More tips for breaking out of the loop of doom…
01 REMIX YOURSELF
Get some self-induced inspiration by taking one of your own songs, stripping away the music, then coming back after a day or two and remixing it. Listening to the vocal acapella after a while may help distance you from the original version enough to come up with something new. As it’s your own song, you can then choose to either keep the original vocal or replace it, then write a completely new song over the top of the new backing track.
02 JAM SESSION
Your computer is a powerful recording device with acres of hard-disk space, so why not make the most of it and record long synth ‘jams’ to audio? If you’re lucky, this can capture some great moments, creating a wealth of inspiring material that can organically influence arrangement decisions. Chop these nuggets out and use them as one-off ear-candy moments to keep your arrangement fresh.
03 INVERSION THERAPY
Chord inversions are your friends – you can fashion a decent prechorus by inverting the verse chords so that they play higher up the keyboard as the section progresses. Simply playing the same chords in different positions on the keyboard provides variety without actually changing the chords themselves.
04 BUILDING BRIDGES
Make a whole new section for your song by copying an existing section, dropping out the drums and just changing one chord. This worked well for the Chainsmokers in their recent hit, Side
Effects: they took the prechorus chords, swapped a Cm7 for an Fm7, and hey presto! – a bridge section was made! When the chorus re-enters, a new vocal melody over the existing chorus track keeps things fresh.
05 SOUND ADVICE
As well as the structural side of things, there’s a lot that can be done with the instrumental parts you use (or don’t use) in your track to keep things interesting, and new sounds are always inspiring. Copy and paste the drums from your solitary eight-bar loop, dial up a new synth or a set of presets that you rarely use on one of your existing synths, or strap a seldom-used plugin over the channel and use the new sound to inspire a fresh part.
06 RISER ABOVE IT
When it comes to getting hold of risers and transition effects to keep your arrangement moving, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with plundering sample libraries and other resources. What’s more, you don’t have to use straight-up risers as-is – instead, try using a sample of a long cymbal crash or noise ‘downlifter’, flip the audio back to front with your DAW’s reverse function, then nudge the reversed audio into place on the timeline. Fade and shape the swell’s volume for instant ‘whipping’ effects.
07 TAKE IT AWAY
Kick it old-school with subtractive arrangement! This tried-and-tested method dates from the very earliest versions of Cubase and other linearbased DAWs, and it still works just as well today. Start with a looping section of four or eight bars that represents the busiest section of your song – usually the chorus. Duplicate this region along the timeline to form a grid of regions lasting the length of the song, then work through from the intro section, removing or muting unwanted parts. Keep going until a defined arrangement starts to appear, then refine the transitions.
08 MAKE A PASS
If you’re using eight- or four-bar sections as building blocks to sketch out the foundations of your arrangement, run a few single-pass overdubs all the way down to ‘cement’ them together. These could be things like drum fills and cymbal crashes, vocal adlibs, keyboard riffs, live knob twiddling on an analogue synth or MIDI controller, etc – basically, any track recorded as a continuous performance that infuses your song with unique, one-off moments, contributes to the development of the track and makes it evolve as it plays. This will keep the listener interested and reduce the repetitiveness that block-based arrangements can sometimes suffer from.
09 GET HANDS-ON
If all you’ve got is a repeating eight-bar loop that you can’t break out of, try using automation as a performance tool. Copy and paste your loop into a three- or four-minute long block of repeats, then assign the volume levels of eight of the most prominent tracks to eight sliders on a hardware MIDI controller. You could also assign the channel mute switches to appropriate buttons if your controller has them. Then set your DAW’s automation system into Write or Touch mode, start the track playing and hit those faders. Often the live performance element of having physical controls beneath your fingers as the track plays will spark some latent creativity, and give you organic motion.
10 PARE IT DOWN
Writing a seven-minute song isn’t necessarily a bad move, but there’s often no need to go to great lengths – literally – to pepper your track with loads of different sections if it doesn’t need them. Many current chart hits are edited down to the bare minimum, coming in at under three minutes long. Don’t need that intro? Bin it and just start the track with a synth noise leading straight into the first verse. And having only one singalong chorus at the end has the effect of making your listeners want to play the whole thing again just to get to that bit – and that can’t be bad, can it?
11 DYNAMIC IMPACT
If your drop is lacking in impact, try varying the dynamics of the track subtly between the drop and preceding build. Use automation to drop the overall level of the track by 1-3dB at the start of the build, maybe increasing the volume of the impact effect on the first beat to compensate for the sudden change in level. Then ramp the level back up by a dB or so during the build, before snapping back to the original level on the downbeat of the drop. Boom!
12 KITTED OUT
If you’re constructing song sections by copying and deleting MIDI regions, it makes sense to have a separate track for each individual drum kit sound if possible, as that not only gives you flexibility for processing during mixing, but also lets you mute and bring back in individual elements of your track more easily when arranging. If you have regions containing multiple drum events – kicks, snares and so on – on single tracks, most DAWs have the ability to separate them out onto individual tracks – such as Logic’s Separate by Note Pitch command.
13 SKIP CYCLE
A quick way to check out an arrangement idea without actually changing anything is to use your DAW’s ‘skip cycle’ mode. This is where, instead of looping the cycle range, the playhead jumps over it, missing it out entirely – a good move if you want to see how the chorus sounds coming in straight after the verse, skipping the prechorus, for instance. Most DAWs have a version of this – for example, in Logic Pro, just hold down the Cmd key while dragging to set the range; or in Cubase, just swap the left and right loop locators around.
14 LISTEN AND LEARN
Finally, analyse the arrangements of some of your favourite tracks. Listen to what other producers have done and try to figure out the mechanics of the track and why it works the way it does. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at pinpointing the minor details that, when added together, make a big difference. To get superanalytical, import an audio file of the track into your DAW, and use markers to mark out the sections. Then you can flick between them to see how the song develops and which extra elements appear in which section.
Believe it or not, all of these are C minor chords – they’re just inversions going up the keyboard Subtractive arrangement might make your track look like Breakout, but it’s a reliable, easy technique
Using samples – like the ones given away each month with Computer Music – can prove inspirational
Subtle variations in dynamics can help balance the relative levels of builds and drops
Separating multiple drum kit elements out to individual tracks will give you added arrangement flexibility
Overdubbing passes of fills, synth edits or other sonic effects can liven up grid-based arrangements
Skip cycle does what it says on the tin: it misses out the cycled section and skips to the next bit