Want your tracks to sound more engaging? Chris Lyth is here once again to help...
We often hear tales of how classic tracks were written, making it sound like the track was beamed directly from the heavens in finished form, with little effort expended on the producer's part. These are cool stories, and serve the artist well as part of creating their myth. What we don’t ofen hear about (as it doesn’t sound as romantic) is the amount of struggle, pre-planning, failed attempts and hard work involved.
Often when we approach our arrangements, we come to the table with a great idea, but in the knowledge that it’s not enough to engage the listener for the full duration of the track. We almost hope that somewhere along the line, another part will suggest itself, or a random act of inspiration will spark from the ether. Sometimes it does, and that’s wonderful - but more often it doesn’t and it’s deeply harrowing. It’s good to go into the arrangement armed with plenty of ideas, so the well doesn't run dry three-quarters of the way through.
With that in mind, here are a few more arrangement tips to consider for your next production...
1. Create multiple versions of your lead part
Change some notes, add FX, transpose up or down a fifth, seventh, octave etc. Try to create 10 new versions that are each subtly different, to give your track a sense of movement over time.
2. Add a little variation
Write some fills and flourishes that can be dropped in to pepper the arrangement when required. Small augmentations at key points in your track can make a surprisingly dramatic impact.
3. Record everything to audio stems
This will be handy for anyone remixing your track, and it will also commit you to your ideas, thus leading you away from the dreaded 'decision paralysis' trap that is so easy to fall into with endless tinkering.
4. Go off-grid
DAWs are organised in a very linear fashion, and most electronic music is made in fairly formal divisions of eight, 16 and 32 bars. As a result, arrangements can start to sound predictable, as our introduced phrases will almost always take place in multiples of eight. While it’s important to have some form of structure, our tracks can start to feel too linear and as if they lack a sense of motion. Luckily, there are a couple of ways around this...
Firstly, try thinking outside the eight- or 16-bar cycle and making your changes a little more jagged. So rather than introducing a part on the start of an eight-bar section, try bringing it at the start of bar two or three instead, or even before the bar on five, six or seven. It doesn’t need to sound wild and incongruous - you can use volume fades and filters to sculpt it. Just working around the obvious eight/16 dominance will help your arrangements breathe a little more and sound less regimented.
Secondly, try to have some parts that have different lengths. For example, instead of playing a one-bar loop which has 16 beats to the bar, play it for 15 beats instead. This works well on basslines, some leads and percussion. It will unlink it from the 16-beats-per-bar grid and give your music a sense of randomness. The timing will also sound more complex, as every time the 15-beat loop repeats against the other 16-beat-dominated sections, the phrase will start at a different point and will evolve in a way that sounds as if it’s constantly shifting.
5. Develop a signature sound palette
Just as a graphic designer will use a recognisable palette of colours and fonts, it’s worth considering what musical fundamentals you want to colour your music with. For instance, are your arrangements long and winding, or short and to the point? Do you want your music to sound tight and quantised, or would you prefer a wonky, looser vibe? Is your sound dry or spacious?
Limiting your tonal pallet to certain sounds, arrangement styles, FX, etc is a good way to retain consistency and give yourself a recognisable sound. For example, you might always use the same reverb and delay plug-ins, or the same drum machine that you’ve recorded through an old tape machine.
6. Let them down gently
Often, if we have a strong looping melody, then it can feel like the track has fallen apart when we drop it out. So it’s a good idea to consider how we will lead out of this if required. Sometimes a short break to silence, or to a few bars of that part solo, can create the space needed. Or perhaps we could slowly filter it down and add a spacious reverb.
7. Timing is everything
It’s a cliche as old as music, but for good reason: the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves, because it creates the groove and is essential to the overall atmosphere.
For instance, if you're looking to create music that’s tight, fast and precise (such as minimal techno or dubstep) you would need to be careful for example with the placement of long pads and sustained notes with lots of spatial effects. Perhaps you would look to shorter notes played in a more percussive style that implies the melody. On the other hand, creating a backdrop of ambience with, for example, your own field recording of a rainy street at 4am, will give your music a feel that can’t be expressed with notes alone.
8. Be ruthless with sound selection
If a part isn't working and is clashing with others, don’t be afraid to ditch it and move on. There’s no point wasting time crowbarring in a part that doesn’t sit well with the majority. Just because you’ve spent three days perfecting a kazoo solo, it doesn’t mean it’s a perfect fit for your track.
9. Respect the attention span of the listener
Do you really need that eighth chorus? Of course, some tracks are languid meditations that unfold over a long stretch, and if that suits the mood then fine. But if you're looking to do something more immediate, then be ruthless and don’t allow anything to overstay its welcome.
A great way of telling if a section is going on for too long is to play it to someone else and listen together. You will quickly get an idea of how the track may appear to someone else who’s removed from the piece.
10. Get your ending right
Ending a track is just as important as what has come before. What is needed is a way to resolve the tension at just the right time, in a fashion that compliments the track.
There are many ways to end a track. For example, we could go for a simple subtractive approach, breaking it down to percussion and bass and removing an element every eight bars. Or we could remove all percussion and exit in a more epic style, with chords and melodic parts like strings slowly fading out in a wash of reverb. A more dynamic way to end could be to loop our main vocal hook or lead part and make the loop point shorter, say a half bar, then gradually remove all supporting parts to end on a stark short loop. Or perhaps you could build to a crescendo and then simply stop!
Well, that brings us to a total of 22 arrangement tips now, so hopefully at least one or two of them have given you something to think about! The idea behind these two articles is not to be prescriptive about how you choose to write your music - there's no right and wrong! - but just to get you thinking a little more about a major part of the creative process that is too often an afterthought.
Words: Chris Lyth
This article follows on from Chris's previous 12 Arrangement Tips, which you can read here