Build Your Track with Sound Design : A Guide to Layers, Ranges, Textures. (Part 1)

Most people design their tracks blindly.

They tweak this, they tweak that.

Not realizing, that the key to a clean mix is a perfect spread of sound design across the frequency range.

When your new, its cool to just muck about and tweak stuff to see what sounds cool. In fact, you should 100% do that for a few months. However, as you progress you naturally start to tweak stuff that sounds good and will mix good.

Let's face it, its rather easy to make random, cool sounds, most of the time though these sounds won't fit in the mix...

....that's the main problem, making cool sounds that fit in the mix. 

I was recently teaching a group of students about sound design and how it effects mixing. During the lesson it hit me...

When your new, you don't have all the back knowledge on what "works" in the mix. 

Put it this way. When I am making sounds, I have 20 things in my head going on at once. I'm sub consciously making ALL my decisions based the final end track, and what the track needs.

Look at it like this, when I was starting out, I was adjusting everything blindly. I just did what sounded "good" . Now, I adjust everything based on.

1. What the mix needs

2. What typically "works" 

3. What textures work well together.

When chatting with these newer producers, I couldn't figure out why they always ended up with sounds that didn't fit right.

I came to the conclusion it wasn't they didn't know how to mix, it wasn't that they didn't have the skills to do xyz, it was simply they didn't know what the mix needed.

How do you learn what the mix needs?

Simple, time.

Years...(yea shitty answer I know)

Hear me out, the best way to figure out what the mix needs is simply mix 100's of songs over many years. Doing this you will naturally develop the ear to be able to hear what range is needed, what position is needed and what texture is ideal.

Basically, what I am saying is all of these issues your having in your mix, will sooner or later work themselves out.

However, this is going to take a serious amount of time, 2-3 years if you work at it daily, more if you don't. I'd say it took me a solid 5 years before I could even tell what the hell was going on, I was a slow learner.

So, you may be saying " great an entire post that just told me, this is going to take awhile, fml"

I'd be saying that about now..

but there is good news. Like I taught the production students recently, there is a way to at least speed this process up.

Listen, you may not be able to "hear" what is going on in the mix for years, however, if you learn what makes up each range, and what works and what doesn't, you should be able to get there much faster.

This guide is designed to help you make better sounds( sounds that mix better). Not only will it help you make better sounds, it will give you a clear mental picture to use when mixing.

You will no longer mix blindly.

People often chat about layers.

How many layers do I need?

Where in the mix do I place these layers?

Why do all my layers still sound thin.

If you learn the basic's of each of the main frequency ranges, the issue of layers becomes much easier.

How many layers do I need? - As many as it takes to fill the ideal spectrum for that genre of music.

Where do I place the layers- You place them in an open spot, could be center, stereo sides, front, back etc.

Why do all my layers still sound thin- If your track sounds thin, even at volume, its because you are lacking volume in one of the frequency ranges.

The list goes on and on, but over the years many of the questions you have about production simply fix themselves because you learn more about what makes up each range.

This is going to be the first post of a 3 part series, of course with this one we are starting at the beginning.

The only goal I have from this post is to teach you that when you are building your track, you must 100% keep in mind what each and every layer is adding to your track. (Frequency wise)

In fact, ideally, you break it down to what each and every osc is adding to the track.

When you start to build your track with a plan, you will find it MUCH easier to get a clean mix. Not only that, it will eliminate a lot of questions you have regarding mixing.

The first step to building your track with a plan is knowing what each and every frequency range does. This would have saved me YEARS of trail and error if I would have known this a few months in.

( Personal Note: Listen, from the heart..this stuff is boring to learn and a bit dense. Sadly, I can't simply tell you, do this, do that and you'll be good to go. It doesn't work that way with mixing. Mixing, like any art has a million tiny variables that one simply has to learn over the years. However, keeping these basic tips in mind, will start you in the right direction)


(note, the cut off points aren't uber important, just general estimates.)

30hz to 55hz

Type : Sub Range

Location : Center of the Mix (Always)

Used for : To add depth and power to your track. This is the BOOM of your track, what makes the floor shake in the club.

Key Sound Design Notes: Typically, you want to use a SINGLE osc for this. Sine and Squares are popular, but you can use whatever you want though keep it simple. I've found "exotic" sub bass patches ( read unique wavetables etc) typically do worse then the normal saw/square/sine. When in doubt, hit up a sine wave. 

Layer Basics : DO NOT layer or stack sub basses, there isn’t enough room in the low in and it will kill your track. In fact, most “mud” sub ranges are simply because there is too much going on down there. You will have to layer a kick into the sub range ( if its a track with a sub bass line obv) Some keys to layer the kick and sub are.

  • Use a short tail on the kick ( aka the sub punch happens FAST)
  • Use a kick with a strong range ABOVE the 55hz range, sub content is total fine, but make sure the kick has power from 55hz to 200hz, more about this later.
  • Don’t have left over content from the upper bassline. Again only ONE SYNTH in the sub range. DO NOT have layers of sub content bleed from the higher bassline ( yes I said it twice, its uber import and a flaw I did for many years)

Of course, there are things like side chain compression to help with this, google those, they have been beaten to death with how to’s and I have no desire to go there. If you do the above + side chain you will be much better off.

Typical ADSR Parameters( on the synth) : Your not going to hear an big attack in this range so don’t worry to much about it, however small adjustments can mildly clean up the kick/bass issues. Try ever so slightly adjusting the attack and see if you get a cleaner low end. Sometimes, a slower attack ( again tiny tiny bit slow) will help.

The release of the sound will determine how much sub is in the track. Long story short, less release = less sub power, more release = more sub power. A lot of times producers have WAY to long of a release on the synth, this causes it to clash and sound muddy. It shouldn't be bouncing into the next note.

Remember, you want short(ish) release, that still adds power. The goal is to add low end boom, but keep the boom clear and concise, adjusting the release perfectly will allow this. 

Other Important Notes : The sub’s feel will LARGELY change based on the key of the track ( and thus, the frequency range) The difference between even 10hz on the sub end can make ALL the difference. When starting out, simply find your favorite tracks low end, figure out what key its in and go from there.

50% of all sub issues I hear are because the key is too low or too high, there is a reason most tracks on beatport are in a few keys, they hit the best. Also, ideally, you can test the track with a subwoofer, if you get your track mastered, typically solid engineers will have a sub to double check this for you. This is especially important if you don’t have access to one, as a sub range will be impossible to judge on normal playback devices or even some studio monitors without an additional sub. 

55hz to 200hz

Type : Bass Range

Location : Center of the mix ( Always)

Used for : To add density and low end bounce to your track. This along with the sub end will largely control the groove of the track. Also, this adds “hardness". 

Key Sound Design Notes: In this range, your welcome to use more then one osc, you just need to make sure you don’t have a bunch of bleed in your sub range for no reason (most bass patches will have some bleed, EQ this out so your sub is clean).

Since this range controls groove, you should design your sounds to have an ideal groove ( cool sounding is important) but if your release time is long because it sounds cool, it may kill the bounce of the track. Depending on genre, most will keep this range fairly or totally dry from effects that involve stereo field. The low end of this range is still focusing more on density and bounce and not so much textures and tone quality.

A major problem new producers face is they focus on the HIGHS of the bass, the part that is in your face so to speak. While this is important, the BASS part of the bass patch must come first. This is dance music, basslines are king.

Layer Basics : In this range, your going to be fighting with the sub bass (over hang from this patch) the kick drum and some snare content. Again, a lot of this is going to come down to proper EQing and ideal attack and release times. Since your kick is going to be taking weight in this range, you need to use your sound design skills not only to “make it sound cool” but to make sure the elements work together. Remember, this range is the hardness of your track, this gives your track bite and depth ( its also the first range a lot of people on low end play back devices hear)

When it comes to layers in the range, again keep it simple. You do not need 3 different bass sounds playing in this range. In fact, I'd never use more then one preset in this range, there is simply no point.

With 3's osc's on most synths, you can EASILY create all the volume you need to cover this range without stacking outside layers.

Typical ADSR Parameters: As with the sub bass, the attack here isn’t going to be super in your face due to the nature of the range, however, the attack can be used to clean up this area.

For example,

Just say your kick is loud, and your bass is loud in this range. Assuming your kick has a normal, hyper fast attack ( THUD) then by having a bit slower release on the bass line may make them blend better.

Think of it like you only want one thing loud at a time ( of course, we are talking on a tiny hyper fast time scale here) but having a bit slower attack can help clean up the kick/bass issues. For the release, remember, this is controlling the groove of the track and its “density” in this range. In the end, use the same suggestions for sub bass release as it will mostly be the same concept.

Other Important Notes: this is BY FAR the most under used range. 50% of tracks that get sent to me don’t have nearly enough volume ( or no elements) in this range. People ( I did as well) tend to put bass lines above this range, or below this range.

( of course, not ALL genres are going to have a bass line here, but if not the drum will be HUGE in this range to fill the mix, assuming we are talking about club music of course)

This range is hard to hear on normal playback devices and lo fi gear. Simply put, if I was making music on cheap headphones or not ideal speakers, this range would hardly show up. It’s safe to say there’s a good chance you aren’t using enough volume in this range, but feel free to ask someone for feedback before deciding.

Take a break from reading and enjoy some killer sound design

200hz to 750hz

Type : High Bass/ Low Mids

Location : Center of the mix ( though, some elements can be panned , not to often are synths panned this low.

Used for : Thickness of the low end, the bridge between the high content and the low content. "Fat Sound". Classic "this range will cause mud( which I've found after 1,000's of masters, this is rarely the case)

Key Sound Design Notes: This is a weird range, I call this the hardness range. Having a lack of sound in this range will leave your track hollow and weak sounding. You can have the best sub bass line, but if this range is MIA, your mix is going to be lacking (assuming of course, your drum isn’t again massively consuming this range as it does in some genres).

Sound design in this range is a bit different then other ranges. Often times, its the carry over from the lower bass that will consume this range ( or the carry down, from the higher ranges) For example, just say your bass is around 110 hz. You have one osc at -12 which is landing around 110hz, the next is at 0 which is landing around 220hz, lastly a + 12 is at 440hz roughly ( I don’t have a chart in front of me, but you get the gist)

Anyways, when designing sounds in this range, don’t go by what sounds good solo, go by what is needed in the mix. Each OSC can act as a certain layer booster so to speak. Of course each track is going to be different, but when adjusting the osc’s, keep in mind how it is truly effecting the mix and not just the sound it is outputting.

Make sure to use a graphic EQ to see where stuff is hitting. Sounds in this range may need massive boosts or cuts depending on your design, so try both with the EQ and go with what sounds ideal. Sounds in this range, are going to start to effect the textures and “vibe” of your track, compared to anything lower which is more to do with density and bounce.

Layer Basics : As stated above, you will want to try different OSC combos to see what is working best and filling up the range ideally. In this range, you will still have some kick to deal with but it wont be as strong as down below( plus the attack and release will both be quicker, so it won’t be a huge space taker so to speak)

Now, it is important to understand 2 things about this range

Often times, this is considered “ mud land” 90% of tracks that get sent to me, have NO power in this range, truly, mud is the last thing you need to worry about.

Again, this range is uber hard to hear on small lo fi playback devices, so most producers don’t have much going on here.
When your new, its rather hard to “ hear” this range. The human ear picks up the extreme highs of the track and the extreme lows, the middle often get’s lost in translation and is hard to seek out. It will take awhile for your ears to develop the ability to see through the mix, so don’t be bummed if you can’t nail this range right way.

This range will also contribute to the hardness of your track. Keep in mind, some upper elements may have volume coming down this way as well. ( some people have elements around 1khz...but bleed or a lower OSC on the synth is pushing sound well into this range)

It’s ok to have sounds and layers stacked, just keep in mind what your doing when adjusting the osc’s on the synth. Randomly changing stuff hoping for the best isn’t always the best plan of attack.

Typical ADSR Parameters :  In this range, you can finally start to get more creative with how you are designing the releases and attacks. In the lower range, you will have to deal more with density and groove and the upper range more tone and texture. This is truly one of those times I will say” do what sounds best for the situation” but make sure you try a BUNCH of different combos of ADSR to figure out what is sounding best. 

The key to getting a clean sound in this range( and all ranges) is simply adjusting the ADSR to suit the tracks situation, Often times producers are quick to jump to compression or reverb, and over look the key aspect of ADSR.

Other Important Notes: This ranges location, means it could easily be a catch all. Catching sounds from above and below , in fact, I assume that's where all this mud talk comes from. The truth is, the 3khz to 10khz range is MUCH more a catch all in the realm of dance music. Don't worry about mud, most likely your issues with it will be above and below this range.

Cool, so check this.

Long story short, the problem I had ( and many have) for years is they focus on let's say...the bass patches top end.

Just say your using a electro house saw bass, when your new ( or even for many years as I did) I focused mainly on the highs of the sound.

I knew it was a "bass patch" but I didn't give much thought to the above ranges. I basically said, "this sounds cool" I shall use this. I would find patches that sounded good in the HIGH RANGE, patches that sounded dope, but didn't give much thought to the patches low end.

When building your track you MUST focus on the entire patch, the high part that is in your face, the 400hz range that makes the track hard, the 100hz range that controls the groove etc etc.

It will take awhile, as I said before your ears want to only focus on the higher/ mid range, but you can push past this.

When teaching the students, once I got them to learn to listen to the content in the actual bass range + the upper bass they normally only care about it truly changed their mixes.

Remember, the design of the low end may not be textured like the highs, but its just as important, if not more so.

This is dance music after all, your low end doesn't work your track doesn't work.

Quick take away tips.

- Look at your mix, figure out what RANGE your missing, and layer accordingly

- Less is more, you don't need a ton of layers, esp in the low end

- Bleed will kill your track, if you have 3 synths bleeding into the sub bass line, your doomed. Remember, simple, single layers down there

-Most producers seem to lack volume around the "mud range" of 500hz. Most likely, you can use MORE volume there, not less

-ADSR is your best friend in the low end, it will control the groove and bounce of your track.

-Compression won't make your mix, great sounds in ideal spots will.

-You don't need layers for loudness, in fact less layers = louder master. 

Hopefully these few tips help you !

Over the next week or two, I am going to post the rest of this guide, this will include

- Rest of the Range Guide ( 750hz to 20khz)

- Sound Design for Mixing ( A Video on what you MUST know( synth wise) in order to get an ideal mix.

- What works well together, textures and building layers.( also, the most common problems and how to fix)

- Run down of placement/design of Leads, Plucks, Bass etc. What layer belongs where ( Center, Front, Back, Left, Right etc)

-Get a clear mental mix picture. (How to Layer using mental images)

There will be at least 2 more posts on this topic, maybe 3 or 4

I look forward to chatting with you then !


Posted on June 13, 2015 and filed under Music Production.