How to shape the sound of any song from the ground up so the mixing process becomes easier than you ever thought possible
MAY 14TH, 2022
This topic is the natural succession to everything we covered in How to Learn Music Production Starting from Square One — once you understand the tools available to you and you have a melody and chords, the next step is choosing the right instruments and to build your song.
Arranging in a nutshell
The term “arranging” gets thrown around rather loosely, so let’s define exactly how we’re interpreting it here.
Arranging is the art of selecting the appropriate instruments to play the melody, harmony and rhythm — nothing more, nothing less. In this context, synthesizers count as much as “real” acoustic instruments. As much as possible, focus on completing the arrangement before you start mixing; many mix issues that seem impossible to fix come down to instrument selection, and if you try to correct them at the mixing stage you’ll never make much headway! The ability to diagnose issues in an arrangement is essential to becoming a great producer, and this checklist of questions should help keep you on track:
- What key sounds and instruments are common in my chosen genre? Have I included them in this song, and should I?
- Is each instrument playing in a frequency range that suits it well?
- Am I fulfilling all the essential components of the arrangement: melody, harmony, bass, and rhythm?
- Will my choice of instruments in this section make the song easy or difficult to mix? If I’m fighting a losing battle, what can I sub in to make my life easier?
- Are too many instruments competing for attention? Which ones, if removed, will allow the rest to shine?
- Is the arrangement too sparse for the sound I want to achieve? Should I fill the space with additional instruments, or should I rely on effects such as delay and reverb?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but this provides a good idea of the problems the arranging process seeks to solve.
Pairing instruments and layering
One of the fundamental rules of arranging is that everything is about picking the right timbre. Start by developing or stealing a range of adjectives to describe instruments and synths. A flute might be soothing, a rock bass twangy, a drum kit “melty” if it’s run through a ton of distortion, etc. (this becomes more natural the more you do it). Here’s a quick example: a simple saw bass might work in an electro or house track with the right drive and EQ, but with dubstep you need a more vowelly and phasey quality to sell the bass part.
Your choice of one potential style of bass vs. another primarily comes down to arranging — when you’re creating a synth sound in isolation, you’re a sound designer ... but when you’re deciding which one is a better fit in the context of the entire song, you’re an arranger!
This is closely related to layering, which is essentially arranging in an added dimension. The primary question layering seeks to answer is: “What instruments can I add or take away from this specific part of the arrangement to make the entire song sound better?” The word “better” in this context could mean adding an instrument with more dimension or reverb baked in ... something with more natural high frequency content so you don’t have to use an exaggerated EQ boost ... or even an entirely different sound that complements what you already have, but you’re not certain why. Happy accidents often lead to some of the best layering and arranging opportunities!
Starting from a blank session
Now that you have more context on exactly what arranging entails and some important questions to ask yourself, it’s time to put it into practice. Once you have a musical idea, the question becomes how to begin the process of assigning it to instruments and building out a full song. There are a number of ways to do this, but the most important thing you can do to build your confidence and get in the practice of finishing songs is to create a skeleton arrangement.
At its most basic, this means picking one or two melodic instruments, one to three chord instruments, one bass and adding some basic percussion. Simply copy the melody and chords to the other layers, shift the octave of the copies if you like, and call it done. Do that for each major section of the song, order the sections how you want, and place in placeholder transitions and builds or falls between them. The goal here is to get to a passable rough arrangement of the entire song as quickly as possible. From there, everything is downhill; there’s no more blank space to fill, and you’ll naturally relax as you’ve already laid the foundations.
Now comes the more fun, advanced work. Your main objective is to make the arrangement sound fuller and select or create instruments and synths that bring you closer to your vision for the song. This is quite abstract, so if you want to make things a little more concrete, try out “staple” instrument like you’ll find in UJAM’s Virtual Guitarists and Usynth modules — these give you the building blocks of a complete arrangement, and by using the extensive library of presets, you can get a fantastic result quickly and make modifications as necessary. Continue growing the arrangement, making rough mix tweaks to keep everything in its ideal space, and soon you’ll have everything you need to start mixing!
Arranging may still feel like a somewhat abstract concept, but the most important thing to remember is that your objective is to find or create the ideal instruments to represent the melody, harmony, rhythm, and bass. Many mixing problems actually begin at the arrangement level, and the sooner you correct them, the easier it will be to create finished songs in less time.
Success with arranging requires listening to a wide variety of different genres to develop a large sample set of options you can turn to. While you should aim for creativity, when creating your skeleton arrangement it’s wise to turn to what consistently works to create a proof of concept — once all the elements are vibing together, you can safely begin updating, adding and taking away as much as you like. First gift yourself the confidence that you can build a great-sounding arrangement, then you can explore your creativity and push the boundaries of genre as far as you like.
Find what works, then create something special; master this skill and you’ll add an entirely new level of depth and professionalism to everything you create!
About the Author
Harry Lodes is a copywriter, marketing consultant and content writer for audio and ecommerce brands. He lives in the Philadelphia area, releasing Eastern/Western hybrid EDM under the artist name KAIRI hearkening back to his roots in Berklee College of Music.