If you spend half of your life looking for the inspiration to finish a track you are proud of, then your issue might be the arrangement!
What is the Arrangement (for beginners)?
One of the most crucial parts in making a track from start to finish is the arrangement. Arranging a track means you are laying down and superposing your previously composed sounds (kick loop, bass loop, melody loop, etc) in a time frame.
Say you composed an 8 bar melody loop and you want to make a full track out of it. You can for example repeat your 8 bar melody loop as many times to fill 5 minutes of your track. You will get 5 minutes of the same loop.
That certainly doesn’t seem very interesting and creative for now, but you get the idea.
To make things more interesting, we are going to include other loops (hihats, percussion, fx, vocal, etc) in our arrangement. This will allow us to have multiple sounds playing at the same time for 5 minutes.
Nice! Still, we have a richer track that is too repetitive without much action going.
Now we would like our drums to come in after 16 bars from the beginning (instead of directly from the start).
We also would like our main melody to start after 32 bars. Our bass will start after 48 bars and so on with your other instruments.
Now you have a track with multiple sections. Each section has different combinations of instruments playing, a different energy, and a specific storyline building up to lead to the upcoming section.
This starts to get more interesting…
1. NOT FINISHING YOUR TRACK IS AN ARRANGEMENT PROBLEM.
If you have trouble finishing your tracks because they don’t sound as you want, or you don’t feel inspired and don’t know which direction to take, then you are in the right place my friend.
90% of the music production students enrolling in our extensive training program get lost in the middle of their track mainly due to bad planning and a lack of visibility on how their track will evolve.
If you think not finishing your track is completely due to producers’ block, or a lack of knowledge of all the tools included in your DAW, then you might be wrong!
Your problem is the arrangement.
We are going to explore different techniques that can help build an arrangement and finish your tracks:
- Extracting the arrangement from reference tracks
- The 3 arrangement approaches
- Laying out the foundation of your track
2. PLANNING YOUR ARRANGEMENT
Using a reference track can help you save a tremendous time trying to guess what’s working or not for your track.
Analyzing your favorite tracks is one of the most effective ways to learn creative arrangement techniques that work. It all starts by copying the arrangement of your favorite tracks to yours.
After some time, you will have copied many different arrangements that you like, and you will be able to make your own custom arrangements from scratch while knowing exactly the kind of storyline you want to build throughout your track.
This will naturally happen because you will gain significant experience learning other arrangements intuitively while composing a track.
…..so, How can we apply what we just said?
Here are 4 Steps to build an arrangement quickly and effectively.
- Import your favorite track in your Daw (Your reference track should more or less be in the same style you want your track to be).
- Adjust the tempo so it matches the one of your track.
- Put markups in each section and name them accordingly. (ex: intro, break, drop)
- Mute your reference track.
You now have a structure that you can use to build your track on.
The idea is to have a basic starting point so we can focus on progressing fast. Later, You will be able to fine-tune your arrangement to fit your track perfectly.
The Next Step will be to lay down the structure of your basic drum elements (kick, snare, hi hats) to match your reference track.
3 approaches to help you build a powerful arrangement
- Additive approach: Most producers use this classical way to build their tracks. Lay down a basic beat consisting of a kick, a snare/clap, and a hihat. From there you will focus on each section and add the sounds that you judge fitting for each specific section. You will add each sound and see if it fits the section
- Subtractive approach: Align all your sounds together (including kick, snare, and hihat) and extend them to the full length of your track (for example: 5 minutes). Then, you would like to go section by section (8 bar or 16 bar sections depending on how you want to structure your track) and remove all overwhelming sounds/instruments. The difference between this approach and the additive one is that you focus about what’s wrong and remove it from your section.
- Live Recording approach: Consists of recording your midi notes live on the first run, then playing the loop and recording automations (tweaking the most interesting knobs) live on a second run. Once done, you can edit your automations manually as you wish to perfect them.
- Imperfections enhance your sound and make it more natural and musical.
- Extremely fast to record a take.
- Allows you to feel the music and record accordingly without interruption.
- You can always get rid of the sections you don’t like and get even more creative with replacing them.
- Requires a bit of training to know the sweet spots of your synth knob movements
- Can take many takes to get the exact result you thought about.
3. PERFORM AND RECORD YOUR FIRST INSTRUMENT
Now it’s time to have some fun. Place the midi notes of your bass in your arrangement and let’s start recording.
We are going to perform parameter changes live as we record the bass into our arrangement from the start to the end without interruption.
It’s okay if you don’t have a synth or a midi controller to perform, you can just hit record and change parameters using your mouse.
NOTEIt’s okay if your recording is not perfect. The idea here is to quickly have a sound (in our example, a bass) from start to finish to be used as a direction to add our upcoming sounds coherently while remaining inspired. You can always edit and tweak your recordings later.
Lay down the midi notes of your bass in your arrangement to match your reference track structure. Then, start recording as you perform using the filter cutoff of your bass.
Keep an eye on your Arrangement markups as you perform. This way you know when to increase the energy (ex: open the filter cutoff) and when to back down (ex: close your filter cutoff).
NOTEKeep in mind that other elements will be added, so don’t go crazy performing your bass too much. Instead, open and close your filter cutoff wisely in key moments while keeping an eye on your arrangement markups.
Pro tipAdditional interesting parameter changes to record beside the filter cutoff is using the filter amount and the filter’s envelope decay and release times as well. This will give your track more movement and you will be able to create tension and release moments.
4. PERFORM AND RECORD YOUR SECOND INSTRUMENT
Time to record our second sound. Of course, you can choose any other sound you want to. We choose white noise to replicate a synthetic percussive hi hat and inject some rhythm. This will give us furthermore direction.
Create midi notes for your white noise (or pink noise) and place them in your arrangement, then start recording your parameter changes.
Again just like for our bass, we will use the filter cutoff, and the filter amount to add some life and movement throughout our arrangement.
SOUND DESIGN TIP:
Create a driving synthetic hat in 7 steps:
- Open your favorite synth instrument.
- Select white noise as a source of your synth oscillator.
- Turn down the volume of any other oscillator leaving only the oscillator with white noise.
- Open your LPF filter to the maximum.
- Put all your AMP envelope ADSR parameters to 0.
- Now, open your decay and release to taste.
- Apply the same settings to your filter envelope (don’t forget to open your envelope filter amount)
- Close your filter cutoff to taste.
Now that you have recorded both of your takes, you will notice that it starts to take some good shape. Most importantly, you now have a direction to follow.
You can add other elements to your arrangement using the live recording method above, or you can just switch to the additive or subtractive approach we discussed.
5. KEEP YOUR LISTENER’S INTEREST THROUGH FX
We define FX as sounds that appear just once or a few times in the arrangement.
They are used to smoothen the transitions (ex: drum fills), build tension (ex: riser) and release (ex: sweep, reverb or delay washed one shots snare or clap).
FX are hugely helpful in breaking the monotony of a track, and keeping your listener’s interest until the end of the song.
Some producers prefer to leave FX sounds until the end of the production, I personally prefer to add them after planning my arrangement.
The advantage of putting FX in the beginning of the production allows us to have a better picture of our track. It also retains us from supercharging our track with sounds just because it lacks “something”.
Well, that something is your FX, and it doesn’t eat as much space as an additional melody or bass you made to fill the gaps.
Let’s make better transitions between each of your arrangement sections. A simple example is to place a reverse cymbal crash just before the next section comes in. We have now created a short riser.
Additionally, let’s add a cymbal crash (not reversed) plunged in an ocean of reverb at the beginning of the next section. You have now a basic sweep.
PRO TIPYou can experiment by placing your sweep a few steps before or after the start of the section. This will accentuate the feeling of release after the tension. For example, let’s place our sweep ¼ bar after the beginning of the section.
Feel free to experiment with percussive sounds other than a cymbal crash. You will get satisfying results quickly.
6. PLACING YOUR REMAINING INSTRUMENTS
Up to now, we have a track filled with:
- Kick + Snare + Hi Hat
- Synthetic white noise
At this point, you might want to add other elements such as a melody, a chord progression, a vocal, etc.
You can do this by recording these elements live as in our previous examples (bass and white noise hat).
The problem you may probably run into is that your track can quickly fill out and get supercharged as we already have a bass and a synthetic hat playing throughout the entire arrangement.
To overcome super busy productions, it helps to think in terms of bars when it comes to placing your additional instruments. For example, I would raise the following question when trying to place a melody loop:
How often would I like to hear this melody?
- 32 bars
- 16 bars
- 8 bars
- 4 bars
- 2 bars
- 1 bar, ½, ¼, etc
Thinking this way will help you build an interesting arrangement without too much boring repetition so you can deploy your remaining sounds smartly and evenly.
For example, let’s place our 1 bar melody once every 4 bars
- our vocal shot once every 8 bars.
- a 1 bar synth lead each 16 bars.
- And our 1 bar drum fill every 32 bars.
Once you place all these sounds, you will be able to see the whole picture and the beautiful light at the end of the tunnel. You can then fine-tune and tweak your different sounds as you wish to perfect your arrangement.
7. AN EFFECTIVE SOLUTION FOR TRACKS THAT SOUND EMPTY
One of my favorite techniques is to re-record instruments and process them differently (wildly in some cases).
The main advantage of using this technique is that you simply reuse parts of your compositions, and it almost always sounds great as we use the same material. So there is less chance of intelligibility issues between your sounds.
For example, let’s temporarily apply a 100% Wet delay on the bass to get a nice texture fitting our track. We then add an EQ (or use the delay EQ if there is any) to filter the low end and high frequencies. Finally, let’s record this texture in audio.
To record one of your sounds in audio you need to:
- Create an audio track in your DAW
- Route it to capture the processed sound (bass in our example),
- Record an 8 bar loop (or any other length that works for you).
Now, you have created a new element for your track (a texture) that fills your track nicely without a ton of processing or inspiration required.
Place the texture in your arrangement where you wish (additive approach), or place it from the start to the end of your track and subtract regions you don’t want the texture to play in (subtractive approach).
PRO TIPadd an HPF filter (High pass Filter) to your texture so you can make the sound appear and disappear smoothly throughout your arrangement as you wish. You can use the live recording method to control your filter cutoff (using your mouse or midi controller), or just draw automations manually in your DAW.
You can use an LFO to shape the rhythm and movement of your texture, but this requires you to know the basics of sound design. If you don’t, then the sound design and synthesis tutorial might be the next thing you want to explore.
We cover all this and much more in our online classes. If you feel you want to take your productions to the next level and cut through the noise, then you can enroll in our online music production program by clicking here.