I wrote this when I worked for Musicpage.com, and wanted to share it here. This is a pretty zoomed-out exploration of what it means to “produce” or “arrange” music. I will likely write a follow-up piece that digs in a little more to specific strategies I’ve used in my own work as an arranger.
IF YOU WANT TO LISTEN TO THE ACCOMPANYING PLAYLIST WHILE READING, SCROLL DOWN TO THE BOTTOM OF THE ARTICLE.
I. Diversify, Innovate
Great artists create trends, rather than mimic those that already exist. One way to aid constant innovation is to develop a diverse skill set. We’re seeing this happen naturally as more and more artists pursue a DIY route for both production and promotion of their music. While the recording process previously involved a dedicated engineer, producer, arranger, and artist, these roles are now becoming more blended.
I support this new direction in the industry. I believe young artists of all kinds should celebrate the resources brought upon by the digital age and shifting marketplace. However, as we pursue a new level of independence and self-sufficiency, we still need to learn from the greats that came before. The rules are a little different, but the game is the same. There are people and crafts that prove to be brilliant no matter the era. Process, as much as content, determines the timelessness of art.
One skill set that has evolved (or faded) since the event of digital audio is arranging. It’s a craft equally associated with classical music as it is popular music, and its definition may vary wildly depending on the context, or who you’re asking. This article will cover the craft of arranging music. I’ll look at the process in general, some of the greats who do it, and how it can relate to independent artists.
II. Learn from the Greats
Because part of this article is about acknowledging proven traditions and processes, I’ve reached out to a couple pros for their wisdom. Stuart Epps, a London-based producer who’s worked with Elton John and Led Zeppelin, offers unique recollections and observations from his work on John’s 1970 self-titled album. Trey Pollard, multi-instrumentalist and producer / arranger at Spacebomb Records, gets into the process of his craft.
Epps helped organize the preproduction sessions for John’s self-titled album. “The songs [Elton] had written were quite complex,” Epps says, “It was semi-classical. Gus Dudgeon was brought in, who’d worked with David Bowie on ‘Space Oddity,’ which was quite ‘far out’ if you will. He heard the demos and said, ‘Well we have to get Paul Buckmaster to do the strings.’ He’s the guy who wrote it all out, it was up to him to come up with the notes.”
Pollard had an early interest in arranging before getting more serious about studying and experimenting in college. “The first time I actually arranged strings for a record was on Matthew E. White’s Big Inner,” he says.
Big Inner was the inaugural launch for Spacebomb Records, an independent record label and production house based in Richmond, VA. Spacebomb’s process takes its cues from the likes of Motown, using a house rhythm section and in-house arrangers. Pollard has written all the strings for their releases.
Their DIY ethos does not skimp on professionalism, as every step is meticulously thought, if not written, out. Most importantly, the musicianship is out of this world. Among other things, the model works because of their access to quality players at affordable prices.
III. Arranging and Producing
As I have covered, DIY recording methods often blur the different roles of the process. This can make it difficult to define arranging, and how it relates to and differs from producing.
Pollard says, “To me, producing and arranging are basically the same job with slightly different, but overlapping, tools.” They both involve “an arrangement of sounds to support a song. These terms generally refer to deciding what instruments / sounds / production-elements are playing which notes / rhythms that build the song,” he says.
Epps says, “The record producer is more in control of the sound. They might get involved in the arrangement of the songs, but there’s a difference between arranging the song and arranging strings.” He draws a comparison to the movie world, explaining, “A record producer is more like a film director than a film producer. The producer usually just fronts the money, but the director is in charge.”
Being aware of which hat you’re wearing can be helpful, but just remember each step of production should get you closer to realizing the song.
IV. Mechanics and Mindset
Pollard goes more in depth in his summary of arranging by covering the horizontal and vertical framework of a song. “By horizontally,” he says, “I mean the story of the song, in time from beginning to end. Something should happen, you should take the song somewhere and bring us to the end.”
For a very small-scale example, consider the classic melody “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The very first phrase leaps an octave, and the following phrases descend back down to the starting note. This is only one element of the story, melody, but there is a natural and apparent journey there.
He continues, “The vertical refers to the harmonic / counter-melodic material that fills in the sonic space around the melody. As a reference, when the song ‘Stand By Me’ starts, the vertical space is so perfect and sparse, just bass and percussion. The horizontal growth is built entirely on the vertical structure, which is essentially just that one riff, getting thicker and thicker. It’s a beautiful simple arrangement that works. There’s that nice instrumental bit with a new melody and counter-melody and some weird vocal pads, but there’s really only 2 elements, the riff and the melody. The production and arrangement of that song are one in the same.”
The main texture by the end of “Stand By Me” is the string arrangement. Epps points out that, for tracks like that, “Because they’re being played by session musicians, horn plays, string players, they have to be written parts.”
For many, written notation is a primary difference between arranging and producing. Epps says the arranger typically has a more classical background, while “the producer is on the more technical side of things.”
“I think generally people use the word ‘producing’ as a catch-all for everything else that’s not ‘songwriting,” Pollard says. “It’s essentially deciding how the song should ‘go.’ Whether it’s a bunch of power-chord guitars taking up the vertical space or a horn section or a bunch of electronic noise, there still is a finite about of space” in the mix / arrangement, he explains, “and it should still support the melody in basically… the same way. Range and tessitura still work the same no matter what the sounds are. I’m not going to put any competing sound that is in exactly the same range melody in the track. An example of a ‘competing’ sound would be one that is too active to be perceived as ‘background material.’ It will clash with the vocal and confuse the perception of the melody.”
V. Find Your Groove
If you don’t have a formal music background, and / or don’t know words like tessitura, do not fret. “I think that a lot of people that think of themselves as producers do the same things” as an arranger, Pollard acknowledges, “they might just get there a different way.”
Quincy Jones and Dr. Dre both produce award-winning music with R&B roots. They do not necessarily sound similar, and their backgrounds are very different, yet their thought process and ingredients are essentially the same.
The idea of notating lines for eight to sixteen string players and ten horn players can seem daunting, but just remember a song is basically a story, and you don’t necessarily need those textures to tell your story. As Pollard explained earlier, a good song takes the listener on a journey, and journeys require a vehicle, an engine, a mode of moving.
“I think a lot about the ‘motor’ of the track,” Pollard explains. “There’s melodic material, there’s harmonic material, and then there’s the ‘motor,’” he says.
Something like a rhythm guitar or piano often dips into melodic, harmonic, and motor.
He suggests finding out, “What is the essence of this motor, rhythmically? Break it down to it’s most basic form (i.e. maybe it’s a clave or something similar). Decide whether an element of the arrangement can / should add to the effectiveness of the rhythm or if it should exist outside of it.”
Consider “Still Dre” by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. The piano riff on 8th notes is the motor. Other elements in the arrangement include bass, drums, a string sample, a synth, and of course vocals. Listen to the way the drums and bass accentuate the piano motor. The other elements are less constant so as not to interfere with the motor.
“If an element is not helping the rhythm, that’s fine,” Pollard continues, “but make sure it stays out of the way of it. Don’t have the horns playing some rhythmic thing that confuses the essence of that motor. I’m not saying that everything has to ‘hook up’ all the time, but in general, decide whether it’s helping that motor or not. And if it is, make it sit really nice and accentuate everything that makes it work.”
Popular music especially has long been rooted in the rhythm, the groove of a song. Because of the movement, well-arranged songs in the popular tradition are fantastic for dance parties or blasting in your car stereo. Whatever elements you choose to arrange, try to present some narrative for your listener.
VI. The Rules Have Changed but the Game is the Same
I mentioned at the beginning of the article that the craft of arranging, in the traditional sense, is fading. Resources such as MIDI have enabled producers, whether working in their bedroom or in a state-of-the-art studio, to play virtually any part digitally.
“Everything has changed with sample keyboards that produce the most amazing orchestral sounds,” Epps says. “With budgets now I very rarely get to use a string section. I use a particular keyboard player named Paul Hirsch. He’ll play a whole orchestral part and it costs a few hundred dollars instead of a couple thousand,” he half celebrates, half laments. (Ahem, Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, VA offers very affordable string players / arranging.)
“To a certain extent,” Epps says, “it doesn’t have to be written out anymore. It’s put a lot of people out of work, I think. If they’re good they’ve probably gone into film or TV. Most arrangers probably want to get into TV.”
While traditional arranging is less present in popular music today, it wasn’t necessarily mainstream in early 1960s and 70s rock / pop either (Phill Spector and Motown perhaps being the exceptions). Many of the artists who were doing it in the 60’s were themselves looking back to singers like Frank Sinatra, who recorded with massive orchestras.
Epps mentions the Elton John album he worked on. The production method was not the norm for rock bands even as musically articulate as the Beatles. He says, “It wasn’t just arranged for strings. It was arranged for strings, bass, guitar, everything. What should the bassline be? What should the drums do? It was quite different for a pop album at the time, but it was definitely like the way Frank Sinatra would have done it.”
These bigger, more eclectic sound palettes stemmed from fantastic collaborations. “Paul [Buckmaster] was a young guy,” Epps says, “and just as in-tune to rock and pop as he was classical. That’s part of what’s so interesting about the Beatles and George Martin. They were from different eras. He was not only producing, but was also their string arranger. That’s probably why it worked so well. He was maybe even more an arranger than a producer, ‘cause knew what they wanted.”
It’s nice to romanticize about being part of such a partnership, but do not be discouraged if that doesn’t seem possible. “Process depends on the budget,” Epps says plainly. “In the 60s,” he unveils, “it was about who could afford it and wanted to experiment.”
No matter your budget or resources, you can be an arranger. Give care to the process. Give care to the song. Think about the story and how your arrangement contributes to its drama. I’ve compiled a list of the songs and people mentioned in this article, plus several other songs I think have exceptional arrangements. One of the best ways (I’d say the best way) to get into arranging is to listen to great arrangements.
It’s always unique and interesting to know what a composer thinks of their own work, so I’ve provided a little commentary from Pollard, who arranged the first track on the playlist “Christy.” I unfortunately was not able to track down the other arrangers / producers on this playlist, but if you want to know why I included a track, what I dig about it, shoot me an e-mail.
Scroll below the playlist for the glossary / name-drop references
“Christy” by Natalie Prass (on the playlist)
Pollard says this is his favorite arrangement he’s had the pleasure of writing. “Since it was only going to be strings and harp in the track, I only had to tend to Natalie’s voice and the melody. Not the melody plus drums, bass, a bunch of chordal instruments, etc. That’s fun too, but since you don’t get many opportunities to be the sole-creator of the instrumental sounds that often, when those songs come along, it’s really refreshing. It’s a really dark song too, lyrically, so it was nice to get go down that road a bit. In a track like this, you get to have a bit more freedom with inner voices. In a big track with drums and pianos and everything, you still do your due diligence and make sure there’s good voice-leading, but you never really hear most of that in the final mix. So, it’s nice to be able to hear that stuff and know that every black dot you write will inform the listener’s experience.”
Stuart Epps (is an active Musicpage member and enjoys working with young artists on any number of things from management to production)
tessitura– the range that the voice / instrument sounds “best.” And / or the range that is used most frequently throughout a piece.