Tips for Song Arrangement in the Studio
A good rule of thumb is that, when preparing for a recording session, the more time you spend on pre-production, the better your production will be. This is especially true when creating song arrangements.
The following tips do not make up an exhaustive list of arranging ideas, nor should you expect that all of the information will be new to you. Arranging ideas are song specific — what can lift one tune from mundane to unforgettable may not work at all on another. Keep these ideas in the back of your mind, and eventually one (or more) of them will be exactly what your next song needs.
- Dynamics – The use of dynamic changes to separate verses and choruses is one of the easiest, as well as most natural, ways to create movement in a song. Choruses are commonly louder than verses: drummers can play with a side-stick on the verses and full snare on the choruses; guitarists can strum the choruses while arpeggiating verses; keyboard players can lighten up the verses — there are all sorts of ways to make dynamic changes, including either adding or changing instrumentation when you want a section to get bigger.
- Instruments – If the choruses are going to be bigger than the verses, then adding additional instruments to the choruses is a great way to make them bigger. For example, if a verse has one electric guitar part, then adding a second, more distorted guitar in the chorus will definitely help make the chorus bigger. A piano in the verse can be joined by an organ in the chorus, or a tambourine (or other percussion) can be used for the same effect. Any instrument that adds to a given section can be used — a sax, a mandolin, or an accordion.
- Instrumental Parts – I can’t overemphasize the importance of the rhythm-section musicians creating and then playing parts — if you can create consistent parts for verses, choruses, and any other sections within the song, then the arrangement will not only make more sense but will most likely become more musical.
- Key Change – While it has been used — and possibly overused — for years, when you need to lift up a song, a key change can work wonders. A half or a whole step modulation after a solo or bridge or into a repeat chorus can do wonders for the excitement of song.
- Vocal Arrangements – Background vocals are a great tool for creating song arrangements. As a song progresses, start with one harmony voice, add another later in the song, and go all the way up to a full choir (if the song supports that sort of thing). It’s more common to have one or two singers harmonizing some sections of the song along with the lead vocalists, while other parts of the song will have a small group of singers doing “oohs” and “ahhs.” This sort of vocal pad can add richness and depth even to quieter portions of the song. Adding answers to the lead vocals, from a lead vocalist’s perspective, or changing the timbre of your voice from light and airy to a full-throated scream (or something in-between) can define the parts of a song and make an arrangement more memorable.
These are just a few of the many things to think about when creating arrangements for studio recordings; there are hundreds more. While great songs and great performances are more important than any arranging ideas, great arrangements will help the songs reach their fullest potential.