This week, in Part 3 of our series on improving your arrangements through simple, time-tested techniques and approaches, we’ll be taking a look at the manipulation of ‘space’ as a means of adding emotional impact to the transitions among and between musical passages. (here are Part 1 and Part 2 for those who need to catch up).
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To the matter at hand: at any given moment, all the sounds that make up whatever song you’re listening to reside inside a space. Mixers who are in the early parts of their journey often become obsessed --- and rightly so --- with creating interesting spaces via reverb, distance mic’ing, frequency balance, and panning.
Width tends to be the most obvious aspect of space, and also the simplest to create (but as with all things, there’s an art to getting it to the next level, and the best mixers can do things many only dream of). Height is almost never talked about, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, but we'll be talking about it today. And depth, well… depth is one of those ‘holy grails’ in music production. Right up there with warmth, punch, tight bass, and silky treble, almost everyone covets it, yet few know how to achieve it.
But here’s a notion that you’ll either find exciting or discouraging, depending on where you are in your journey: it’s not enough to create a mix that’s wide, tall, and deep. To be clear, crafting that kind of palpable sense of space in a mix is a serious accomplishment, and anyone who does it has a right to be proud. But a ‘space’ is no different than anything else in this game, once a listener has heard a specific space for a while, they’ll start to ignore it.
What’s a mixer to do, then? It’s simple, you do the same with space that you do with everything else: you keep changing it, in the right ways, at the right times. And while you’ll ultimately be creating and manipulating space in the mixing stage, the extent to which you can do artful and engaging things with spaces depends heavily on how the song has been arranged.
And so we come to this week’s arrangement topic of choice.
This arrangement device is extremely powerful yet, more often than not, completely overlooked. It also occupies a unique place in this discussion because it can be accomplished purely through composition or purely through engineering. But (surprise surprise) it is most formidable when the two worlds combine, when a masterful arrangement meets masterful engineering.
Here’s the general idea: whenever a sparser part of a song morphs into a denser one, or an energetic section recedes into a mellower one, or a heavier part lifts into a lighter one… these are all your cues to play with width (via panning), height (via bass and treble extension), and depth (via ambiences).
The goal is to continually reshape “the space of the song” as the arrangement unfolds, and in so doing usher the listener through a continuously unfolding series of psychological environments which keep them engaged about what’s going on, and eternally curious about where they’re going next.
Beethoven did it, Daft Punk does it, I do it, and my guess is once you get a feel for it, you’ll be doing it too.
Each aspect of space --- height, width, and depth --- has its own unique considerations and approaches, and we’re going to look at all of them in turn. For each aspect I’ll offer concrete examples of things that are constantly being done in songs you know and love. Once you start to notice these kinds of tricks in play, you’ll start hearing them everywhere, and in all likelihood you’ll start hearing how much you haven’t been doing them.
Personally, I’m addicted to sleuthing out the millions of ways that the masters have been slipping this stuff right under my nose all along, pulling my puppet strings while I was none the wiser. Now it’s your turn. Game on!
As with all the good tricks, this is compositional as well as engineering. For this discussion we’ll consider the verse our baseline, the space against which all other spaces are judged.
For starters, when the chorus hits, whatever was happening in the verse, make the bass go deeper and the treble go higher. The simplest way to do that is to write the bass part so that it drops in pitch to a register that’s below the verse. Likewise for the treble, bring in a shaker or other percussive sound that’s got more HF than whatever was in the verse.
Dropping the bass down and lifting the treble up has the effect of stretching the space in two directions at once, making it taller. But it can also be effective to lift the bass up from the verse; coupling that with a treble lift has the effect of elevating the song, which can literally help to give it an uplifting feel, as if everything got lighter and started floating. Do it again in the bridge and the effect can be soaring.
Also, pay attention to the directional movement of other instruments and their frequencies/registers. Bring in new parts an octave higher, and/or shift the existing instruments up to higher chord voices, or lower ones... or both. But always remember to keep things out of the way of each other; don’t stack up instruments that are all playing the same register. ‘Slot’ your parts so they don’t conflict, that will help you preserve the empty spaces even as you fill up the soundfield.
If you have no control over the instrumentation, there’s still a lot you can do as an engineer. Goosing the extreme lows and highs with some choice shelving filters is the obvious choice, as is simply pushing up the level of the bass and any HF percussion. Layer in another kick sample that hits deeper, and a snare sample that snaps brighter. Even if all you do is add a little sparkle to the lead vocal and push it into a brighter reverb, you'll be on the right track.
A classic engineering twist on stretching the space taller is to have a parallel buss with drums, maybe bass as well; use eq to crank the bass and treble aggressively, and smash it all back down with a fast attack, fast release, pumping compressor. Then ride that buss fader up and down whenever the song needs that flavor of extension, excitement and texture shift. You can also do the same with the vocal(s). A little goes a long way with this technique!
Panning is the obvious weapon of choice here, but bear in mind as an arranger that your job is to give the engineer things to pan in the first place. So keep things lean and tight in the verse; imagine a drum and bass foundation with vocals and, say, a single guitar track just off-center. Where are the overheads panned? If it’s electronic, where is the hat panned? Keep everything near the middle. Got a reverb? Keep it narrow, not hard L-R where everybody defaults. Hell, make it a dark mono verb, that will leave you room to grow it upwards, outwards, and backwards.
With a sparse baseline, when the chorus hits and you add two or four sounds (changing in pairs, remember?)… pan the new sounds out. Not necessarily hard panned, even 9 and 3 will be dramatic coming from a mono-ish verse like the one described above. Maybe two percussive elements come in as well, pan them even farther out. If you have overheads, pan them farther out than they were in the verse.
Maybe strings or a pad come in… make those wide, possibly even psychoacoustically widened so they extend beyond the L-R boundaries. New vocal harmonies? Yep, pan ‘em out.
The idea with width is simple: when the song changes and the energy ramps up, everything grows outwards. Just as critically, when the energy recedes the whole song pulls back in again. This is contrast, the essence of drama!
Depth is most often accomplished through engineering (through the capturing and/or generation and balancing of ambiences, both real and artificial). But that doesn’t mean it’s a mix thing. Indeed, if your productions involve the recording of real instruments in real spaces, you might want to consider getting clever about recording more ambient tracks of more instruments from more perspectives.
That way, when that almighty chorus hits, you can ride up the smashed drum room mic and the distant mics on the guitars and lead vocal. Beyond the mics, don’t forget the reverb sends, pushing harder into them is rarely a bad thing when looking to create moving into a new section.
And here’s yet another simple option that so many overlook: introducing entirely new reverbs and delays into the mix at key points. If you were restrained enough to keep that verse tight and up the middle with a dark mono verb, then the injection of a brighter, longer, hard-panned stereo verb in the chorus can create an incredibly dynamic shift.
Another tasty little depth trick is to introduce new sounds, like strings or an arpeggiated synth or guitar or whatever… at low levels and nearly 100% wet. So even if you had a long stereo reverb in the verse, if everything was going into it subtly, it was more about glue than ambience. But if a new sound or two enters the picture drenched in that same reverb, with lows and highs filtered out and balanced low in the mix, the whole picture morphs as you create the illusion that everything stretches back into the inky black depths and beyond. This is an advanced trick because those new sounds generally have to be tucked into the mix with a deft ear, otherwise things just sound swampy rather than deep.
So let’s take everything we envisioned above, give it a form, and take stock of what all of it can actually look like.
• We have a minimal verse, drums bass and vocal, with guitar just off center and a dark mono reverb gluing everything. A simple, narrow, intimate space. Then the chorus hits and our bass drops deeper while some sparkly percussion flies up and to the sides.
• A higher guitar part goes to 9 o’clock, a piano at 3 o’clock. Both feed a new, longer, widepanned, brighter reverb.
• High strings also come in, buried in that longer reverb, tucked in the back.
• Finally, vocal harmonies come in, bright and dry, hard-panned L and R.
Can you see how dramatic that much change can be? Setting aside the actual musical parts and sounds and performances, the amount of movement that’s embedded in that simple set of arrangement choices allows the mix engineer to really lay it on thick. The degree of contrast is stunning; new sounds emerge and assemble into an entirely new shape that stretches up, down, back, left, and right.
If you do it right, the listener cannot help but be mesmerized.
Just as powerful is the shift back from that taller, wider, deeper space into the familiar and comfortably intimate space of the verse. Yes, the explosion into a well-orchestrated hook is a major payoff, but having the dust settle and the tension begin to build all over again is an equally big payoff. It’s the roller coaster ride, beginning the slow climb to yet another round of excitement.
Granted, the composer has a bit of work to do to bridge all these sections, to make the transition from ‘empty’ to ‘full’ not only seamless but effortless. Likewise, the mixer has to do the same, creating fader rides, automation, and all the other things we do to bring sounds to life, only in this case we get to highlight and expand all this magical movement that’s already encoded in the arrangement, which is infinitely more rewarding than trying to inject life into a static lump of sound.
And so it is that we conclude part 3 of this series on Better Arrangements. Next week, we’re going to take some of the simple ideas outlined so far, the things designed to add contrast to a production, and I’m going to show you how to make all these various devices contrast with one another.
Yes, that’s right, we’re going to add contrast to our contrast.
Until then, keep practicing!
Gregory Scott - ubk