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Create bigger sounds using layering

Layering sounds

Download this tutorial as a PDF

Listen to these tracks to see what you will be creating in this tutorial:

Layered Bass:

Layered Chord Synth:

By Daniel Rothmann (T7)


At some point in your career of music-making you might encounter the problem that your synthesizers just aren’t sufficient for creating sounds big or fat enough for your tracks. This could, for example, be a really heavy bass or a big lead synth. Luckily, there is a technique of achieving these sounds. That technique is layering.

What layering is all about is pretty obvious, yet many electronic producers fail to apply it to its full potential. In essence, layering is “stacking” synths on top of each other, having them produce different sounds to more precisely achieve output in the areas of spectrum you desire. Let’s say, for instance, you want to produce a really heavy bass sound. This could consist of a sub-bass (clean sinus waves at low frequencies); a middle consisting of distorted saw waves with some filter modulation and possibly a 3rd synth playing high octaves to the middle waves. Very few synths come with more than 2-3 oscillators (the oscillator is the component of a subtractive synthesizer that produce raw waves from which sound is built), and in this particular case, we will need 5-6 or more. That is why we will need to layer our synthesizers to produce the sound we’re looking for.


Layering can be achieved in a number of ways: The first, and (possibly) most obvious, is to put 2-3 keyboard players next to each other, playing the same melody on different synthesizers. Naturally, this is a very imprecise and probably inefficient method of achieving the sound you want.

Fortunately, the modern day computer has made an unlimited number of totally synchronized keyboard players and an almost unlimited number of synthesizers available for us. The most basic way to layer synths on a computer audio sequencer is to simply create a number of different tracks with different synths on them and insert the same melody on each track. This can consume some time though, and thus we have virtual instruments that can contain (or combine) several synthe­sizers on the same track. This makes us able to play all our different synths via the same keyboard and adjust parameters on all of them by turning one knob. This can be particularly useful when you want to make modulations to the filter cutoff, creating a sweep effect. In order for the effect to be achieved, all filter cutoff knobs must be turned at the same time.

I’m going to show you an example of how you can utilize smart layering in Propellerheads Reason using Reasons Combinator component when producing a big bass sound. This is possible in many audio sequencers – Ableton Live sports the Instrument Rack which has similar features.

Build a big bass using Reason’s Combinator

For this tutorial you will need to have a copy of Propellerheads Reason 3 (or newer). I am going to show you, step by step, how to program a big bass sound using Combinator. You will also need to have some basic knowledge on how to operate Reason and how to program synthesizers.

  1. First of all, open up Reason and create a Combinator
  2. As you can see, Combinator opens with an initial patch with no containing instruments. This is okay. We’ll start by clicking in the black void inside the Combinator and create a line mixer. I have also composed a small melody in the sequencer to preview my sound.
  3. Create your first Subtractor. We’ll program it to serve as the sub, setting the two oscillators as sinus, in the octave you wish. Try to set the octave appropriate to the melody you have created, so that it is as deep as possible without being inaudible. Name this synth “sub”.
  4. Now, create the next synth. We’ll call this one “middle” and we’re going to make it pro­duce a harsher sound using saw waves. I made a slightly detuned sound, ranging in 2 octaves. I added fuzz distortion (Scream 4) and some EQ to take some bass away (it was interfering with the sub). Notice that the melody plays back on both synths at once.
  5. I’ve continued the process and created 2 additional synths: Square L and R. These are basi­cally the same (except that slightly detuned from each other). They add a bit more power to the middle spectrum. Square L is panned left and Square R is panned right.
  6. As you can see, I’ve made a few changes to the levels on the mixer in order to get the balance I want.
  7. Here comes the cool part! We’re going to program the knobs on the Combinator so that we can modulate some of the parameters the synthesizers have in common. First off, let’s make a frequency knob. Untoggle the “show devices” button, and press the “show pro­grammer” button. Here you’ll see an overview of the instruments. Aren’t you happy you named all your synths now?
  8. Click the device number 3, named “Middle”. Now, on the right where it says “modulation routing”, press “target” where it says rotary 1 and choose “filter freq”. You have now as­signed rotary 1 (knob 1) to modulate the filter of you middle synth! If you want, you can name the rotary “frequency”.
  9. Now do the same thing for Square L and R, assigning their filter freq to rotary 1. Please note that if you have followed my synth programming precisely, you will need to assign ro­tary 1 to “filter2 freq” since I have assigned a notch filter on filter 1 and a regular low-pass on filter 2. We want to modulate the regular low-pass filter.
  10. Now do the same thing over again, but this time, assign “filter res” to rotary 2 on the respective synths.
  11. Save you preset! Congratulations, you have created a huge bass sound in 10 simple steps! In total we needed 8 oscillators for our sound, which is why we had to use layering.

Produce a “chord synth” using Ableton Live 7’s Instrument Rack

Inspired by Kraftwerk’s “Tour De France Etape 1“, I’m going to demonstrate how to build a layered preset that produces big chords from a small amount of input notes. It basically consists of 4 oscillators; 2 square waves with a 7 semitone interval between them, and 2 “resonated noise waves” panned to each side respectively, to generate some depth in the chord.

  1. Open up Ableton Live and create a new MIDI channel. From your Live Device browser, drag an “Instrument Rack” to the channel.
  2. Drag an “Analog” device into the Instrument Rack where it says “Drop MIDI effects, audio…”.
  3. We’re going to program a patch consisting of 2 square waves – the first one will play the actual note we’re pressing on our keyboard or sequencer, and the other one will play a note displaced by 7 semitones (a perfect fifth). I’m going to program mine to have a fast attack, long decay and no sustain. Furthermore, I’ll assign a filter envelope so that the sound will slowly “close itself” as it decays into silence.
  4. At this point, we want to add another Analog synth to play our “resonated noise” sound. Press the “Show/Hide Chain List”. From here you can get an overview of all the instruments featured in your Instrument Rack. At the moment we only have the one Analog synthesizer we added.
  5. Add another Analog synthesizer. This part of the patch is a bit trickier to program. Basically what I want to do, is make two noise oscillators panned to each side (left and right). I want to put a powerful resonant filter on them, and have the keyboard key decide the filter frequency. This means that the Analog synth will produce a resonant tone that follows the key that is played through the Live sequencer.
  6. I’ve turned down the volume on the resonant noise synth to make the patch sound more balanced. Now, put in some simple chords to listen to your patch. I’ve chosen a | Cm | Gm | Bb | Fm | chord progression.

  7. Now that the patch itself is in order, let’s assign some macros. You can do this very easily. Press the “Show/Hide Macro Controls” button on the left.  All you have to do is right click on a the parameter you want to assign to a macro button and choose “Map to macro…”. I’ve chosen to map my primary synth’s filter frequency to macro 1, the volume of the noise oscillators to macro 2 and some LFO Filter modulation controls to macro 3+4.
  8. Now you can untoggle the “Show/Hide Chain List” and the “Show/Hide Devices” and have fun with your new combinated synth patch with easily accessible macro controls. If you would like to save your new preset, all you need to do is drag it up inside your instruments list (under Instrument Rack).

The tip of the iceberg

Please note that the features I’ve demonstrated in these tutorials are just the tip of the iceberg – there are many other useful elements of the layering devices to be discovered, including key zones, velocity zones and map modes.

22 Responses to “Create bigger sounds using layering”

  1. admin says:

    I read a comment today from stumbleupon saying:
    “layering is a shitty way of making bigger sounds. think HORIZONTALLY not VERTICALLY. change the sound over time not add them on top of each other or else it will be too busy and incredibly hard to mix.”

    My response: I think that modulation over time is a great way to treat sounds, but I also think that if sculpted carefully with EQ, several sounds can be layered into one and it won’t make it too difficult to mix. Use EQ to cut out unneeded or interfering frequencies and you should be good to go.

  2. Daniel Rothmann says:

    I would also like to note, that even the most complicated synthesizers have their limitations regarding reproduction of certain spectrum – Layering is (in my opinion, at least) by far the easiest and most effective way of accurately producing sounds that scope over a wide spectrum.

  3. Ledettaharri says:

    I think layering is another aspect of synthesizing. Thanks for tip.

  4. Understanding Electronica » Create Bigger Sounds Using Layering says:

    […] I’m back yet again with an tutorial for the more advanced producers out there: Create Bigger Sounds Using Layering (originally featured at […]

  5. Holli Vals says:

    Why not think horizontally AND vertically…

    I wonder how willing stumbleupon is in learning new ways of improving his mix…

  6. Tim says:

    LAyering is tottaly a great way to expand ur creativity in sound scaping. Why stop at one sound? Even Bach and bethoven as well as every other muso layers. What do u think chords are. Plus thos pre set sounds one pulls from what ever plug in are usualy beautifuly constructed layers. Layering all the way I say! Keep up the good work!!!!

  7. apadox says:

    i followed all your steps (wich you didnt state so i had to read from picture) and it turned shit : )

    can you be more detailed like for every step

  8. apadox says:

    for ableton chords part

  9. ok says:

    I think its would be better to make a video.

  10. balance says:

    Hey, everything’s fine?
    I got a doubt..
    What’s the other way to get a bigger sounds besides layering?

  11. brock says:

    You can get bigger sounds in the EQ process although be careful. Don’t over compensate by adding too much gain. Compression can also help round out your sounds… sometimes, your synths are great the way they are, and you really need to do a better job on your mix so that all tracks “sit in” nicely.

    Great job on the article, although this really is only the tipc of the iceberg in Ableton. Think about resampling your layered instruments, as well as using send/return tracks to send your layered sounds out through various fx processeors

  12. Xposed says:

    As long as you control your EQ, volumes and modulations appropriately you can use as many layers as you want, be sure to listen out for when a part of you track sounds too bulky and either adjust or take away as appropriate.

  13. Andy says:

    How on earth do i change my attack and decay on abletons oscillators?

  14. Create bigger sounds using layering | EMusicTips « Threadlog says:

    […] Create bigger sounds using layering | EMusicTips 2010/09/05 by house2techno Create bigger sounds using layering | EMusicTips. […]

  15. JNL says:

    I really cannot get the same sound of the ableton sample.
    i cannot understand the whole process from those low def pics 😛

  16. JEMILE says:

    Hi did all the steps for the combinator tutorial and when i played back the sound it sounded fine… but the recorded sound and playback sound had only an eight of the sound almost as if it had been completelt choped down ..

    please help


  17. VitaminB says:

    “have the keyboard key decide the filter frequency”

    Never thought of doing that, you gave me an ‘aha’ moment. It’s kinda obvious now. Thanks!

  18. Koan says:

    Thanks mate i just fattened my horns 🙂

  19. BigSpiral says:

    I really appreciated this little tutorial. I have always rely-ed on plugins and presets for cool sounds but now I am using Reason I can see no Reason not to make sounds from scratch! Apart from having to learn everything from scratch but why not? I suppose what would would be use full to know for me is the type of waves and settings i need to create the established sounds out there, like psy trance bass for example….

  20. Groovizm says:

    Layering can cause problems, ofcourse, so maybe it is wise to suggest two pitfalls:

    – You should be careful layering sounds that are centered round the same frequencies.
    – Layering sounds with sharp attacks can cause nasty dynamic spikes. If you need a sharp attack give the part with the hi-frequency content the sharp attack, but give the middle and bass parts a slightly slower attack. The attack will sound more clear, without losing impact.

  21. Xopher says:

    Thicken the stack by delaying the right (or left) audio signal by only a few miliseconds (I don’t go above 15ms). This widens the stereo and creates a thicker sound. Leave the other channel routed normally.

  22. IIQ says:

    thanks alot man,this really helped.

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