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"Mastering the Art of Song Arrangement: Guide to Crafting Professional and Captivating Music"

Every songwriter takes immense pride in their compositions, yet perfecting the arrangement can be a challenging endeavor. How can we create song arrangements that we truly cherish? Moreover, how do we make our music resonate with record labels, radio stations, and a global audience? In essence, how can we arrange a song like a seasoned professional?

The journey begins with crafting an appealing and polished song arrangement—one that holds the listener's attention and weaves the tale of the song itself.

Despite approaching the arrangement process with boundless enthusiasm, it often evolves into a seemingly endless cycle of trial and error, leaving us further from our desired outcome, an ironic twist indeed.

This guide aims to:

  1. Drastically improve the arrangement quality of your songs.

  2. Unveil the techniques used by top arrangers during the process.

  3. Save you valuable time spent in futile experimentation.

To achieve these goals, we present a sequence of steps that you must follow diligently. The key to success lies in adhering to the order of arrangement steps presented below.

So, without further ado, let's dive into the art of arranging a song like a true professional.

Step 1: Ensuring the Song's Standalone Brilliance

Before delving into the process of production and arrangement, it is crucial to assess the song's essence in its purest form. Picture yourself playing it on a piano or a guitar while singing along. Does the song hold its own, even without any embellishments? If the core of the song isn't already exceptional, no amount of production or arrangement can rectify it.

Here are some key questions to ask:

  1. Does the song boast a compelling chorus?

  2. Is the main melody well-defined?

  3. Does it possess a captivating melodic or harmonic "hook"?

Work diligently on your song until it shines in its "naked" form, with only a piano, guitar, and voice. This step is of utmost importance. A weak song will remain lackluster, even with the best arrangement and production. Conversely, a strong song will maintain its brilliance, even with less-than-ideal production.

MasterClass Level: We cannot stress this enough –

ensure your song sounds remarkable on its own before proceeding to step 2.

Step 2: Identifying the Song's Genre and Utilizing Reference Tracks

Before diving into the arrangement and production session, it is essential to determine the genre or genres that the song encompasses. This clarity will serve as a guiding light throughout the creative process.

Once the genre is established, it can be highly beneficial to select a few reference tracks. These tracks play a crucial role not only in the arrangement and production phase but also during the mix and master stage of the recording. Some may hesitate, fearing that referencing others will lead to unoriginality. However, even the most innovative professionals at the pinnacle of their careers frequently use reference tracks.

Referencing allows artists to draw inspiration or explore how other creators have approached specific musical situations. It is not about copying someone's note for note or instrument for an instrument; rather, it is about being part of the broader conversation of music production.

Consider reference tracks as valuable companions in your creative journey, helping you craft a unique and exceptional musical expression.

Step 3: Ensuring the Song's Ideal Length and Harmonious Sections

This step is closely tied to the initial question of whether the song works effectively on its own. However, the arranger or producer might want to modify the song's structure for the recording. Live performances often differ from studio versions, and it is crucial to craft a concise and engaging recorded rendition.

During the production process, carefully assess the length of the song and whether all its various sections harmoniously complement each other. Each part should flow seamlessly, enhancing the overall listening experience. Trim any unnecessary elements and ensure that the song maintains its essence while being as succinct as possible.

Step 4: Prioritize a Decent Scratch Lead Vocal

"When embarking on the arrangement and production of a song, having a decent scratch lead vocal is imperative," emphasizes Julian.

Recording the lead vocals serves as a guiding force throughout the arrangement process.

Without hearing the vocal, it's easy to overcomplicate the arrangement, leading to a less-than-satisfying final recording and adding unnecessary challenges for your mix engineer. The best-recorded songs achieve a perfect balance of production density, where each element has its own space and sonic range.

For instance, you wouldn't want the bass and keyboard playing conflicting lines in the same range.

Step 5: Focus on Drums and Rhythmic Components

Apart from the lead vocal, the drums, and rhythmic components are crucial aspects of the arrangement. They occupy the most sonic space, infuse the song with its groove, and greatly influence its overall feel.

Firstly, determine whether the drums should be acoustic (real) or sampled. This step may not apply to stripped-down arrangements like piano/vocals, voice and guitar, or strings. Once decided, consider referring to one of your chosen reference tracks.

Address questions such as when the drums should enter and exit the song, as well as the general drum patterns that will govern the track.

If you'll be working with a real drummer, provide a general direction for their performance in your arrangement.

Avoid obsessing over programming fills or feels, as a skilled drummer can make those decisions for you.

Additionally, it's essential to have a truly exceptional drummer if you opt for acoustic drums. Moreover, ensure that the drum recordings are captured flawlessly. The quality of the drum recording significantly impacts the overall sound of the song.

Remember, you can always subtract elements to achieve a gritty and lo-fi sound. Make thoughtful choices regarding the number of mic channels used in the final mix and the type of processing applied. Moreover, using just a mono mic on the drums won't produce the polished sound of a hit pop-country song heard on radio stations.

Step 6: Crafting Programmed Drums with Authenticity

When programming drums, it's essential to adopt the mindset of a skilled drummer. Simply inputting patterns on the grid often leads to flat-sounding results.

To achieve a more expressive and dynamic drum arrangement, top producers venture off the grid and manipulate velocities.

Paying attention to details like ensuring the kick and hi-hat don't hit simultaneously adds depth and richness to the arrangement.

A real drummer wouldn't be able to strike all three elements simultaneously with pinpoint precision, but subtle variations benefit the overall sound by allowing each element to stand out distinctively.

During production, I frequently nudge the kick slightly ahead of the beat by a few milliseconds and slightly delay the hi-hat. These adjustments are song-dependent and require a tasteful approach.

For this purpose, exceptional "groove" plugins for MIDI can subtly alter the velocities and timing of your drum programming.

Keep in mind that not just any random "feel" will suffice; experience will help you find or modify the right ones that perfectly suit the song.

Step 7: Crafting the Bass and Bass Elements

After mapping out the drums in your arrangement, it's time to address the bass or bass elements, which typically follow next.

Consider the following aspects of the bass in your arrangement:

  1. Entry and Exit Points: Determine when the bass comes in and drops out within the arrangement.

  2. Range Variation: Pay attention to the bass range during verses and choruses. Ensure that the bass opens up on the chorus, avoiding a quiet, high-register presence during the refrain for standard pop songs.

If you have a live bass player on your track, expertly recorded and played bass is crucial, just like with the drums. Clarity, low-end frequencies, and groove are essential for a compelling bassline.

For synthesized bass, be cautious with sub-basses and "phat" presets. If the sub-bass is the only bass in your track, design the patch with some harmonics in the mid-range to ensure audibility on speakers with poor low-end response (e.g., laptops, iPhones, earbuds, car stereo systems).

Similarly, beware of "phat" presets that might sound huge in the studio but overwhelm the arrangement, leaving no room for other elements. Be mindful of "stereo" basses and patches with excessive high-end information. Often, a mono bass patch that doesn't extend too high into the frequency spectrum works best, though exceptions can apply.

Experience will guide you in making informed decisions during this phase.

Step 7: Main Driving Harmonic Component

The next step in arranging a song involves addressing the harmonic elements such as guitars, keyboards, synths, and strings.

While this part of the arrangement allows for creativity and freedom, it also requires responsibility in choosing the right instruments. Referencing your chosen tracks can help inform your instrument selection.

Identify the main driving harmonic component in the song, which is usually either a keyboard instrument or a guitar. This instrument often accompanies the lead vocal throughout the entire song.

Pepper the arrangement with choice material to shape the song's contour using harmonic instruments.

For instance, during chorus sections, utilize more sources to create a denser and "phatter" arrangement. On the other hand, during verse sections, consider making the arrangement thinner.

Classic techniques include doubling the guitars on the chorus (panning them left and right) or transitioning mono sources to stereo.

Masterclass Level: If incorporating a brass section or live strings in your arrangement, ensure that the parts complement the song seamlessly. In most cases, you'll want to use horns and strings to fill spaces with simple, tasty lines or pad the parts where the vocalist sings. While there are excellent sample libraries available, consider the limitations of virtual instruments and make informed decisions when transitioning to the production and recording process.

Step 8: Polishing with Production Elements

In the final phase of learning how to arrange a song, we introduce "production magic/texture"

For acoustic arrangements, this may involve adding percussion at various points in the arrangement, such as a shaker in the second verse or a tambourine during the bridge.

In contemporary styles, this includes incorporating "white noise" swooshes and sound effects like impacts, risers, uplifters, and downlifters.

When using these effects, it's crucial to ensure they fit the song seamlessly. Not all risers or FX bundles work universally, so consider crafting your own FX tailored to each song. While it requires more time, it can yield remarkable results. If you choose pre-made FX, make sure you have access to a diverse range of libraries to avoid overusing the same FX, which can become noticeable and repetitive across an album or EP.

Step 10: Elevating the Track with Background Vocals

Assuming the lead vocal has been refined throughout the arranging/production phase, introducing background vocals (BGVs) adds flair and vitality to the track.

Working directly with the vocalist(s) in the studio proves beneficial. Offer directions to guide their performance, such as:

  • Doubling a line in the verse to accentuate a specific phrase.

  • Singing the chorus a third above or below to create harmonies.

  • Introducing an additional part for three-part harmony.

For pop songs, sticking to "church" three-part harmony is often effective, where harmonizing around a C Major scale can be utilized. However, accommodate variations based on the melody's context and genre, especially when dealing with a leading tone (B) in the melody.

Moving into the Recording and Production Process

Once the arrangement is complete, you can progress to recording and/or mixing.

It's common for slight adjustments to occur during the mix, where elements might be added or removed from the arrangement. This fluidity between recording processes is normal and should be monitored in the context of the song's overall sound.

Listen to the track alongside your reference tracks to ensure it aligns with your desired outcome.

Remember, while the details discussed in this checklist are essential, the final product is what truly matters. A good song will shine through regardless of the arrangement and production if the arranger/producer makes decisions that enhance rather than diminish the song's essence. Quality is vital from the outset and must be maintained throughout the entire process, leading to a stellar final master.

Song Arrangement Checklist

Follow these steps in order to ensure your song arrangement captivates the listeners:

  1. Standalone Brilliance: Confirm if the song sounds great on its own when played on a piano or guitar while singing. Ensure a strong chorus, well-defined main melody, and compelling melodic or harmonic hooks are in place.

  2. Form and Length: Determine the form and length of the song to create a concise and engaging arrangement.

  3. Genre Exploration: Define the genre(s) of the song to guide the arrangement process effectively.

  4. Seek Inspiration: Find 1-3 reference tracks that align with the desired style and sound of your arrangement.

  5. Scratch Vocal: Record a decent scratch lead vocal to guide decision-making during the arrangement.

  6. Drum Choices: Decide between acoustic or programmed drums, considering the overall vibe of the song.

  7. Drum Mapping/Programming: Map out or program drum parts to establish the rhythmic foundation of the arrangement.

  8. Bass Accompaniment: Work out the bass part(s) to complement the drums and add depth to the arrangement.

  9. Harmonic Instruments: Thoughtfully choose harmonic instruments like guitars, keyboards, strings, etc., ensuring they harmonize with the melody, bass, and drums.

  10. Production Enhancements: Add "production dust," including tasteful percussions, FX, and sound effects, to elevate the arrangement.

  11. Harmonious Cohesion: Ensure that none of the elements in the arrangement clash with each other, maintaining a balanced and cohesive sound.

  12. Background Vocal Ideas: Consider and plan ideas for background vocals (BGVs) to add texture and life to the track.


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