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Remix Clinic: Layer It Up

June 16, 2010
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FIG. 1: A section of a song showing various layered guitar parts: a quadrupled main guitar, three harmonized guitars, and doubled power chords at the bottom.

FIG. 1: A section of a song showing various layered guitar parts: a quadrupled main guitar, three harmonized guitars, and doubled power chords at the bottom.

How do you achieve the “it” factor when creating a remix? Asking that of a music producer ranks right up there with posing the question, “What is the meaning of life?” With that in mind, this month''s discussion will focus on a technique that will help to develop, or improve upon, a signature sound. The technique I am referring to is layering.

Layering is the most effective way to create new sounds, produce rich textures, and add depth to any project (see Fig. 1). This technique can be used to add a more distinct and rich sonic quality to virtually any sound, including vocals, synths, guitars, bass lines, sound effects, and more. There are three basic steps involved; I''ll take you through them one at a time.

STEP 1: DUPLICATING THE PARTS
The actual duplication of the parts is as easy as re-recording or copying the same notes or pattern on a new, separate track. In the case of MIDI tracks, it''s just a matter of copying the MIDI region down to a new track. Once that''s done, you can start shopping for sounds. With MIDI parts, it is critical to change the layered sound from the original; otherwise, it will be an exact duplicate and will only make the part louder. (More on this later.)

Some people also think you can simply copy a live-performed track (such as a guitar or vocal) and shift it slightly, or add some sort of harmonizer or chorus effect. Even though such effects do have their place, it''s always best to take the time to re-record the live performances, which will give a much more desired layering effect. I have had people, especially budding artists, act surprised when they hear that they must duplicate their part as closely as possible to make the live layering sound convincing. You don''t need to do much to the double once it''s done other than add some standard processing such as EQ and compression.

When remixing drum parts, layering drum samples can create complex sounds, such as a kick that can rattle the subs and snap in the highs. I will sometimes put in as many as three or four layers of kicks and snares, which can be as simple as dragging the samples I want to use into the DAW''s timeline and matching their timing to the samples in the existing drum part. Even with live drums, layering samples underneath them makes it possible to create bigger and better sounds. When it comes to drums, the main goal is to target certain frequency spaces, which I will address next.

STEP 2: COMBINING SOUNDS AND FREQUENCIES
Once the part has been copied, you must pay attention to what the sounds are doing and to what part of the frequency spectrum they''re occupying. Again, in the case of synths and MIDI parts that are exact copies, it is essential to choose a different sound that will complement and add a new dimension to the musical part. When I start layering, I usually have a goal in mind in terms of the direction of the overall sound I am trying to achieve. Synths are the easiest, and sometimes the most fun because they offer an almost limitless range of sonic possibilities. From sustained pad sounds, to classic synth stabs, to arpeggiated parts that offer movement, you can go in so many directions with synths.

FIG. 2: Most synths use multiple oscillators to generate sound. By activating more than one, and adjusting parameters such as the waveform and pitch of each oscillator, you can get some really thick layers.

FIG. 2: Most synths use multiple oscillators to generate sound. By activating more than one, and adjusting parameters such as the waveform and pitch of each oscillator, you can get some really thick layers.

Layering is, of course, a fundamental aspect of the sound-creating engine of many synthesizers (both modern and classic), and is part of what makes synths so different from other instruments. Many synthesizers have multiple oscillators that can be set to different pitches and waveforms, adding layers of sound for lush, rich results (see Fig. 2). For example, if I want a huge-sounding synth, I will first compose the musical part, then start layering to fill certain parts of the frequency spectrum.

The quickest way is to transpose the part either up or down an octave, which instantly adds depth. Taking it one step further—not only by changing the pitch of the sound, but also by using a different synth with a different type of patch—it''s possible to create a unique composite sound. I can''t tell you how many times people have asked me, “What synth did you use to create that part?” Nine times out of 10, the sound I achieved was the result of layering different synths with different patches and targeting specific frequency ranges with each patch.

With guitars and vocals, I get an immediate sonic payoff right after I double, triple, or even quadruple a part by panning the tracks to either side (how wide to make the spread depends on the song), which immediately adds richness and width (see Web Clips 1a and 1b). In that case, I rarely change the sounds at all. At most, I might decide to double the part in octaves or harmonize it rather than just do a straight double.

In the case of a vocalist, pitch modulation with octaves and harmonies is most common. Bass lines and drums can be a bit trickier. With these, it''s necessary to watch out for frequency masking. This occurs when two sounds, or in this case layers, occupy the same parts of the frequency spectrum, causing them to clash with each other. Usually they end up getting hidden in one big messy sound that lacks any sort of clarity. To avoid this, target different parts of the spectrum with each layer.

With bass drums, for example, three layers may include a sub-sounding kick for the bottom frequencies, a standard kick for the body and punch, and then maybe even a hi-hat sound doubling the other two at a lower volume to add some really nice snap and pop. If done properly, the result won''t seem like three separate kick samples, but one cohesive sound that covers a broad frequency range that can be accentuated further with processing. The same holds true for bass lines. It is very easy to add low, sub layers that just muddy things up. Target specific frequency spaces with each layer (see this month''s “Production Central” on p. 44 for more on bass layering).

STEP 3: PLACING THE SOUNDS
Finally, you need to figure out where you want to place the layers you''ve created. I already touched on guitars, but what about kicks, snares, and basses? For those elements, it may be best to put the layer in the same part of the stereo field as the original as they are most often intended to sound like one cohesive sound. Kicks, basses, and snares are typically panned to the center. With synth layers, I like to experiment with different left-to-right placements to make certain that the mix has more width, especially if they''re the featured sounds of my mix.

With live instruments such as guitars and vocals, a wide left-right placement of each layer works wonders for adding width and texture. The number of layers I''m using determines how I will pan them. If I only have two stacks, I will typically not pan them hard left and right. I prefer to put them closer to keep the sound more together. If I have four stacks, then I will usually pan the first set hard left and right, and the second set maybe at 10 o''clock and 2 o''clock.

THE SUM OF ALL PARTS
By simply layering parts and sounds, you can quickly add dimension and a more characteristic sound to your mixes. However, as with most aspects of music creation, there can be a tendency to overdo it. Just adding more parts does not ensure a better result. It is always wise to take a step back and see if the layer or part really adds that something that will achieve the unforgettable. If not, then remove it and try something else, or leave it out all together. After all, this is not rocket science and usually the simplest things can have the greatest impact.


Vincent di Pasquale is a producer/remixer who works out of his project studio (vcdstudios.com). He has remixed songs for One Republic, Madonna, Nelly Furtado, and many others, and he is the author of The Art of the Remix, a comprehensive, interactive remixing course available now at faderpro.com.

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