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The similarities between a great song and a great cake are impossible not to notice. A great cake has a solid, fully baked foundation that is structurally sound and appetizing on its own. What makes the cake unique and even more delicious are the layers that go on top—the icing, the sprinkles, the drizzles, and so on. A great song is constructed in the same way; the basic tracks are done first and should be sturdy on their own. Adding layers of sounds and counterparts are what make the song truly unique and identifiable.
Layering music is important for several reasons. Layers create depth that can make your music more interesting and dynamic. They can also create opportunities for motifs, or repeated ideas, that create a sense of cohesion in your song; it’s this cohesion that gives songwriter’s their own memorable trademarks.
When approaching layering it’s important to think about rhythms, harmony, and counterparts when arranging new parts. That said, let’s examine these five tips for layering your song, and delve into the capabilities of Spire Studio to better execute your ideas.
1. Start big, work down
Once you’ve completed recording your basic tracks, deciding where to begin adding layers can seem like an overwhelming decision. The simple key is to start with the big things first and work your way down.
Some examples of “big things” are double-tracked parts, vocal harmonies, and melodic leads like a guitar or synth line. The big things are what seems obvious and necessary to the structural integrity of the song. Some general rules of thumb in music production are to harmonize and double track chorus melodies or create counterparts within instrumental sections. Both ideas would fall under the category of the big picture items. Some examples of little things to work down to would be auxiliary percussion like tambourines and handclaps, or found sounds and textural samples.
2. Record more than you need
“It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.” This old adage directly applies to song layering. When recording additional parts for your song, go above and beyond to record variations of your ideas to stockpile your options. Sometimes new ideas are birthed in the intricacies of each performance. Having more than you need also gives you more to material to play with; don’t be afraid to throw your excess at the canvas and see what sticks.
The ethereal introduction to the Marvin Gaye classic “What’s Going On” features a soprano sax riff that was caught entirely spontaneously. Eli Fontaine was simply warming up in the studio when Gaye alerted him that they recorded everything they needed and that Fontaine could go home. It’s because of Gaye’s vigilance in recording everything that his biggest hit can be identified by the meandering sax solo that kicks the song off.
3. Use opposing sounds
When you’re composing parts to counterpoint the basic tracks, consider using sounds or tones that oppose and/or compliment your basics. Say you’ve recorded a chunky, distorted rhythm guitar part that sits mainly in a low/mid frequency range. Consider a counterpart that uses a bridge pick-up with a pinch of reverb—the bridge pickup will accentuate the higher frequencies, and the reverb will propel the frequencies over the low, driving rhythm guitar part. Plugging a guitar direct into your Spire Studio can yield plenty of tone options.
This concept can also apply to drums and auxiliary percussion. Say your snare sound is low and punchy; try complementing it with some hand claps to give it some subtle definition and slap. If your hi-hats are forward and bright, introduce a dark, washy tambourine for contrast. You can also try these recording options for drums in Spire Studio for contrasting tones.
In the example below, the rhythm guitar parts in the first eight measures, as well as the arpeggiated guitar leads in the last eight measures, use complimentary sounds. The rhythm guitar panned left uses the Verb ‘65 amp plug-in on Spire Studio, while the right panned guitar uses the Tube 30 amp plug-in. The Verb ‘65 is wetter and brighter, while the Tube 30 is dry and crunchy. The left side guitar lead in measure nine uses the Carpratone pedal plug-in, where the right side uses the Big Air pedal plug-in. The Capratone is more driven, with more high-end frequencies, while the Big Air is round, wet chorus sound with a delay.
4. Accentuate the important parts
It should be stated that every part of your song is important, but you should know that some parts are worthy of more emphasis than others; that will take some objective analysis on your end. You’ll need to ask yourself what purpose your parts serve to the song—is the chorus vocal melody more memorable than the guitar lead? Is the objective of the verse to have the listener feel the backbeat, or have their ears drawn to the synth patch? Once you establish the most important factors of the song, add layers to accentuate them.
If it turns out that the backbeat in your verse is an important factor, you can accentuate the rhythm by layering in percussion. If your backbeat is a 4/4 rock groove, throw in some handclaps on the snare downbeats. If your backbeat is in a different time signature, add percussive layers on the beats that drive the rhythm forward.
Say the chorus vocal melody is what you want the listener’s ear focused on. You can support and accentuate the melody by doubling the melody with a different instrument—piano or stringed instruments are typically a good fit. Another way to accentuate the melody is to add a harmony that falls below the melodic pitches. In this way, the melody sits on top of the counterpart and feels more present.
In the example below, the melody is the established “important” part. For the first eight measures, the melody is unaccompanied. In measure nine, a lower harmony is introduced that supports the melody without overshadowing it.
5. Space it out
The importance of space in all music should be writ large, but its use in layering cannot be more overstated. Where the basic tracks take up much of the middle panning, layers can and should be sprinkled in on both the deep left and right sides of the panning spectrum. Adding too many parts in a short diaphragm can feel claustrophobic and can also take the attention away from your basic tracks.
Using space can also be used for dramatic effect. If you have a lyric that is a call and response, use the opportunity to experiment with a hard pan left or right to make the response feel like a different perspective. The same concept can be held for additional guitar or keys parts—a hard pan can be used to lead the listener’s ear in a certain direction.
Use sounds to tie the song together
A song should be able to feel palpably cohesive, and an effective way to create cohesion is by layering in sound motifs towards the beginning and end to tie the song together.
Listen to the intro of “What I Need Now” by Aubrey Haddard; the introduction features a trio of subtle guitar notes that lead to the song’s essential guitar riff. The sounds are introduced again in the last twenty-five seconds of the song in order to make the song feel less linear and more like a sonic narrative by including elements of the introduction in its final moments.
In a great song or a great cake, uniqueness is representative of its creator’s individuality. The layers within songs are what make them stand out—use these tips to create opportunities to be yourself by showcasing individuality in your music. Remember to start big and record more than you need. Use space and opposing sounds to add depth, and remember to accentuate the parts you feel are most important. Happy writing.