Why do some songs grab our attention and make us listen to them over and over again, while others sound stale after just a few seconds? There are multiple arguments to be made here, but for this article, my money is on arrangement.
In a broad sense, arranging music has to do with the way various parts in a song are combined to feel like a satisfying musical journey. This involves re-writing and adding or removing parts for a sense of drama, tension, and release.
It is at the arrangement stage where we producers start to feel a mounting sense of pressure. The shortcomings of the production become clear and you recognize the work that needs to be done. Unwilling to make the necessary changes or simply unsure of how to make improvements, you put together a predictable arrangement and cross your fingers that mixing will make it better.
Simply put, mixing can’t save an unfinished song. The best and easiest mixes happen when an arrangement is already great. For this reason, we will go over the necessary steps to prepare and execute a clear arrangement for better mixdowns. Whether you take care of mixing yourself, or hand this off to an engineer, the same principles apply.
The arrangement process involves some degree of alternation, so it's a good idea to make a copy of your session before getting started. Knowing there is an untampered version to fall back on frees you up to make bold moves about what should stay and what needs to go. If you can’t seem to make the current arrangement work after 20–30 minutes, then return to the original for a fresh start.
Oftentimes your arrangement is overstuffed with enough ideas to make two or three full songs. A session copy preserves everything that didn’t make the cut with your current project, and leaves something to inspire your next one.
Once you create a session copy, clean up whatever you don’t need in your current session. Idea generation and jamming makes a mess of a DAW—so rename tracks titled with gibberish, and delete sonic debris spread across the arrangement view, as well as unused tracks. Re-order individual tracks so similar elements are together, like drums and percussion, vocals, synths, and so on. Color code instrument groups to easily find what you need when you need it. These are basic, but essential steps that make arranging simpler. They also clear the mind and narrow focus for this specific stage of production.
As you put together a song arrangement, you can often trust your own intuitive sense for when a song section has gone on too long. This feeling means it’s time for a change.
For a more theoretical approach, look to the pros who inspire you. Drag a song into your DAW that matches the genre and tempo of your arrangement. While it plays, insert arrangement markers to denote major song sections, like a verse, chorus, or breakdown.
Within these sections, you will find more subtle changes, typically every four to eight bars, like the addition of a rhythmic groove, backup vocals, or a white noise swoosh—tag these too. Together, these markers provide a guideline for how to structure musical time in your arrangement.
Having a clear, well-thought out arrangement puts you ahead of the curve when it comes time to mix. The person responsible (this might be you!) will be able to quickly understand what decisions need to be made to better service the flow of the song.
Now that we know how to structure an arrangement, what needs to happen in each formal section to keep the musical journey fresh and interesting? The same reference song, visually represented in RX 7 can give you get a better understanding.
Your typical pop tune (this is Charlie Puth’s “Boy”) will look something like the image bellow on a spectrogram. Notice the contrast in loudness and frequency content between each section—these changes in energy are what keep listeners hooked for three to four minutes. Even without audio, we can still understand a sense of progression. The song starts small, then grows and contracts, as it moves between low energy sections (verse, bridge, and outro) and a repeated high energy chorus.
The chorus is the most important and energetic section of a pop song—it’s what people remember for days, weeks, and months. For this reason, you may want to focus your efforts on arranging the chorus first, then building the rest of your song around it. To arrange lower energy sections in the verse, reduce instrument level or darken their tone. Then decide how to move from one section to another. Do you need a transitional bridge? Will an abrupt change jolt listeners?
In dance music (we’re now looking at Mono Junk’s “Fu-Dimension” now), you will find less conventional structures that resemble the spectrogram below. From the one minute point onward, song energy remains at steady, intense level. This kind of music is more likely to provide a sense of dramatic tension from sound design and changes in texture instead of formal, contrasting sections. “Fu Dimension,” in particular, relies on a low pass filter that opens and closes down on a squelchy acid bassline to build and release energy.
These visuals also point to the way arrangement is considered for listener expectations. “Fu Dimension” is essentially one long rhythmic section for people to dance to and for DJs to mix, whereas “Boy” follows a familiar pop structure to appeal to a wide audience.
Adding instruments while arranging music is the most noticeable way to increase energy. Once we lay down the drums, we instinctively write a bassline and synth part to go with it, and then a few more layers to top it off. At every step we use EQ to attenuate clashing frequencies and then saturation, reverb, and compression to glue all the parts together so the arrangement sounds full.
There are two main problems that arise from this “vertical” approach. First, while the resulting arrangement covers a wide frequency range, it's often sounds soupy and dense. The unique timbres of each instrument are blurred and it's hard to make out distinct shapes and colours. Second, when we spread the individual instruments across the timeline to create a sense of flow in an arrangement, they sound too weak on their own, and we end up bringing back the frequencies we scooped out earlier, making it a total headache to re-combine them at an energy peak. Maybe automation or duplicate tracks will help, but it feels like a chore to set up. This alone is enough to want to abandon a track at the arrangement stage.
I invite you to think about arrangement from a slightly different perspective, whereby you rely on the natural tonal character of instruments to achieve an even frequency balance instead of mixing tools. Let’s run through a couple examples.
The lower octaves of harmonically rich synth and keyboard parts often compete with of the low-end space reserved for kick and bass. When this happens, our inclination is to EQ out the bottom end of the synth or keyboard part—but can we achieve the same effect by simplifying this lower portion instead? What about removing it completely? Or playing it on a different instrument?
Here is a synth and bass loop with clear frequency clashing in the low-mid range. The loop repeats a second time with a high pass filter to clean up the problem frequencies on the synth.
This solution is OK—but the resulting synth sounds pretty thin. Pitch the progression up one octave and shorten note length and we start to get a sense of clarity and openness. An alternative option is to rearrange the synth as a counter melody to the bass for a greater sense of diversity.
Frequency collisions are common in high frequency areas too. Here’s a situation—you arrive at the chorus in an arrangement and choose to dial up the excitement with ride cymbals and tambourines. Without considering the shared frequency characteristics of this percussion and the female vocal hook, the arrangement experiences an overload of high-end and turns shrill.
A few EQ cuts on the percussive elements may bring back a sense of balance, but this is already damage control. Instead, replace them with an organic foley loop or egg shaker. Edited properly, either one of the sounds can handle percussion duties and their crunchy texture won’t clash with the vocal.
EQ and effects are still needed to produce and arrange a song, but it is easy to use them as a crutch when instrumentation is lacking and we want a quick fix.
We all get anxiety before putting the finishing touches on a song. I admit it’s a tricky situation. Our own high expectations and fear of failing can stop us from putting our music out into the world. But all producers, including the ones you admire most, went through, and probably still go through the same thing.
As problems in arranging music come up, we have the choice to either solve them head on or hide them away for a later date. Hopefully the correct option is now clear.
The main takeaway here is the following—carefully planning an arrangement and making considered decisions regarding energy level, instrument selection, and frequency information will lead to better mixes and better songs.