Layering Sounds, Instruments and Vocals: How To Get That Timbre


Thales Matos


Layering sounds will take your music to the next level, making it sound fuller and unique — whether you use this technique on vocals, instruments or drum loops.

But don't get me wrong: I don't mean multiple layers of the same audio. 

That would only make it louder, instead of changing the quality and texture of the sound, to make it thicker and wider.

How to layer sounds

To properly thicken the timbre of your sounds, you need to have different audio recordings or samples happening at the same time.

And if they blend together, they will supplement each other.

Layering Vocals: Natural Doubling

You know when you're listening to your favorite pop songs and, during the chorus, the vocals grow, as if there's a wall of vocals?

It may sound like it's just one take, one recording, but most times there are many layers of vocals — in sync and panned all over the place.

Usually, in pop music production, the singer records the song over and over again, so the producer has multiple choices of takes to use as layers.

That's especially true during sections of the song that deserve the extra energy, like the choruses.

That's called natural doubling.

This effect can also be achieved artificially with just one vocal recording and some processing. That's another technique called artificial doubling. 

It provides a similar result but it's an entirely different process — subject of another article.

Examples of Layering Audio and MIDI

Below you'll find images from my original song "Maybe We'd Be Together" — layering sounds for different reasons. For the audio examples, watch the video above.

First I want to show you the bass.

Layering Basses 

Notice there is a bass group, with 3 different bass tracks in this group.

Bass layering

The first one is "Bass", then "Bass Top", then "Sub".

They're all MIDI tracks with the exact same MIDI clips. Each one of these tracks is simply a layer.

Watch the video above to hear what each layer brings to the table.

The original "Bass" layer is the core sound of my bass.

Main bass layer: Live's stock preset "Module Thunder"

The two other layers will supplement it to make it richer and fill a certain part of the frequency spectrum that I felt was missing something.

The "Bass Top" layer is just an extra distorted sound that was placed in the background and it wouldn't work by itself.

It sounds thing by itself. Especially because I'm filtering some unwanted frequencies with this equalizer.

In this case, I don't need the low frequencies coming from this layer and possibly causing the sounds to clash with the first one.

What I wanted from this instrument was that thin distorted sound to place on top of the first layer and give it some character.

And the third layer is a sub bass.

sub bass layer made with a sine wave in ableton lives operator

It's just a sine wave made with ableton's operator and the purpose is to provide those super low frequencies that make the room shake.

The frequencies here go as low as 35 Hz. You can only hear this if you have good headphones or speakers.

For people that will listen to the song on their cellphones or laptops, this won't make any difference. They won't even hear this layer.

But if the song didn't have this low frequency foundation, it would sound very weak in a club environment, in a car with a good sound system or even on headphones.

The bass is not the only instrument that has some layering in this song. Let me show you the snare drum.

Layering Snares

The snare was made of two samples, which I called "top snare" and "bottom snare".

layering snares

It sounds a lot fuller and puchier when those layers are combined.

Also, it makes it a unique snare.

If you use sample packs, for example, and you don't layer or change your samples in any way, many people will be using the same sounds as you.

But if you layer your snare samples — mix and match —, you're immediately coming up with something that no one's ever used before.

You designed your own snare sound.

In this song, I also layered two vocal tracks on the chorus.

How to Layer Vocals

There are usually more than just two vocal tracks in pop music.

But in this song, I felt like the arrangement was already busy enough. There was no need for more layers.

how to layer vocals

This technique just gave the vocals more body so it could stand out in a busy arrangement, instead of getting masked by the synthesizers and everything else that was going on.

Isn't it cool how layering sounds allows you to get to the timbre you actually want?

Who excels at layering sounds

Pop songs on top of the charts sometimes have dozens of vocal layers during their choruses.

Rock bands do this all the time with their guitars.

Usually they have a guitar recording in the center, a different recording panned right, and another panned left, for example.

EDM producers layer tons of saw wave synthesizers and space them apart by detuning and delaying them slightly.

There's a thousand different ways you can use this concept.

Now it's your turn

Take advantage of this great technique of layering sounds and go make amazing music!

Let me know if you have any questions and if this was helpful.

As always, if your goal is to master pop music production, check out the resources available on my website.


Thales Matos

August 7, 2022


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