Layer it on Baby!

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating, Engineering, Music/Audio Leave a Comment

It’s kind of scary when I think of it – in the past few weeks, there’s been two or three topics that I’ve thought about putting up here on my blog that have then popped up on someone else’s thought-dump BEFORE I decide to write about it.

It must be that I’m plugged into so many feeds with Twitter, Facebook, New Readers…

Maybe we all kind of think in the same circles and subconsciously come up with things to ponder at the same time.

Anyway, in a loose connection to and in the spirit my manifesto on mixing a while back (parts I, II and III), I thought I’d share some thoughts on a favourite technique of mine:


It’s not a new technique, but it’s very useful in a lot of different circumstances.  It’s also known as “doubling” ( a bit of a misnomer in that you’re not necessarily just limiting the technique to a single additional voice ).  I came across a related post by Kim Lajoie through Jon Tidey‘s twitter feed.

Orchestral Roots

Layering (or Doubling) is a technique that’s used a lot in orchestral contexts.  Some of the more typical uses is to emphasize or add more definition to the bass line.  Bass instruments such as the Double Bass and Tuba can get quickly overwhelmed by other instruments and their notes start to get lost in the “mix”.  Duplicating the bass part with tenor instruments (usually in octaves above the bass note), such as Cellos and Trombones/Baritones provides higher frequencies that give a listener a distinct attack transient that reinforces the bass note.

The same thing can be done with soprano/alto instruments.  For instance, a melodic line that needs to cut through a mix may be played by trumpets and then duplicated on the piccolo an octave above.  The piccolo is shrill and is fantastic at standing out.

Duplicating a part doesn’t necessarily have to be done at different octaves – reinforcing a violin part with trumpets in the same octave is a common way of reinforcing a soprano strings by just introducing another, more focused timbre to the mix.  A group of violins has more of a “halo” effect around the intended pitch (they’re “fretless” so, by definition no two players are playing the exact same pitch).  A group of trumpets is more targeted on a specific frequency, so introducing them in the mix focuses the listener on the intended frequencies.

There’s so many

Modern Appliances

We live in a day and age where track counts and audio digitization has opened up so many doors to songwriters, composers, arrangers and orchestrators.

There are many recording purists out there who will insist that what I’m about to say is blasphemy, but in many contexts, using the power that’s available to you to use doubling to shape and construct the sound you want is certainly valid.  In fact, it’s used more than you’d imagine.

On recorded drum parts, say, the kick drum isn’t working … a lot of engineers will reach to Drumagog or other similar products to assist them in replacing or doubling the recorded kick drum with samples.

But wait, there’s more!

Bolstering the kick drum sound doesn’t mean that you’re limited to one sound – why not add more than one?

I’ve had projects where I’ve layered three sounds for the main “thwack/thump” of a kick.  After messing around with EQ and compressors on one audio track, I got frustrated and started to build my own sound to replace things – one of the sounds was actually a hand slap on a wooden desk for the attack, while the other two were two different kick drums – one to emphasize the beater and the other to emphasize the thump/air movement of the kick.

In addition to that, I used a sub-bass tone on the downbeat and blended in another deeper kick in the chorus sections.  Sure, there’s some work that needs to be done to balance and EQ each of the sounds so that it doesn’t become a muddy mess, but really, there is no rule that says that you can’t do this.

All of this can be done with virtually every part of an arrangement.  You can take a very simple and bare instrumentation, and with layering, and applying just some panning to different parts, you can make something that was blah, sound huge!  Add effects and automation to all of that, and the opportunities are limitless.

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