Mixing Arrangement Rules
One of the first and most important keys to a great mix is having a great musical arrangement. As engineers, direct control of arrangement is usually out of our hands, although, sometimes we have the ability to influence it. Regardless of our influence, I think it’s important to understand a bit of arrangement basics because arrangement plays a big part in how a piece of music is presented and mixed.
Something I’ve discovered while working with musicians and church music staff is many are missing a fundamental understanding of arrangement and how it works. So I want to offer some points for you as an engineer when you’re working with the musicians on stage or discussing a mix with someone.
Mixing Arrangement Rules
- When multiple instruments perform the same or very similar parts(chords, notes, rhythm, etc.), at best, this will create a sonic texture. Otherwise the loudest instrument will win.
- Distinct musical parts are required to hear distinction between instruments.
Now, you might look at the two ideas above and think one is better than the other, but I’m going to stop you right there. We may have a personal preference toward one of these, but they are both simply tools for music creation.
I know I have been guilty of dismissing the first idea in that list as a viable approach, but I don’t always feel the same way now. A LOT of modern music makes use of the first idea to add texture to a sound or even create completely new textures. Sometimes it might be done intentionally and sometimes accidental, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Producers and arrangers have been layering different instruments together for decades in order to add to and/or achieve a certain sound.
For example, let’s look at something simple like a bass guitar. If you listen to Numb by Linkin Park, in the chorus of the song, the bass guitar serves primarily as low frequency extension for the guitars which gives the guitars a thicker texture. In the verses, it essentially does the same thing for the piano. It’s only in the pre-chorus where the bass has a bit of distinction as it gets some movement.
Contrast that with the bass in Ain’t No Mountain High Enough where we have a very distinct bass part courtesy of the legendary James Jamerson.
Sticking with Motown, we can hear both of these techniques together in the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back.
In the verses, the bass and the piano play the same part in different octaves to blend together a bit for most of the section. However, when we switch to the chorus, the bass becomes more melodic and distinct. The change in the arrangement adds interest and keeps the song moving forward.
Look, I’ll admit there have been and still are times I get frustrated as a mixer because there is no distinction between parts, but this is something I’m working on. I think I spent a lot of years mixing under the assumption I had to make everything on stage distinct, and I think many engineers fall into the same trap. However, I found over time this wasn’t the case nearly as much as I thought it was. It probably helped me develop some of my engineering chops in some ways, but I don’t think it was ever worth being frustrated over. Plus, it is often futile to try and bend the arrangement of a song to your own will.
So what do you do when you’re being handed instruments that are texturing together rather than playing distinct parts? Here are few things you can try.
For starters, make sure you’re getting great tones on everything. As engineers, we always need to have our end right. Our opinions on arrangement choices are NEVER an excuse for poor engineering. This is part of why it’s important to get good soundchecks on everything, and it goes back to a common theme I’ve talked about: get it right at the source. I think it’s always beneficial to have the best sounding sources because what do you do if you’re faced with a song arrangement alternating between distinct parts and textures?
Secondly, don’t immediately view this as a problem. For example, look at vocals for a minute. I have worked with vocalists who intentionally sing in unison because it creates a sound they are after. Harmony vocals are another vocal texture since the vocalists are singing the same lyrics and using the same phrasing. With harmonies, we often only get a single distinct voice, although, sometimes harmonies become a pure texture as well. Check out some old Crosby, Stills, and Nash or Queen or the Beatles or even just a really great choir to hear some examples.
Thirdly, make sure everything is adding together. An easy way to check this is to simply mute and un-mute things. If you hear a change when you mute something, it’s contributing in some fashion. This might not be a night and day kind of change, but you should be able to notice a difference.
Finally, if you’re still confused on how to approach mixing the music, ask questions. Talk with a music/worship director or the musicians and find out what the musical intent is. Are the musicians intentionally playing the same or very similar parts? Sometimes they actually are! A quick question can settle everything. And if you run into a musician or someone who doesn’t understand why that might be an issue, simply point them to this article.
Now, I’ll add one last thing. There are some mixing techniques we can use such as EQ, effects, and fader rides to assist in separating instruments so they may be heard more distinctly. I get into these when I’m doing workshops and working one-on-one with guys, and if I ever write a book I’ll definitely lay them out there. However, before any of these techniques will work, the song must be arranged to allow it. Don’t try and fight the arrangement. Mix with it in mind.
We have a smaller team with only one elec guitar and one keyboard. Sometimes I’ll feel there’s something missing and I’ll look for a fader to push up but there’s nothing because the elec gtr and keys are making the same sound. I wonder if they are really listening to each other.
Listening is becoming a lost art amongst musicians, but that’s a topic for another day.
So true. Just because you are playing a keyboard doesn’t mean that you need to use all of the available space.
Great wisdom Dave!