This article is from Max Rayden. Max has his own mixing, mastering, and production studio Major Mixing. He has been working as a sound engineer and musician for more than 10 years, has mixed and mastered hundreds of songs of different styles and genres. In this article, Max will share with you some tips that will come in handy if you are going to create an arrangement for your song.
How do you create a song arrangement without making mistakes that could ruin the composition?
How do you make a beautiful, cohesive song arrangement that could compete with the top-chart songs?
If you want answers to these questions, keep reading, and when you have reached the end of this short tutorial, you’ll be armed with a number of useful tips that will help improve your arranging strategy.
What Is Song Arrangement?
Arrangement is one of the core elements of a song that will define whether your music will be able to compete, and stand out in a playlist.
A creative, colorful song arrangement can make listeners overlook even some flaws of the other stages of production.
For example: mixing or mastering.
Song arrangement, together with recording, form the most significant part of song creation, and determine whether a song will be good or not.
Ultimately, before arrangement, comes the creation of the song itself, and the melody and lyrics. And, together, with a simple accompaniment of a guitar, or keyboard, your song must already sound interesting and unique from the beginning.
If there’s nothing new, and catchy introduced to the song over time, a song arrangement, no matter how professional, can hardly compensate.
After creating a great song, start working on the music. The purpose of the arrangement will be to magnify your song’s beauty, emphasize the feelings, and help convey its main idea.
What Does Arranging A Song Mean?
Song arrangement is different from song creation or composition, where a musician creates the initial melody. However, it takes even more skill for a composer to create a good arrangement.
The composer uses the laws of harmonies, scales, chords, and chord progressions to create. And historically, musicians had to learn music theory and composition to do it.
Today, with the abundance of technical resources, great composers have emerged who have never learned music theory, and cannot play any musical instrument.
But unlike the visual creative work, where almost any composition can be considered a masterpiece, and even the most expensive pieces can leave you wondering whether you are looking at “an artwork or an accident”, in music, a masterpiece always follows complicated, and complex harmony rules to the tiniest detail.
The good news is, that if you are born to create music then, with a fair amount of training, you’ll be able to hear, recognize and reproduce those harmonies intuitively, not even knowing you are using them in your composition.
There are three ways to start creating a song arrangement:
- Arranging using digital instruments In a DAW
- Writing sheet music for different instruments, and recording the parts live
- Creating parts in your mind, and recording live instruments without sheet music
Of course, you can always find qualified arrangers and purchase their services, but, if you have decided to do the song arrangement yourself, I’ll describe the steps and the rules that can help you.
These steps will also help you provide the composer with an explicit description of, what kind of a song arrangement you are looking for, if you decide to order the music after all.
5 Simple Steps To Great Song Arrangement
- First, choose the genre – you probably already know whether it is going to be pop, hip-hop, rock etc. But, at this point, you also can identify the sub-genre more specifically. This will help you determine the reference songs, and see the desired arrangement more clearly.
- Determine the emotions of the song, and the feelings you want your song to invoke. What instruments will better convey them? How they should sound? Which of them will have the central part and which will just have a supporting role?
- Find the reference songs. Look among the most popular ones within the genre. Choose several songs that are the most similar to what you are aiming to achieve.
- Make up the structure for your song and create a plan. Think about what elements would you like to add in the verse and in the chorus. What transitions between the elements you are going to create? What sequence of verse-chorus-bridge will work the best? What kind of intro would you like to see in the song?
- Create the music. Use all the information you gathered in the previous steps. Try to make the arrangement similar to your reference songs. Don’t be afraid to follow their example, as long as you are not copying the entire thing, but only applying the same principles to your song, it’s fine. Those songs already have become hits, so they have all that it takes, try to use this knowledge in your favor.
Creating a song arrangement can be a long and complicated process that requires a lot of work and skills.
But no matter what techniques you use, there are some general rules, which, if you keep them in mind, will help you avoid unfortunate mistakes and help your song sound professional and competitive after good mixing and mastering.
7 Tips For Making A Great Song Arrangement
Tip #1 – Use high-quality sounds
Always use only the highest-quality material, or record with the highest possible quality. Make sure to evaluate every sound for your song arrangement as it is, without any plugins added.
Aim for 32-bit quality audio where possible, but if not, 16-bit is the lowest you should work with. Ensure that nothing is clipping, or distorted (unless it's for creative effect), and work with clean audio to begin with.
In music production, every mistake should be dealt with at the level it appears.
You cannot have recording quality issues, or sound quality issues, and expect that they will be eliminated at the mixing and mastering level. They will only add up. So, if your aim is to make a high quality song, in the end, make sure each step of your song creation is professional.
Tip #2 – Use only as many instruments as needed
More is not always better in the song arrangement. Don't use more than two of the same instrument, especially if you are at the beginning of your production career.
For example, use one or two kicks, no more than three snares, one or two basses, and so on.
One instrument is enough, but if you want two, you may have to start separating their frequencies, by rolling the top off one and the bottom off the other so that they don't clash.
When amateur producers choose to layer the instruments up, their arrangement can become overcrowded with instruments. From here, it's not always possible to find a slot for each individual sound in the mix. The sounds will clash, creating a messy mix, artefacts, and other unwanted results of frequency interaction.
Tip #3 Optimise your instrument choices & frequency spectrum
When a lot of instruments are playing in the same frequency range it becomes very difficult to mix. By having so many instruments, they'll mask each other or interfere.
You need to be very careful if you choose to use two different instruments that play in the same octave/frequency range. Even if the instruments are different, they still will be conflicting in the one frequency band. One trick to deal with this, is to separate them by time, making one of them play when the other is silent.
Tip #4 Be careful with the low end
Your kick drums and basses will occupy the low-frequency band.
As I said earlier, try to use as few of them as possible.
Low-frequency instruments tend to clash more than any other, and even one kick and bass that play at the same time may interfere with each other, mask each other’s sound or even resonate, creating sudden jumps or drops in the loudness.
If there are a few instruments in the low end, they can be separated by cutting on certain frequencies or side-chaining them.
Remember: that not all low-end frequencies will be reproduced on consumer-level equipment.
You may create a powerful arrangement, with a great deal of sub bass, but try and see how it will sound in regular headphones (which the majority of your audience will be using). Will the bass disappear leaving your song powerless and weak? It's likely it will.
Always think about the ordinary consumer.
Tip #5 Leave space for vocals
Your song arrangement may sound perfect on its own, but the main feature of a song is usually vocals. Vocals take up the central part of the composition.
Knowing the frequency range of the vocal melody, try to avoid writing the instrumental parts in the same octave.
If vocals and instruments fight for space, even the best mixing and mastering engineer might not be able to create a perfect mix from it.
Leaving free frequency space for vocals in your arrangement will guarantee a problem free process when adding vocals and mixing them.
Tip #6 Everything should serve one purpose
The goal of making a song arrangement is to express the emotions and feelings of the song. Everything in the song arrangement should work towards this purpose.
In the beginning choose the instruments that play a main part, and the others should support the melody.
In a good arrangement, all the instruments enhance and support each other, and all sounds in the composition serve to enrich the central elements – the main theme.
Tip #7 Double the recordings for a rich natural stereo
Start thinking about the stereo version of your song in from the very beginning.
What can really make a song sound interesting for the listener, is the simple trick of doubling instruments.
For example, record the guitar part twice, and use one recording for the right channel, and the other for the left. This will create a slightly different guitar sound in the left and right channels, and your composition will immediately sound more complex and wide.
After the music creation, and vocals are completed, your song will need professional mixing and mastering – then it will be ready to conquer the world!
The more experienced you get in music production, the more instruments, backing vocals, and the more complicated harmonies you’ll be able to use without creating a messy, unclear sound. This will come with practice, learning, and experience.
However, the highest quality of recording will still remain the most important basis on which you will build your future top-chart and award-winning compositions.
Thank you for reading these song arrangement tips! If you are wondering what DAW and what tools to use, and what equipment is the best for you for recording and editing music, check out this article How to start producing music.
With over 8 years of hands-on experience in the music industry, Harry has run successful raves, played alongside industry heavyweights such as Max Chapman, DJ EZ, DJ Zinc and more (pictured below), had music played on national radio, DJ'd on live radio, produced until he hated every song, mixed until his ears bled, created sample packs from scratch using just a Zoom H1n and some sound design skills… and pretty much anything related to music production – he's done it, tested it, tried it.