SCRUB UP THAT ARRANGEMENT!
A work’s arrangement is quite possibly the first thing in the mix process that starts you either on the road to Happy Mixville or Tedium Township. Arrangement typically refers to the order of the parts, and how they are voiced and put together. One of the main issues with poor arrangements is “frequency fighting.” When two or more instruments are playing in the same frequency range, they can mess with overall mix clarity and impact. Panning similar parts away from each other is beneficial, but when there are three or more parts doing somewhat the same job in the same frequency range, it’s time to look at the arrangement.
There are a few simple fixes for this. The first option is to drop some of the parts that are redundant. It’s surprising how often artists try to cram more and more tracks into a recording in the belief that a massive sonic collage will sound bigger, or more professional, or simply more badass. The reality is that a “less is more” approach often helps a mix jump right out of the speakers. This doesn’t mean that you should never add extra instrumentation or ear candy to a mix. It just means that you should always ask yourself if the extra parts really serve a clear and explicit purpose.
A second option is to stagger the parts. For instance, if the acoustic guitar is filling space in the verse, it can drop out and leave room for a piano in the chorus. Staggering instruments between sections is not only a great way to clean up a mix, it also creates texture changes within the song that add interest.
A third approach is to change the octave or voicing. If the piano and organ seem like they are cluttering things, drop or raise one of the parts by an octave, or use different inversions on one of the instruments. This simple maneuver will create more detail without having to use EQ. In essence, you are “EQing” by changing the notes that are being played.
EMBRACE THE POSSIBLE
Have you ever mixed and mixed and mixed, only to take a step back and ask yourself, “Why does this suck?” Sometimes, it’s because the performance sucks. Even with all of our digital mixing tools, you really can’t fix it in the mix. In many ways, the situation is also like this old joke: A man goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this with my arm.” The doctor replies, “Don’t do that with your arm.” So what’s the lesson we need to learn? Well, if the singer can’t hit the high notes, then don’t write songs with those high notes. If the guitar player can’t play blistering runs during the solo, don’t ask for them. Instead, consider some melodic riffs or lines that work well with the song.
The critical point is that the arrangement must work with the performer’s strengths. It’s certainly okay to take a few passes at a part, but if you have to spend all day getting the right performance, it’s probably something that’s not worth recording anyway. Nothing is more tedious than spending hours trying to capture a useable performance, rather than nailing a great performance, so be realistic—don’t write beyond the artist’s means. A simpler part that’s executed cleanly and with feeling will always translate better in the mix.
Most good songs have a “cool part.” It may be a great melody in the bridge, a memorable guitar riff, or a big push through the chorus. Whatever it is, it has to be recorded in order to be part of the mix. That sounds simple, but it’s true. If you aren’t excited about the parts before the mix stage, you most likely won’t be excited about them afterwards. So make sure the parts you’re recording do the job. You should be thrilled about how a part works in the song—even without hearing the part mixed just so, or dressed up in sparkly effects.
In addition, a mix can often lack power because there is nothing there to create the necessary energy. For instance, a big chorus needs something to support it. Heavy guitars or a huge organ pad might do the trick, but, once again, these have to be conscious decisions during the tracking stage. Great producers always have the final mix in the back of their minds when they work on an arrangement.
BE A RAY OF LIGHT
If you are the artist as well as the producer and/or engineer, tampering with your song probably isn’t much of an issue. If you take a gig as an engineer for another artist, however, suggesting changes to an arrangement can be tricky. If the opportunity does arise to chime in, here are three things to consider:
• The song is the artist’s (or songwriter’s) baby, so treat it as such. The artist will usually be more emotional and temperamental about the song than the recording.
• A polite demonstration of the techniques we’ve discussed can go a long way. For example, you could simply mute the tracks that are cluttering the mix, and then ask the artist how he or she feels about it. This one action may start a positive discussion about whether a part really needs to be present.
• Don’t push a point too hard— even if you feel you’re right. This is an industry that hires by comfort level and likeability as much as talent. Believe it or not, a lower-quality mix in return for a higher-quality relationship is still money in the bank.
Staggering parts is a great way to open up a mix and create texture changes. Here, note how the acoustic guitars in the verse give way to the electric guitars in the chorus, which deliver the added density and punch needed to drive the chorus home.