Music business and lockdown—has the industry gone digital?
Layering describes the combination of several sounds into one sound that is perceived as belonging together. In the vast majority of cases, the instruments that belong together play exactly the same or complementary harmonies. It is important that they work rhythmically and harmoniously as a unit. Two different guitar melodies alternating are not sound layering. When two different guitar tracks that sound different but play the same thing, listeners can no longer perceive this element as two different instruments in the finished song. And that's the point. This effect brings an incredible added value to us producers. There are two simple reasons to use layering:
"A lot helps a lot," dad used to say. But can you also transfer that DIY wisdom to work in the studio? Yes and no. Layering can help you a lot in creating special sounds. And it can ultimately give your synths the power you always envied from your favorite producers. But beware, it can also quickly lead to problems. In this article, I'll tell you how to prevent your mix from suddenly sounding muddy, which can happen pretty quickly if you're not careful.
First let's take a look at an orchestra. “What do orchestras have to do with fat EDM synths?” you might be wondering. The answer: quite a lot, I would think! Because orchestras are the forefathers of layering. If you've ever experienced a professional orchestra live, I don't have to tell you how incredibly grand and powerful that can sound. And when we understand why that is, we can transfer it to our own productions, making them sound powerful and punchy, but still clear. An orchestra sounds so impressive because it consists of many musicians. Together they obviously reach a considerable volume. But now comes the crux of the matter:
The instruments in an orchestra have different individual frequency responses.
To put it simply: violins, violas and basses sound very different and are built in such a way that they complement each other tonally. With instruments, of course, this works purely due to the design. A bass logically has a larger resonator and sounds much deeper than a violin. Both instruments are only half as much fun individually as together. This is the basic principle of layering.
In modern music production, of course, we don't build any instruments ourselves—we do that on our screens. Nevertheless, we should not forget what has been tried and tested in the music world for hundreds of years.
What we can learn from this little history digression for our EDM sounds is:
The sounds that are added should sound different and complement each other in their sound image. If they are too similar, it quickly becomes “muddy." If they are very different, they fill different parts of the frequency spectrum and produce a defined sound.
That's really important! The more instruments that are in the same frequency range, the more undefined the sound becomes. This can also be brought about consciously, but you should be careful with it. Of course, two synthesizers sound thicker than one. But ten synthesizers just sound undefined. So it's a very fine line that we're walking. The goal should be: as much as necessary, but as little as possible.
First of all: So that you can not only read but also hear what I explain to you, I have exported a few audio samples from an old unreleased song and uploaded them to Soundcloud. The genre is FutureBass/Trap.
The sound in question is kind of a supersaw. I always think of these types of sounds as a unit along with the accompanying bass when they share modulations through an LFO or sidechain compression. In my opinion, it is not worth going into individual processing, since every sound requires different settings and you can hardly derive anything from them for your own productions. It is much more important to think about the meaning and purpose of a layer when creating it, and above all—as already explained—to keep an eye on the frequency distribution:
The bass naturally has its main frequency component in the bass range. That's what it’s there for. It's also got a modulated midrange and treble to add some texture to the overall sound. However, this can only be heard in the whole song with trained ears. The purpose of this track is clearly to give us a thick bass foundation.
The Supersaw layer has the most "linear" frequency response of the three tracks. As you can see, it has no bass content. Of course not, because we have the bass for that. That's why I "removed" the bass range in this layer with a low-cut filter. Remember the orchestra: If we already have an instrument for the bass range, we don't need another one for it, but one that covers the mid and high range broadly.
Because I'm not particularly creative when it comes to naming sounds, I named this sound after its purpose. As you can see on the analyzer, this sound consists mostly of mids (due to the applied high-cut and low-cut filters, of course). It is there to give the whole sound a special character and a certain energy. The human ear is particularly sensitive to mids, as this is where the main frequency component of our voice is located. Of course, evolution has ensured that we can understand each other well. That's why we perceive very mid-heavy sounds as louder in relation to other sounds, even though they may not be. And since I want our entire layered sound to sound loud and powerful, I give it a few extra mids with this layer.
As you can see, these three sound layers have very different sound characteristics. So they complement each other well and don't become a single mush of sound. Once you listen to the examples, you will also be able to clearly hear how different they sound. And how they fit together. This is the export with all layers together:
Now if you're wondering how this article's example synth sounds in a finished track, I'd say just click on it:
Fun fact: the lead sound in the drop consists of eight layers.
I think you're going to look more at your analyzer when layering sounds from now on, right? You definitely should. See which frequency ranges stand out in a sound and use an EQ to lower them in the others. Try yourself. Pick a percussive sound and layer it with less percussive sounds. Sound layering also always has a lot to do with experimentation. Don't shy away from low-cut and high-cut filters to put your layers in their place. And always remember: You don't have to sound good on your own. Only together.
By the way: What you have learned does not only apply to the frequency response. You can also apply it to the stereo image! If a sound is very centered and almost mono, layer it with a very broad sound. Opposites complement each other particularly well in layering. Have fun experimenting!
I am very happy if I was able to broaden your production horizons a little with this article and if you can use these tricks in your next production. I would also love to hear what I have inspired you to do. Simply send me a message. Naturally you can find me here on mukken. Of course, you can also use the musician search to find other producers with whom you can exchange cool new techniques or singers and songwriters with whom you can work on your next tracks. Here you can also find other interesting articles on music production, such as the right export for external mixing.
Originally published on January 29, 2022, updated on January 29, 2022