When it comes to making a track there are a lot of things that have to come together to finalize a piece of music. A big part of making a song sound full and complete is layering elements and textures together to sound like one cohesive piece. When you hear a song you may hear things such as vocals, guitar, bass and other instruments but they are all coming together as one.
This is called layering. It can be quite hard to get right at times and if it’s not done right, it can be detrimental to your song. In this video, we’ll go over 8 different but very effective ways to layer your sounds cohesively.
Layering – Eight (8) Essential Concepts
- Filtering frequencies (EQ work)
- Gain staging (Volume)
- Sound selection (Choosing the proper sounds)
- Musical range (Octave placement)
- Staggering sounds (Delaying/shifting sounds)
- Experimentation (not clinging to sounds/trying new sounds)
- Stereo placement
- Putting your sounds in a space
Layering is the process of combining multiple different sounds to come together as one, to sound more complex and interesting. Doing this can really create depth and character to your song and make it sound full and professional.
When we talk about filtering frequencies, you might think instantly to grab a filter from your library and put it on your channel.. But lets not forget using an EQ is filtering. An eq is used to shape sounds by removing or boosting certain frequencies. Inside of each EQ you have many different forms of EQ’ing you can do. These are filters. Whether you choose to use and EQ or a standalone filter to attenuate or boost your frequencies, they both serve the same purpose.
Properly filtering frequencies in your mix allows the sounds to breathe and fit better. This can be hard to get right sometimes but I will show you how to properly achieve this in the video.
For example: If I have a lead synth sound and a sub bass, I can remove the low end of the lead synth sound to allow the low end of the sub bass to be more present and to avoid the 2 elements from clashing and sounding muddy.
Filtering frequencies or EQ’ing is very crucial to make your mix sound good and taking the steps to ensure you are making your sounds fit right can lead to a great sounding mix overall.
The term ‘Gain Staging’ might sound a little intimidating but the concept is quite simple. A very effective and sometimes sought after way of cleaning up your layers is by gain staging. The act of gain staging is simply boosting or lowering the volume of certain sounds to fit better in the mix.
Sometimes you might be thinking that your sounds aren’t fitting right even after you’ve done all the essential filtering and EQ’ing but something as simple as lowering the volume of some of your sounds by a few db can really make a big difference.
The best way to approach this is to play the mix and lower or boost the volume of each sound one at a time untill you feel it fits best in the mix. Even if you think the volume of your sound is good, you may want to experiment a little with gain staging to see if it sounds better lower or even higher in volume.
Naturally almost all your sounds will be at different volumes so messing around with the volume to have some elements sit in the back of the mix and some to sit in the front of the mix will really help it come together.
Choosing the right sounds is a very important step to making a cohesive mix when layering. Sometimes sounds just don’t quite work together no matter how much work you do to try and make them fit.
For example: having a piano layered with a duck quacking might not sound right… but if you have a duck quacking with subtle ambience of water in a pond and a wind breeze, this might seem more suiting.
Its great to try different sounds but dont get stuck on using something if its not quite working out.
If you were to take a listen to a full orchestra, you will notice that they have a wide variety of instruments playing all at once… yet it all works and sounds incredible.
This is layering at its finest. One of the ways they achieve this is by allowing instruments at different octave ranges or difference frequency ranges to be played at once. So they may have a ‘double bass’ played with a ‘violin’, these work great in harmony with each other because they play at different octave ranges, allowing each of the instruments to shine on their own.
When creating your own music, you can think of it as if its an orchestra and look at your own music in different sections. To fill up the mix, you will need a low end, mid range and high range. Take a look at your sounds and ensure you have some low end content like a sub bass or bass guitar, mid range such as a piano, lead guitar or vocals and some high end such as your cymbals from your drums or another synth that hits higher in the octave range.
Following this approach along with all the other tips listed will really help fill up your song and make things come to life.
So we know that choosing the proper sounds, filtering, gain staging and octave range is huge for getting a proper layer in your music, but one thing that can be disregarded at times is staggering your sounds. One thing that I like to do frequently is stagger my sounds. Shifting your sounds off the grid a little bit or staggering them can really improve the clarity of the mix.
Shifting your sounds allows the initial transient and frequencies of the sound to breathe on their own before they are matched with other layers. Having them off time slightly from one another gives them their own space to breathe and shine through a little bit more than they would piled right on top of each other. This method also helps things feel a little more natural as if they are played in by hand as they are not so stuck on the grid.
A simple way to achieve this is by using Ableton’s stock “track delay” it is very simple to use and it allows you to shift the entirety of the track by any amount you’d like.
In the end, music production is all about experimentation. Choosing to try and use a guitar or choosing to try and use that certain synth. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to let go and try new things. You may be clinging onto that amazing guitar sample, trying to make it work when really its holding back your creativity. Experiment, experiment, experiment.
Most of your favourite and iconic sounds were all made by experimenting and trying something different and unique.
One of my favourite examples of this is from KSHMR a very famous producer who wrote the music for “like a g6”. He said when he was writing that song he accidentally placed his MIDI onto the wrong track which ended up giving him that signature distorted 808 melody you hear in the song.
Don’t be afraid to try new things and experiment.
Another layering trick that can be forgotten about is stereo placement. Putting your sounds in a different space. A super simple and effective way to layer your sounds is by shifting them into the left or right channels. This can greatly increase the depth of your song and allow other elements in your mix to sit in their own space without clashing.
Now doing this doesn’t mean you can disregard all the other steps, its still best to EQ and gain stage this layer but this allows you to have more freedom with your mix and create character.
Putting sounds in a space
You might be thinking… how do I “put my sounds in a space” on a computer..
Well using simple tricks like reverb or certain plugins and effects can help us achieve this. If you notice when you use reverb, it tends to change how to sound feels and it makes it feel like the sound is in a different space. That’s essentially the whole purpose of reverb, its to make your instruments or elements sound like they are in a space that they actually weren’t in originally. A lot of reverb devices have different presets that allows you to choose the type of space you want the reverb to emulate.
For example: If you select one of your reverbs and choose a preset such as “big hall reverb” this is meant to emulate the sound of the instrument or sound in a big hall. Using a reverb like this can allow your guitar to feel like its in a different space. This can set this instrument apart from the others and make it feel unique and natural, also allowing it to be in its own space and not fit the same frequency spectrum as your other sounds.
Having instruments that are in different spaces creates depth in your mix. This can also be achieved by using different effects such as amp, cabinet, phaser-flanger, chorus, etc.
Layering sounds is an essential part to making your music come to life and there are a few steps to ensure they fit properly together. If you follow these 8 steps properly, you’ll be sure to have a nice set of layers within your music and a full sounding mix.
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