Layering makes guitars sound bigger—or does it? Let's find out the complete story
by Craig Anderton
Ever since multitrack recording became commonplace, guitar players have been doubling guitar parts—and even tripling, quadrupling, and more to build up layer upon layer of sound. Rumor has it that even the Sex Pistols, those prototypical purveyors of punk, double-tracked the guitar parts as they thumbed their collective noses at British society.
But more is not always more, and two heads are not always better than one. Although many guitar players think layering can give a bigger sound, that’s not necessarily the case. Also, there’s more than one way to layer guitars—and it’s important to choose the method that works best for the task at hand.
IS THIS LAYER REALLY NECESSARY?
The more “space” there is around a part, the more impact it has. Layering can make a bigger sound, but also, a less defined one. As a friend of mine (Line 6’s Mark Williams) once said, “As soon as you put on that second guitar part, you’re going in the wrong direction.” While that’s not always true, I understand his point: A single guitar part has definition, and can stand out in a track as a distinct, individually articulated sound. Layers are more indistinct, as the parts will usually “mesh” with each other.
If you want a rhythm guitar part to stand out, layering is probably not a good idea. But if you want the rhythm part to sit back further in a track, layering will take off the “sharp edges” and make the oversall sound more diffuse. On the other hand, leads respond differently to layering. Because the parts tend to be highly-defined in the sense of playing mostly single notes, layering will indeed make the sound bigger without taking too much away from the part itself.
Just remember to ask yourself whether a part really needs to be layered, and if it doesn’t need to be layered, don’t do it. And if you do layer a part, during mixdown take the part out and see if that adds more to the song than using layers.
BIGGER SOUNDS THROUGH LAYERING
Create two layered tracks, with each one going into a different setup—for example, different cabs with different mikings. Then, pan them oppositely of each other (of course, this is very easy to do in the “virtual world” with amp sims—see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: Two Waves G|T|R amp/cab/mic combinations are processing two tracks of guitar to create a big, layered sound.
Layering in this manner preserves a distinctive character with each sound, which lets them stand on their own—and the two parts will multiply into something bigger. Often when mixing with other instruments (e.g., piano) playing, I’ll pan one amp cab left and the other to center, with the left piano panned center and right piano panned right. This makes for a big, distinct soundstage.
SMALLER SOUNDS THROUGH LAYERING
As alluded to earlier, layering can give sounds that sit better in the background. To do this, layer by overdubbing the same sound, using the same guitar, panned to the same position. The parts will tend to blur into more of a texture, and if mixed at moderate levels, will sit in a track as more of a background part than a foreground one. To place the layered sound even further back, roll off the highs just a bit for warmth, then reduce the low end a little to leave more room for the bass and kick—this gives the textured part its own sonic space.
In mixes where there aren’t a lot of other instruments playing, then you can mix the guitar tracks up, and not roll back highs and lows. This gives a full, churning sound that can drive a song hard when mixed in at a relatively high level yet not distract too much from the other parts.
ADT (Automatic Double Tracking) effects attempt to produce the sound of a player doing an overdub by adding a slight amount of delay, and modulating it to change the delay dynamically to avoid creating an exact duplicate of the sound (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: Waves’ Abbey Road Reel ADT plug-in emulates the original ADT effect added to many Beatles recordings.
However, simply using delay without modulation can also be very effective. Copy the part to two tracks then pan one track left, and the other right through a delay of around 15-20ms with no feedback. Another option is to use a stereo delay effect that allows for different delay adjustments for each channel (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3: In this example using the Sonitus fx:delay, setting a delay in one channel of a stereo delay (with no feedback) but not the other produces a wide, layered sound.
Because the two parts are identical, they remain distinct and don’t “mesh” with each other, but the delay produces a wide stereo image. There is one caution: Always check the part in mono to make sure no cancellations are occuring.
If you really want to push a song’s chorus, don’t reach for another overdub of fuzzed-out power chords—grab an acoustic guitar, and layer it instead. The percussive, bright nature of the acoustic will serve as a perfect complement to the distorted power chord sludge (Fig. 4). Combining clean acoustic and distorted electric guitars worked for Led Zeppelin—it can work for you, too.
Fig. 4: Two electric guitars playing power chords are layered in the top two tracks, and panned oppositely. The layered acoustic guitar part (bottom track) adds a bright, percussive quality on top of the power chords.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.