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Song Arrangement: An Audio Producer’s Guide

producer talking with a musician about song arrangement

How and why your favorite songs move you so much might be a mystery. However, a good deal of it is due to the composition of the piece itself and the emotionality that the sound of the instruments convey. An equally, if not more important element of the process, is the arrangement of the piece, in other words, which instruments are used to play the different parts.

What is Song Arrangement?

While the arrangement of a song can generally be summed up as choosing which instruments to use for each part of the song, the actual process itself tends to be much more complicated. It all depends on the complexity of the arrangement, but there will almost always be unforeseen challenges and extensive possibilities. It’s the audio producer’s job to pick the right instrument or voice out of the many sounds available.

Song arrangement takes practice, experience, and plenty of studying, but it is possible to get the hang of arranging pieces if you really stick to it.

What Are the Stages of Arranging a Song?

The arranging phase of music production, like every other step in creating a hit record, encompasses a broad and multifaceted range of processes. It’s not always a straightforward path to discovering which instrument should go where and which harmony complements the melody the most, so as the audio producer, you must be prepared to handle just about anything. The better you are able to handle any unexpected hurdles or production detours, the better the ultimate mix will come out.

When you are working with a mix for arrangement, the first thing you should do is a demo, rough cut, or sample. This gives your engineers, and everyone else involved a good idea of what the song should sound like. Even if it doesn’t have all the parts that you or the artist envision, it should provide a general direction. The rough cut will serve as the basis to create the first track on the final cut.

The instrument or instruments used on the first track are usually the most notable sounds that capture the vibe of the record. Guitar or piano accompanying vocals is a common starting point in songwriting. Sometimes there will be a simple drum beat to keep the tune driving, as well as other instruments like bass and even horns. Most of the time, though, this early mix will be minimalistic and only get the most rudimentary version of the tune into a tangible form.

From there, the arrangement process plays a huge role in shaping the direction of the song. This is where you will work your magic by finding places in the music where additional harmonies, counterpoints, and even melodic adjustments can enhance the impact of the song’s emotions. Each individual voice or instrument carries a line that is critical in forming an overall sound that impacts the listener in a particular way.

Once you understand the basic process involved in arranging a song, it’s much easier to believe that while you must be well trained, you don’t have to have superhuman abilities in order to succeed at song arrangement. From there, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the key song arrangement tips of successful audio producers. These song arrangement tips are likely to vary from person to person, but in general, they are universal truths in a highly complex business.

Tip #1: Know Your Sounds

It’s impossible to create a good arrangement without some ear training. A huge part of any professional’s musical education is listening to music, which can be surprising, as obvious as it might be. In a similar vein, listening to sounds of various instruments is necessary to make arrangement decisions that maximize the emotional impact or drive of a song. The only way to know which instrument is right for any given situation is by having a vast mental library of sounds that you can access at any time.

There are plenty of challenges with getting to know every single sound in the musical dictionary. Each instrument’s voice comes with distinct tones, dynamics, and inflections. There is a near-infinite number of varieties, so audio producers have a lot to consider at any given point in the mixing and arranging process.

It’s a long road that includes a lot of trial and error, but it’s very rewarding when you finally feel confident about your musical decisions.

Tip #2: Focus on the Music

There are always going to be those outspoken and ridiculously ambitious artists and producers who are looking to push the limits of music production. This can lead to profoundly genius records, but it can also lead to a convoluted mix that nobody will want to listen to. Crafting the perfect arrangement means finding a happy medium and knowing when to keep things simple and when to pull out all the stops.

A simple test of whether or not an arrangement is headed in the right direction is to ask yourself if instrumental choice serves the feel and emotion of the song or if it is serving something else entirely, such as the ego of the arranger. If anything is getting in the way of a pure expression of the artist’s intended meaning, it will be detrimental to the final product. Even the most experienced audio producers must take a step back from the project and ask themselves if they’re truly serving the music or not.

Tip #3: Get Experimental

Sometimes, the only way to really know if that amazing sound stuck in your head is the right one, is by creating the sound and physically listening to it.

Many amateur songwriters and composers, and plenty of professional ones as well, have gone through the heartbreak of thinking they had a hit song in their head, only to find out, when they actually play it out loud, that it doesn’t actually sound as cool as they thought it did.

Creating the sounds yourself or having studio musicians create them for you, gives you total control over the end result, as you fine-tune the song arrangement.

Tip #4: Keep the Big Picture in Mind

Working on the same song for hours can be maddening. It can certainly cause the most seasoned professionals to become nearsighted, zooming in on one particular section or aspect of the mix. In order to write an effective arrangement, it’s essential that a song is viewed as a whole unit, from start to finish. The most successful producers don’t allow themselves to miss the big picture, which leads to the next tip.

Tip #5: Give Yourself a Break

Some audio producers like to torture themselves by pulling all-nighters, determined to get that killer mix perfected in time to post the next day. There are, of course, occasions in which a long work session is called for, to meet an important deadline. However, whenever possible, it is always best to give your brain a chance to process and defragment all of the information it’s been listening to.

Once you’ve walked away from the project, it’s easier to listen to it with fresh ears. You’d be surprised how a certain issue may stand out in the mix, once you return from a break and have the room in your mind to hear it. It’s good to use break times as an opportunity to do something relaxing yet stimulating and maybe even mentally productive. Some busy audio producers gain new perspective by switching over to another project. If nothing else, there’s always more music theory to learn, so there are plenty of ways to be productive while recharging your mental musical batteries.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know the ins and outs of song arrangement, it is time to learn more about an audio production program. Once you graduate, you will have learned song arrangement and much more and you will be ready to start an exciting new career in the music business.

Audio Production Program

The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.