One of the first things a producer does during pre-production is to dig deep into the songs to check out the arrangements and the song structure. Even if a song is written well and has catchy hooks, the arrangement is what really makes it cook.
How you arrange the song is the key to how it will ultimately sound. The song can be played with great precision and dynamics, but it will never catch fire sonically unless all the instruments complement each other in such a way that the sum of the band’s parts sound bigger and better together than as individual instruments and voices.
Some songwriters have the arrangements worked out in their heads for each band member to play, but for most songwriters (even the most accomplished), that skill has to be developed, or else passed on to a specialist. In order to understand how an arrangement influences a song, you must first understand the mechanics of a well-written arrangement.
Most well-conceived arrangements are limited with regard to the number of elements that occur at the same time. An element can be a single instrument (like a lead guitar or a vocal), or it can be a group of instruments (like the bass and drums, a doubled guitar line, a group of backing vocals, and so on).
Generally, a group of instruments playing exactly the same rhythm is considered an element. Examples: a doubled lead guitar or doubled vocal is a single element, as is a lead vocal with two additional harmonies. Two lead guitars playing two different parts are two elements, however. A lead and a rhythm guitar are two separate elements as well.
When two instruments with essentially the same bandwidth frequency (like guitars) play at the same volume at the same time, the result is a fight for attention. Think of it this way; you don’t usually hear a lead vocal and a guitar solo at the same time, do you? That’s because the human ear isn’t able to decide which to listen to, and becomes confused and fatigued as a result.
So how do you get around two instruments “fighting” one another? First and foremost is to have a well-written arrangement that keeps the various instruments out of each other’s way right from the beginning. The best writers and arrangers have an innate feel for what type of arrangement will work, and the result is an arrangement that automatically comes together without much help—but they’re the lucky ones. Most of the rest of us have to use our experience along with some trial and error to make everything work together.
Rules For Arrangements
So all that being said, there are a couple of easy-to-remember rules that make even the densest arrangement manageable.
1. Limit the number of elements. Usually, no more than four elements should be playing at the same time. Sometimes three elements can work well. Very rarely will five simultaneous elements work.
2. Everything in its own frequency range. This rule is so important that it needs to be stressed: the arrangement will fit together better if every instrument sits in its own frequency range.
For instance, if a synthesizer and rhythm guitar play the same thing in the same octave, they will usually clash. The solution would be to either change the sound of one of the instruments so each fills a different frequency range, have one play in a different octave, or have them play at different times but not together.