A Tribute to the Terrible Snare Drum Sounds of the ’90s

Before GarageBand gave you an excuse to just do it badly yourself, you actually had to pay people to make your drum tracks sound awful. Time to fire up Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and take a listen to a few of the worst.

Everyone knows that music production got carried away in the 1980s. Synthesizers. Drum Machines. Gated Reverb. Explain the proliferation of these fads anyway you want (cocaine!), but naturally there was bound to be some backlash. In the ’90s, with ears everywhere burnt out from a decade of production clichés, the general milieu in recording shifted back to achieving a drier, more “natural” sound, while still utilizing the digital advancements of the day. This led to a less homogenized playing field of sounds, a greater array of production tools than ever before, and more studio engineers dedicated to accurately capturing the performance of the band itself, especially in rock music. And some of those bands had snare drums that just sounded like ass.

Why snare? Well, other than the kick drum and hi-hat, there isn’t a more prominent drum to be heard within the confines of your typical three-minute rock song. When a snare sounds bad, it is distractingly so. While bad ’70s drum production is just kind of muffled/lo-fi sounding, and ’80s snares all sound like a dropped bag of groceries, the ’90s have a whole gambit of bad timbres and textures to choose from. So let’s choose some!

Fugazi — “Repeater”

Fuck it: We’ll start off by taking aim at one of the most beloved DIY icons of their era. Fugazi are punk rock royalty and generally held as the best example of how a band can operate with anti-consumerist integrity in a soulless, commercialized music industry of Mountain Dew ads. Also, Repeater is a pretty damn good album. That snare sure sounds lousy though. It’s hollow and flat with a sort of dull “boink” that the otherwise decent production captures unfortunately well.

Deftones — “My Own Summer”

Apparently that high-pitched crack is from a piccolo snare, which I can only guess was used here in attempt to make the song that much punchier and IN YOUR FACE. In actuality, it’s so obnoxiously taut and bright that it sounds like it’s coming from another song entirely. You’ll have a hard time convincing me that’s not just someone beating the shit out of one of those ten-dollar hand drums from Guitar Center. Bonus points for also featuring that terrible ’90s fad of making the vocals sound like their coming through a CB radio. Subtlety is for losers.

Reel Big Fish — “Take on Me”

Ska/pop-punk from the ’90s is full of questionable snare choices. Granted, ska is inherently better suited to the super bright texture of the piccolo than the knuckle-dragging lurch of Deftones. But listen to how this snare sounds, and then compare it to the song above. It’s nice and resonant while the other sounds muffled and lifeless, yet obnoxiously high-pitched as well. Both were recorded in the ’90s. To be fair, Reel Big Fish are not the only over-caffeinated Warped Tour luminaire to fall victim to this kind of production. They are, however, the worst. Just listen to that yarl at the beginning of the chorus. Holy hell.

Korn — “Blind”

I promise that this list isn’t going to turn into a complete bashing of nu-metal, which, even in this day of Hot Topic–fashioned angst creeping back in vogue, is still fairly low hanging fruit. Whatever your opinion on tracksuits or eyebrow piercings may be, can we at least agree that the production quality of “Blind” is, um, lacking mightily? Especially the drums, where every snare hit emulates a trash can falling down a staircase. It’s so loud and grossly clipped-sounding that it doesn’t even seem intentional, like they fucked up the recording and just went with it anyway. RAWK!!!

Nine Inch Nails — “Piggy”

This one applies specifically to the last couple minutes or so, where all the overdubbed drums come in. Drenched in ugly plate reverb and stereo-panned seemingly at random, what sounds like state-of-the-art studio wizardry in ’94 now more resembles a bunch of bad effects that a thirteen-year old playing with GarageBand might use. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of this album’s production still sounds amazing. This isn’t it.

Sublime — “Waiting for My Ruca”

The Sublime song that sounds like it was made by someone who only listens to Sublime. Yeah, the kick is from a drum machine, so ordinarily I wouldn’t count it. But what is going on with the snare? That is some true Venice Beach drum circle prowess right there. You could cover “Ruca” in your kitchen by banging on some pots and pans and it’ll sound exactly like the record. I’m not really sure if that’s an insult or a compliment. FL

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