Music Production: The Power of Layering
If you’re an ITB producer, this article is for you. Some of the concepts still apply to tracking engineers, though, so it’s probably still worth a read.
This is a mistake I see beginners make all the time. They show me the project file, which is a total of 12 different layers, including vocals. They say, “[insert artist/Youtuber here] said that simple is better, so I tried to use as few layers as I could!”. Your heart is in the right place buddy, but there are few things you have to keep in mind.
First, if you’ve ever tracked quality instruments through quality gear, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s the simple fact that not all sounds are created equal. 4 out of 5 times, an instrument tracked live through quality gear in a quality room will sound immensely better (fuller, more life-like, larger presence, better performance, etc) than your day-to-day virtual instrument.
Is this true in all cases? Definitely not. The Arturia V Collection is a good example, and I use those sounds without extra layers all the time. But not all virtual instruments are created equal. Even some of the Kontakt stuff (in its defense, a lot of the instruments in the bundle came out 10–15 years ago) isn’t up to modern standards anymore. You can get by without layering, but it’ll take some searching and sample-sorting.
There’s a good reason recording studios still exist, and it’s not because “the industry hasn’t caught up with technology yet”. Sorry to burst your bubble, mate, but most of the recording engineers I know use cutting-edge tech and are quite proficient in modern producing techniques. And yet, they still track most of their client’s music live. It’s because it just sounds better. And honestly, in most cases, it’s easier (also very expensive, but shhhh). When sounds are tracked through good gear in a good space, making it fit in the mix becomes 3x-4x easier. That’s my opinion, although I know many engineers wouldn’t agree with me, so take it with a grain of salt.
So, here’s the question: “If I don’t have access to quality recording gear, how can I get my sounds up to commercial level? I know [insert artist name here] does all his production ITB. How do get my sounds to sound like them?”.
Layering, but it’s probably a bit different than you’re used to. Typically, people think of layering as individual instruments, like drums are layer one and the guitars are layer two and three. Not what I mean. In this context, we’re referring to the layering of one single instrument.
First off, disclaimer. I’m teaching you this technique, but it can become a crutch and/or a major weakness if you’re layering up everything in your mix and bloating the space. Your priority should always be on finding good quality instruments/samples first. The reason we use this technique is to make up for lost resonance/fullness/etc that you get when recording through good gear, but it comes with its own problems and can be very easily overused.
That said, let’s dive in.
First, start with your fundamental instrument. This is the instrument you actually want your sound to be. For this example, let’s use a piano.
If I’m just starting and I don’t have access to any quality pianos, I’ll probably reach for the Ableton stock Grand Piano. But if you listen to it, it’s not exactly a great piano. Definitely not something I want on a record that’s going to be heard by thousands of people. So what do you do?
Record the part you want onto a MIDI track. Then duplicate it below, so the tracks are identical. Now you want to find a sound that’s similar to piano, but not like the piano you just recorded with. My first instinct is to reach for an E. Piano. Most DAWs should have a stock E. Piano. Sounds very different from a piano, right?
And now for the magic. If you know what parallel/New York style compression is, this is essentially the same thing. Put the sounds on loop and make sure they’re both turned on. Pull the volume of the E. Piano down to 0, then slowly bring it up until the piano starts to feel a little bit thicker. Adjust the volume to taste. You’ll probably hear a little bit of the tonal characteristics of the E. Piano in the sound still, but that’s okay. Most of that will get lost in the mix, anyways, depending on how busy the song is.
And that’s it! It can take a bit of searching to find good sounds that will properly blend together, but that’s the basic idea. Typically, I’ll do this with anywhere from 2–6 tracks per instrument, depending on what I’m trying to accomplish. Do I use this on every instrument? Nope, definitely not, but I also have access to a lot of high quality samples/instruments so I don’t necessarily need to. The cheaper instruments you have, the more you’ll probably have to use this technique. It’s time-consuming and frustrating sometimes, but for most of you, it will be a necessary evil.
Feel free to play with this technique, too. The artist Crystal Skies will literally layer each note of the chord differently, where each note of their super saw is literally a different instrument. Like the fundamental is a square wave, while the 3rd is a cello, and the 7th is a pluck. Another popular technique is to duplicate the fundamental layer and tweak it a little bit, such as adding overdrive and widening it out a bit. Have fun with it. Remember, no rules in music.
There are other tricks for thickening up sounds to make them sound a little more expensive, but we’ll talk about those in a different article. Good luck, have fun!
As many of you know, these articles are written as part of a “brain dump” recommended by an article I read. I’ve found them very helpful, but they often contain incorrect, vague, and misleading info, since they’re written in a short period shortly after I wake up. I find them very therapeutic, but I openly admit there isn’t a ton of cognitive thought or editing going into them. Keep that in mind. And most of all, remember that there are no rules in music. These are my recommendations, but it’s your responsibility to review, ponder, act, and discover for yourself. Good luck, have fun.