Arrangement - read before you record your song

Before you ever start recording a song, there are two types of arrangement you should be thinking about:

  • Compositional arrangement.  That is, is your song well-arranged from the compositional standpoint? If you've worked out your song in a band context over time, honed, rehearsed it, and have played it live to good response, chances are the song is already well-arranged (hopefully). On the other hand, if the song is new, and you're working by yourself without any outside feedback, you should pay close attention to song form, and make sure you use a form that flows well, maximizes your hooks, and doesn't have any unecessary elements. 
  • Production/Mix arrangement. Production/mix arrangement is about creating a dynamic mix that remains interesting to the listener for the duration of the song. The elements that achieve this are created during tracking and mixing.  It is important to note that while this type of arrangement is vital to the outcome of your recording, a brilliant production/mix arrangement cannot save a song that is poorly arranged compositionally.  You could hire your favorite producer to produce your song, and get a totally kick-ass mix, but if the song isn't arranged well, it'll still fall flat. 

Unfortunately, many home recording beginners do not spend enough time on either arrangement type before recording their songs. This is a major reason why producers exist, but the advent of home recording has made every musician their own defacto producer, and like playing your instrument, these are skills you have to develop and learn over time. 

And sadly, fixing a weak arrangement is generally much harder than fixing a mix.  There are -- in my experience -- three levels at which the arrangement of an already-recorded can be doctored or fixed:

  • Mild: Things you can fix in the mix, or via editing in the daw. Not too bad cause you're still in the mix phase.
  • Moderate: Involves tracking new additional parts.  Not fun, but not the end of the world. 
  • Major: Involves re-tracking the song.  Probably quite defeating

The two most common recurring issues I hear are: 

The dynamically flat arrangement - this is characterized by everything kind of sounding the same throughout the song. Same volume levels for verses and choruses, similar feel throughout the song. The fix for this one is usually relatively mild. Things like making the choruses seem/sound bigger than the verses. Here's a good video that explains this.

The uninteresting or too-long arrangement - this one has to do with listener attention span, and more often than not, these mixes are also dynamically flat (with all of the associated problems mentioned above). Worse, though, the song may have unneeded parts like an extra verse or a unnecessary bridge.  The way you combat this problem as the songwriter is to demo the song (preferably stripped-down -- even if it's just playing it into a tape recorder) and then take off your songwriter hat of the creator and try your best to be an objective, BRUTALLY honest listener. Pretend you have never heard the song before and that you have no skin in the game, whatsoever. Maybe you're someone who doesn't even typically listen to the genre normally. 

Does every part of the song hold your interest?
 It SHOULD. Does the song have an arc? Does it build to a crescendo? It SHOULD. Does the listener know what part to focus on at any/every point of the song? Have you told them? You must. 

This article describes it in more depth.   

Here's a great excerpt:
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Have you ever found yourself playing a song of yours for a friend? You’re sitting there sharing your latest masterpiece with her, when at some point in the song (during an intro or verse for example) you find yourself both thinking and saying, “Just wait till the bridge. It’s awesome!”

That’s a huge clue that your song isn’t well chiseled. If you’re hoping to get to the “good stuff” in your song so you can impress your friend or show them what the song is “really” all about, then you have too much fat. It’s only getting in the way of what you feel is the best element of your song.

If your chorus hook is the best part, then put it first! Make it the intro. Why wait??

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If your song has these issues, you may want to do more than "sweeten the mix." You may want to go back and add some new parts, or even re-record it with a stronger arrangement.  But there are many simple tricks to achieve a more dynamic mix during tracking and/or at mix time, such as making Verse 2 somehow slightly different than Verse 1. For example, adding a complementary part or melody so that the song builds as it goes. You might also achieve a similar effect by dropping something out of a Verse.  For example, dropping the guitar out can bring the dynamic down in a Verse. Or start Verse 1 with single-tracked guitar panned near center and double track it panned hard left and right in Verse 2. This makes Verse 2 bigger and wider -- thus the song grows and builds.  These are very simple things to do, and add SO MUCH to your song -- if you think to do them before-hand, but it isn't obvious -- you have to learn to do them. 

Personally, when I'm about to record a (compositionally well-arranged) song, in the days leading up to the session, I spend a good amount of time just thinking about the guitar parts I want to create and how to treat them in the mix. I also think about any melodic instrument (such as keys, strings etc.) that isn't drums or bass which are comparatively straight-forward.  I open a Word file and make production/tracking notes and write down what I want to do so I don't forget during the tracking session. For example, here's an excerpt from my notes from the song Loaded Dice.

  • Verse 1 part A - Start with just acoustic single tracked, off center. 
  • Verse 1 part B - acoustic AND electric
  • Keep the guitar(s) panned nearer center during the verse, then go wide on the choruses to be big, and leave room for the piano in the middle.
  • Emphasize piano over guitar in choruses.
  • Verse 2 parts A and B - double tracked electric, hard L and R.

And so on.  Provided your song is well-arranged compositionally, the benefits of making such notes are that they provide a roadmap for you, so you waste less time in the session wondering about what you should be tracking and why, and once your done tracking, you already know the basics of what you want to do in your mix. Yeah, you'll still make adjustments and decisions on-the-fly, but you at least have a thought-out starting point.  Thus, you are essentially arranging your mix before you ever even track. 


The other thing I'd emphasize is that there are basic, tried and true songwriting formulas such as A-B-A-C-A-B (among others) -- PLEASE USE THEM! There's a reason why they work over and over again regardless of genre. This article describes them.


Get real comfortable using traditional arrangement formulas before you try and write Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner or Achilles Last Stand.  If your arrangement feels compositionally weird and the song drags on too long, those things are real tough to fix at mix time With modern editing you may get lucky, and be able to delete that last superfluous verse and double the chorus out, but it's more likely you're either gonna re track it, or worse, live with it. 

If you're going to record your own music, I suggest you read everything you can on song arrangement as it pertains to production.  It's more fundamentally important than mixing. The Recording Revolution is a good place to start