Sound layering is the process of making a singular instrument out of multiple sound sources. An example would be creating a kick drum using multiple short, percussive samples. Applying this technique wisely to your music will take it to the next level and give you that rich sound you’re looking for!
Because practically all music is made up of layers as it is, we’ll be using the term “sound layering” to specifically refer to just a single instrument or part in a song.
Why Should You Use Sound Layering In Music Production?
As mentioned previously, sound layering is a great way to create that lush sound you hear in professional productions. Another benefit of this technique is that it gives you the ability to create your own unique sound. Instead of just using the same samples that everyone else has, you are blending different sounds together to create something new that is completely unique to you!
Types of Sound Layering
There are so many ways to layer sounds in your tracks! It sounds corny, but the limit really is your imagination. If I listed all the ways you could possibly layer a sound, this article would never end! However, all these techniques can be roughly boiled down to three major groups.
1. Frequency Layering
Frequency layering involves choosing sounds that occupy different parts of the frequency spectrum in order to enhance the overall frequency content of a sound. To go back to our kick drum example, maybe your kick has a nice high-end attack that cuts through the mix, but lacks the low-end punch to make it sound huge. In this case, adding another kick sample with plenty of low end, such as an 808 kick, and blending the two sounds together can help you achieve a fuller kick sound.
You can apply this technique to other instruments as well. Copying a vocal track and pitch shifting it an octave up or down is a great way to give it a rich texture, as the track is now occupying a wider range of frequencies.
You can combine different synths together to create a lush synth pad that adds ambiance to the low and high ends of your track. You can record guitar parts in a couple of different octaves and blend them all together. The possibilities here are endless.
2. Amplitude or Dynamic Layering
Amplitude or dynamic layering is the process of layering sounds that enhance the amplitude of a track. An obvious example of how this technique can be used is with drums.
Maybe your snare drum has a nice attack to it but you want a little more sustain on each hit before it decays. You can accomplish this by adding another snare sample that has more sustain on it. By blending the two together, you can get the best of both worlds.
This is why some producers like to record an electric guitar with both a DI box and an amp. The unaffected tone from the DI can add extra attack to the processed sound from the amp that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
3. Stereo Field Layering
The final type of layering in music is stereo field layering. This process involves layering sounds with a focus on the stereo image rather than specific frequency content. An example of this would be triple-tracking a lead vocal and panning two of the tracks slightly left or right.
You could apply this to other instruments such as acoustic guitar. Double tracking acoustic guitars and panning them left and right makes them sound more full, like the instrument is surrounding the listener. You can also create this artificially by sending a track to a reverb effect and panning the wet signal slightly off-center. Again, there are lots of different ways to do this, so experiment with different ideas!
If you are planning to try sound layering in your next mix, here are some production tips to help you avoid the common pitfalls of this technique.
1. Don’t Drag and Drop
Don’t just randomly add a few layers to a track and suddenly expect your mix to sound a million times better. Sample selection is important here, plus you will have to do some processing in order to get all the layers to fit together.
You may have to pitch shift a drum sample so it matches the pitch of the others. You may have to do some time aligning so no phase cancellation occurs between tracks. EQ may need to be used so that each layer only occupies a specific frequency range, and only then when the different instruments combine will they create one richly textured sound.
If you think about your favorite music producer, that the thing you like about them the most is the unique style they have, right? By taking the time to process each layer, you are creating your own unique sound that no one has heard before!
2. Process Your Layers Individually and as a Group
While it is important to process each individual layer, processing groups of layers can help glue them together and make them sound like one cohesive instrument. Experiment with sending the layers to a bus and adding light compression to them, or using effects like reverb or delay to make the sounds come alive.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Delete!
In the process of layering sounds, it is easy to go overboard. There are certainly instances where this works well, such as the song “Fool’s Gold” by the rapper Aries…which uses over 400 layers!
Other times, too many layers can result in a busy arrangement that is difficult to manage when it comes time to mix. That’s not to say that one approach is better than the other, however.
There is no set amount of layers you should have in one song, it really depends on the needs of the song you’re working on. If you are struggling to get a clean mix, don’t be afraid to get rid of layers!
When I’m mixing, I like to take my layered tracks and mute all but one layer. Then, while listening to the track in the context of the entire arrangement, I’ll add each additional layer back in to see if it is really contributing anything to my mix. If it is just making it messier, I’ll get rid of it. Doing this regularly throughout the music production process will ensure that every layer in your song counts.
Layering is a great tool for adding depth to the frequency content of your tracks, creating thick and powerful sounds. Layering is an art form that takes time to get right, but if you carefully select and process each layer, you’ll end up with professional-sounding tracks in no time.
The concept of sound layering really helped me take my productions to the next level, and I hope you are now convinced that it will do the same for your music.