Layering Part One – Synths

(Click here for Part Two, Layering Drums)

Layering sounds made easy
If you’ve ever been frustrated that your sounds are too thin, or your song just seems to be missing something, maybe it’s time you tried layering your synths. While some producers get scared at even the thought of layering, others go crazy and have tens of layers for just one sound!

In moderation, layering can make a massive difference in your songs. What was once a thin, boring sound, can be transformed into a full, wide, booming sound!

Commonly, layering is used to create basses or chords mostly. This technique can be used for any sound you want though. Simply create several layers that correspond to different frequency groups, and when combined, they create a much bigger and fuller sound.

Just three layers!
It’s easiest to start with just 3 layers for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Label them ‘low’, ‘mid’, and ‘high’.

Now go ahead and create three different sounds for each layer. Make sure your low layer is more focused on the lower frequencies, your high is focused on the higher frequencies, and the mid layer is somewhere in the middle.

Now throw on an EQ to each and cut out all but those frequencies. This is crucial, because if you don’t, your sound will quickly become a giant mess. By cutting out those frequencies, you allow each layer to really shine through and mix with the other layers.

One thing that you might consider as well is changing the octave for some of the layers. For the low layer, drop it down an octave or two, and raise the high layer up an octave. This will depend greatly on your actual sounds, and what type of overall sound you’re going for, so adjust this to taste.

Effects galore
One of the awesome things about layering is it allows you to put effects on just certain parts of your sound! You can add reverb or delay to the high end, but your low end will still be nice and clean sounding! This is the time to get creative and make each section stand out.

The next step to layering is to mix each of your layers together. This is one of the reasons I suggested you start with just three layers. It can get really tough to try and mix 20 layers together just for this one sound, let along the entire track!

Try to make sure each layer can be heard, and that no one layer is standing out too much. The idea is to get a cohesive sound here.

After you’ve mixed them all together, group them up and add a compressor. Ableton Live’s Instrument Rack is a great tool for this. Go easy with the compression, you only want enough compression that the needle just barely starts to move. This will really help glue your sound together and make it sound like one sound.

Don’t forget the real instruments
Another cool use of layering is to have a synth sound or a couple paired with a real instrument, like a piano or strings. This creates an interesting effect that lets the listener recognize the real instrument, but also brings the synthesized sound with it. This is a great way to combine classical music with newer, electronic music!

Now go give this a shot and let me know what you come up with! Watch the video above for more examples of how this process works. I’d love to hear your layers so send me a message or comment here with a link to what you’ve got!

Action:

Beginner – Start by making a simple three-layer sound. Make sure to follow all of the steps carefully so you don’t end up with a muddy sounding mess! Try to have each layer be unique, and craft a sound that you normally couldn’t create with just one synth.

Advanced – Create a few sounds (at least one bass and one chord sound) with three or more layers. How many you use is totally up to you and what you need from your sound. Be intentional with what kind of sound you want. Then incorporate it into a song. Notice how much of a difference it makes!

Question: What has held you back from trying to layer synths in the past? How would it improve your songs if you started layering now? Let me know!

  • mczanetti

    Great article as always 🙂

    Well, I started layering things just a little time ago. Here is my workflow:

    For basslines, I usually lay down a pattern with a minimoog, or another synth simulating DAT FAT MOOG sound ( you can’t compete with that thimbre haha). In the beginning, I am not so worried about the sound itself, I just settle the things and starting arranging the song. I create the drums, try some arpeggios, just for the sake of doing.
    When I am in a more advanced stage of mixdown, I always low cut this moog synth, and add another SUB layer, with the stock operator plugin. I think this is a great synth that is a little underlooked.
    If my kick its more ‘thin’, and I feel that I have space, I try adding another layer. If it sounds good with only two layers, that will do.

    I group the layers in a bus, use a gentle compressor, just to glue the things, and mono only the sub bass, because I’m aware of phase cancelling and I dont want to my bass to fade down in a club.

    For my leads, I dont have any general rule, I just try to layer sounds from diferrent synths, to give more carachteristcis to the sound.

    • Thanks! That’s a great process to follow for layering too. I agree with the Moog sound, I wish I had some real hardware to get that sound! I also agree about Operator. I tend to use Analog most of the time, but Operator has a slightly different sound, and really fits well in certain sounds.

      Thanks for adding your workflow here!