Breathing Life Into Your Arrangement
By Mike Senior
If you think of the basic musical material in a production as consisting of lyrics, melodies, and chords, then the arrangement of that musical material constitutes pretty much all the other aspects of the track—things like the specific instrumentation at different points, the exact distribution of the harmony notes across the pitch range, the particular performance figurations used by each different performer, and the precise rhythmic configuration of the music’s groove. If the arrangement works, then it’ll play into the hands of the mix engineer, whereas if it fights the music, then there’s not much that can counteract that musical ineffectiveness at mixdown. “When you understand arrangement, mixing is easy,” says Humberto Gatica. “You know what you’re looking for. Otherwise you’re fishing.” Andy Johns is one of the many other producers who share his opinion: “The way I really learned about music is through mixing, because if the bass part is wrong, how can you hold up the bottom end? So you learn how to make the bass player play the right part so you can actually mix.”
Clear Out the Clutter
The first common problem that I hear in small-studio productions is that there are simply too many parts going on all the time. Not only does such a situation make it difficult to make all the parts clearly audible in the mix, but it also presents a musical problem—although a full production may appear satisfying at the outset, a lack of light and shade in the arrangement will quickly make it seem bland, and the listener will stop paying attention.
The first thing that can help is to bear in mind this simple piece of advice from Jack Joseph Puig (echoing an almost identical comment from Wyclef Jean): “You have to consider the fact that the ear can process only three things at once. When you get to the fourth thing, the attention drops away somewhere.” So listen to your track and try to isolate which three elements should be the focus of attention at every point in the music. Any part that isn’t one of those main components is a candidate for pruning, so see if you can chop out some sections of it. Let’s say that there’s an acoustic guitar part strumming away throughout your track; perhaps you should consider taking it out of your verses so that more important drum, piano, and vocal parts can come through more clearly. Save it for adding some extra textural interest during the choruses.
Or perhaps you might edit that guitar part so that it only plays at those moments when one of the other parts doesn’t really demand the listener’s full attention—perhaps while the singer’s taking a breath or the pianist is indulging in some uninspired vamping. This effectively substitutes the guitar for one of your three main parts just for a moment, without robbing attention from them during the bits where they’re more important. Most parts in musical arrangements are only playing something interesting some of the time, so if you try to cut out as much of the less interesting stuff as possible, then you will generate some gaps in the texture for other subordinate parts to have their place in the sun. Just this simple arrangement trick can completely transform the sound of a production, because it focuses the listener’s ear on what’s interesting in the music. There will of course be a limit to how ruthlessly you can perforate the arrangement before the musical flow begins to suffer, but most small-studio producers don’t get anywhere near this point before they throw in the towel. As Hugh Padgham observes, “It often takes a lot of effort to have less rather than more. I actually spend more time pruning stuff down than adding things. Doing so can often require a musician to learn or evolve an altogether different part to be played, so what was two tracks is now one track. Every song is different, but I’m always looking for ways to simplify and reduce.”
Another thing to consider is whether you might be able to differentiate the sections of your arrangement more effectively by your choice of parts. For example, the first four sections of a common song structure might be intro, verse 1, bridge 1, and chorus 1 , but it’s going to be difficult to create any musical development if all of those sections are backed by the same drums, bass guitar, strummed acoustic guitar, and rippling piano figuration. Why not start with acoustic guitar, bass guitar, and drums, but then drop out the acoustic when the lead vocal enters in the chorus? That’ll make the vocal appear more interesting and give you the opportunity to differentiate the bridge section by adding the guitar back in again. Then you can leave the piano entry to provide a lift into the chorus. It’s ridiculously easy to experiment with your DAW’s mute buttons to see what might work here, so there’s no excuse for letting the grass grow under your feet. In a similar vein, let’s assume that verse 2, bridge 2, and chorus 2 are next in line. It’s daft to just repeat the same arrangement, when you can intensify what went before. So maybe let the piano continue from the chorus 1 into verse 2, but drop out the acoustic guitar. The guitar could then join the piano as before to create a thicker bridge 2 texture, and then you might double-track the acoustic guitar or add other parts (such as backing vocals or tambourine) to give another step up into chorus 2.
To put all that in general terms, in a lot of cases in commercial music you want to have enough repetition in the arrangement that the music is easily comprehensible to the general public. But you also want to continually demand renewed attention by varying the arrangement slightly in each section, as well as giving some sense of an emotional buildup through the entire production. That may sound like a bit of a tall order, but it can often involve no more effort than poking the odd mute button.
Marius de Vries offers another interesting angle: adjusting the musical timeline. “What’s often most boring about contemporary songwriting,” he points out, “is the way that everything is in bars of four and blocks of eight, which is arguably driven by the way the software is designed. Good creative songwriters will always be searching for ways to jettison a beat in a bar or add another couple of beats before releasing the chorus, for example.” Even if you’re mixing other people’s material, it’s surprising how much you can still experiment with these kinds of changes using simple editing and time/pitch-manipulation tools.
The other main shortcoming of ineffective small-studio arrangements is that they don’t have enough useful detail in them to sustain interest. Again, there’s usually too much repetition occurring. A useful little rule of thumb that can help here is this: if you want something to retain the listener’s attention, then avoid playing the same thing more than three times in a row. By the time a given riff reaches its fourth iteration, the listener will start to drift, so if you want to keep people focused, then you need to introduce some variation, usually in the form of some kind of fill. So if your drum part is a one-bar loop and your song works in eight-bar phrases, then it makes sense to perhaps edit the loop a bit during bars 4 and 8 to create fills, providing some variation to maintain awareness of the loop among your audience. How exactly you do the fill is up to you, but remember (as I’ve already mentioned) that the best location for a fill on any given part is usually where other parts are less interesting. If you feel you want to layer more than one fill simultaneously, then consider putting them in different pitch registers—so combine a bass fill with a snare fill, for example.
If that little “three in a row” test reveals some of your parts to be wanting and a bit of audio editing can’t generate anything significantly less repetitive, then it’s a signal that you probably want to get other musicians involved—a good performer will intuitively create fills and variations at appropriate points in the arrangement. Even if you’re stuck on a Hebridean island with nothing but seagulls for company, that needn’t rain on your parade, because you can order made-to-measure live overdubs by talented session musicians over the Internet these days—services such as eSessions, Studio Pros, and The Missing Track can all record a wide selection of live instruments over your backing tracks for surprisingly little money.
If you’re producing seriously chart-oriented music, then another useful guideline is to make sure that there’s some interesting little feature happening every three to five seconds— perhaps a particularly cool backing-vocal lick, a nifty drum fill, a synth hook, a little spot-effect on the lead vocal, some kind of wacky SFX sample—the possibilities are endless. Chart music needs to command attention continuously if it’s to cater for the attention span of young, media-bombarded music fans. One other little tip is to consider the bass part of your track not just as a part of the harmony, but more as a second melody line. Brian Malouf says, “Generally, I try to have the bass and vocals be the counterpoint to each other. I look at those two elements as the central melodic components.”16 The more singable you make
the bass, the more forward momentum it’ll tend to add to the production. The classic example I always think of here is Abba’s “Money Money Money,” but if you listen to a lot of good arrangements, you’ll frequently hear little melodic fragments cropping up all over their bass parts.
The above is an excerpt from Mike Senior’s best-selling book Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio.
Mike Senior is a professional engineer who has worked with Wet Wet Wet, The Charlatans, Reef, Therapy, and Nigel Kennedy. He has transformed dozens of amateur mixes for Sound On Sound magazine’s popular Mix Rescue column. As part of Cambridge Music Technology, he also provides in-depth training courses and workshops specialising in the documented techniques of the world’s top producers.