Simply & Basically: Layering In Sound Design Explained

A very simple and well-known tool in sound design which is pretty much the key tocreating powerful sounds is layering. If you are familiar with the term, we assume you...

Posted on May 31st 2022

A very simple and well-known tool in sound design which is pretty much the key to creating powerful sounds is layering. If you are familiar with the term, we assume you are somewhat knowledgeable about this basic concept. But if you are not, we are here to simply explain what it is and why it is an effective technique, also how we use it in order to create powerful sounds. Let’s move on to defining what layering actually is…


Layering is essentially a combination of various sounds of various distinctive characteristics which contributes to creating a whole new sound that is more complete and effective. So when you playback your layered sounds all together, it should be heard as one sound which is made of single layers of sound that has sonic characteristics each of their own. Each layer should have some character that is not present on the other layer. For instance, try to imagine the sound of a campfire at night in the forest and think each sound that comes to mind as a layer. The burning of the fire, the sizzling and crackling of the flaming woods, subtle sound of wind that moves the fire, maybe the animals of the forest heard from afar and so on… When you combine all that comes to your mind, you will have the sound of a campfire at night in the forest. Sounds simple, right? It is simple, for sure. Let’s move on to how to overcome some challenges when layering sounds together.


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Browsing Through Sound Sources

First make sure that you have a microphone of some sort to record or have access to variety of high quality sounds in order to initiate the whole process. You’re gonna have to browse through pile of sound sources in order to create your imagined sound. How do we know which sound is right? What should be taken into account when choosing the sounds?
So let’s say you know what sound you want to create and are browsing through the sounds. How do you know which sound is gonna be useful to you? The short answer, you will know when you hear it. When you are browsing through various sounds, some sounds will make you feel different than other sounds. For instance, one sound you play might have that crackling quality of that campfire and it might not even be a sound of fire.
The funny thing about sound design is that it does not have to be exact. As long as it matches with the texture or quality that you are looking for, and as long as it feels right to you, consider that you have found your layer.
In my beginner days with sound design, I found out that if it sounds somewhat right, it’s enough. I had my intuition to guide me through the whole process. This way, my beginner state quickly leveled up and I was more in control of my sounds each day. As a beginner, I found out that keeping things simple enough would make things easier for me along the way.
When you want to layer in sounds together you want to keep things as simple as you can to open up the possibilities to more complex sounds. This is important especially if you are just starting out. Challenges will come and go but if you ever think of designing sounds with complexity, keep in mind that you should be able to manage a simple structure of sound.


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Keep An Eye On The EQ

The EQ is a great way to see the body of the sound. In order to create a fuller bodied and well structured sound you should keep an eye on the EQ. Try to fill in the spectrum as much as you can with the sounds you choose.
We mentioned that each layer of sound will have a quality that other layer does not have. These qualities in layers will be standing at their own respectful places in the frequency spectrum. The thud layer of sound you are looking for which lies around the bass frequencies while the crackling quality exists in the higher frequencies. Find those frequencies of textures and cut out all the unnecessary ones. Arrange your sounds together and hear how they come all together and look for more sounds if you need to…


Getting Deeper: Using Volume And EQ To Create Depth In Your Sound

We already mentioned the importance of EQ when combining various textures of sounds together. So you managed to design a simply structured sound but when you play it back you feel it can use more layers or more complexity? You can use more layers with varying volumes to create depth in your sounds. You can really get all crazy with EQ and volume adjustments. Find complementary textures that you think you can use. Get all surgical about it if you want to. When I do this I would solo the necessary tracks and try to find ways to blend the complementing textures together.

Think of the volume level as an indicator of where the texture stands. If you lower the volume it will have more distance with the ones that are higher in volume. This way you can create space between layers and blend your textures in between, make things a bit more spicy. In my experience, this approach adds all that uniqueness that I am looking for. You can also use panning to create width in your sound with the same approach.
You can also choose to manipulate your layers to achieve what you want in your sound. Manipulation of audio is usually done with tools that are called “effects”. Pitch shifters are great tools to change the overall texture of the sound. Time warping can also give interesting results by stretching the overall time of your audio. Phasers, flangers, bit crushers, reverb, echo etc. There are a lot of tools with their unique functionalities that will come in handy in your journey with sound design. Leaving this subject for another time to finish this article now.


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Let’s summarize what we have discussed so far…


-Layering is a combination of various sounds and textures that makes up to whole new sound.
-When you are choosing your source sounds, try to identify the parts or characteristics of the sound that will add up to your final desired sound.
-EQ will help you observe the overall body of your sound and gives you an idea to where that character you want stands in the spectrum.
-EQ will also help you when you want to get all surgical when placing subtler textures. -Volume and panning can be considered as indicators of where your sound stands in space and adjusting them is great when you want to place new layers in between layers.
-There are also tools called the “effects” to manipulate your layers which can yield new layers or textures.

Now let’s practice this skill…