Enhancing Song Arrangements with Doubling
By Don Muro
One of the easiest ways to create or maintain interest in a song is to double one of the musical parts. In traditional orchestration, the term “doubling” means to assign a musical line or part to two or more instruments or instrumental sections (such as violins or violas). In the recording studio “doubling” in most cases means “double-tracking” – recording a second performance of a vocal or instrumental part along with the first performance. The primary purpose of both of these techniques is to make a part stand out by creating a thicker musical texture. Because students in most labs cannot record their own audio tracks, the techniques described in this article will focus on MIDI tracks.
Doubling can be applied to any part in an arrangement – the melody, harmony, bass, and even the percussion part. In Example 1 the melody is played with a synthesizer sound and centered in the stereo mix. In Measure 5 the melody is doubled using the same sound but played one octave lower. You can hear how much bigger the melody sounds with this octave doubling. The doubled part can be created either by recording the part an octave lower onto a new track using the same sound or by copying the original MIDI data, pasting it into a new track, and then transposing the track down one octave. In Measure 9 the doubled track is transposed two octaves down from the original track. In addition, the original melody track is placed in the left speaker and the transposed melody is placed in the right speaker. This placement creates an even bigger sound by adding a dimension of width to the sound. (Note: the doubled MIDI track must be assigned to a different MIDI channel for this to work. If both melody tracks are on the same MIDI channel, any movement of either track’s pan control will affect both tracks.)
In Example 2 the harmony part is played by an acoustic guitar sample. This part was played in real time and contains slight deviations in timing. One way to double this part is to create a new track (assigned to the same guitar sound but on a different MIDI channel) and simply play the part again. Playing the part a second time is the best way to create the effect of two performers, because you will have two different performances with slight variations in note start times, durations, and velocities. This effect can be heard in Measures 5 – 8. (The stereo effect is created by panning the two guitar tracks left and right.) In Measure 9 the doubled track is detuned slightly to produce a thicker sound.
You can sometimes use an editing technique to create the doubled part instead of recording the part again. This technique can be very useful for students with minimal keyboard skills. In this example you would begin by copying the original guitar part to a new track and assigning the new track to a different MIDI channel. Next, adjust the pan controls so that the original guitar part is panned left and the copied track is panned right. To create the effect of two guitarists, quantize the copied track to the nearest eighth-note. This will create timing differences between the two tracks and it sound more like two guitarists trying to play together. Example 3 demonstrates this editing technique. Measures 1-4 have the original guitar track panned center. Measures 5-8 add the copied, quantized part with the two parts panned left and right, and Measures 9-12 add the detuning effect to the quantized guitar track. You can hear that the sound produced by quantizing the copied track is very close to the sound produced by recording the part a second time (as heard in Example 2).
Bass parts aren’t usually doubled, but there are times when doubling the bass can create an interesting texture. The first four measures of Example 4 have the bass part centered in the mix. In the next eight measures the bass part has been doubled using the copy/quantize/pan technique used for the acoustic guitar in Example 3. Notice how much larger the bass part sounds – we now get a sense of ensemble (two players instead of one) and a sense of width (from panning one track left and the other track right).
You can hear how doubling can create a new texture in a mix without adding a new instrumental sound. Doubling also makes it easy to produce a balanced stereo mix, since you can have two performances of the same part using the same sound panned left and right. Keep in mind that some instruments don’t always lend themselves to this technique. Instruments such as the oboe, clarinet, flute, solo violin (or any solo string instrument) best convey a sense of intimacy when played solo and not doubled. In addition, doubling using identical samples of these instruments can sometimes create phasing problems which can make the samples sound more like organ stops instead of acoustic instruments. As always, let your ear be your guide in telling you what parts need to be doubled to improve a mix.
©2007 Don Muro