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In conversations with student composers I regularly hear concerns that their music just doesn't seem as polished and alive as the professional music they are listening to. It seems like they have good themes, interesting chord progressions and solid orchestration, but there's still some extra magic missing.
This led to the idea of a "subtlety layer".
Just like that extra little garnish a gourmet chef adds to a meal to make it more presentable and appealing, the subtlety layer is a final pass over your music that adds the extra spice to put it over the edge.
The subtlety layer can give your music more life, more interest and a more organic touch, and in this tutorial we're going to learn how.
What Is the Subtlety Layer
The subtlety layer is not an excuse to throw everything and the kitchen sink into your track. Just like you wouldn't pour an entire shaker full of salt into your soup, the whole idea behind the word subtle is that it's a gentle touch.
One of the reasons we call it a layer is because it helps to think of only one extra line of things happening. In this world of limitless samples and ample RAM, it can be easy to keeping adding more and more junk onto your track.
If you have a tendency to overdo it, imagine that you have one guy inside your DAW who is responsible for playing the subtlety layer. He can switch from any instrument to any other instantly, but he can only play one instrument at a time. That way you keep yourself from having seventeen "subtlety layers" all trying to add a gross amount of spice at once!
Up Is Down
My absolute favorite listening example to demonstrate the subtlety layer is the track "Up is Down" from Hans Zimmer's score to Pirate of the Caribbean: At World's End. You could spend an hour listening to the first thirty seconds alone and still not pick up every tiny little thing happening that adds up to a very rich and complex texture.
Grab a decent pair of headphones, crank the volume and listen closely:
Here are some of the things to notice happening in the opening section:
- Tiny background percussion parts that are not prominently featured; they are almost more felt than heard.
- A fill reliably every four bars, but it's always unique and usually from a different section of the orchestra than the previous fill.
- Fresh and interesting colors that appear once and never return.
- Melody lines doubled on multiple instruments, sometimes only playing a few notes of the melody at a time.
- Percussion parts that play a consistent groove with variety. In other words the same one bar rhythm isn't simply copy-pasted over and over but actually changes in small ways each time through.
What to Put in the Subtlety Layer
Now that we have an idea of what the layer is, what kinds of things are appropriate to put in it?
The idea is that your main dish is already complete, the "meat and potatoes" of your melody, harmony, groove, and so on.
What we want to use the subtlety layer for is extra elements. Textures, fills and colors that are not necessarily essential to the integrity of the music but add life and interest to the overall presentation.
Here is a simple mellow track that we'll use for our example. It already consists of a guitar-esque synth, strings and percussion, and in many respects we could call it "done" and ship it off.
But with just a little more time and attention, we can add the garnish and spice that will bring it a new level of polish and quality.
A fill leads us into a prominent beat. Almost always it's into the beginning of a new phrase, but sometimes fills can lead into a new bar in the middle of a phrase or any other beat you want to emphasize.
People often think of the drummer being responsible for fills, but they can be given to melodic and harmonic instruments as well.
To our example track I'll add both melodic and percussive fills.
Using the shaker I can increase the rhythm from 8th notes to 16ths to fill into every other bar:
Next I'll add a melodic fill on piano every four bars (except the last time, when the ending is held out two bars longer for an extension):
Simple enough right? Nothing groundbreaking about this, but already the track has come to life in new ways and feels more organic.
Another strong aspect of the subtlety layer is to make use of fresh and interesting colors.
I'll do that in three ways on our example track:
- Double the melody in select moments with another instrument.
- Create a background texture to enhance the harmony.
- Vary the instruments used on our fills.
Let's begin by doubling the melody. I'll use two colors: a bell synth, and a double of the "guitar" synth. To make the doubled synth more interesting I'll run it through a tremolo plugin so it swirls from left to right.
I'm not just going to play the melody on top of itself, though. Only downbeats and a few select measures will be doubled, and always up an octave or more to make sure the notes are distinct from the original.
Here is the double track on it's own:
And with the melody:
Next we'll create a background texture to enhance the harmony.
Here I'll double the violin part on a synth that has a bit of it's own dynamic shape separate from the strings. In particular I like how it swells louder on the last note when the violins are playing a decrescendo. So even if the two parts have mostly merged, at the end they are distinctly two unique sounds.
Here is the synth alone:
And now the synth and strings together:
Next we'll vary the instruments for our fills.
For the melodic fill I'll alternate the instrument with harp and piano, instead of just piano the whole time.
I'll add a gentle triangle sound to enhance the percussion part. On half of the sixteenth note fills I'll double it with the triangle, and then in the B section of the piece I'll use it for an even fuller rhythm. Notice that it really hides in the background and is just intended to add it's small clicking part to the greater texture.
Avoidance of Loops
Part of the whole point of this extra care and attention is to make the music feel more alive and organic, as opposed to processed and mechanical.
A great way to keep things fresh it to avoid cut-and-paste monotony. Usually ostinato patterns and drums patterns will fall victim to become nothing more than loops. This is our moment to go through and add small inflections of variety and irregularity to make the music seem more human and less stainless steel.
For our simple example track the main loop to address is the shaker with it's incessant 8th note pattern. By going through the shaker measure by measure and quickly add minor 16th note touches, differently in each measure, the part feels less mechanical and more performed.
In the image I'm using the note F3 to play the extra little notes.
Here's the final track with all of our tiny improvements:
I'll be the first to admit that the difference between the track with and without the subtle additions is not night and day. From the very beginning I knew I was starting with a track that was already mostly complete.
Using the idea of the subtlety layer, however, gave me a chance to go over the track moment by moment and inject it with an extra push of life
Is the subtlety layer always necessary, or even appropriate? I don't think so. Sometimes you may want a very simple and pure statement.
Most of the time, however, it's the small moments of extra effort that will add richness and professionalism to your work.