Layer Cakes

I’ve never paid much heed to rules and regulations, but throughout my recording career I’ve noticed that great guitar performances typically include five critical elements: formidable technique (both chops-based and purely emotional technicality), personality, rhythmic interest, musicality, and tone. Sadly, although a player with the right monk-like temperament and dedication can certainly hone his or her technique until it’s downright mind-blowing, acquiring transcendent personality, phrasing, and musicality requires more than devotion. In fact, some argue that such things can’t be taught — that great players somehow have those talents imprinted to their DNA, and everyone else just does the best they can with more limited skills.
Publish date:
Updated on

This leaves us with tone — another hotly debated topic amongst guitar players. But while the definition of “good tone” bobs about in a gumbo of subjectivity, I still believe that no guitarist should suffer from “bad” tone. Even if you haven’t found the perfect guitar, amp, and signal processing combination to render your guitar sound as majestic as the best of the best, cagey textural layering can help you construct some unique, ear-catching tones. Let’s look at two layering strategies for constructing gargantuan and “animated” walls of guitar goodness. (For those new to the concept of layering, check out the Nov. ’06 Guitar Trax for basic tips.)


Achieving the sonic clarity required for producing clear, articulate notes can be difficult when dealing with the saturated distortion beloved by many rock and metal guitarists. For hard-disk jockeys, an easy solution is to record the track totally dry while the player monitors his or her performance through a guitar plug-in tweaked to deliver the requisite overdrive and effects. Then, you can dial in all kinds of distorted craziness on a clone track, and mix in the original dry track until you reach a balance where you have that creamy sustain and clear, ringing notes.

If the player adores a specific amped-up and processed tone, then record it, but warn the guitarist it may be necessary to duplicate their licks on another track. For the overdub, plug the guitar in direct with its bridge pickup selected and the tone control full up. Now, bring up the two faders to evaluate the blend. If the two performances are tight, you should be able to produce enough punch and snap with a 70% distorted amp track and 30% clean direct track ratio. Cut lows (around 100Hz and 200Hz), and boost mids (1kHz to 4kHz) and highs (10kHz and up) to eradicate any muddiness or lack of “air.” If there’s some slop in the overdub performance that won’t go away (despite numerous attempts), sneak in a touch of delay on just the clean track (a slapback with one to three repeats usually works well), and bring up the effect level to obscure any note clashes. Brave or crazy types can experiment with subtly mixing in an additional acoustic guitar overdub to add some more zing to the distorted sound.


To unleash a tsunami of guitar power on a rhythm track, record two identical distorted tones (use the same guitar and amp, but bail on any signal processing — you’re going for a ballsy, unaffected roar), and position these foundational guitar tracks hard right and hard left in the mix. Now add some punch and shimmer by recording an extremely clean and chimey guitar tone, and placing the track dead center. Blend the track until you can barely hear the ka-ching. You want the perception of something steely in the mix, but you don’t want to diminish the power of the distorted stereo tracks too much. To accent rhythmic punches, record an acoustic guitar part, experimenting with simple chops and flamenco-like flourishes to see which part best propels the groove. Position the acoustic track hard left, and, once again, bring up the track until the part is barely audible (in effect, imparting almost a “feeling” of an acoustic).

To add the perception of movement to the rhythm track, route the clean electric guitar part pre-fader to your favorite reverb or delay program, and subtly mix the effect only (no hint of the source sound) hard right. If done correctly, a ghostly ambience should catch the listener’s ear as it presents itself in the right channel after the main impact of the distorted guitars. There are five layers to this cake, and you’ve covered everything from impact to ambience to saturation and accents.


As always, these two strategies are merely jumping-off points for your own layering experiments. The main take-away from this column is to be open to the benefits of juggling disparate tones, musical parts, and signal processing. It’s no different than cooking — a bad mix of ingredients will produce a truly wretched tasting experience, but the right blend of elements will send your synapses to pleasure heaven. So be fearless, critically assess (and learn from) your mistakes, and keep cataloging all the wonderful sounds available to create your own special concoction of tonal majesty.

Michael Molenda is a seminal San Francisco punk, multimedia artist, and producer who has recorded tracks for everyone from NASA to Paramount Pictures to various major and minor labels to hundreds of bands you’ve never heard. He currently co-owns Tiki Town Studios with producer Scott Mathews, and is signed to MI5 Recordings.