22 essential arranging tips
11th Feb 2008 | 16:44
Turn your musical ideas into fully-formed tunes
Arranging can broadly be defined as the process of transforming a collection of musical ideas into a complete track. It can involve everything from writing harmonies, re-arranging parts, adding parts, removing parts, planning the structure of a song or even adding effects from time to time.
If there's one absolute truth about arranging, though, it's that it's the stage where you have to stop making excuses and start making firm decisions, whether these be about which parts to leave in or out, where to put them, or whether you need to add a whole new part altogether.
Consequently, for many, arranging is also where music making stops being fun and creative and starts feeling a bit too much like pressure and hard work.
This needn't be the case, though - with all the power and versatility that modern technology gives us, the possibilities are endless and the process can be relatively painless. Here are our 22 top arranging tips:
1. Listen, listen, listen. There's absolutely no substitute for experience, so be sure to analyse the arrangements of all your favourite tracks. Listen to what other producers have done and try to figure out why it works (or why it doesn't work, as the case may be...).
2. Don't feel like you have to use a dull old fade-out at the end of your track. If it's an album or radio track, you can have an abrupt finish, or one that's not at the end of a bar. If the music just stops dead, people will notice and may better remember your tune.
3. Try fading in a track through the intro, perhaps over a sound effect, such as running water. The classic late-80s house cut Sueno Latino uses this technique to stunning effect.
4.You don't have to have an intro at all - a number of tunes, particularly hip-hop tracks, do perfectly well without. A popular technique is to have the vocal start slightly before the instrumental parts, with the beats and music kicking in quickly on bar 1, beat 1.
5. Layer, layer, layer! This really is the key to getting a pro sound. While layering is often used to add fatness to your parts, in this case it's more a question of sonic variation. If you have a plinky lead riff, for example, use a more rounded synth part with a more sustained envelope playing the same pattern over the chorus (and try compressing them together for extra oomph).
6. If you happen to have a decent guitar part in your arrangement somewhere, why not begin the track with it and kick everything else in afterwards? All Day And All Of The Night by The Kinks serves as a great example of what we're talking about here.
7. If you want to liven up your chord voicings in different sections, try having various synth pads play the notes of your chords, one for each note.
8. Never underestimate the power of vocals. Don't be shy of dropping out everything but the vocal in sections of your arrangement.
9. If your arrangement seems crowded, try removing elements of certain parts that interfere with each other. For example, if your vocal is clashing with a guitar or keyboard part, try cutting out the guitar when the vocal plays. BB King is the master of vocal/guitar part alternation.
10. If you need to fill out your choruses, try reinforcing your vocal with an instrument part playing the same notes.
11. Keep your audience on their toes - don't feed them the same parts and accompanying chords each time a verse or chorus comes along. Try switching chords and riffs half way through.
12. To add excitement to strings, pads and other musical parts during key moments, try layering them up with another version of the part pitched up one or two octaves.
13. Don't be shy of some theatrical mood building. Whether this involves samples from The Matrix or Olivier's Hamlet is immaterial, as long as it adds interest.
14. Never neglect the power of judicious sidechained compression on dull pads and other sounds. Put a compressor over them and route your bass drum track into its sidechain to add some real dynamics.
15. Be sure to know your target audience and craft your arrangements accordingly. If somebody's most likely to hear it first at 7.45am on the M1, then a subtle arrangement may well be lost to fatigue, but if it's meant for coffee table listening, there's much more scope for imagination and a softly softly approach.
16. Arranging should be fun, so don't get bogged down trying to squeeze large round pegs into small square holes. If a part isn't working with everything else, ditch it!
17. If you're going to use very distinctive and powerful instruments like saxophones, be sure to keep them to a minimum or they'll completely dominate your track.
18. If you're planning to take your track on the road, you should rearrange it, paying particular attention to big, recognisable sections that people might want extended. And don't forget to plan for a silent section so that the audience can clap along - eight or 16 bars ought to do it!
19. Dance music shouldn't have a monopoly on breakdowns. Keep an ear out for any interesting weirdness you can find for a mini tension-fuelling breakdown in a pop or rock track too. Spoken word, sound effects and dodgy copyright-infringing movie samples all have their merits.
20. Don't neglect some of the fun old tricks, such as pitching your track up to heighten its energy. The easiest way to do this is to make it two or three BPM slower than you intend it to be in the end, then simply use an audio editor or timestretching program like Ableton Live to speed (and pitch) the track up when it's finished.
21. Chopping up all the beats of a bar before a chorus and then rearranging and/or muting them can have a dramatic effect. You can combine this trick with some sidechained gating, using a dedicated (and unheard) signal to create a chopping effect on your track at key moments. Check out the debut album from Mylo, Destroy Rock & Roll, to hear the kind of thing we mean.
22. If you're making electronic music and plan to create a three to four minute radio edit at some point, make it before, rather than after, the club mix. It's usually easier this way, and it won't involve you having to agonise about which of your precious and carefully crafted 12" edits and breakdowns to lose.