How the Right Arrangement Can Improve Your Mix
When we discuss mixing, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on how to shape, sculpt, and mold your tracks. And we should — the bulk of the decisions you make during the mixing phase will be related to balancing track levels, panning, EQ, compression, and creative effects.
That said, all the clever sound shaping and track tweaking in the world won't rescue a poor musical arrangement. In fact, it's a sure bet that if your preliminary static mix doesn't sound balanced and engaging, getting your final mix to sound balanced and engaging will be a serious battle.
What is Arrangement?
The term "arrangement" refers to the setting of a musical composition. Arrangement encompasses, among other things, the way in which the elements of a piece of music are selected, performed, and assembled together.
In short, arranging involves removing, adding, moving, or replacing elements not part of the original composition.
Modern digital audio workstations are tailor-made for arranging and make it incredibly fast and easy. In fact, most DAWs include an "arrange" window — a timeline where you select your instruments, edit your clips and loops, and move your project's elements around to create your final song.
Determine What's Important
In a mix, the sonic spotlight is typically only large enough to accommodate a single element at a time. After all, if everything is up front and center, then nothing is up front and center — everything is just louder.
Trying to highlight everything simultaneously would be like attempting to hold a conversation in a room where a large number of people are speaking at the same time. In this situation, trying to discern what one person is saying — your desired focal point — is a complete exercise in futility.
That's why it's important to decide which element will be the focus of your mix at each given moment. Choose what you want to highlight, then move everything else out of the way.
A great arrangement involves determining a focal point, then building everything else around it.
Adding Girth to a Hollow-sounding Mix
If you're ever struggled with a thin, hollow mix (and who hasn't?), you may be tempted to boost the lower mids on your existing tracks. Doing this with a high-quality EQ plug-in like MIXROOM can certainly add body to anemic-sounding tracks, but it's not always the easiest way to go about it.
Rather than wrestling with a track that sounded tinny right from the get go (and basically trying to boost something that's not actually there), try adding more mid-frequency elements to your arrangement.
Even something as simple as a synth pad can add girth to a puny arrangement. You’ll be blown away by how huge your mix will sound when you fill in all the frequency gaps in its arrangement!
Freeing Up Your Mix's Low End
Another common mix issue — especially with bass-heavy genres — is overpowering low end. There's just not enough room for all that bass!
You can always deploy BASSROOM to try to rein in your runaway low end. That said, maybe the individual tracks aren't the problem?
Instead of struggling to tame each track's low frequencies, take a close look at the mix's low-frequency elements and ask, "Do you have too many bass instruments in your arrangement?"
By focusing on fewer bass-centric instruments, you'll be able to give your mix's low end more muscle and articulation without overpowering everything else. You'll be shocked at how massive your low end will sound (while still fitting in the mix) when you give it room to breathe!
Less Can Be More
When you're crafting a musical arrangement, more is not always better. Whenever you add another element to a mix, you should ask yourself, "Does this really need to be here?"
If your project doesn't need 32 tracks of guitars, don't use 32 tracks of guitars. If your project doesn't need a full orchestra, don't use a full orchestra.
If a supporting element overshadows your mix's essential elements, you should reevaluate whether or not the supporting element needs to be there.
A good rule of thumb is if you mute a track and it doesn’t sound like something is missing, the muted track probably doesn't need to be there. And if your mix sounds better without it, it definitely doesn't need to be there.
The Right Tool for the Job
Sometimes, you create a one-of-a-kind part for a song — one that borders on genius. Then, when you listen to it in context, you just can't seem to make it fit with the rest of your arrangement.
This doesn't necessarily mean that there's something wrong with the part. Rather, maybe you should try playing it on a different instrument.
Using a different instrument could be as simple as selecting a different synth patch, or it may lead you to pick a different instrument altogether.
Whatever path you choose, it's all about exiting your comfort zone and exploring your creativity — your mixes will benefit from your effort.
Arrangement vs. Volume
When we want to add excitement to a mix, it’s tempting to increase levels. For example, if you want the chorus to have greater impact, you make it louder.
Unfortunately, the brain doesn't always perceive louder as more exciting. And in some circumstances, listeners may not even be able to perceive the level increase at all.
A thoughtful arrangement is often a more effective way to add impact than mere volume.
For example, try holding back during "quieter" sections by pairing back the instrumentation. Then, during the chorus, bring more instruments into the fold.
A cool trick is to do this gradually over the course of the song, adding a bit more to each chorus. Then, by the time you reach the end of the song, the listener will be treated to an exciting musical climax.
Double Your Fun
As we said previously, adding volume doesn't necessarily add impact. So, if you're trying to make an instrument stand out, increasing its level won't necessarily give you the result you're aiming for.
A great way to make a solo instrument really pop is to use an age-old orchestral arranging technique. Try doubling your instrument with a completely different instrument, i.e., a synthesizer bolstering your lead guitar.
There's something about the way harmonics and overtones blend when two dissimilar instruments play in unison that really grabs the ear.
Not only does it produce a sound that neither instrument is capable of by itself, the timing and pitch variations between the two create a natural chorus-like effect that's guaranteed to attract attention.
Putting together a great-sounding musical arrangement isn't easy, but it's well worth the time and effort. With the right arrangement, you'll find that crafting engaging, impactful mixes is easier than ever.
So, the next time you're struggling with a mix, take a step back, listen, and ask yourself, "Do I have all the right pieces, and are they in the right place?" If the answer is "no," it might be time for a little rearranging.