10 Elements of Layering in Music Production

colorful audio frequency 

The purpose of layering music is to add a bigger sound to a track and to make that track its own by adding many textures

Think about it, when you hear a song you may hear vocals, bass, strings, and other instruments that “thickens” the song. 

In this article, we’ll go over 10 essential elements that go into sound layering so that you can create more textured and complete sounds that you may be dreaming about (or struggling to attain).

If layering and other specializations of music engineering and production is of any interest, you can also get a holistic overview of a music engineering degree.

What Is It Called When You Layer Music?

But first, what exactly is layering in music production?

 

Layering is the process of combining multiple individual sounds to create a cohesive sound that is more complex and interesting. This can be done for sound design purposes, like layering multiple synth sounds to create a richer tone. It’s also accomplished by layering different effects to create a more complex soundscape.

 

For example, you can create a complex snare sound by utilizing three different samples. 

 

  1. The first sample will be focused on the transient (or attack). 
  2. The second sample will be focused on the tone
  3. And the third sample will be focused on the sizzle

 

Combining the three samples results in a larger and more interesting snare sound than any one of the samples would provide on their own.

Use Complimentary Frequencies

The first essential element to basic layering is to use complimentary frequencies. 

 

Why?

 

An easy mistake to make with layers is using sounds that occupy the same frequency range.  This creates muddiness and reduces definition in your sounds. 

 

Instead, look for complimentary frequencies. 

 

If your first layer has a lot of mid-range frequencies (say 500Hz – 1kHz), try layering sounds that are lower frequency (say 63Hz – 250Hz) and/or higher frequency (say 4kHz – 16kHz). 

 

This will create a cohesive sound that is bigger and fuller because the individual layers exist in their own frequency ranges. 


When choosing sounds to layer, try to keep the frequency ranges of the individual layers narrow so that they can coexist with other layers better. Use filters and EQ to shape the frequency ranges of your layers.

Stagger Layers

Natural sounds change and evolve over time. 

 

You can make your layers sound bigger and more interesting by staggering their start times instead of having them all start at once. 

 

  1. Identify the layer that has the strongest attack characteristic and place it first. 
  2. Then focus on the sustaining layer of the sound. You can use a fade or adjust the attack time of the sustaining layer to keep it from conflicting with the attack layer. 
  3. Try offsetting your layers by different values to find the timing that sounds most natural or interesting.

Scrap Ideas That Don’t Work

One of the most important skills you can have as a producer is the ability to abandon an idea that isn’t working. 


Don’t look at scrapping a layering technique as a failure. Learn from what does and does not work and build off of the sounds that you like.

Add Diversity

You can add diversity by sampling. This also works really well with drums and can give your tracks some diversity.

Experiment

Music production is all about experimentation, so every layering technique that you try has value, even if you never use it in a project.

 

Experimenting allows you to learn something new. When you embrace the process of experimentation, you will work through more ideas and end up with more successful techniques in your final productions.

Sound Selection

It’s essential to pick the right sounds and/or instruments that complement each other.  

 

The fact is that not all instruments or sounds do not sound pleasant when layered together

 

It’s so critical for a music engineer to have a good ear to select sounds that blend well with each other. 

Gain Staging

Gain staging is a mixing term for finding what volume level you want your sounds to be played. 

 

Gain staging layered instruments is important because you have to tame and control your sounds so that the overall song or beat sounds pleasant. 

 

More than likely – if not, 100% of the time – your instruments and sounds will be played at different levels. You might have one lead instrument and two other instruments in the background to complement the lead instrument. 

 

Think of it in terms of cooking. 

 

You almost never use the same measurement for multiple ingredients. Ex: 2 TB salt, 1 TB pepper, 1/4 tsp paprika etc. There will probably be one lead ingredient and others that complement each other. 

Octave Placement

Sounds in different octaves make it more appealing. Different octaves give different feelings. 

 

So it is with layering instruments – it’s typical to place them on different octaves. 

 

An octave is just the pitch of the note. There are 12 octaves for each key. For example, you might have a piano playing at a low octave like C2-C3. Then you can play strings on mid octaves C5. 

Filtering

Filtering just means removing certain frequencies from sounds. 

 

So let’s say there’s a piano and some strings layered together (both playing on note C5.) 

 

Now these two instruments are playing in the same mid frequency (they’re playing on the same notes). 

 

A low pass filter can be used (this makes it so that only low end frequencies pass through) on the strings. 

 

That way my piano could be heard better and the strings blend in the back.

Stinger

A stinger is just a music term meaning a short piece of music that starts and ends within a few seconds to emphasize or highlight a certain part of the arrangement. 

 

For example, if you layer a piano and brass melody playing on the same note, but make the brass come in only at the end for a dramatic effect. You hear this mostly in films (scores). 

 

At the end of each score you’ll hear a loud trumpet or stomp or something – that’s a stinger.

Best Layering Music Libraries

Want to get started with some free sample libraries to experiment with layering?

 

Below are some of our top recommendations for your personal use and if you already aspire to make this your career:

 

How To Layer A Music Arrangement

To layer a music arrangement you can simply stack instruments on top of one another, meaning play two different instruments at the same time, playing the exact same notes. 

The purpose of this is to add more depth to a song so that it won’t sound too thin. You want people to feel it.

Here are 7 steps on how to layer an arrangement using music software and other tools

      1. Record yourself playing an instrument. For example, let’s say we play a guitar melody. 
      1. Next, once you’ve recorded the notes you played on the guitar, copy and paste those notes for the second instrument. For Example, Strings will be our instrument #2.
      1. Layer this instrument (strings) over the first instrument (guitar), inside your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). We’re playing the same exact notes as we did with the guitar. Same notes, just a different instrument.
      1. Now after both the guitar and strings are recorded you want to arrange them so that they play at the same time. 
      1. Place the guitar melody you played right above the strings (view pic as reference).
      1. Play back both the guitar and strings to make sure your notes are aligned with one another and that they are playing simultaneously.
      1. After your instruments have been layered it’s important to mix them where your frequencies are not clashing with one another. Otherwise it’ll sound like a bunch of sounds fighting each other (This step pertains more to mixing than layering, which you can take classes for online or in-person). 

Conclusion

To layer a music arrangement you can simply stack instruments on top of one another, meaning play two different instruments at the same time, playing the exact same notes. 

The purpose of this is to add more depth to a song so that it won’t sound too thin. You want people to feel it.

Here are 7 steps on how to layer an arrangement using music software and other tools

      1. Record yourself playing an instrument. For example, let’s say we play a guitar melody. 
      1. Next, once you’ve recorded the notes you played on the guitar, copy and paste those notes for the second instrument. For Example, Strings will be our instrument #2.
      1. Layer this instrument (strings) over the first instrument (guitar), inside your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). We’re playing the same exact notes as we did with the guitar. Same notes, just a different instrument.
      1. Now after both the guitar and strings are recorded you want to arrange them so that they play at the same time. 
      1. Place the guitar melody you played right above the strings (view pic as reference).
      1. Play back both the guitar and strings to make sure your notes are aligned with one another and that they are playing simultaneously.
      1. After your instruments have been layered it’s important to mix them where your frequencies are not clashing with one another. Otherwise it’ll sound like a bunch of sounds fighting each other (This step pertains more to mixing than layering, which you can take classes for online or in-person). 

Earn your degree in the field of Music Engineering from Visible Music College

The Music Engineering Program will prepare you for a career in music/audio production and or engineering. Request more information about Music Engineering at Visible.