Common Arrangement Issues

Earlier this year I covered some of the more common mixdown issues I hear in the songs I work on, and in others I hear online in the various forums I frequent.  I think it’s time to take another tack now, and talk about some of the issues I repeatedly hear in the way people arrange their songs.  I’ve learned it’s one thing to create a great “track”, it’s another to craft a song that makes people want to hear it again and again.

In fact, for the longest time I more or less stopped creating (synthesizing) my own sounds, so that I could spend more time working on creating compelling arrangements that made people want to listen more than once.  As part of this process (and indeed as part of my daily mastering anyway), I listened to a lot of songs and tried to identify what it was that made me want to immediately listen to a song again.  Or perhaps I had to listen to it again anyway for some reason, but each time I did I heard something that caught my attention in a new way.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that a lot of songs people post online these days fall into some of the same traps that make them almost disposable after one listen.  Here’s a few of the areas I think a lot of songs would benefit from improving on:

The intro of the song is too long, or not engaging enough.

It’s true that a lot of people think electronic music means dance music, and as such we’ve all been told that dance music needs to have a simple beginning for the DJs to beatmatch.  I’m not sure this really applies anymore in this day of auto-syncing and the multiple loops that most DJ software uses, but a lot of people play it safe and create long 32 bar intro with relatively simple structures.  There’s nothing wrong with this for the DJs among us, but realistically, how many people in your audience are going to be hearing your song while cueing it up in a club?

In reality, your average listener is likely going to be at their computer, in the car, or walking around listening to their headphones.  So for a “standard” 32 bar intro at 128BPM, they have to listen to a minute of rather bland music before you really get into the meat of things.  By all means use a simple beat structure to make the track easier to beatmatch if you want, but make sure and put some more subtle ear candy in there to draw in and engage the other listeners too.  Or consider using a shorter intro that perhaps is a little more relevant to today’s DJ.


The song is too long overall, or too repetitive.

Sometimes I get sent songs to work on where the whole tune is over 7 minutes long, and yet they could have easily said everything they needed to say in only 4-5 minutes.  Building and riding a groove is great when you’re making your song, but it’s important to try and step back and realize that not everyone will be willing, or wanting, to listen to it for as long as you do.  There’s very little need to fill up a side of a record anymore, so see if you have redundant section in your song where things are just not really going anywhere.

Likewise, one of my biggest pet peeves is with songs that are just too repetitive and loopy sounding.  You hear the same sound, exactly the same way for almost the whole song.  Even worse if it’s something the producer does with all the sounds in the song.  It might be rocking your world when you’re first making that core loop you’re going to build the song from, but try and look at it from another perspective and see if you can use some variations to keep it interesting on repeated listens.

Maybe use a simpler version of the loop early on, or add new effects or EQing to it halfway through.  Better yet, trying and find a way to have each sound constantly evolve as the song progresses, even if subtly.  Repetitive stuff can work on the dance floor where someone might hear only 4 minutes of a track before the DJ mixes into a new one.  But at home when your average listener is going to be hearing it from start to finish, do your best to keep them guessing and engaged, and not feeling like they know exactly how the song will finish.
The song sounds the same after the drop as before.

Another pet-peeve of mine, is when people have a really nice groove going in the song, then they go into a really well constructed drop and build up phase.  Then, at the peak of the build up everything hammers back in and sounds…..

….exactly like it did before the drop.  Boring!  Use that chance to take the song to the next level, introduce a new part, take the energy up, use a significantly altered part of your initial sounds to really get people to notice and re-engaged in the song.  After a really dramatic build up, you have the best chance to take the song some place new and unexpected.  There’s no reason that a song’s 2nd half has to sound like it’s first half, so get creative!

 

Every song has a long fade out at the end.

It’s not something you hear all the time, but there are some people out there who insist on slowly fading out each and every one of their songs to create the ending.  Used once in awhile it’s a great tool to keep people engaged in the song while slowly bringing them down.  But if you do it every single time, it loses it’s impact and ends up sounding like a bad 80’s cliche.

 

Too much is happening at once.

This is probably one of the more common issues I hear in people’s tracks, and I freely admit to being guilty of it myself at times.  There’s nothing wrong with creating dense music with a lot of sounds playing off each other, but you have to make sure they are really working together, and not fighting each other for space.  Having two lead sounds playing at once can often make things sound busy and cluttered, when what you might have been going for is more energy.  After working on a song for days or weeks, we get really good at tuning out certain sounds while we focus on others in the writing process.  So it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking a song is not too cluttered sounding, we’re subconsciously already not really paying attention to the big picture.

Aside from making it difficult to hear everything or the focus of the song, it’s also going to make it harder to get the overall level of the song up to a volume that you might feel is competitive with other songs in the same genre.  Loud and punchy songs often have very simple song structures, with simple instrumentation (only a few sounds playing at once).  It’s much easier to tame the peaks from a few sounds when boosting things louder, than it is trying to keep it all from turning into distorted mush if the track has a couple dozen things going on at once.

Like I said, nothing wrong with make dense soundscapes if that’s your thing, but then you really need to focus on making sure everything compliments each other in terms of frequencies, pitches, and timing to get the best results.


Loops not trimmed perfectly.

Argh, I hate this one.  I don’t care if people hand craft each sound from scratch, or take everything from sample loop CDs, making music is making music.  But if you are going to use loops, especially when layering percussion and drum sounds, then you HAVE to make sure they sound like one part.  Layering multiple kicks for instance, it’s a great way to get really full and powerful drum sounds without needing to mess with compression and the like.  But you have to make sure that all those separate kicks sound like one single kick, and aren’t flamming at all.

There’s been so many times I’ve heard great tracks when shopping for records to DJ with, that ultimately i just couldn’t buy because the drums were flamming every 4 or 8 bars.  It sounds amateurish, it’s distracting, and it makes beatmatching painful at the very least.  Take the time to trim and edit your loops and drums so that they line up EXACTLY.  I find it’s best to solo the parts you’re working on, and use headphones to listen, and the effect is much more pronounced in cans than in some people’s monitors.

 

No fills or transitions to help guide the song along.

A lot of people are really good at crafting creative drops and build ups in their song, they realize the important of guiding people to an important section of the song.  But not everyone realizes that this same concept on a smaller scale can be used throughout the song, to much the same purpose.  I’m sure most of us have heard songs like this, where the artist sounds almost like they are turning sounds on and off abruptly every 16 bars or so.

Sometimes the sudden introduction of a new sound can have a lot of impact, but when that’s the only device you are using throughout the whole song, it can also get a bit boring and predictable too.  If you listen to some of your favorite songs closely, you’ll often hear how the artist uses small and subtle cues to tell the listener that something new is coming.  Maybe it’s a small drum fill, or perhaps a synth swell.  A common trick is to use a reversed reverb sound to lead into a vocal for instance. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, but little cues like this give the listener a sense of anticipation, it engages them and makes them eager to here what comes next.

On the other hand, it can also make transitioning to a new, and perhaps very different sounding, section of the song easier to follow.  Instead of a sudden change, you help guide the listener into something they might otherwise have found too quick of a jump.  The key of course is to not make the fills more obvious and upfront than the sections they are preceding or alluding to.  Done correctly, subtle fills can be one of the greatest tools to give a song that repeat listening potential.  It creates tension and expectation in the listeners each time they hear the song, and can provide the little bits of ear-candy that makes people hear something new each time they listen to your song.

Anyway, I hope some of you got some new ideas from this, or at least it refreshed your memory on things to remember when writing your songs.  For more on arranging and fills, you can check out these older guides I’ve written on the subject for more ideas:

http://tarekith.com/assets/arranging.html

http://tarekith.com/assets/transitions.html

Thanks, and stayed tuned for more articles in the future!

7 Replies to “Common Arrangement Issues”

  1. Makes a lot of sense, even on the counts I disagree with (though the latter is likely due to taste). I’m generally a defender of longer, repetitive tracks, though of course they have to be impeccably paced, and tasteful in execution. Underworld’s “Rez” comes to mind immediately, and for repetition no one does it better than Robert Hood, though again this is taste-based.

    I think there are some longer, repetitive tracks that do it well because these aspects serve the overall narrative arc of the piece of music. Granted, to tap into this might require a slightly different way of listening, a more patient listening, though I recognize that this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. (Not everyone is as obsessed with Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” as I am!) 🙂

    I thought of an example of an amazingly-crafted arrangement that builds so well it makes me emotional: Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” (I wish I could say I have the same affection for his lyrics!)

  2. Oh don’t get me wrong, I love long tracks myself, Rez being a prime example. But while it is repetitious to some degree, it’s evolving constantly throughout, so you don’t mind the length. When I say people should think about how long their songs are, it’s in the case where it’s just the same thing repeating with no modulations or changes again and again.

  3. Thanks, a very useful article. I am a newbie and am moving from just creating loops into proper arrangeemnt. You would think that arrangement would be the easy part, but it’s actually incredibly difficult (especially doing something that’s not entirely formulaic). Thanks again.

  4. Great article. However I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of a proper dj-intro. Sure, we can mix anything with anything now by using Traktor, Virtual Dj, Ableton etc. The thing is that we can mix even better with a proper intro/outro, and a half good track without this is easily forgotten and ends up not being played. So my advice is to make two versions, a club mix and a radio edit. (or album mix whatever)

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