TIPS FOR A TERRIFIC TRACK
We’ve dealt with so many topics on this course; you might think that there can’t possibly be any more subjects to discuss. But song writing is a little like mathematics, you can grasp the basics very quickly but there is no end to the detail. Each discipline stretches on into infinity with new angles on every aspect of the subject. Ahem.
It’s perfectly possible for us to spend years discussing harmony, melody, words and rhythm in the quest of finding the secret of outstanding music. In reality, we already know what we need to make a great track, its good old fashioned and unglamorous experience. Song writing and arranging are practical disciplines not an abstraction like calculus or number theory; we’re craft-people, we’re making things; in our case, new music.
Experience doesn’t come cheap, and gaining experience takes time, that’s the deal and the cliché! But as a shortcut, here are some tips on how to create certain musical effects in your own arrangements recommended by me and to me by some of my professional colleagues.
And once again I’ve included a whole host of tips on how to avoid making a bad track, which most of the time is just as important!
Starting your track
You know that you have to make an impact very early on in your track, preferably straight away. What’s the best way to do this? How can I make an impact without sounding contrived and clichéd? Well, how about these ideas:
- Start with a vocal solo. Meaning, why not come straight in with the vocal part unaccompanied for a few words, then bang! In with the rest of the instruments. That will certainly grab attention.
- Start with a drum solo. Not a lengthy irritating jazz odyssey, complete with breakdowns and two minutes of ‘riffing’ on the floor tom. Nope, try introducing the groove of your tune immediately, but maybe unaccompanied for a bar or too. Imagine that you’re getting people up on to the dance floor with a great drum break, but giving a few seconds before they have to start singing along!
- Start with a signature sound. Ever watched Eastenders? The first sound you hear when Eastenders starts in a tom tom intro on an old Simmons electronic drum kit. And no one in the UK has been able to use that tom tom sound since 1985, as the whole country associates it with the start of his or her favourite soap. Very clever on the arranger/composers part and the lesson to be learnt is simple. If you can get a distinctive and unique sound in your track right at the start, people will know it’s your song as soon as they hear it. Doesn’t have to electronic, it could be the sound of a window smashing, or even the sound of someone shouting.
- Impact. You want to make an impression, and then start LOUD. Lengthy build-ups are fine for album tracks but don’t work on the radio (hence the term radio edit for a shortened version of a longer track suitable for radio play). Bring everything together, or start with a chorus, or a scream! Anything that grabs attention. This is not a subtle approach.
- The subtle approach. How about drawing people into your song by starting quietly and slowly building up in intensity as you move through the song? This approach can make very well if you have a narrative lyric, where the story or situation grows to a natural conclusion towards the end of the track.
Getting from A to B
You’ve got a great verse, and the chorus is pretty special too. The singer’s done a smashing job and you’re convinced that the song is a winner. But there’s something wrong in the arrangement. You can’t put your finger on why but the track just doesn’t flow right; maybe it feels too repetitive, maybe things just happen without a proper build up, the whole track feels like programming, not music. Don’t panic, here are some ideas to help you through:
- Use a drum fill, which is a short variation in the drum part that naturally builds expectation in the track, leading to a chorus or just a change in the tune. You don’t hear so many of these as you used to, maybe because some much of the dance music of recent times has relied on repetitive hypnotic rhythms; a drum fill would interrupt the repetition. But that’s the point! A simple extra snare hit could be all your track needs, or maybe you’re feeling bombastic and want to try a massive run on the tom toms. Do whatever you like, but bare in mind that the best drummers are subtle, as are the best arrangers.
- Do a bass run. That can be simply the sound of your bass player running his finger up the fret board (its make a kind of ruh-oomm sound), or maybe you can run your finger quickly up and down your keyboard in a glissando style. Can be very effective at the start of a track or just before a chorus.
- Do a bass fill. Same as a drum fill but on bass! You introduce a short variation on the bass part just before the next bit of a track. Works particularly well if you are using a bass guitar part and you’re playing dance music with a repetitive bass line.
- Use a synthesizer sweep. Not to clean your keyboard, but a long sweep in pitch from low down in the bass frequencies range right up to the mid range and beyond. You can make this effect with the pitch bend wheel or joystick on your keyboard or with a long portamento setting on your synth. Very effective for heightening anticipation of a chorus, and making the listener feel like your track is taking off
Ceci n’est pas musique
- Stop thinking in blocks. It’s too easy to think of your music as little rectangles of sound, laid out like a mosaic in a regular pattern. After all, that’s what you see on your computer screen whenever you’re using Cubase or Logic or Reason, but it’s a recipe for bad arranging as you’re thinking like a computer. No one who listens to your music will be able to see those dreaded oblongs, so how about approaching your DAW like a tape machine? Treat every sequencer track as you would a track on a tape machine…you can’t move blocks of music around very easily on a tape, everything has to be played, so play everything! You’ll find you will introduce subtle differences every time you play a phrase that can be very pleasing musically.
- Stop thinking in sections. Too lazy or too rubbish a keyboard player to program like that? Ok, I’ll meet you half way. Don’t think of some parts starting and ending exactly when the chorus starts and ends, have them play before or after the chorus or verse, let the musical parts do the build up melodically. For example, have a guitar part come in half way through the verse, building slowly in intensity and then bursting into life as the chorus starts. Think like a traditional guitar player would think.
A musician and his machine
I can’t dance to that music you’re playing!
Your track has all the right ingredients; a bass sound from a tb303, a rapper from Hoxton or a drum break lifted straight from James Brown, but still no one can dance to your track. What’s going on?
Difficult to say without hearing your tune, but work through this checklist and see if your track is committing any of these offences:
- It’s the wrong speed. As any DJ knows, people are very sensitive to changes in tempo when they’re dancing to modern music, too slow and the DJ will speed your song up, if she bothers to play your song at all that is! But if your song is too fast it can just feel hurried and certainly not very ‘cool’. SOLUTION: Try moving/dancing to your track yourself, preferably after having taken a break from making your song of at least an hour. Adjust tempo if necessary.
- It’s too busy. You’ve programmed and programmed and programmed. In fact, you’ve filled every nook and cranny (what is a ‘cranny’?) in your track. Basically, you’ve done the musical equivalent of concreting over your garden; what once was a beautiful thing for all to see and enjoy is now an eyesore, fit only for parking cars on. SOLUTION: Take everything out of your arrangement except the drums (no added percussion, no multiple break beats at the same time, just the DRUMS), the bass, the vocal and one other part. Does your track sound any good? If yes, then mix it and go to bed. You’ll know in the morning if it’s working properly or not. If no, start
The best club in the world
again or give up. Or better still, give your song to someone else whose expertise you trust and let her arrange the track. You never know!
- It’s not in time. It’s a simple but easily overlooked problem that will wreak havoc with your groove. Check through the components of your tracks; is the tambourine working with your drum part? Is it quantized with the same ‘swing’ setting? Is it quantized at all?! Obviously it won’t be if the part was played by a human being, but all is not lost if your human tambourine part isn’t grooving. Try putting the part into a program like Recycle, reimporting the part into your DAW as a recycle part and then start quantizing. Try soloing the bass part and the kick drum part; are they locked together or do they drift apart? Are all your loops in time with themselves and each other? Check to make sure that your loops don’t suddenly ‘jerk’ when they are retriggered at the start of a bar, as this will ruin your groove.
- It keeps changing. All dance music has always dependant on a regular beat and a predictable structure, right the way back to the dawn of civilization. If your track keeps stopping and starting, or contains myriad different sections then you run the danger of confusing your audience. You’ll no this because they’ll stop dancing! Remember that most dance styles keep the beat moving throughout the track, very few have ‘breakdowns’, and almost none leave the audience with nothing to move to so make sure yours has.
Propellerheads Recycle software, essential!
- It’s not danceable! Great dance tracks have a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’ about them that means people just have to dance; it’s hard to know exactly what that is but your dance track must have it. Make sure you live and breathe your particular choice of dance music, it really is no good doing songs ‘in the style of xxxxx (insert dance genre of your choice)’ unless you really understand and feel that style.
My chorus is lacking something
Your chorus doesn’t work? Then you might as well pack up and go home. Or, you could attempt to make it better by using some of these tips:
- Use some harmony vocals. This can work wonders with your vocal part. If you haven’t had any harmony parts so far in your song these will pick up your chorus no end. They don’t have to be complicated; sometimes just following the chorus melody a third up or down will do the trick. Some producers like to go to town with their harmonies and build multiple parts; if you can do that yourself then you’re on to a winner.
- Double track the vocal. Meaning have two takes of your vocalist playing at the same time. It’s a good idea to have the level of the secondary take lower in the mix than the lead otherwise you can end up distracting the listener. Also, make sure the two vocal takes are in time with each other.
- Add some delays onto your vocal. Or reverb. This can sound amazing if done carefully. The key to this technique, as ever, is subtlety. You really don’t want the listener to feel like you’ve caught a fader on the mixing desk on your sleeve and accidentally sent your singer off into space. Or maybe…
- Get the tambourine out! Or the shakers, or any other percussion instrument that can play a straight forward 8s or 16s part. Get the part to start at the beginning of the chorus and end when the verse comes in again, and make sure the part is mixed quite low. Instant increase of energy!
- Add some strings. Couldn’t be simpler in theory, in practice you will have to spend some time making sure you have the right parts, the right sounds etc.
Percussion saves the day
- Increase the tempo slightly. And I really do mean slightly, somewhere in the region of 0.5% should be enough. This will give your track a subtle lift; increase the tempo at the start of the chorus and return the track to the original tempo when you get to the chorus, just like the tambourine part.
- Compress the chorus. Increase the amount of compression you’re using on your overall track when you come to the choruses, but be careful! You only need to go from 1.5:1 to 1.7:1 or thereabouts. What we’re looking for is a slight increase in density, not a massive hike in loudness so be careful out there.
- Rewrite the chorus. It’s the most important part of the song after all. If it just won’t work then there’s a good chance that the problem is in the composition itself. Stand back, calm down, have a cup of tea or whatever you need to help you to regain your objectivity and have another listen.
My track sounds nothing like what I hear on the radio…
This can be a good or a bad thing depending on how you feel about music radio! Working on the premise that you like listening to the radio and that’s where you‘d like your tracks to be played, go through this simple checklist to see where your track can be improved:
- Its too long/short. Radio basics: your song needs to have done everything you want it to do before 3mins; it can’t be shorter than 2mins. If you song falls into either of these categories then your out!
- Where’s the chorus? Timing again. Your chorus must occur before 1min, and preferably before 40 secs. If yours doesn’t then please remedy the situation now; radio programmers are very fickle and they don’t have a great deal of time or patience. As Roxette (!) once said, don’t bore us, get to the chorus!
Yes, you really are looking at a picture of Roxette. How cool is that?
- Inappropriate subject matter. Sorry, but there are very few radio shows playing songs about war, famine, diseases, depression, rape or any other contentious subject. It’s a great shame but there you are; radio programmers will often refer to these kinds of songs as ‘switch over’ songs i.e. the listener will check out what’s on another station when they hear that song. You’ll find that most songs on the radio are happy or deal with simple subjects like love, heartbreak, reaching for the sky and the rest. Bear this in mind, and then start listening to BBC radio 4 before your head explodes.
- Your track is not compressed. This is usually as good thing; one of the most common mistakes that engineers have made in the last decade is to overly compress tracks so that they sound loud on any medium. When you hear a track coming out of a radio, the music has been compressed before it gets transmitted so that the radio station appears loud on everyone’s radio at home, in the car, on headphones etc. They do this so as to maximize the coverage area they can reach, and to make sure the listener stays with the station if they’re moving around. This is the single most significant factor that contributes to why music on the radio sounds as it does, but please resist the temptation to massively compress your tracks to try to emulate this sound. It just doesn’t sound good in any situation other than pouring out of a radio, will tire and irritate the listener and will sound quite ‘small’ when your track should be ‘big’. Light overall compression can be good, but if you’re piling it onto your track then you must ask yourself why. Are you trying to compensate for something that’s wrong in the mix?
The power of four, and how to break it
Ok, it’s true that almost every contemporary song works in blocks of four, or multiples of four. In fact, we’ve all become so used to this that songs can feel a bit odd if they’re not built that way. But that doesn’t mean that your arrangement has to be built that way. Just because your verse is eight bars long and your chorus is eight bars long, that does not mean that you should be making all your parts correspond in length.
The important thing is to make sure that you are listening to your track, and not letting your DAW take control of the way you think. Here are a few quick tips on keeping the technology under control and letting the music out.
- Turn the monitor screen off. That’s right, do it right now. Notice how the way you’re listening to your track has changed now that you can’t see what’s coming next in your arrangement? That’s how everyone else in the world will hear your track, so make sure that do this regularly to obtain a more musical perspective on your music!
- Turn the monitor speakers down. Not right the way down to silence, but down to slightly below normal listening level. First of all, you’ll notice that for the first minute or so it will feel impossibly quiet in your studio but your ears will adjust quite quickly. Next, you’ll notice that certain things in your arrangement sound quite different and take on a much more (or less) significance than your previously thought. Use this technique as a way of getting some distance on your track.
- Play every part. From start to finish, no quantizing, no editing, no cutting and pasting. You’ll be able to feel the part as well as think it. You’ll probably enjoy the experience too!
- Move your studio. Ok, this might not be practical for every one but if you’re working from a laptop, how about going into the garden or park with some headphones?
- Write out your arrangement in manuscript. Most people don’t bother with learning to read and write manuscript these days but it has many uses. One of which is checking arrangements. An experienced eye can see from the pages in front of her whether the arrangement looks complete, cohesive and accomplished without having to hear it. Just a thought…
Help, I’m bored of my song!
It happens to us all, and it can be soul destroying. The first flashes of inspiration have sent us into a whirlwind of activity; we’re as excited as a child on Christmas morning as our song takes shape. We finish the whole thing in thirty minutes and feel elated and fulfilled.
Then a couple of days later when we come to record it properly we discover that we don’t like it much after all. The choice of subject matter was ridiculous, the melody trite and obvious and the structure self conscious and contrived. We quickly sink into a depression, believing we’re rubbish at everything from writing songs to making toast.
This reaction is often inevitable, don’t be disheartened. You enjoyed the song as you wrote it; let’s see if you can get that excitement back by doing some of these things:
- Walk away and come back another day. Yep, maybe you’re just having a bad day. Its one of those crazy things but you’ll find that you really enjoy listening to your own music when things are going well but can’t stand it when you’ve had a disappointment or just got out of bed the wrong side. When you’re low you’ll hear loads of problems in your arrangements, mixes that really must be improved, songs that need to be rewritten. Bare this in mind before you start to change everything in your song, maybe you’ve just lost your objectivity? Come back tomorrow.
- Change the key of the song. This can work wonders if you feel your song lacks an indefinable ‘something’. Try moving your key up if you feel the song is a little dreary, down if you feel it’s a bit ‘too much’. Be careful that your don’t move it so far that it’s impossible to sing!
- Speed the song up. Not too much, but maybe that will revive your interest enough to complete the arrangement.
- Restructure the song. That is, try moving the chorus to the beginning of the song, or adding/removing a verse etc.
- Listen to a song you love. Then try to incorporate some aspect of the great song into your own. Simple, effective, and may be exactly what you’re looking for. Be careful not to literally copy the other song though!
Finishing your track
How do we know when we’ve done everything that we need to do for our track?
- Listen to your track in a variety of environments. This a great way of checking to make sure your mix ‘travels’, and it’s also a good way of making sure your arrangement is working as it should be. Try listening in the car, on iPod headphones, through a club PA, your domestic hi-fi, and your computer speakers. Remember, you’re not necessarily listening to the detail of your mix or arrangement, just the overall effect. You’ll learn loads about how your audience will hear your music by doing this. Prepare for a shock!
- Make sure your fade feels right. If your fading out’ at the end of your track rather than having an actual ending, listen very carefully to the track from about 30 seconds before the fade starts. Does the fade feel natural? Does it feel forced, does it fade too quickly/slowly, and does it feel natural? Listen and adjust accordingly.
- ‘Top and Tail’ your completed track. There should be no more than a second’s silence before the start of your track, preferably no less than 200ms. Similarly, there should be no more than a second’s silence after your track has completely come to an end. When you come to edit your tracks like this it’s a good idea to listen to your tracks loudly to be certain that you’re not cutting off the beginning or end of your track. This is one of those occasion when looking carefully at the waveform of your track is a good idea as a visual cue can be very useful in this situation.
- ‘Live’ with your track. It’s not a great idea to finish a track and then send it straight off to the record company/publisher/artist/wife. Give yourself a break, make up to a whole week if you can spare the time and then listen again. Do you like it? Is there anything that you really should change before it goes? At least you know that your objectivity won’t get any better than this.
A fade in Logic
- ‘Master’ your track. But don’t go mad! Mastering is art best left to experts who master things all day every day. Nope, maybe all you need to do is lightly compress your track to reduce its dynamic range and thus make it sound a little denser and louder. One further thing; don’t use a multiband compressor to achieve this. They were designed for broadcast transmitters (see above), not for songwriters to improve the sound of their demos! Use a decent single band compressor set very gently (a ratio of 1.5:1 should suffice) and do plenty of A/B comparisms. You’re aiming for an exciting sound, which is not the same as simply a loud sound.
What really matters in your track
We’re making demos of our songs that we will present to artists to record and publishers to pay for. Keep that fact in mind at all times, that is the goal we’re aiming for in our studio sessions. The fact is, no matter what you may have heard to the contrary, A and R departments really need to hear songs sounding as close to finished records as they possibly can. This might sound like a distinct lack of imagination on their part, after all their supposed to know a good song presented to them by a singer and guitar. Or even a penny whistle!
But that’s not the case now, and probably never was the case in the past either. Publishers hear great sounding tracks all day everyday and subconsciously they start to reject songs based on a whole load of factors that may be irrelevant to the quality of the song. But in the end, these people are in business, they’re not artistic benefactors…so you have to help them to realize that your song is the best thing they’ve heard all year and they’d be a fool not to sign you on the spot. Eliminate the factors that might cause you to fall at the first hurdle by making sure your track sounds amazing.
This is ‘Spike’ Stent, one of the most sought after engineers in the world
But we’re not working in a £1000 a day studio with the best singer/engineer/producer that vanity can buy; we’re all alone in our studio in the back room or our flat in Lewisham. We can’t compete with those other guys. Or can we…? Concentrate on getting these basic things sounding good and we’re back in with a chance. After all, everybody has to start somewhere.
- The vocals. Use the best singer you know, pay for a great session singer if you have the money. Use the best and most flattering microphone that you have to record her, consider hiring in a fantastic mic if you haven’t got one to hand. Don’t forget to use a good mic pre-amp too. Spend time on getting the vocals right. Make sure they are in tune AND in time. The singer must be able to feel where you’re coming from with your lyric. Listen to her comments; adjust your song accordingly if you agree.
- The bass and drums must groove together. They underpin your whole track; they’re more than 50% of your arrangement. Get this part right and you’ll win plenty of A and R friends, get it wrong and you’ll be taking an early shower. Refer to your previous handouts about Drums and Bass Lines for how to write the perfect drum and bass parts.
- Let the featured instruments feature, let the others take a back seat. If you’ve written a rock song, let the guitars roar. If you’ve written a ballad, let the strings soar. If it’s a hip-hop track, let that great sample be heard. The basic point is these parts are hugely important within these styles, don’t be shy about making these parts loud in the mix and be certain that the parts are right. Let the other parts be quiet and unobtrusive so as not to distract the listener from the other more important parts, such as the vocals!
What shouldn’t be in your track
Here is a list of things that an A and R guy does not care about. These are clichés and will make you come across as a daft amateur. Leave all of these out unless you are certain that you know what you are doing.
- Stupid synth sounds. Irrelevant in a song demo. No one wants to hear your expertise in twiddling knobs or moving a mouse around a screen. That’s not music, you might as well be mucking around on a playstation.
- Drum Loops from sample CDS. I’m not talking about percussion loops (triangle, tambs etc), I’m referring to the loops of drum parts that seem to make up most of the content of any sample CD you might buy. They almost always sound naff and cheesy, and if they don’t then it’s almost a certainty that the A and R man has heard that loop a hundred times before. Program your own drums, or record a drummer. It’s really not that hard.
- Rapping. Obviously you need a rap in a rap track, please go ahead, rap away. But not ever in songs. Ok, Euro pop songs have had a long tradition of including little snatches of rap between the lines of the song; things like “check it out y’all”, “techno techno techno techno”. But we’re British, and British pop songs do not have raps in them, it’s not the done thing. If you feel the urge to have a rap in your song, relocate to Berlin or Amsterdam, they’ll love you there. In London they’ll laugh and point at you before asking you to leave. Unless you’re Mike Skinner from The Streets of course.
- Swearing. Write a song with swearing in it and you instantly reduce the amount of artists who’ll sing your song by 90%. Can you afford that? There’s lots of songs with swearing in, though you’ll notice they are vastly outnumbered the amount without swearing. Bear that in mind.
Songwriter seeks inspiration…
…so where on earth are we going to find it? Luckily for us, we live in a pretty excellent world where inspiration can be found everywhere if we’re ready for it. So be ready for it by:
- Always having a small notebook with you so you can jot down amazing song titles when they come to you. Some people like to use a notebook made of yellow paper. I don’t know why they like notebooks like this but why not give it a try yourself?
- Keeping a Dictaphone on you at all times, you never know when a melody will pop into your head.
- Reading books, listening to the radio, watching only a tiny amount of television (if you must) and going out to gigs.
- Talking to people at the bus stop, to the taxi driver, to the shopkeeper, to your friends and family. You might learn something.
- Learning a foreign language. Do you know how to say ‘pardon me’ in Icelandic? Did you know that a huge proportion of the words used in the Geordie dialect are Norwegian? Why does Portuguese sound so lovely when sung? Find out why by learning the language and therefore history of these and other nations.
Iceland, the most expensive country in Europe
- Learning a new instrument. Keyboard players should learn guitar, singers should learn guitar, guitarists should learn to sing and play keyboards. Alternatively, ever met someone who writes RnB on a Harp? Why not be the first!
- Learning to dance. Handy if you’re writing dance music.
- Writing every single day, no matter what. Doesn’t matter if you’ve got nothing say, just write nonsense or just write an instrumental. You could always set somebody else’s words to your own music and proceed that way. You’re a writer, so write!
Making music can be incredibly enjoyable and rewarding, that’s why so many people do it. But being a musician and a songwriter comes with a whole load of problems, some unique to the field. We could devise a degree course on studying the psychology of musicians; we could fill the British library with anecdotes on how so many of them get into problems with their health, especially mental health. Here are some simple guidelines on how to stay healthy whilst trying to earn a living as a songwriter.
- Do not take too yourself seriously. Make time each day to laugh at yourself. After all, you could be working in an office, sweeping the streets, feeding starving children. Instead, you chose to write songs about love. How funny is that?
- Talk to non-musicians every day. How can you write inspired songs if all you do is write songs? How can you write songs that human beings can relate too if you only ever speak to musicians? Get out, talk to real people, have a social life. They’ll give you things to write about, so effectively you’ll be working even when you’re playing. What a job!
- Take regular breaks. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull songwriter. Jack will also end up very tired and irritable and lose all sense of perspective. Treat yourself like you would (hopefully) treat an employee; with compassion, respect and regular tea breaks.
- Make the most of the available daylight. It’s very easy to become nocturnal as a musician, barely seeing any daylight especially in winter. That’s not good for your mental health, just ask the Swedes. Inevitably we will do a lot of our writing and playing at night but try as hard as you can to have a normal sleep pattern when you’re off duty.
- Eat regularly and sensibly. You knows it. Replace chips with carrots, chocolate with apples, instant coffee with water. You’ll feel fitter, happier and you’ll live forever
- Keep your monitor levels low. It’s very easy to damage your hearing in this game, so watch how loudly your monitors are set. Not only can you lose your hearing in the long term, but also loud environments are physically and mentally exhausting. Be careful, limit your use of portable stereos especially on public transport as it’s too easy to have them on full blast when you’re trying to hear over the sound of a London bus.
- Get a decent swivel chair. Spend as much money as you can afford on a properly designed office chair. Anyone who has suffered with back pain knows that it’s not funny, so do whatever you can to keep good posture.
- Get a decent monitor screen. Get a big TFT screen and you’ll be amazed how much more you enjoy working at your computer. Don’t just buy the cheapest you can find at PC world; remember, you’ll be looking at this screen all day so treat yourself to a really good monitor. Apple makes superb monitors, so do Sony and many other manufacturers.
- Avoid narcotics. Just say no.
One last thing…
In modern music, anything goes. Even the humblest DAW has a sampler built these days. And of course, with the price of a 250GB hard drive about the same as a meal for two in the west end of London, sample libraries can be vast. You want a bagpipe, throw it in! Fancy trying a Ukulele? You got it. We arrangers have never had it so good.
Or have we? How often have you called up a multisampled orchestra, complete with cross fades and cathedral ambience to play your string part and it’s sounded about as real as a Pet Shop Boys bside? Anyone who’s used Virtual Guitarist quickly learns that even though the sample libraries used in this fantastic plug-in are second to none, they still sound like a computer playing a load of samples. No one doing an A/B comparism with a real player will be fooled.
The problem is this: we now have so many options available to us at the click of mouse that we can easily make any one of these three fundamental mistakes:
- Play any old rubbish and think it sounds like a string part/guitar part/ bagpipe part just because we’re using the appropriate sample.
- Fill up our tracks with parts, all of which sound cool in isolation, none of which sound good together.
- Lose sight of what we’re trying to communicate in our arrangement and fill it up with crazy sounding synth/drum/vocal sounds.
All of these things combine into a phenomenon I identified a while ago. I call it:
Bored Programmer Syndrome
…And it is the enemy of an effective arrangement. BPS can affect anyone, but try to make sure that you spot the signs of it happening to you before you succumb. Here are a few of them:
- You keep adding part after part in your arrangement
- You start to believe that buying a piece of equipment will solve all your musical problems.
- You’re compressing everything in your mix
- You’re filling up your track with silly synth effects.
- You’re spending an hour trying to find a decent drum break.
- You’ve spent more than 15 minutes programming the hi hat part.
- You put the vocal part through a stupid effect, such as a distortion plug in.
- You’ve spent three months trying to finish your track.
Any of this sound familiar? If you’re finding any of these things happening to you on a regular basis, then memorise this maxim and make it your guide for life, or hitwriting at least:
No Amount of Arranging Will Make a Bad Song Good
Track not sounding great no matter what you do? It’s probably the song. Back to the drawing board with you. You know it makes sense.