized by the challenges of adapting to the new landscape, it was clear that an era had ended and a new one had begun.
At a certain point in the mid-late ‘00s, with the advent of more accessible digital tools and a listening environment tailored to two-dimensional sound — what I like to call “The Great Flattening” — music-makers finally crossed the threshold into a technological future the cranked snare had romanticized since the early ‘80s. The sound of the cranked snare became outmoded by the atmospheric and cultural conditions of “The Great Flattening.” There was no longer “air” to support a drummer striking a membrane stretched across a cylindrical frame.
The extinction of the cranked snare and the relevance of the male gunslinger virtuoso archetype were brought on by another major techno-cultural development. Just a decade into the 21st century, the Napster-induced ecological collapse of the music industry meant any financial incentives that might inspire anyone to actually improve at their craft were slim-to-nil. The value of mechanical fluidity in the marketplace was not just devalued but rendered obsolete. In short, a culture that at one point held elite virtuosos in high regard would be displaced by a global network of proud amateurs with easy access to tools and distribution methods.
Fitting for this cultural moment, one of the last known prime-era recordings of the cranked snare explores the instrument through a noise lens. The 2003 album from Nervous Cop, a side project from Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, Hella/Death Grips’ Zach Hill, and Joanna Newsom, is a 30-minute skittery, jittery foray into pointillistic musique concrète that engages with the cranked snare (or two) as pure sonic material.
Saunier discusses how the evolution of the Nervous Cop recording was largely a response to the sheer intensity of Hill’s playing, which forced him to think in terms of sound mass:
I don’t know if anyone reading has ever tried playing drums along with Zach Hill but I played as loud and fast I could from the moment we started and about five minutes in I realized that if I stopped playing altogether it sounded exactly the same. Over time we played together more and I started to feel out a way to play with him in which I made a difference, but on this recording I felt, ironically, as though I should have tuned my snare higher. We were in the control room listening back to it and he sounded so powerful and my drums just kind of got swallowed up.
After a week of listening to the mix I was like, “Zach, we have to change this somehow.” That’s when we hatched two ideas: to play with the stereo mix audio by gating it and processing it in other ways, and to add a harp, played by a then-unknown friend of Zach’s called Joanna Newsom.”
Both renowned for their drumming prowess, Saunier and Hill used meticulous digital editing to disfigure their kits and effectively render the sound of two virtuosos source-less. Listeners were forced to reckon with the cranked snare as a raw sound stripped of its cultural baggage.
The Sacred and the Profane
I think a lot about the late American experimental composer Morton Feldman’s desire to make the attack of sounds source-less. He once wrote, “The attack of a sound is not its character. Decay, however — this departing landscape — this expresses where the sound exists in our hearing.”
I hear the attack of a cranked snare as a loud, banal reality that ties the sound to mundane spectacles like popcorn, baseball, and war. The halo-like overtone — the “departing landscape” of each hit — offers up another reality that goes beyond human endeavor into the realm of the divine. I think this schism between the sacred and profane is why the cranked snare elicits such a complex emotional reaction in me — a mixture of exhilaration, laughter, revulsion. It’s the extraordinary phenomenon of sound defying and overpowering the ordinary designs of its instigators.
When a cranked snare drum was loudly struck on an overproduced major label pop/rock recording between 1996 and 2000, it was done so largely in a spirit of defiance. “The Great Flattening” has rendered the cranked snare obsolete as a cultural symbol, but its “departing landscape” only seems to grow louder and more unruly in my memory with each passing year as the possibilities our banal reality has to offer only become narrower.
Jojo Mayer’s reflects on the durability of drums in 2020 and beyond:
[The music industry] is a reflection of a post-industrial society entering the age of AI; risk averse and confused, in cultural shock-freeze. In the process, values that lie at the core of many great artistic achievements get lost or co-opted by economic agendas. This development stands in contradiction with the true nature of music and drumming, which aims at creating an experience of elevation, unification, and mind expansion. We’re at a crossroads. Industries can get destroyed; drums are indestructible.
Wild sounds naturally reckon with their own obsolescence; part of what makes them wild is the uncertainty of whether they will come to fruition at all and if they do, what form they might take. As I meditate on the lingering memory of the cranked snare, I just hope its radical spirit finds a way to radiate outward and take on new forms.
Jonathan Pfeffer (b. 1986, NYC) writes, makes music, and has recently started to draw again. His work right now explores small everyday acts of defiance and subtle comedies of error as responses to the anonymizing influence of the built world on collective ritual and individual identity. His hope is always to document unique experiences of time and space. He lives in Philadelphia, PA. He is on Instagram (@jonpfff) and Twitter (@jon_pfff).