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Music Production HOT Tips: Layers & Layering

Sound Layers, Sound Layering Tips

So, every now and then, we find something’s missing in our productions, and we try adding some new arrangement or adding a new voice, and it just doesn’t work, it doesn’t need anything new, but somehow, something’s still missing. It sounds thin, it lacks weight. If this is something you find yourself struggling within your productions, let me tell you the magic word: Layers.

I’ll show you some tricks you can do to improve your mix. We used FL Studio to exemplify all these tips, but they can be applied to any other music program that allows multi-track mixing.

So let’s get started…

Drum Layers

FL Studio Sound Layering Drums
3 Kicks Layers

One cool trick is to have multiple layers of drums. I recommend to listen to “The Rockafeller Skank” by Fatboy Slim and try to figure out how many drum layers are in the song. From memory, my answer would be a lot.

This is a pretty simple technique, no matter if you are programming samples, using a drum machine or live drums.

If you are using MIDI to trigger samples or drum machines, well, you can duplicate the same MIDI pattern to trigger different, let’s say, Kick drum samples. Maybe one with a very heavy low end, one with a very heavy click. In fact, this doesn’t need to be a kick drum sample, any really clicky sample should work, and finally something with lots of top end for some airness.

If you are using live drums, one way is to use a trigger plugin to add a layer of drum samples, or even trigger drum machines. Another way is to make copies of, lets say, your snare drum track and process every copy different, for example, one dry copy, one heavy compressed copy, one distorted copy, etc. This would give you thicker, heavier drums without having to compress the dynamics a lot.

Synth Layers

Synth Layers
Layer 1: Sytrus / Layer 2: GMS

This is one of my favorites, and I use it all of the time! You need to have at least two different synths (analog, digital, VA, plugins, whatever). Set them to sound as close as possible. If you are triggering using MIDI, just play the line with your first synth and then just copy the MIDI channel to your second synth. If they are analog and have no MIDI in, just play the lines as close as possible.

You’ll be surprised with the results! BTW, you can then pan them and/or process them differently, maybe, add some distortion to one and leave the other one dry.

Vocal Layers

Vocal Layers
2 Vocal Layers

This might be the more obvious trick in layering stuff world. John Lennon did this all the time in Beatles and solo recordings, cause he hated his voice, so, he would sing two takes, doubling the vocals. Kurt Cobain did this too. In fact, he started doing it because the producer told him Lennon used to do that. The trick here is to sing the doubled vocal track as close to the original as possible, and of course, not using heavy pitch correction.

Unisons

Don’t be afraid of using unisons! Not every voice or instrument has to have its own unique line all of the time, and this is true for pop music, dance music, rock and roll, jazz, and even orchestral and choirs. Unisons are used all of the time. Think about the main theme from Star Wars’ Imperial March, guess what? Three trumpets and three trombones are playing the melody line in unison, and that gives the theme the weight and fatness it needs. Nothing too fancy, just this unison and a strings Ostinatto, most of the time played in unison, too.

Other Layers

Electric and acoustic guitars are very often doubled, to have a thicker sound. If you are using different guitars or different amp, or even different amp settings, it will come up with a much richer tone!

Bass players, sometimes layer an electric bass guitar with a synth bass playing unison, as typically synths have much more sub lows than electric basses.

One other example it crosses my mind is the piano chord at the end of The Beatles’ song “A Day in a Life”. In order to have longer sustain time, they’ve mixed up every available piano at Abbey Road (if I remember correctly), those were 8 pianos, and play the same chord in unison with the 8 pianos – of course, using eight guys to play em.

You should go and listen to that example and check how massive that chord sounds and how long the sustain is.

Conclusion

These are just some examples, but you should definitely go ahead and try layering anything you can imagine! You can use different instruments, different settings, different panning and volume, different effects, etc. The key here is to experiment and find out what sounds good for you!

Let me know in the comments if you come up with something cool.

About the author

Rafael Hofstadter is a recording and mixing engineer and sound designer with 10+ years experience in playing and programming synths, recording, mixing and producing pop/rock/folk albums. He also runs piggysounds.com.

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