Layering Sounds

This topic is the most important discovery a producer can have, on their way to getting a truly rich, professional sound. You will no doubt be aware of the term "layering" and probably have a rough idea what it is. If you watch lots of tutorial videos on Youtube you will have seen it in action but why is it so important? How can you use it to better your sound? 

Firstly, what exactly is layering? Simply put, you are putting two (often similar) sounds together and making a better sound as a result. This is most commonly seen in drum production where certain frequencies are extracted from a sample, using EQ, and mixed into another.

Here, kicks are chosen on their sound and generous EQ
removes all but the good bits of each.

The use of layering does more than create the sound you want. It truly develops your ear. Lets say you are layering kick drums, you choose one with a gorgeous low end, and one with crisp highs. Doing that requires a highly analytical ear, and ability to imagine it with another sound. You are truly analysing all the component parts of a sound.

It also allows you to add effects onto only one frequency range. This of course isn't the only way but it is very simple, great for if you want to have a really saturated mid frequency in a kick, but clean highs and lows.

It massively increases your sound library too. Imagine you have 100 kick samples and you want to layer three of them, one for low end, one for mid, and one for the highs, that is 100x100x100 options. Your 100 sample library is now 1,000,000 possibilities. The brilliant thing is, once you have made the kicks you like through layering, you can save all of them as samples and have your own personal sample-pack to dip into.

The other thing it does is it allows you to develop mixing restraint. You never want all your layers to be full volume. Often you will spend time developing a sound that sits under others, barely audible but nonetheless improves the sound. You will find yourself having to really work on your EQ skills so the sounds sit well together. It is not an easy technique to start with but it will develop many of your skills at once.

An extremely important point to note is that layering is not limited to drums. In the image above, you will see a small portion of my latest project. I have layered together the kicks I like, before resampling them, but if you look above, I have also layered synthlines.

For a long time, I tried to get the sound I wanted using one instance of a synth. I was so jealous of all the big sounds that I was unable to recreate. That's actually when I realised I'd been doing the solution all along on the kick drums.

By layering synths, you can get a much thicker sound across all the frequencies. This is especially useful if you can't afford expensive instruments like Massive. With the right combination of free VSTs, and the right knowledge, you will get as much power as the larger synths. Sure, it may be a bit more complicated, but limitations always have made the best discoveries.

I tend to spend a few hours between projects on my favourite VST synths just making sounds. When I find a good one, I save it as a preset and then make four or five variations of it. That way when it comes to making a song, there's a good chance a preset I like is available. With the many variations, I can pitch them up or down and layer them for a much thicker sound.

If we take a closer look at the synths in my latest project (pictured above), you will see they all operate different sounds. Future synth 1 is a high frequency FM clang, common in future house, this is mixed in with Future synth 2 where one of the oscillators was pitched down an octave. This together, creates a thicker sound which is not possible in just one instance of the synth (I used T-Force Alpha).

I then heavily modified a copy of synth 1 to have a "wobble" filter and brought down the sample-rate. This made a "yoh yoh" sound reminiscent of Knife Party and old dubstep sounds (tutorial on this sound here). That became Future synth 3. It was mixed in at a lower volume and added some quality after the initial clang of each note hit.

Then of course you will want to have a bassline under all those sounds. Styles such as future house have the bassline follow the synths above it, or perhaps more accurately, the synths follow the bassline. 

In the project above, I kept the MIDI information the same for each layer (just copy and pasted across) so they all follow exactly the same route. This is not necessary, you could add harmonies though it brings into question whether it can still be called layering.

In the image below, you will see the programmed drum data in the project. Two things to note here are the Reverb send, and the washy hi-hat; both are eloquently named "DRUMVERBSEND", and "hat.shuffle.washy.layer" respectively. 

Firstly, using a send could be classed as layering. You are altering the sound and then mixing it into the original. Often, with effects such as reverb, it is best to use a send, so everything is affected in the same way (a reverb on every individual track sounds messy). It will also save your CPU power for more taxing processes.

The other washy Hi-Hat layer is notable as it isn't a single hit sample being layered over, but a whole hi-hat loop. This can get messy quick so you need to find rhythms and syncopations that complement each other. When it works though, it pays off, provided of course you aren't looking for a natural sounding drummer.

In this instance, I wanted the second half of the section to have a groovier feel and so I layered an extremely high-passed shuffle loop into the drum loop so just a ghost of the shuffle feel was added. It was enough to drive the section on. 

As always, it's best to show restraint, ideally, nobody should ever know you have layered sounds together.