How to: Layer Synths for Big-Room EDM Tracks

Creating similar patches in several track groups will help you build a huge sound
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Creating similar patches in several track groups will help you build a huge sound

Here are all six tracks in three track groups acting as one. You’ll have ample opportunites throughout your compostion to drop different layers in and out to change the energy level. If you listen to big-name EDM tracks from Calvin Harris, Eric Prydz, Zedd, or many other progressive- and Swedish-house producers, you’ve probably heard a lot of enormous-sounding synth chords that seem to span the whole frequency range. Usually those are actually stacks of 6-10 tracks that you can build one layer at a time and group together in your DAW for flexible processing.

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Here’s how to do it: Start by creating three track groups with two tracks each in your DAW. Then follow these simple steps.


Part 1: M1 piano. The classic Korg M1 piano and its imitations have been popping up in dance music for literally decades now. You’ll find an M1-style piano in almost any rompler synth or in many sample collections. (For a reference, check out the chorus of Madonna’s dance hit “Vogue.”)

Fig 1. The oscillators in Air Hybrid for the Midrange synth sound. Part 2: Sawtooth synth. Use any synth with multiple sawtooth oscillators, such as Lennar Digital Sylenth1, Air Hybrid, Reason’s Thor, or many of the other available products. With an initialized patch, make two sawtooth oscillators with subtle Detune of about 3-5 cents, and pitch one of the oscillators down by one octave (see Figure 1). The synth should sound something like the lead chords in the Canadian electronic group MSKTRKRFT’s song “Easy Love” or Van Halen’s rock opus “Jump.”

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Part 1: Sawtooth bass synth. For this, just copy the instance of the midrange sawtooth synth above and paste it into this track. Then roll down the cutoff of a lowpass filter to taste—somewhere around 40% to 60%, to lower the tone of the synth.

Fig. 2. For the monophonic sub bass, try different unison settings for voices, detune, etc. Part 2: Sub bass. Using the same plug-in as your sawtooth synth, make a simple 1-oscillator monophonic patch with a lowpass filter at around 30% to 40%. For fun, experiment with oscillator shape, unison, and detune settings (See Figure 2).

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Part 1: Detuned high sawtooth synth. Using the same synth as before or a new one for variety, create two sawtooth or super-saw oscillators, this time with Detune settings cranked up to 12-24 cents, or even higher if you like. Pitch up one of the oscillators by one octave. Then on a third oscillator, add noticeable, but not overpowering, white noise (See Figure 3). If you wish, add some light lowpass filtering to take the edge off of the noise.

Fig. 3. The three-oscillator High-End synth sound in Air Hybrid, with the third one adding white noise. Part 2: Pitched-up M1. Duplicate the M1 piano from the Midrange group and pitch it up by two octaves (24 semitones).

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Starting with one of your Midrange tracks, record a chord progression, and when you’re happy with it, copy the MIDI notes to the other Midrange track. Then, to thicken up the M1 Piano part, duplicate it twice, pitching down one dupe by an octave and pitching up the other dupe by an octave. Also, add an EQ to the M1 Piano and use it to brighten up the top end.

Moving on to the monophonic sub bass, record a bass line. You could simply stick with root notes played in the same rhythm as the chord progression, but it sounds better to record several loops worth of bass beyond just root notes. Keep some of those loops in the same rhythm as the chord progression, but with others, create some counterpoint using different bass rhythms. When you’re finished, copy all those MIDI parts to your sawtooth bass synth track.

For the High-End group, it works to copy over all the parts from both the Midrange and Bass groups and sprinkle them into your arrangement as you wish. Also, try some additional single-note and chord variations for the High-End parts and copy them to both group tracks.

Quick Tip: Processing

To help give you that “big-room” club sound, put your best available large-hall reverb on an effects send and then dial it in for your Mid-range and High-end groups. Following the reverb, add a compressor with a sidechain triggered by one of the Mid-range group tracks, which will ease off on the reverb until the notes are finished playing, making it sound cleaner (see main screenshot above). Finally, a bit of a delay or ping-pong delay applied to the High-end group will add a nice, subtle echo.