PRODUCTION EXPO 2014: The process of stacking synthesiser layers together, when approached methodically and carefully, is one of the quickest and most intuitive ways to achieve a powerful and interesting synth part in a track. As listeners, we respond to subtle evolution and variation, so breaking down one unifying composition into several smaller chunks or voices helps construct interest and individuality from the ground up.
One way to do it, as we'll demonstrate below, is to begin with a single interesting pad, synth or soundbed you'd like to 'fill out'. This process isn't actually that complex as you already have all the musical cues to build upon in the original sample or synth patch. It's often a case of identifying which elements are missing from your choice sound, then finding suitable layers to fill in those gaps. Nowadays, tools such as Melodyne, Ableton Live 9 or our own Spiral CM can deconstruct a chord or melodic sound and tell you its constituent notes, but your trusty ears (plus trial and error) can do the same job. You can then identify if your sound needs lower weight, top-end texture or stereo interest, and add that accordingly using new layers.
Another slightly more complex (but ultimately rewarding) approach is to construct your melodic composition with its composite layers in mind from the start. You can spread your notes over several octaves for weight and impact, and distribute your MIDI notes differently on multiple layers for greater melodic interest. You can then layer in a wide patch to sit at the sides of your mix and fill out the stereo field whilst keeping others centred for solidity. The advantage of this method is that you're truly conducting your own computer-generated orchestra of sorts, and you'll achieve a unique and personalised sound by doing so.
We suggest you approach these layering methods with caution and focus. It's easy to layer synth upon synth to simply achieve a 'fat' sound, yet end up with something sounding less coherent than just a single choice layer. Watch for your midrange getting clogged and use EQ to clear space when needed. Finally, always layer sounds in the context of your mix, so you're building up the bigger picture rather than blissfully layering sounds in isolation.
For more videos like this check out Computer Music issue 199.