Approaching the creation of a track with a little more thought will make the final mixdown much easier, says Chris Lyth
While there’s much discussion around the technical rigours of electronic music production (compression, reverb, massive bass, etc), the amount written on the subject of arrangement is comparatively negligble. But it’s often said that a great arrangement mixes itself - so perhaps if you are struggling regularly to mix down your tracks, it may be worth looking at ways to improve your arrangement.
The trap is an easy one to fall into, with loop-based music in particular. We often start our tracks as an eight- or 16-bar loop and then write parts over the top of it. It’s very seductive, when you have a great vibe going, to keep adding more and more without thinking about how the track will unfold as a whole. Consequently, the arrangement process is often left to the end, when perhaps we’ve lost the objectivity required to successfully evaluate our work. Many producers say they find arrangement the most taxing aspect of the whole process, as there is such a wealth of options available and decision paralysis can set in.
So firstly for the uninitiated, what is arrangement? The term refers specifically to how a track is structured over time, and decisions as to which instruments play what and when. For instance, at what point in your track’s timeline the chorus, breakdown or climax arrives. It also includes details such as tempo changes and the tone of an instrument - for example, when you would filter up a line to its maximum range in your track’s crescendo.
With all that in mind, here are a few thoughts and ideas on how to approach arrangement.
1. Strike while the iron is hot
Finishing tracks can be taxing and often it’s a case of sheer willpower, so get busy arranging early in the ideas phase. Hold in mind your direction and progress along the timeline. Arrangement is almost akin to storytelling, so work on your start, middle and end. Jam away freely and get it down quickly: you will then have sections that you can perfect and refine. Make the arrangement part of the story and not an afterthought.
2 Surprise vs predictability
If your timeline is too static, you track will just end up sounding boring; if it's too wild and unstructured, the result will be confusion for the listener. The trick here is to balance satisfying predictability with a sense of surprise.
Perhaps, for example, your track has a verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure with a lead line or vocal that is the predominant feature. Generally you would repeat the chorus three times, so in this case you could repeat it twice and then on the third repeat, deliver the line with a new variation or sound to throw the listener off-guard while still having the satisfying payoff. Repetition is important in that it’s hypnotic and comforting, but it also needs to travel in a dramatic way to add movement and intrigue.
3. Five parts playing at any one time
Here's an idea that can really help keep your arrangements focused, and your mix uncluttered, by limiting your laying options. Your mix will sound much bigger for using this minimalist approach, and it will alter the way you write your track. So instead of working down your sequencer by adding parts you are now working along your timeline and will be forced to make much more of your parts: for example by modulating melodies, changing the timbre of your lead instrument and carefully defining sections.
4. Defined sections
This is where you have one section of your track that has a clear and noticeable difference from others, which can elevate your music from static, looped club tools. It’s a great way to grab the listener's attention and can fundamentally alter the feel of your music. A radical example would be going from an aggressive wall of dense percussion and layers of synth into a gentle pad sound with whispered vocal, and then on to a percussion-only section.
5. Don’t get bogged down in technical work
The real genesis of an idea can be short, so we must work fast to unleash all of our ideas. This is not the time to start EQing a hi-hat or tweaking the kickdrum. Ideally a well-arranged track should not require a great deal of mixing, so if it doesn’t sound right with some basic level balancing, have a look at the instrumentation. Try to use parts that compete with each other in different sections of the arrangement, to keep it focused and crisp.
6. Reset your focus
Good arrangements require us to have a sense of musical objectivity, which is often difficult when we have been listening to the same piece of work for many hours. So stop and play some other music, perhaps in a completely different genre, to help reset your focus.
7. Listen up
Find a track that's similar in genre to yours that you think has a compelling arrangement, and break it down - either by sketching with pencil and paper or by making labelled coloured blocks and placing them at the top of your sequencer as an arrangement scaffolding. Do this regularly and notice the vastly different options that are available to you. Getting inquisitive about how a certain mood is created will yield creative results for your own music.
8. Know your direction
It’s helpful to start your project with a clear direction in mind. Knowing if your track is going to be aimed squarely at the dancefloor, a beatless ambient piece or a typically structured song with verse, chorus, bridge etc, will impact on the decisions you are about to make.
Often genres such as dub techno have no clearly defined traditional structur: the dynamic tension is created by long evolving contours, and changes on an almost micro level. Clearly, a pop-style arrangement in a dub techno track would likely incite the deepest consternation and be at odds with the narrative of the genre (and vice versa). Make notes about how deeper journeys unfold, peak and resolve whilst still keeping an alive, but conversely static texture over time.
9. Envelop the drama
Many producers keep their music sounding ‘alive’ by using subtle constant variations in the length of notes by modulating a synth's envelopes. Using the attack and decay envelopes, notes can swell and contract, changing the feel and humanising the character of the sound. A nice example is in a breakdown: let the note play out longer and longer so it’s rising to a crescendo, then once the beat comes back in, snap the decay envelope back to a tighter, more percussive feel.
10. Save and move on
Often during the arrangement, a fork in the road will appear and it’s easy to get caught between the two ideas, thus not achieving the potential of either. While there’s no concrete solution to this, there is the silver lining that your track could exist in an alternate world.
Take a deep breath and save the alternative version with a few written notes, forget about it and completely commit to your original direction. You can then come back to your alternative version and work on that idea as well, secure in the knowledge that you already have a track in the bag!
11. Silence thy thunder
A short section of silence can be immensely dynamic when dealing with loud, beat-driven music. When everything is loud, nothing is loud: everything is relative, and a short cut to silence can be deadly when moving from one sequence to another.
12. Let your percussion evolve
Evolving your percussion can elevate the intensity for the listener and also maintain interest. Change a hi-hat sound, throw in a few subtle sections with ghost hits, drop out a kick for a beat, pitch down a ride over two bars, etc. This will help keep the listener engaged over the duration of your track without forcing you to gild the lily with another melodic element.
Words: Chris Lyth