I haven’t blogged for a while, but I have been writing an absolute ton of music over the summer while I have a break from my day job at the college. And more than anything I have been focusing on arrangement, making tracks interesting all the way through and avoiding looping/repeating stuff as much as possible. Here is my top tip for writing interesting arrangements:
mute the drums, and focus on everything else in your track….
There are two main reasons why I do this. First, drums are very tiring for your ears. All those transients, and lots of high frequency. As a tinnitus sufferer, I find it is nice to give my ears a rest to avoid them getting fatigued. But the most important reason you should mute your drums is so you can hear what the instruments are actually doing! In DnB the drums are always going to be right at the front of the mix, and they mask a lot of your other sounds. Yes, you need to put the work in and get your drums rocking. But even really good drums do not hold the attention for 5-6 minutes.
Once you mute the drums you get a better understanding of what your instruments are doing, and how they relate to each other. Here’s the challenge: can you make the track interesting and lively all the way through without relying on the energy of the drums?
Switching the drums off forces you to focus on the journey of your track. It doesn’t matter if you are writing the deepest liquid or the hardest neuro, your track should be evolving and keep the listener guessing from start to finish. When the drums and bass are playing it is too easy to just ‘roll it out’ and copy and paste whole 16 bar sections. But why would you just repeat the same section twice? You end up with what is effectively a really long loop, and if you don’t keep the listener on their toes then their brain will habituate and switch off.
Once your drums are muted, start soloing instruments and looking for pairs – two sounds that compliment each other both musically and in terms of frequency. It could be that the two sounds have textures that work well together, or you have found a nice call and response between the two melodies. I will move tracks up and down in the DAW until the pairs are next to each other. And I colour everything so I can see the arrangement more clearly. I think Ableton does this by default, but in Logic you should take a minute to give each sound it’s own colour and it is so much easier to read the arrange window.
When you have identified some pairs, try swapping them around to see how they interact with other parts. Soon you will have a better idea of all the possible combos within your track. I like to have pairs playing for alternate 16s, so that just as the listener has got used to the musical parts in a section, you make a switch and introduce a different combo. For example, a sampled piano with a complimentary pad for the first 16 after the drop, then answered by a strings and keys combo in the alternate 16. By not playing sounds for too long you leave the listener wanting more and encourage them to listen all the way through.
If you get it right you can then combine your pairs with the special element of a vocal or lead melody to really lift your track. Save a few special parts for the last 4 bars of a section and then every 16 and every 32 feels like it builds to a climax. You can also think about the elements in the way a band would – does the piano play during the verses or just the chorus? Let the keys play a solo in the 16 bars before the breakdown. Save your pad for the sections where you want to calm it down.
I put this technique into practice last night, which inspired me to write this article. I had been sent stems for a collaborative project, and once I had loaded the sounds into the right channels in my mix template, I went through the musical parts and looked for pairs. I then added some new parts of my own, and soon I had all the musical elements needed for a full tune. At this point I sketched out the arrangement in full, thinking about how the energy built up and down, some sections are busier and then drop down into a stripped section so it can build up again. You can’t play all your sounds all the time, so think about how they relate to each other and you can develop an arrangement that is progressive.
I worked for 2-3 hours with no drums. I focused on the journey and had a track that kept me interested and changed enough to avoid the boredom of familiarity. When I finally switched the drums back on it had the desired effect – suddenly the track was full of energy and I was dancing in my chair! But most importantly it held my attention for 5 minutes, and if you’ve ever listened to one of my mixes you’ll know I have a very short attention span.
Give it a try and tell me what you think. Your ears will thank you, and hopefully you will put more focus on the structure and arrangement of your music and keep the listener locked in for your whole track.