The 4 different elements of texture in music production

The word “texture” has become a buzzword of sorts in the music production community.

While I’ve heard the term used so many times, especially in sound design circles (I found myself mentioning how it’s used to describe the way a song or sample sounds in the description for Soul Surplus’ Walnut Trim sample pack), I’ve never heard anyone really define what gives a sound its own texture. In this article, I share my own definition for this somewhat abstract term, and break down how you can more deeply explore and apply the concept of texture in your own music.

Every song has its own unique texture, and I don’t believe this buzzword should be exclusive to soul music, music pressed to vinyl or a cassette tape, or sample packs. Music recorded in a digital medium has just as much texture as music recorded to analog tape. EDM songs have a certain texture, just like R&B tracks, as do hardcore productions.

Ultimately, I think of texture as an equation and the collaboration between these four elements: timbre, dynamics, saturation, and ambience. Let’s examine each of these in more detail below.

1. Timbre

Timbre can be defined in literal terms as the way an instrument or source sounds (usually in comparison to another source or instrument in the same arrangement). Attack, decay, brightness, darkness, resonance, warmth, pitch, and many more characteristics collectively make up what we consider to be the timbre of a sound source.

Examples of manipulating timbre

There are many instances where you might want to manipulate timbre in order to achieve a textural goal. For example, in recreating ’70s soul music, you might muffle the decay of a floor tom to achieve more of a ‘thud’ than a ‘boom.’ Meanwhile, when layering two guitars across the stereo image, it could be smart to change the pickup selection or to EQ your amp differently for each take in order to distinguish one track from another. Shifting the pitch of a sound can also create interesting textures, slurring the attack and introducing the warble-like artifacts that were made popular by producers like J Dilla and Madlib.

Take a listen to the pitch shift effect in Dreamville’s “Self Love,” which features a sample from Melodic Loop 5 that was in our Screwed Soul pack

These kinds of choices in timbre make up a majority of what we ‘feel’ when hearing texture. While the average listener might not have an in-depth understanding of concepts like dynamics, saturation, and ambience, everyone can pick out their favorite elements in a song. Everyone can identify when a song sounds ‘chill’ (‘warm’) or ‘hyped’ (‘bright’).

For us producers, this emphasizes the importance of being intentional when picking our sounds. Timbre is the DNA of your arrangement or song—but the next three equally important elements have more to do with how you process each of your sounds within your production.

2. Dynamics

I originally called this element “compression,” but that would severely limit the many different ways that dynamics can be manipulated to create textures. However, compression is a good place to start, since the mastering of different kinds of compression can open up new sonic worlds.

Demystifying punchiness

Let’s consider bus compression, popular VCA compressors (like the DBX 160), and the SSL bus compressor often used on instrument busses and mix busses. We usually describe these kinds of compressors to be ‘punchy’ (which is another buzzword in itself, though not nearly as ambiguous as texture). One of my biggest revelations in mixing was that punchiness isn’t just about slapping on a transient designer plugin and cranking the attack (although that can help in some cases). Rather, punchiness is more of a ratio between the attack and decay of a sound source.

Sounds that are considered to be punchy will have a louder attack than decay. In the most conventional use of an SSL Bus Compressor or a DBX 160, the attack is set to be just slow enough to let the initial transient through, with attenuation following very shortly after. Coupled with a fast release, this allows the transients of the said source to be more pronounced, and thus, punchier. This makes VCA compressors very popular for drums, which are the most transient-heavy instruments within a mix.

Exploring tape compression

In the worlds of sound design and sampling, one of the less-talked-about but ever-present examples of limiting is tape compression. This is the sweetest-sounding compression to my ears—it’s completely random and not based on a set attack, release, ratio, or threshold parameter.

When recording to tape and “hitting the tape hard” as they say, overloading the machine results in a limiting of the dynamic range and a smooth, warm, and musical saturation. This sort of limiting slightly smears the transients of a sound source in a beautiful way.

Dynamics are extremely important to texture for the reason that they give the overall sound an ebb-and-flow. While over-compression is just as much of a valid texture (think pop vocals), allowing a song or instrument to breathe gives it a realistic sense of life. Think of the texture of a ’70s analog recording coming off a vinyl record like the texture of a colorful knit sweater. It’s consistent in pattern and color, but it’s not perfect or without small errors. Perfection is predictable, and thus boring; a lack of dynamic range is similarly loud but predictable, and thus often boring.

3. Saturation

Much like compression, saturation (distortion, overdrive, or any kind of clipping) comes in many forms and from many sources. We mentioned tape saturation a bit when talking about tape compression—the effect has seen a recent spike in interest thanks to the countless plugins and analog hardware units (Handsome Audio’s Zulu is my favorite) on the market that emulate the sound of a tape machine being pushed beyond its limit.

In terms of texture, saturation plays a key role in the overall color of a sample or production, gluing certain instruments and sounds together (along with compression) and distinguishing other instruments from one another.

Effective uses of saturation

Saturation isn’t solely limited to analog tape recordings—it’s also prevalent in modern music. My personal favorite example of saturation lending itself to the texture of an arrangement is in Kanye West’s “Fade,” a track from The Life of Pablo.

A tastefully saturated vocal sample is introduced in the opening of the track, and is looped throughout its entirety. Juxtaposed against the cleaner drum loop, infectious synth bassline, and Kanye’s slightly overdriven vocal track, the sample finds its own place within the arrangement while providing an energetic and vintage texture to the song.

As mentioned before, when all of the four elements (timbre, dynamics, saturation, and ambience) are working together, they create very unique textures within the arrangement. The collaboration between Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Madlib in “No More Parties In LA” is yet another masterful example of this idea. The saturated vocal chops placed on top of the warbled sample from Junie Morrison’s “Suzie Thundertussy” were masterfully executed by Madlib.

Kendrick and Kanye’s vocals complement the compressed and pitched sample with a clean and punchy vocal tone. Aside from delay throws and some tucked-in echos, both of the emcees’ vocals are considerably dry. Beyond “No More Parties In LA” being the kind of collaboration that rarely happens in hip hop anymore, the unique use of saturation, pitch shifting, and compression creates a texture that stand outs in its own way. In fact, the entire album is a true masterclass on texture and consistency in music production.

4. Ambience

Ambience isn’t just about how much reverb you use on a sound—it’s about placing a sound in its own space. In my opinion, the more realistic that space sounds, the richer texture it provides. While dynamics and saturation can affect how a sound source feels, ambience can help provide a clue for what the space encapsulating an arrangement or instrument looks like.

For a quite literal example, the recording of Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana” below picked up quite a bit of ambience, as the sound of plates hitting tables and people chatting around the room can be heard quite easily. Along with the reverb tail on the hi-hats and toms, one can easily infer that this recording was made in a club of some sort, maybe with high ceilings.

Using ambience to create distance

Placing instruments and sounds in different spaces using plate reverbs, digital reverbs, and delays can make some sounds appear closer to the front of an arrangement, while sounds with more reverb and delay processing appear to be further away.

The relationship between dry and wet sounds usually yields very interesting textures. For example, take a listen to the introduction of Fleetwood Mac’s classic “The Chain.”

The kick drum sounds very dry—you can imagine it was recorded in a smaller, acoustically treated room with a room mic picking up the resonance of the kick inside of the drum room. Contrasting the kick drum is the acoustic and electric guitars, which both have a considerable amount of plate reverb processing. As a result, the kick drum stands out, as if the drummer is playing it right in front of you. Meanwhile, the two guitars stand back a bit due to the ambience provided by the plate.

Even as the chorus kicks in, the drums (now complemented by an equally dry tambourine) are able to carry the groove because they have their own space to operate in and aren’t overshadowed by being in the same sonic space as the guitars.

How will you approach the idea of texture in your own productions?

When you can use and master these four elements, not only will you have an easier time reverse engineering your favorite productions, but you’ll also better understand how to utilize timbre, dynamics, saturation, and ambience to design your own unique textures. If you haven’t already, check out our Soul Surplus: The Office series for a further in-depth look at how we create our own textures within our sample packs.

Discover rich textures for your productions in Soul Surplus’ sample packs:

January 11, 2022

John Smythe John Smythe is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer, and Sr. Content Producer at Splice. Music is his passion, and he loves sharing it with as many people as he possibly can.