Ogres Have Layers
-A Guide to Beefing Up Your Production-
Onions and Grits
I get a LOT of questions on my production and songwriting techniques, and the most popular seems to be why London has Fallen sounds so massive. Well, my young padawan, today we’re going to talk about layering. It’s like a cake...or an onion.
Putting the Icing on the Cake (or Onion)
With London has Fallen, there’s a very complicated songwriting process that happens before a song is even recorded. It all starts with the same fundamental stuff. We get some chords and lyrics together, we figure out how we want the song to go (verse, chorus, instrumental sections) and then we start to figure out the arrangement. Arranging is a complex process...we’re all about dynamics so we tend to start big and see what we can cut from there.
The Glue that Holds it Together
So, our basic demo for a LhF song looks something like this:
2 Guitar Tracks (Left and Right)
1 Drum Track (Bussed down drums...really just to help keep timing in check at this point)
1 Bass Track
4 Vocal Tracks (Lead, Harmony, Backing 1 and Backing 2)
When a song gets done, it looks more like this:
6-8 Guitar Tracks
2-8 Drum/Percussion Tracks
2-4 Bass Tracks
2-10 Instrument Tracks (VST Instruments and Synths)
4+ Sample Tracks (Generated Noise...Kicks, Snares, Scratches...etc)
2-10 Synth Tracks (Analog Synth)
8+ Vocal Tracks
This should give you a little insight into the massive headache that is mixing a LhF album and why it takes a year or more to get new ones out.
Makin’ it Rain from A to B
So, the question of the day is: how do I get my song from “meh” to “OMGZ SUPAH EPICZ” (and have it not be a big mess of noise)?
When I layer and work on songs, I start with the last chorus. I make the last chorus as big and epic as I can (or see fit) and start working backwards. I’ll layer up all my kick samples and synths (and strings...and vocals...and guitars...and drums...and instruments...and noise...and automation…etc) and copy and paste all of that to each chorus. From there, it’s a process of subtraction.
You have to ask yourself:
What makes the song build? What makes things louder? What can I do to enhance the song?
Once you’ve determined what instrument plays what role, you can start playing around with the arrangement for the parts. Since modern music is generally compressed to all hell and back, dynamics are generated from taking things out and adding things in. It creates this “apparent volume” without changing the volume of the track.
Getting the Verses
A verse is obviously treated differently than a chorus. When it comes to how I arrange a verse, my process is more about finding what makes the verse tick rather than what I can add to it. Usually verses for me should be nothing more than some drums, bass, piano/guitars and vocals. The chorus is where I want to really let loose, and I can’t make the chorus super epic if the verse is screaming loud.
Finding the Next Piece of the Puzzle
Pro tip: play around with stuff.
When it comes to selecting additional parts for a song, just play around! I love weird sounds and different instruments. You can turn white noise into a snare, a sine wave into a bass drop, run piano parts through guitar amps, use guitar pedals on drums...all sorts of cool stuff. With London has Fallen, our sound is all about strings and drums. Rhythm is what gets the booty shaking and layers are the cherry on that booty. I love to layer percussion and have wicked large string arrangements. Music that makes my head spin is my favorite, and I love to make things larger than life. The best advice I can give you is to not worry if you can play it live...make it bigger than that! You’ve got ProTools (or preferebly Cubase) and you can record a thousand tracks...so do it!
Putting the Puzzle Together
This is the main problem with producing stuff that’s REALLY huge. There’s a LOT of instruments that take up all sorts of sonic space and stereo width and a bunch of other stuff. When it comes to making it not sound like this giant mudball, the best advice is to use EQ as a carving tool. You need to carefully figure out what sonic space a track needs to occupy to get accross the information necessary to sound right. Sure, extreme EQ can make things sound weird but sometimes that’s necessary to make sure they cut through in the mix. Compression is also another useful tool to make sure nothing is getting in the way of it’s sonic neighbors, but you have to be really careful to make sure that you’re not over-compressing your mix.
One other tip with EQ: Let things bleed into other things...I know I just said to keep things separate, but sometimes things just sound a little better when it’s just loud and raunchy and aggressive.
I could go on for days discussing layering and how to make weird noises into other weird noises, but all things must end. The best advice I’ve ever received as a producer and a songwriter is to never stop experimenting. You’re a musician, you’re a total badass, and rules are for losers. Break all the rules, make new sounds, and ALWAYS strive to do things differently.
I hope this article has given you some inspiration to make some noise!
Never quit tweaking, break a rule once a day, tip your server, and use protection.