Last week I asked if you were exploiting the art of arrangement in order to wring every last drop of drama from every square inch of every transition in your productions. (I recommend catching up if you missed last weeks Museletter, it lays a good foundation for today’s rant.)
To refresh your memory, I’ll sum up Part 1 in one long sentence: a tightly crafted, cleverly assembled arrangement can elevate an ordinary song into a timeless one, and nowhere do you get more opportunities to deepen and solidify a listener’s attention than the dynamic transitions that carry them from one section of the song to the next. And to flip it on its head: nowhere do you have more opportunities to lose their interest, by failing to leverage those moments, letting them slip by without a trace or spark of individuality.
So today, as promised, I’m moving beyond the philosophical and offering up a tasty selection of some of my favorite tricks, devices, and rules-of-thumb for magnifying the impact of dynamic transitions. The more I've made a habit of implementing these kinds of things in my arrangements, and the craftier I've learned to implement them, the more engaging my productions have become.
This rule is ideally a compositional device, but for songs that are already tracked and ready to mix, it can be an engineering device if you leverage the power of your mute button. The idea here is that for every major
transition from section to section, I advise having 2 new things enter the soundfield and/or 2 old things disappear… or, for maximum drama, shift the soundfield in both directionssimultaneously, with one direction doubled.
In other words, if you really want to make a statement bring 4 new things in and make 2 old things go, or vice versa.
I say ‘things’ because they literally can be anything; obvious ‘new things’ would be a completely new instrument, or a new layer of an existing instrument stacking a new part. Less obvious ‘new things’ would be effects like reverb, delay, etc, or a doubled vocal; it's ok if the thing doesn’t jump out as an obvious new sound, as long as its presence has the effect of noticeably changing the shape and feel of the soundfield.
So imagine we’ve got an intro with drums, bass, guitar, rhodes, and a synth pad. When the intro becomes the first verse, ‘old things that go’ could be the ride cymbal, rhodes, synth pad, and the long reverb they all feed into, while ‘new things that come’ could be the lead vocal and the hi hat.
Then, halfway through the verse, bring two new things in. Maybe a vocal harmony comes up while the Rhodes re-enters, playing a simpler part than it was in the intro. That small arrangement shift will lift the dynamic and maintain interest through the verse while keeping the energy light and the spaces open, giving you plenty of room to keep growing… because there’s still a lot of song left, a lot of story to tell.
Most underarranged songs blow this step in one of two ways:
nothing meaningful ever comes or goes, or (possibly worse) things just keep coming while nothing goes, until everything suddenly goes
The former tends to feel lifeless and weak in very short order, and is the scourge of a great many pop and singer-songwriter productions; the latter tends to feel very cluttered and unfocused in very short order, and is the most common pitfall of EDM and loop-based tracks.
Strong arrangements aren’t just ways to flex your compositional muscles, they also pay hefty dividends when it comes time to mix. Your job as a mixer (IMHO) is twofold: to make it clear to the listener what the point of focus is at all times, and to keep moving that poing of focus around in interesting ways. If the arrangement always offers up new and interesting combinations of sounds in all the right places (and a few of the wrong ones), then most of the hard work is done before the faders are touched.
At that point, mixing is about highlighting the drama that’s there (a simple process with powerful results) rather than manufacturingdrama that’s not there (a tedious process with limited results).
Put one last way: when the drama of a song is organic and flows from the composition, it tends to engage the heart and hold up better over time. When the drama of a song flows from production and engineering tricks, it tends to engage the mind, which falls in love fast and gets bored even faster. If you can pull off both, you’ve got a deadly combo, but that requires a strong arrangement and slick mixing skills… which brings us back to today’s subject.
Once you’ve got your major comings and goings mapped out, the next step is to set the changes up so that they don’t just ‘happen’. Few things in life are as unsatisfying to me as a song that abruptly yanks me out of one section and drops me unceremoniously into another. Even when songs come suddenly to a grinding halt, when everything slams on the brakes and goes from 60 to 0 in an instant, there are usually audible cues that signal what’s about to happen.
This is because, on a basic psychological level, the anticipation of an event is half the fun, and without anticipation there will be no fun at all. If the roller coaster had no slow climbs before the fast drops, if the movie had no creepy stillness right before the zombie attack… there’d be no point. Without some kind of buildup, there is no satisfying payoff, there’s just a slap in the face.
So 1 or 2 bars before each major transition, I recommend bringing something in that cues the listener to the fact that we’re changing trajectories and heading towards something new and different. Here’s a shortlist of ideas, none of which are revolutionary, all of which are effective and time-honored ways of building anticipatory tension and priming the listener’s brain for an upcoming shift:
A big, fat, tasty drum fill A guitar, bass, or other melodic fill Have the main instrument(s) change rhythm, either playing more/faster notes, or playing fewer/slower notes, or noticeably changing up the riff Have the main instrument(s) change chord voicings, going to higher notes/denser voices when building energy, and vice versa Strings (or pad) that swell, or a synth whose filter opens or closes Bring in vocal ooohs, ahhhs, mmms Add a vocal harmony (or, if there’s already harmony, stack more harmonies or voices) Double/triple/quad stack lead vocal Drum fill (what can I say, I’m a drummer!)
Another way to build tension before a payoff is, counterintuitively, to take things away momentarily. Have the busy strumming guitar ring out a whole note chord for the last bar of the verse. Have the bass stop and drop out entirely. Have everything but the lead vocal or topline drop out, with some kind of swell underneath pushing everything into the next section.
Personally, I find this particular challenge (how to alert the listener to a coming change) to be one of the more interesting and challenging things to pull off artistically. But at the end of the day, you don’t need to break new ground or blow any minds with your cleverness, you just need to get the job done. There’s a reason 5,000 companies have made 50,000 collections of nothing but sweeps and rises… they’re simple, and they’re effective. At the end of the day, I’ll take ‘effective’ over ‘clever’ every single time!
This week I focused on things you can do with the composition to take your arrangements to the next level. But half the fun of a great arrangement is mixing it, so next week, in Part 3, we’ll dive even deeper into this topic and take a look at a few specific engineering tricks you can do to make your transitions even more dynamic, generating the kinds of contrast and movement that catches people’s attention and deepens their emotional response to the ever-unfolding song.
Until then, keep practicing!
Gregory Scott - ubk