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The Importance of Arrangement

If only a producers job was as simple as setting up a couple of mics and tweaking the faders to get a balanced mixed,. The truth is that among the many qualities demanded from the modern producer, understanding the fundamentals of arrangement is all but essential. Not only is a well-arranged song invariably a better song, a strong arrangement is also a pre-condition to a great mix. 

Arrangement and performance are everything. Knowing how much instrumentation should accompany the chorus, knowing when to cut the second guitar, knowing which vocal lines deserve a harmony and which parts can be doubled are the kinds of decisions that turn a good song into a great one. In the big band era, where band leaders had upwards of 50 performers on stage before them, arrangers were worth their weight in gold. 

Shouldn't the Band Be Sorting the Arrangement?

At some stage every producer has a "shouldn't the band be sorting the arrangement?" moment. And the answer, presumably, is yes. But only a few band members will have the mixing experience that you do, and many won't have as much songwriting experience as you might expect either. More often than not they'll simply come to you with an arrangement of the song that they will play live. 

The benefit of the ears and accumulated knowledge of the experienced producer means that they will often times know what kinds of arrangements will work before the mixdown even starts. 

Great record producers understand the importance of arrangement. When asked a world famous record producer George Massenburg how he gets his vocals to sit so well in the mix, he replied "You have to arrangement the music to leave space for them." EQ and processing came afterwords, he said. It's obvious in a way, that space in the mix allows the pivotal parts to breathe, which is a fact that is all too easy to forget, especially in the era of the near-limitless track count. 

A poor arrangement can generate numerous problems for the producer during the mixdown stage. Let's take a look at a few common problems and their potential solutions.

Problem: An important part is getting lost in the mix. Specifically, the verse vocal accompanied by a busy guitar part that peaks in the same frequency area as the vocal is struggling to be heard.

Potential Solution: The producer might suggest dropping the guitar part altogether, or asking the guitarist to do a quick rewrite so that the part takes a secondary role to the vocal, dropping in the odd phrase when the vocal pauses. If the guitar part has to stay, the producer might suggest picking a different tone, maybe one with less high-end that subtly reinforces the vocal rather than interfering with it. Notching out the frequency range in the guitar that is competing with the vocal, usually in the 2-4kHz range, can also help, as can ducking the guitar slightly when the vocal is present.

Problem: The overall shape of the song is confusing. 

Potential Solution: Listeners expect certain things from their music; in dance music this is invariably blocks of 8-bar turnarounds, in pop it can be a familiar verse/chorus paradigm. By messing too much with the established traditions of a genre you risk alienating an expectant dance floor / A&R man. Tweaking an ill-considered structure slightly may turn a miss into a hit. Having said that, there are expectations to the rules. 

Problem: The song is dynamically and emotionally flat, missing the important highs and lows.

Potential Solution: The builds and drops of emotion are almost entirely a product of arrangement and changes in orchestration. Sometime examine other songs structure to see how changes could be made to your own tracks. In your own mix, try muting and unmuting certain tracks to see what each part contributes to the mix, then build the track from the loudest chorus backwards. Knowing which parts to cut and re-introduce for the build is essential. Dance producers are masters of this art: some tracks are little more than extended breakdowns and drops. 

Problem: The mix is overcooked - a problem often found among unconfident bands, songwriters, and producers. In arrangement terms this often manifests itself as an overly-busy mix, where multiple guitar parts underpin big block harmonies while organs, pads, and other keys fight for space in the mids. Electronic drum programming is easy to overdo too, with MIDI-generated beats that no-one but the hypothetical eight-armed drummer could ever hope to master. 

Potential Solution: Remember that less is often more. Start from the beginning and ask what role each part can play and whether any can be dropped from the mix. Everything has to have a reason to be there. Try muting some parts while easing up on others. It's surprising how much more solid a struggling arrangement can become when a few unimportant parts are dropped (no matter how loud the protestations of the guitarist / keyboard player / shaker shaker).

Some Key Principles 

Entire volumes can be written about the art and science of music arranging, and the classics can be analyzed over and over, only to discover that for each seminal track there is a different arrangement, with different musical parts playing different roles. 

But each of the classics invariably adheres to a few fundamental principles which provide the foundations in which all else is built. These can be narrowed down to: 

Groove: The track must have a solid, hopefully infectious, rhythm. Even slow ballads have a rhythm.

Shape: This track should have its ebbs and flows, highs and lows, builds and releases - a constant flow of emotion.

Color: The track must engage the listener from the first bar to the last. 

Rare is it that a hit tracks doesn't feature all three of these fundamentals, regardless of the artist, the genre, the instrumentation or the song structure. 

All About the Groove

Much modern pop is dominated by a clear beat, typically powered by an up-front kick drum. Take a listen to any urban crossover hit or a top 40 pop production and you'll find the kick and snare anchoring the rhythm, supported by the bass, often with hats and other percussive part-mixed fairly low. These are dance floor-friendly tracks with radio friendly mixes that owe much to the production flavors of the underground club scene. The listener is left in no doubt when to move.


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