Is audio layering really the single most important part of sound design? Is it the thing that will make or break any recording, and determine whether anyone cares about your project at all?
Probably not. That statement is a little too dramatic to apply to every situation. But what is true is that layering is an invaluable tool. Every sound designer should carry layering around in their handy, dandy utility belt.
In an industry where people constantly experiment and push the boundaries, you could argue that layering is one of the reasons why you get to express so much creativity in your work.
Layering in a Nutshell
Layering gives you complete control over each component that’s part of a sound. It’s like taking the same approach you use for an overall mix and then condensing it down a few levels.
In a nutshell, “layering” is the process of mixing and arranging a collection of files into a single, effective sound. Each layer adds something unique to the final product. Your job is making sure they occupy different frequency ranges so nothing gets muddied or lost.
The goal here is simple. You want to keep the unique character and quality of the sound, but still be able to craft something new. If you mix music, you want to help the artists craft a sound no one’s heard before. If you work in film audio, you might be giving a voice to fantastical creatures (or undead ones) and building a believable sound that brings each scene to life.
Either way, layering is a useful tool. It’s a scientific art form, which means it’s not especially flashy or technical. And that means it’s something that may get taken for granted.
Layering as a Mixing Tool
When it comes to audio layering, think about how you use EQ (since they can work in tandem). Chances are you already use EQ to create space in your mixes because EQ is another trick that pulls the listener’s attention to different parts of your mix.
Imagine listening to a song and being unable to pick out the individual audio tracks. If a song fails to create space around a specific instrument (or worse, if you can’t clearly hear the vocals) then you’ll probably have a hard time enjoying the experience as a listener.
The same thing could be said of panning, which is another common way to create room in your stereo field. If every audio track is coming from the same location in the stereo field, it’s like putting the listener on blast – all they’ll get is sensory overload and muddied audio.
Layering works the same way. Except, instead of using the DAW to affect the stereo field, you are building depth within the track without having to add a ton of backup instrument fillers. Layered audio creates the illusion of busyness, but nothing is competing for space within the mix.
The goal here is to keep audio tracks from fighting over each other to get attention. And as an added bonus, you’ll give yourself the room to tinker and craft the exact balance or sound you’re looking for.
Layering as a Design Tool
Yes, audio layering is something audio engineers use when mastering music. But it’s also an important – again, some would say the most important – tool for sound designers in film, video games, and even radio dramas.
Pick out any movie with an imagined creature/weapon/device, or even take a historical drama.
- The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park
- Ben Burtt’s work in Star Wars
- The shipmoard sounds in Master And Commander
- The glorious engine roars in Ford v Ferrari
Pick your favorite film and you’ll be able to find hundreds of articles, interviews, and videos that explore how those unique sounds were created to give life to something on (or off) screen.
And all these films have one thing in common: Their success relies almost entirely on the shoulders of the sound designers.
Part of that comes down to the brilliant work of Foley artists, but in the editing room, a lot of it comes down to how the sounds are layered to build a sonic landscape where the film takes place.
Layering is an art form, a way of taking a collection of audio files and making them dance together without any one sound tripping over the others.
Most sound design (in this sense) revolves around combining existing audio to create something new, and how those clips are layered can literally make or break the believability of the final product.
So while layering is important for anyone who’s ever mastered a record or even produced a podcast, it’s just as much a part of how viewers experience visual media as well.
Also, this video is probably a favorite example of just how important sound design is in film, illustrating how Spielberg incorporates audio as a means of telling a deeper, richer story:
Layering Plugins and Tips
Perhaps the most helpful advice is that layering isn’t just something to think about vertically (audio levels in the mix). It’s equally important to think of layering as a horizontal challenge, with different files aligning at different points along your timeline.
It’s basically a puzzle, but there’s no “true” solution. That’s where your artistry comes into play, and where you are able to develop a unique twist on a project.
But that doesn’t mean you have to add a new obstacle to your editing process. You’ve got a whole host of layering plugins that will simplify the process in your DAW. They don’t necessarily handle everything, but most of them are targeted to handle the more complicated stuff so you have the freedom to focus your attention on the fun and creative side of layering.
One valuable tip to remember is that you don’t have to fill all the space in every mix. That means don’t layer 15 files when 2 would suffice, or build a 6-second sound where you only needed 1.
Yes, layering provides a way to experiment and try stuff without the risk of overcomplicating the sound and cluttering up the mix. But like every other audio trick, you’ll want to keep things simple and clean.
…at least in how the final product is perceived, that is. Nobody has to know the secret sauce of how you cleverly mixed, layered, and panned different samples or sounds to build your masterpiece.
Author: Drew Gula