For a Mix That Delivers, Fine-Tune Your Arrangement

Killer music productions start with great arrangements.

Fig. 1. In Celemony Melodyne Editor’s GUI, individual notes of a melody can be dragged up or down graphically to change their pitch.



Killer music productions start with great arrangements. On the other hand, if you find yourself struggling to improve a seemingly unmanageable mix, the song’s arrangement is probably the culprit. No amount of mixing will fix a broken arrangement—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to dump the whole thing and start over from scratch. A little nip and tuck can give your mix a fresh coat of paint. Try these six arranging tips.

Kill Your Sacred Cows

You may love the five intertwining guitar parts you labored so hard to record, but do they all really help your song? Generally speaking, having more than two melody parts (including the lead vocal) voicing at once is a recipe for sonic confusion. Remember that most listeners focus on the lead vocal on a recording. Anything that distracts attention away from that “money track” weakens your mix, so make sure every part supports it and makes the song stronger. No matter how much you may love a particular track, you must remain objective about how it contributes to—or detracts from—the entire arrangement. Ferret out musically unimportant tracks and be ruthless with their mute buttons.

Breakdown Here

A good place to get fast and loose with muting tracks is during a musical break or on a verse of your song. Try paring down the tracks to just drums, vocals, and either bass or guitar, even if only for a few strategic bars. Alternatively, take the drums completely out of the mix until the next section of the song hits. This arranging technique is called a breakdown, and it’s very effective in creating a contrast between song sections and providing a respite from a constant wall of sound. Nashville-based session players refer to a breakdown as “clearing out” the song section, and it’s an apt colloquialism—sometimes having too many tracks play at once can muddy a song’s waters and lessen its impact.

Double Up

It might sound too wimpy to have a single guitar part accompany bass, drums, and vocals, but that also might be all that the song’s arrangement needs. Resist the temptation to clutter the production with additional tracks simply to make it sound more full. Instead, make the single guitar part sound bigger by doubling it. You can do this by setting up a Haas effect with a modulating delay (see last month’s Techniques article “Use Psychoacoustics to Craft a Huge-Sounding Mix” for more details), but you’ll get an even bigger sound by playing the same guitar part again and recording it onto a new track. Make sure your timing for both tracks is pretty much locked as much as possible; very slight differences in articulation are okay. Hard-pan the two guitar tracks left and right, respectively, for a huge, double-tracked sound.

Use Chord Stacks

An alternative to double-tracking is playing chord stacks. Instead of having one rhythm guitar play all the notes in each chord, divide and conquer: Play the root and fifth, for example, on low strings on one guitar track and the fifth and third on higher strings on a second guitar track. Hard-pan the two guitars opposite each other. The effect will sound like your head is placed midway between lower and higher groups of guitar strings— big and wide! By splitting a sole vamp into two halves this way, you retain your arrangement’s laser-focus simplicity without sacrificing size and power.

Turn it Upside Down

If your piano part, for instance, clashes with the lead vocal at a specific point in your song, but you know it’s playing the right chord there, try inverting the piano’s chord. For example, say the lead vocal sings a C note where the piano plays a Cmaj9 chord. If the B and D notes in Cmaj9 are played in the same octave as the lead vocal’s C note, dissonant minor and major 2nd intervals will form between the piano and vocal tracks. Unless you like the dissonance, use a different inversion for the Cmaj9 chord that places the B and D notes at least a 7th interval away from the vocal’s C note. Look for similar dissonances throughout your song, and fix them by using different chord inversions where necessary. Smart chord inversions are the key to a harmonious arrangement.

Tweak the Melody

In the 11th hour of mixdown, you realize for the first time that the lead vocalist sang an F# against a G7 guitar chord. Yikes! Don’t bother re-recording the vocal track, though. Use Celemony Melodyne Editor plug-in (see Figure 1) during mixdown to transparently shift the pitch of the F# note up or down a semitone to fit the guitar chord. MOTU Digital Performer users can enlist that DAW’s outstanding pitch-automation function to do the same thing.