If your tracks are sounding a little flat, adding extra sonic layers can help. Our resident studio wizard Chris Lyth is here to show you how it's done...
There are few better ways of adding depth, texture and personality to a mix than layering. It’s a key ingredient that can help your music sound less cluttered and your percussion more powerful, and lend new life to your sound design.
Layering is a simple strategy that is as old as music itself. The idea is to combine two or more similar sounds to achieve a more complex or fuller timbre. It’s a process, however, that requires good working methods and a fair degree of experimentation, to avoid pitfalls such as masking and phase cancellation, which will leave you with a weak sounding mix.
The tips below should help you steer clear of these potential audio maladies...
1. Prepare for battle!
First off, make things easy by copying the MIDI pattern that you wish to layer onto separate MIDI channels. This makes working with synths much easier as you will be able to audition sounds quickly and blend each part together.
2. The sampler is king
Modern samplers have a wide set of features that help with layering sounds together. Programs such as Ableton Racks, Maschine, Kontakt and Battery are all designed to allow you to quickly load in a plethora of sounds and sculpt away using ADSR, pitch and filtering.
3. Split 'em and stack 'em
To get a really full sound, you'll have to think about the frequency ranges that you need to cover. It’s no use having all your sounds stacked in the high midrange, for example, as they will just mask each other: it'll sound different, sure, but it won’t sound bigger. The louder sounds at any frequency will always mask the others in that range.
So try to pick different sounds to cover lows, mids and highs. If - for instance - we were making a big, sweeping synth lead with lots of atmosphere, we could choose a warm-sounding bass note filtered down with a large reverb to sit at the back of the mix. On top of that, we could place a sound with plenty of midrange at middle C - for example a resonant SH-101 with some LFO modulation and a little reverb. Then we could pile a high string sound with a medium attack and little or no reverb on top of that.
Contrast is key in creating front-to-back depth to your sounds. To make something seem close, something else must appear far away to create a convincing 3D landscape.
4. Tuning is everything
Think about pitch when you are stacking your sounds, and take some time to fine-tune them using the tune and transpose functions in your sampler. Also try creative tuning, layering synths up a perfect third, fifth, seventh etc. Doing this with sustained sounds like strings can sound great when you hit upon a winning combination.
5. Oscillate wildly
One of the main things we want from our sound design is a sense of movement. All samplers are able to assist here: by using LFOs, for example, to automatically control functions such as frequency, resonance, panning and volume. The changes can be as subtle or as drastic as you require and once you load in a basic sound and start assigning LFOs to parameters, you will quickly hear how much richness and motion has been added. Once this has been done, create another sampler track with the same LFO settings and start to audition new sounds, then play the two together.
6. Compress for success
Glue your layers. Once you have your layers and are happy with them, send them all to the same bus or group and add a little compression. This will help even out any excessive volume swells and bond them together. You only need to use fairly gentle compression at a low ratio such as 2:1, and reduce by -3db. You can of course go a little heavier if it sounds good, but be careful not to flatten the dynamics completely.
7. Check everything in mono
Switch your monitoring to mono every so often and make sure that everything is still sounding good. Listen for disappearing bass, as phasing can make your bottom end sound weak and hollow.
8. Work your ADSR
Experiment by layering sounds with different ADSR envelopes. For example, try stacking a string sound with a slow transient envelope underneath a sound with a fast transient attack. Blending different textures is a great way to bring richness and movement to your sounds.
9. Drop it till it's hot
If a part is sounding thin, blending a sound at a lower octave will add body and weight. Simply record two versions of your line, drop the octave of one of them then blend to taste. A little distortion on one of your lines can give further depth.
10. Transform your drums
Layering drums can give you more interesting and unique sounds than a stock library. Kicks and snares are obviously the best candidates for this treatment. Again, a program like Ableton's Drum Racks or Battery will make this process relatively stress-free. Split your kick into low, mid and high sections using EQ to filter out the unwanted frequencies. For example you could filter out everything but 20Hz-120Hz on the low, 120Hz-2.5kHz on the mid and 2.5kHz-20kHz on the high kick (these settings are just examples: you will need to experiment with the frequency settings as every three samples will be different).
Getting the ADSR envelope right is critical here, and no amount of EQ and compression will rectify this. With too much decay, the kick could end up as a wobbly mess; too little, and you will have a short midrange pop with little power. This process is equally valid for working with bass sounds, but do check often in mono for phase issues.
11. Make some space with EQ
If you're working with sounds that occupy a similar frequency range, listen closely to identify the sweet spot of each sound, then subtly cut that range with EQ from the other sounds. This will carve out some space in order for the sweet spot to breathe. Do this with each sound you layer. You don’t have to be too heavy handed here: a -5db cut at the most should be enough.
12. Evolve your layers
To build movement in your arrangement, it's a good idea to subtly change your layers as your track progresses. For example, at the end of the eighth bar, you might layer the snare differently on the last beat, or in the chorus, you could change the attack sound of your kick to a sharper one to give your rhythm track more propulsion. This avoids too much repetition and keeps your textures interesting.
13. Try splitting notes
Rather than playing a straight chord, try using a different sound for each of the notes played. So if you're playing a pad with a four-note chord, load up four different pad sounds and assign each sound to a note. You can of course swap which note is played by which synth to add further interest. Again, it’s a case of experimentation and nothing is more valuable than your own musical intuition.
There are many ways to layer synths, so listening to your track and identifying what is required is the best way of determining how is best to proceed. Are the drums punchy enough? Is the bass cutting through? Is the lead line sounding rich and full? Experiment to find what works best for you and be creative!
Words and pic: Chris Lyth