Texture in music is a blend of mix decisions and production tricks that combine to form the heart and soul of a record’s sonics. Learn how to create it in your tracks.
By Will Vance
Texture in music is incredibly important, full stop.
And while the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic material is what the textbooks would define as the "real" texture in music, its true sense is so much more. To me, it's the texture of my mixdowns that tickles the aural taste buds and gives the music the justice it deserves.
So, let's break down texture a little before we explain how you can start introducing better textures into your next project.
1. What Is Texture in a Mix?
What the texture of a mix is can be hard to define. It's the visceral and tactile component of the record's sonics just as much as it's the nooks or crannies that form the track's bedrock. Basically, the texture is where the mix and the production meet but can also stand completely independently of the music itself. It’s a simple concept that can be the single thing that sets your mixes apart from the hundreds of thousands of songs released every day.
On a broad scale, it’s like a bird’s-eye view of decisions common across specific generations of music. The texture of the 70s was characterized by polished guitar licks, cascading analog synthesizers, and robust multi-tracked instrumentation. The sounds of Bowie, Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks are as iconic for their instrumentation and production as they are for their new advances in mixing techniques and hardware.
You can hear in the track above how the texture of the mix is as important to the heart and soul of the record as the production itself.
On a smaller scale, textures of individual tracks have the power to act like a set piece within an album, creating a marked individualism against the larger body of work. In Taylor Swift’s track ‘This is me trying’ off her 2020 album Folklore, the sparse arrangement is dominated by heavy application of reverb on the track’s vocals, establishing a unique texture that stands apart from the rest of the album’s tracklist.
The shift in texture creates an intimate separation that reaffirms and supports the lyrical content, delivering a cohesive result that stands apart from the rest of the album (at least from a sonic perspective). Once again, the mix and the production work together to create a texture that is the heart and soul of the song.
2. Using Production to Create Textures in Music
Production tricks that create textures all come down to introducing and extracting sonic anomalies or artifacts already buried within the elements of the composition.
Most of these tricks require heavy-handed uses of effects which are then resampled to be nestled under the original signal. Resampling gives better control of the audio, allowing the textures we’re creating to remain ephemeral instead of taking center stage of the mix.
So, let’s look at a few ways that it’s done. Grab some headphones, because many of these examples are subtle enough that some critical listening is required. Let’s dive in.
a. Pitch Effects for Texture
A general assumption among producers is to only use pitch plugins, like Waves Tune, to subtly nudge audio a few cents here or there, or you risk making vocals sound unnatural or displeasing. But forcing drastic jumps, +/- 12 or even 24 semitones, stretches the audio into positions it doesn’t want to be in. As it does this, pleasing artifacts are often revealed, which can be further processed and embedded low down in the mix to create a certain texture.
- Example 1a – guitar loop (dry)
- Example 1b – guitar loop (pitch)
How you process the resampled audio is entirely dependent on the texture you’re after. For example, lower frequencies caused by heavy downpitching might be EQ’d away, until only the sombre, dull textures remain. Pitching audio upwards may create heightened dynamics that can be then compressed for an upfront, aggressive texture (especially after a touch of saturation is introduced in the 4k+ Hz range).
- Example 1c – guitar loop (pitch high)
- Example 1d – guitar loop (pitch low)
Notice how these different textures are created from the same source audio (one containing the low textues below 600 Hz and the other just the brighter textures above 2k)? These are subtle and should be layered low enough to be felt, not heard.
b. Delay Effects for Texture
Delays are a perfect tool that get you “more from less,” as both standard rhythmic echo and coloration are achieved from a single tool. Most analog delays, like H-Delay or J37, work wonderfully for achieving this end, but when in doubt, adding light distortion to any digital delay will serve the same purpose.
Set your delay on an auxiliary and begin sending multiple instruments to the bus. Note how the combined effect of many instruments create a texture that is greater than the sum of its parts.
- Example 2a – Aux delay (Full track)
- Example 2b – Aux delay (Solo aux)
Once this is done, record the audio routed to the auxiliary and comb the result for the best sounding loop to use as a textured soundbite for the track.
- Example 2c – Aux delay (Spliced intro texture)
c. Resampled Reverb for Texture
The above process can be repeated using reverb, like the Renaissance Reverb, in place of delay, but different approaches can be further applied once you’ve found the choice audio you want to use as textures.
- Example 2d – Aux reverb (Full track)
- Example 2e – Aux reverb (Solo aux)
Now get creative! Try reversing reverb tails to add textured swells to the backdrop of the track. Or try aggressively pitching the audio (+/- 12 or 24 semitones) to further extract sonic artifacts you’re looking for.
- Example 2f – Aux reverb (Effected Solo aux)
- Example 2g – Aux reverb (Spliced texture)
d. Layering in Samples for Texture
Foley loops of nature walks or transit stations are a great way to instantly add both texture and context, but be careful, as they can muddy up a mix quickly and also run the risk of removing cohesion across the project as the pieces don’t seem to “fit” together.
- Example 2h – Foley Texture
There are hundreds of resources around the internet in which to download royalty free foley loops, and with little effort you can find some really interesting sounds to embed within your track!
e. Sonic Density
Sonic density is something many new engineers don’t pay much attention to, but which plays a pivotal role in the texture of a mix. Double-tracking was a production approach introduced in the late ‘60s, alongside new advances in 16 and 32 track recording capabilities.
Replicating this effect digitally is a great way to increase the sonic density of a single element of your mix, which leads to a fuller and more powerful sound typically associated with more modern textures and productions. I’ve found that +/- 7 cents across a few pitch nodes is the sweet spot; any more than this begins to change the timbre of the sound.
While double tracking is a great tool on its own, it really opens up even more creative doors once you combine it with other methods outlined in this article.
- Example 3a – Guitar loop (dry)
- Example 3b – Guitar loop (Ultrapitch)
Tools like Ultrapitch, Doubler, and H-Delay work wonders if you’re recording your own instruments or vocals in a studio. But for many bedroom producers working with samples and VSTs, this is not an option. Replicating a double-tracked recording can be easy through clever applications of groove templates which is explained more in depth in a previous article here on “Less is More” in Music Production.
You can also try the Abbey Road Reel ADT plugin for an authentic ‘60s double-tracked sound.
3. Using Mixing to Enhance Texture in Music
Before DAWs were standardized, new advances in recording hardware defined the textures of music. Tone and coloration imparted by the hardware being developed went hand in hand with the texture of each genre and even time period. Now this is seen as intentionality stylistic, when really it was just the nature of the new developments in the hardware.
Modern plugins and production approaches are diverse and powerful enough to recreate the textures of the most iconic generations of music. So, let’s dive into ways to replicate these textures with modern, digital-based sounds.
The fastest and easiest way to achieve the unique textures of past generations is by emulating the sonic fidelity of that era. Whether you’re wanting more retro textures or modern ones, you can plan on using the same tool – just applied differently each time – to achieve what you’re after.
When introducing the lo-fi textures of yesteryear, tape saturation, such as Kramer Master Tape, will be your best friend. The saturation is then followed specifically by an analog emulation EQ, that boosts the upper midrange. The API 550 is my go-to tool here, using it to aggressively taper down the high-shelf at 12.5k to round out the upper frequencies and boosting the 1.5k range by a 4-5 decibels to introduce a warmer texture that compliments the Tape Saturation. This will result in the warmer and beefier textures of the hardware of the 60s, 70s and 80s.
- Example 4a – Deep House Loop – dry
- Example 4b – Deep House Loop - Vintage (Kramer Tape + API EQ)
Hi-fi textures on the other hand are bright, sterile and utterly clear. But applying saturation will still help to brighten and thicken up the higher frequencies when you drive the input by 3-7dB and reduce the output, which adds the power and clarity of modern recordings. Finishing it off with a 4-5dB boost from the API 560 will add the clarity and small-speaker power of records from the 90s and beyond.
- Example 4a – Deep House Loop – dry
- Example 4c – Deep House Loop – Hifi (Kramer Tape + API EQ)
Emulators allow you to quickly recreate the textures and colorations of niche market eras and hardware. Plugins such as the Scheps 73 or the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain are quick-fix solutions that yield great results when used as intended, but give even better results when used in ways unintended.
There is no better tool for enlivening the analog textures of an instrument or drum bus than the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain, whose compressors introduce tasteful harmonic distortion when only a few like-instruments are sent through it.
Use the frequency and input parameters to drive that 2-5k Hz range to taste, followed by the shape parameter to add a defined and audible texture you’ll reach for every time.
- Example 5a – Melodic Loop (dry)
- Example 5b – Melodic Loop (TG Mastering Chain)
Reverb and delay drastically affect the texture of a record, but so does the processing of these effects after the fact. So, let’s dive into some quick ways to achieve amazingly textured reverbs.
Trick #1: Reduced Noise Floor
Aggressive rock bands, like Led Zeppelin, squashed the drums and reverb together and into oblivion; creating a truly larger-than-life drum take and a defining texture of the record. Let’s see how to achieve similar results.
- Example 6a – Drum Recording (dry)
- Example 6b – Drum Recording (wet)
Send your drums to an auxiliary bus with a room or plate reverb and decays that are tempo-synced enough to fill in the gaps between your kicks and snares. Then, increase the noise floor of the reverb by driving the input gain of a compressor by 4-7 dB. From there, further adjust the buss’ color through saturation, EQ and beyond.
Trick #2: Reverb for Proximity
For a more modern sheen-like texture, the brittle and metallic shimmers of spring and Abbey Road Reverb Plates are preferred. These reverbs introduce a glimmering texture that adds a tasteful gloss when the amount is dialled in carefully.
- Example 7a – Vocal Plate (dry)
- Example 7b – Vocal Plate (wet)
Be careful here, as the brightness of these reverbs can quickly overwhelm the dry signal. So instead of relying on this technique to be the defining texture of a sound or mix element, use these reverbs to enhance the texture previously introduced through saturation, compression, or layering.
As you can tell by now, the texture of your mixes isn’t so much about one single mix-wide decision, but rather the accumulation of many different mix decisions and production approaches. Once you know where to look and how it’s done, you can achieve an end result that is truly unique to you.
Want more retro textures in your music? Learn how to add a Lo-Fi Vintage Vibe to Your Tracks!
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