When you’re up against the wall, pushing forward to break through and get things down can be taxing. It’s a mental game of will and strength against creative effort. What you need to know is this – waiting around for that very brief moment of inspiration and creativity will always lose out to dedicated, and consistent hard work. Does it have to be this hard all the time? Is there a way I can out-smart more difficult and time-consuming tasks? I’ll be the voice you can hear saying yes you can. And it’s easier than you think.
Over the years as a working producer, I’ve never stopped learning from others and finding ways to improve my skills and technique across all areas of music production. One thing I’ll share with you that I wish I’d picked up early is this – creating self-imposed rules for arrangements. Rules? What? I’ll explain.
For many producers, the stage where you arrange your tracks seems to be something you don’t look forward to. I get that, I’ve been there. I’m always hearing that the vibe and soul of your track seem to change in a less exciting way once you sit down and begin laying it out. You’ve told me often that when you get to that block in the road, the party’s over. Listen, don’t stop the music just yet.
I’m successful and prolific as an artist because I get the hard jobs in my day done. I don’t hide from the tasks that I used to avoid doing. I get right to it and start with some of the toughest work first. I beat through them in a way that isn’t painful or tedious anymore. Using rules isn’t like flying on auto-pilot, but a lot of the tough decisions are pre-decided for me.
This might sound too easy, or pure brilliance, yet people all over the world use this process to offload the hard mental work of making decisions to get to the finish line faster. If you want to achieve more consistent and impressive results, read on.
(you know this is a key focus throughout my blog, finding ways to maximize your creativity and efficiency, by organising our workflow to spend less time on the mundane and challenging, and more time on the rewarding and exciting parts of our work)
Let’s talk about imposing internal rules on yourself. My definition of rules would go as: Using certain techniques to create an engaging song structure. And remember – rules can be broken later, but you’ll find it so much more helpful to get started quickly and make fast progress as opposed to starting slowly from zero.)
It’s given that there are many reasons why a listener might be engaged with your song – the quality of the mix, a great loop, the catchiness of the hook, etc.. Most people will admit to being drawn to a song (or having a song stuck in their heads) by the storytelling structure of the arrangement. Creating a tight and well-sequenced arrangement is one area where many people struggle to achieve properly. Their songs lack correlation, which is to say, the combination of repetition vs change. This is one area of songwriting where rules can help tremendously by pre-defining how each sound can be used.
Here are some examples of rules that I would use:
- Direction: is this project for the club, for headphones, for a cinema project? Knowing this will dictate every choice that follows.
- Sections definition: this is a critical one, which I’ll define as -a part of the track where one idea is used in a certain way, and you’ll go from one section to another, hearing a clear and noticeable difference.) Depending on the genre some arrangements are tight, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, etc… Many arrangements stick to a repeating formula, which in this case is a good thing because we listen along and quickly know what to expect. It’s here where you can add and create variations to the sounds which can elevate the intensity in a mighty way for the listener.
- The sequence of percussion. Is this sequence the same over 8 or 16 bars? As before you want to create a stable pattern that repeats itself and can sustain the other elements of your track. The benefit to using repeating structures is that only a small change is needed to introduce a big change, which will grab the listener’s ears right away, and create anticipation for the next part. Hats or claps are often used to create this variation.
- Block sequence and colour: If there’s variation in the same channel for one sound, I highly recommend changing the block colours to indicate that difference. It’s fun and efficient to place your blocks in a visual pattern,”blue-red-blue-red-blue-orange.
- Superimposed blocks: This is the natural follow up to the previous rule. Imagine you have 2 channels, each their own colour sequences, your visual pattern can be created from combining both channels. This is quite useful when you want two different sounds to call/answer one another. You’ll see them one on top of another, as a pair.
- Blocks size: I like to make a sequence for my kicks and then grab them to consolidate (+j). That will create a larger block that I’ll duplicate until the end. Now, I can demand that those kick drum blocks won’t change at all, allowing me to focus my energy on creating variations for my shorter percussion blocks. Imposing block sizes is one of the most liberating ways to speed up the arrangement process!
- Live Blocks vs static: You’ll find that every track I have will include individual elements that are an audio recording of some live manipulation. For me, those blocks are ‘Live’ while the ones that have no manipulation to be ‘sleepy’. You can decide to have a certain ratio of live ones vs sleepy.
- Perspective ratio: Perhaps my favourite. While a ratio in third is the usual (ex. intro, middle, end), you can also have more but each ratio should be the same length more or less. How many sections fit in a moment is really up to you.
- Surprises %: Simple right? How many surprises will you give the listener? Too many will lessen impact while too few might not engage the listener enough and they’ll find your track boring.
- Silences: Super important element. Silences in music can give great power to the notes played. You’ll need at least a tiny moment where you’ll give air to your mix by adding silences to a part. Think creatively about how to want to create space in your sequence.
As you can see, the rules you can create and apply to your track can be anything you wish. The best part about using rules in your workflow is that you’ll greatly speed things up by off-loading much of the mental guess work to a process that’s already been pre-decided. This all means more fun in the studio, more music finished, which is a win-win from every angle.
SEE ALSO : The Science Behind Tracky Music