In our world of DAWs and plug-ins, we tend to focus on the technical. After all, it’s a large part of our job. But it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the bigger picture - the actual music we are producing in our DAWs.
There are lots of tutorials on songwriting; some even by me :-) And there are certainly a plethora of tutorials on mixing!
But what about the part in between; arranging?
When you think about it, arranging is a very large part of what many of us do within Logic Pro X. For example, we might copy regions to new tracks to double certain parts, audition different loops or Drummer grooves, tweak synth parameters, or experiment with various backing vocal parts.
In the context of songwriting, arranging revolves around how you conceptualize a previously-composed piece of music. It could involve choosing the instruments used, re-harmonizing some of the existing chord progression, changing the phrasing of the melody, altering the song structure, introducing transitions or modulations, etc.
In the context of the modern DAWs we use, arranging may involve developing signature sounds unique to this song, or adding specific processing to individual instruments to give them a unique quality. I like this definition best: “Arranging is the art of giving an existing melody musical variety”.
Where to Start?
So, what informs our decisions and choices as we arrange songs; whether they are our own songs or songs written by others?
Depending on the genre of music, there are always expectations of how things are going to sound and how the song will develop. Listeners bring expectations based on cultural and musical conventions that are part of the modern canon. Knowing what to expect is part of the pleasure of listening. But as arrangers, it is our job to take advantage of those expectations and play with them. Meeting them head on sometimes, and throwing a curve ball at the listener other times.
For example, a pop ballad, a jazz ballad vs. a rock ballad - dropping a sax into one might make sense, but not into the others. And dropping a bagpiper into any of them would be ... “wrong” for the listener unless it’s a Celtic folk ballad.
On the other hand, subtle use in the bridge of a distorted guitar can “surprise” the listener in an acoustic folk song or jazz pop tune. Maybe adding a pause or a couple of couple of extra beats either before or at the end of the bridge section might enhance the song. Perhaps reharmonizing the bridge to make it minor if the rest of the song is major (or vice versa) will add harmonic interest.
Often creating a big build up leading to a climax, and then having everything drop out, except the bare essentials, creates an interesting element of drama. These can all have a strong emotional impact on the listening experience.
But back to the original question:
How do we decide what to do when arranging a song?
I think we need to be guided by the notions of authenticity and meaning. Truly understanding the intent and spirit of a song helps us determine what will best serve the meaning of the text.
Personally, I find sitting back and studying the lyrics of a song pulls my mind and sensibilities in a different direction than I am normally in when sitting in front of Logic Pro. I don’t do this nearly as often as I should. As a musician, I am primarily drawn to the music. As a craftsmen, I am drawn to analyzing the production and use of the tools.
But as an arranger - which I often am - the larger context of the overall song is what is most important to focus on. In other words, I probably shouldn’t pick up my saw until I’ve studied the grain of the wood before me, so to speak.
Recently I entered into a project where my job was to arrange a song written by Rex Strother, a buddy of mine. He sent me a quick and dirty demo he had made, with a piano part mocked up from the EZ Keys MIDI library, a drum loop, and a guide vocal.
Despite its bare bones nature, I could easily hear a strong song with a lot of potential. The melody and chords were simple, but solid. Combined with the lyrics, the whole thing conveyed a strong emotional punch. Here is a short excerpt of the lyrics and the accompanying chords;
and of the original demo:
So, what to do with it now?
Reflecting on the emotional tone of the song, I tuned in to the contrasting duality of the lyric. On one hand, it is confessional in nature, with the protagonist exposing his wounds and displaying his vulnerabilities to the listener. And on the other hand, there is the aspect of the anger and hurt felt towards the antagonist in the story.
So, how to communicate these contrasting emotions and messages through arrangement and production in Logic Pro?
The Song and Logic Pro
Rex sent me his guide vocal track from the demo. I tried several different feels and grooves. Flex Time was invaluable for auditioning different tempos. I eventually settled on a slower tempo than his original demo, although I think the finished arrangement “feels” faster and more agitated and angry in places.
I used different grooves and instrumentation to communicate the contrasting emotion in different sections of the song. I brought in a live guitar player, and recorded some live drums, while programming the rest with software instruments.
I also came up with some unexpected twists, both in terms of instrumentation and in use of production techniques, to throw the listener’s expectations off balance and (hopefully!) draw them more deeply into the narrative. I eventually had Rex re-record the vocals at the new tempo. And of course, inevitably a word or two of the lyric got tweaked along the way.
This project was a stimulating experience for me in stretching my musical sensibilities. Rather than staring at a blank Logic Pro screen, trying to figure out which synth or sounds or plug-ins will sound good, I let the story guide me.
Logic Pro became the tool to build the house; rather than it being the house itself that I go into to work in. I feel I’ve grown through this project. As a musician, an arranger, a Logic Pro user; and as a creator of tutorial content.
Here is a short excerpt of the finished mix.
Arranging and Production in Logic Pro X
If you like what you hear, and this sort of musical journey interests you, you can follow along with me step-by-step in this series of videos I created that captures the whole experience:
You will even hear some of the missteps I took at the beginning, what did and didn’t work, what elements and ideas I opted to include and exclude, and more. The whole thing is created in Logic Pro X, but this series really isn’t about Logic Pro per se.
It’s about using Logic Pro as a means towards an end; toward “fleshing out” the song. And ultimately, that is really what we all use Logic Pro for; as songwriters, arrangers, and producers.