The ART OF ARRANGEMENT
Build your best tracks ever with this huge compendium of advice for spinning basic loops out into complex, evolving pieces of music
We all love laying down beats, designing synth sounds, finding a killer vocal sample and mixing an idea to perfection; but ultimately, it’s a track’s arrangement – what happens where – that makes a song connect with the listener.
For some producers, the act of laying out initial musical ideas into a coherent 5-odd minutes is a process that comes easy. For most of us, though, this vital stage of the music-making process is something of a stumbling block. Throwing combinations of ideas into an eight-bar loop is fun, creative and inspiring – but turning those rough ideas into something that captures the listener’s imagination and resonates with them on an emotional level isn’t always quite as easy or fun. While some tracks fall together with ease, others demand blood, sweat and tears.
As the arrangement process can be a struggle, we’ve put together the definitive guide for the creative musician, to help transform your rough sketches and half-finished projects into full-length masterpieces. As well as general advice for all types of genres, we’ll look at a few specific techniques you can use for extending out loops, structuring tracks and keeping the listener engaged.
Before we examine a few concrete strategies for generating arrangement inspiration, let’s address the common problems producers stumble upon when fleshing out a track on the arrange page.
Electronic music is cyclical by nature, so it makes sense to create the core groove of a track (beats, bass, synths, vocals etc) within a single eight- or 16-bar loop – the idea being that these building blocks can then be duplicated and fleshed out over the course of 4-8 minutes to form a fully-fledged track. This workflow sounds simple on paper, of course, but the actual act of turning loop into song is one of the most difficult for a producer to master. A short sketch of a potential song can potentially fall into place within a few minutes, but no matter how hard you try, these parts just might not fit together when laid out over a longer period. Rather than plugging away and actually finishing your idea, it’s much easier to close the project and start something new. Or, on the other hand, you become convinced that piling up more and more elements into the loop will improve it. Yep, it’s the dreaded case of
loopitis – the true curse of today’s electronic musician.
If you’re a solo producer creating loop-based electronic music, you’re already on the back foot when compared to a ‘traditional’ rock band. A bunch of musicians that regularly jam together will bounce ideas off each other and (usually) write music in a verse-bridge-chorus structure right from the offset; but a single studio boffin creating everything from scratch has to conjure up every piece of inspiration in isolation. This is why collaboration is such an important part of making music: work with other like-minded producers, hire in freelance musicians and work closely with vocalists. Often, just simply having someone else in the studio will encourage you to turn your repetitive 16-bar loop into an ebbing, flowing piece of music.
If your reason for producing music is to actually finish tracks, then this negative track-starting cycle needs to be broken immediately – it’s time to bust out of the loop once and for all!
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix to cure loopitis, in the same way that you won’t become a fitness expert after one gym session. Becoming a pro at arranging tracks requires old-fashioned determination and effort. Do you find yourself habitually starting great track ideas without ever actually finishing them? If so, you probably have enough experience generating cool ideas, but you now need to retrain yourself to become an expert at arranging those ideas into something worthwhile.
Of course, it helps to be aware of the unique predicaments that face a producer of dance music. Unlike the aforementioned rock band, who have predetermined instruments and a
tried-and-tested structure to stick to, electronic music’s experimental nature can force its creator to feel completely lost in a complex world of sound design, sampling, synthesis, mixing techniques, hardware vs software, tutorials, and a whole host of other distractions.
To overcome these obstacles, then, it’s important to completely block out extraneous factors and focus on the goal at hand – laying out your unfinished idea into a full-blown song. No matter how much of a music production geek you are, refrain from obsessing over details that simply don’t matter – after all, the end listener doesn’t care whether your drums have been sourced from a hardware drum machine or a sample library!
There are several tried-and-tested (and perhaps somewhat clichéd) formulas to help you keep on the right path: limit your sonic palette to a few trusty synths and sample packs you know well, to prevent you from getting distracted; keep your approach fresh by dividing your studio time into freeform sound creation sessions and dedicated sessions for arrangement. Also try to study the arrangements of your favourite tracks for inspiration.
When arranging, there’s one particular strategy that works above all others: always keep the arrangement in mind, right from the second you begin a track idea! For example, imagine laying down a synth riff at the loop creation stage, then committing that loop to audio before you even think about arranging the track – it’ll then be extremely difficult to alter the synth’s timbre throughout different sections of the production, as the single synth riff is baked into an audio file. In this scenario, the better approach would be to mess around with the synth’s parameters at the early stages (eg, amp release, filter cutoff, detune amount, etc) to help spark ideas for how the part can be developed over the course of the track. The same goes with all the elements you drop into a project at the initial ideagathering stage: ask yourself how every element can be used to keep the track progressing and changing throughout. High-pass-filtering your kick will create a pseudo ‘breakdown’, for example; or repeating the clap over 16th-notes at the end of every eight bars will give the listener a rushing sense of anticipation for the next section.
One negative side effect of plugging away at a cyclical section of a track, as opposed to stepping back and looking at the overall ‘big picture’, is that you’ll be tempted to throw more and more sounds into the project, in the hope that a greater number of elements will improve things – you’ve been listening to it on loop for hours, after all! Of course, the inverse is actually true, as the most well-produced records are generally quite minimal and sparse. Less is more, after all!
With this in mind, one of the most important tools for great arrangements – especially considering that most electronic music is essentially repetitive loops overlaid in different combinations – is the act of moving and changing parameter settings over time via automation. While a track may only consist of a few key parts, it’s the way they change and alter throughout the course of 5-or-so minutes that gives a track real personality and character. As a general rule of thumb, your core musical motif (say, a synth riff or chopped-up vocal loop) can start off the track with a low-pass filter applied, to muffle its midrange frequencies; then, to build intensity and signify progression, you can automate the filter’s cutoff slowly open, with the filter finally reaching its fully-open point when the track reaches its pinnacle. Combine this with the earlier-mentioned kick filtering and clap repeating, and you’re already have a simple, effective arrangement!
All in the mind
Another reason why producers get stuck in a loop can be attributed to boredom. When listening to an initial track sketch over and over on repeat, our ears eventually tire of the idea, and we lose any sense of impartiality, causing us to save the project and move onto something new. This problem is compounded by the fact that all DAWs allow you to save a project at any stage – back in the days of all-hardware studios, you had to get your current song finished in order to free up your mixing board and outboard gear for the next session! Software recall has completely eliminated this urgency, giving us freedom to flit between any number of projects at once.
The solution? Don’t listen to your unfinished idea on repeat! Only hit your DAW’s play button when you actually need to work on a certain element, and be aware of your ‘boredom threshold’ while you work – once your ears are sick of that killer bass loop, it’ll be infinitely harder to finish the track. A good approach is to imagine you are working in an old-school studio, and your current sketch needs arranging enough to cement its overall musical direction. If needed, schedule self-imposed deadlines to get your current creation past the finish line!
There are several tried-and-tested formulas to help you keep on the right path