Experimental Techniques: Invisible Layering

To kick off the experimental techniques series, I’m going to describe a simple experimental recording method that might just surprise you. The idea here is to discover some rhythmic and melodic counterpoint that you might never have written otherwise. I call this method “invisible layering”. You’re going to need some kind of multitrack recording device, whether a software DAW or an analog machine.

STEP ONE: THE FOUNDATION

Your first step is to lay down a foundation track. This can be a simple beat repeated ad nauseum. Use a drum machine plugin if you’ve got one.

You’ll need to choose whether or not you want your foundation track to include harmonic information. Including some will increase the chances that the final product will be coherent. Leaving it out will be riskier but increase the chance of really strange discoveries.

I’m using “harmonic information” as a fancy term for adding at least a single note to every measure. So you can just play a C at the beginning of each measure. If you’re using a DAW, you can then copy and paste this note over and over.

Your foundation track is going to remain untouched for the rest of this exercise.

STEP TWO: LAYERING

Now that you have your foundation, it’s time to record your first layer. Simply improvise a chord progression, melodic line, sung vocal, percussion part, or whatever while listening to the foundation. When you like an idea, lay it down. That’s layer one.

Now mute layer one and forget it ever existed. Listen to the foundation again and improvise a new chord progression, melodic line, etc. When you like an idea, lay it down. That’s layer two.

Now mute layer two and forget it ever existed. Got the idea? You just continue this way until you’ve built up a bunch of layers.

STEP THREE: SCULPTING THE LAYERS

Now it’s time for some weirdness. Unmute all the layers at once and press play (and maybe turn the volume down first!).

Depending on how many tracks you recorded, it’s going to be noisy. Start taking some away. Pull some back while muting others. See what you have there. The hope is that some combination of tracks is going to strike you as musically interesting.

Next: Composition by Subtraction