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Making Arrangements: Part 2

A Rough Guide To Song Construction & Arrangement By Big George
Published November 1997

Big George looks at arranging for strings, brass and horns.

In Part 1, we looked at various ways to lay out a song; this month we're going to explore a couple of different ways to colour up a track. Even if your particular musical bent is 'Hardcore Techno Massive', acknowledging no known boundaries to the sonic experience of the recording process, there's still maybe something for you to glean from the next couple of pages. If you make music that is more to do with mainstream daytime radio play, there definitely is.

There's an old saying that 'you can't polish a turd', although there are plenty of ex‑Number One acts who spend months trying to shine up their latest, unremarkable albums — the only thing dazzling about the end result they produce, however, is the cost of the video special effects to promote these pieces of musical irrelevance.

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In the hands of an expert, or someone with 'that certain touch', the addition of musical colour can raise a track to hitherto unimagined levels of orgasmic audible pleasure. In the hands of a lazy or careless expert, however, or someone who merely thinks they have 'the touch', adding strings and/or horns can drown a track in a sea of ill conceived, over‑busy, self indulgent nonsense.

You, as the arranger, are the judge of what is the right amount of fairy dusted gloss to put on, but the listening (and more importantly, buying) public will always be the jury. But thankfully, it is possible to fool some of the people all of the time!

Adding strings or horns to an arrangement, whether they are real instruments playing along to the previously recorded backing track (only the very brave begin with 'a section' at the start of the recording process) or sequenced, synthesised or sampled re‑creations, is one of the most rewarding and exhilarating (and time consuming!) elements of arranging. Sadly, it's not also the most financially rewarding aspect of the music industry — the rate for arranging a six part score is £2.30 per bar, which means for an average pop song the fee would be less than £300 for a full six voice brass or string arrangement. But that's only if you get hired by the artist or producer as 'an arranger' for the session. If you are, you'll have to supply perfectly constructed, readable and playable parts, which you will no doubt have to amend in the studio to take into consideration 'that new chord sequence in the middle eight'. But don't think about that too much, being part of the session generally means you do it for nothing.

Alone With The Horn

One of the easiest jobs in the arrangement of brass, and the one that always gets the less‑musical elements of the operation (record company liggers, parents, friends and lovers) jumping up and down shouting "it's a Hit", is the time honoured saxophone solo. This is one section in a song which definitely requires the use of a human being. The way to execute this most heralded, but elementary part of the session is simple, just call up the best saxophone player who's phone number you have, and get them to come down to the studio and blow their lungs out on your track — in the relevant key of course. The cost of this can be as little as a pint of beer, right the way up to £200, or so, but that should buy you the best there is. If the player is good, and there are loads of stunning saxophone players around these days, the the chances are they will play something brilliant first time, just like on all the really big hits.

If you want a little more control over the style of the solo you want them to play, tape a couple of your favourite solos off records. Not only will it help them, but it will save everyone the spectacle of you singing a load of incoherent nonsense trying to indicate how you think the solo should go! This never works out the way you want it to, with both you and the player ending up frustrated to the point of wanting to murder each other. If you do have a specific solo in mind, score it out in notation (most saxophone players read well enough) and save everybody having to listen to you blabbing your way through a simulated saxophone solo!

If you haven't got any phone numbers for saxophone players, just ask someone who works in a studio as they're bound to know at least one, or go to your friendly local saxophone shop and ask. Remember, punters just love saxophone solos, and punters buy records.

Kick Ass Hot Sections

If you want to kick a hook line into your song and punch in a few dynamic stabs in key spots there is nothing better than a brass section at full tilt. To hire a top notch professional horn section of four players for a two hour session will set you back around a grand. To get the best out of them will mean scoring out all the parts, in the correct transpositions, before the session starts.

Why brass and horns are written in one key and played in another has been explained to me a number of times and I still don't understand fully, but I do know that if you write the notes G, A, B for a B‑flat transposing saxophone or trumpet they will played back to you as F, G, A. Confusingly, likewise, if the saxophone were one of those in E‑flat, these same notes would be played back B‑flat, C, D.

Once, I hired a bunch of tip top players for a session. Rather than score out everything in concert pitch and let them transpose the parts themselves into the relevant transpositions, I thought I'd be cute and do it for them. The only trouble was, instead of transposing the B‑flat part up a tone I transposed it down a tone, likewise I scored out the E‑flat part down three notes instead of up three notes. The discordant cacophony of noise when they started to play was a major shock to my system. Luckily for me after the severe ribbing I got about my theoretic musical knowledge (which a couple of them still delight in reminding me of to this day) they sight transposed the parts themselves.

It isn't a requirement to transpose your parts as all brass sections are able to sight transpose concert pitch‑written parts into their own transpositions. They'll even scribble your ideas down — singing a hook line isn't nearly so torturous as singing a lead solo idea. It just saves time when they're written out, and as we all know, time is money.

Eliminating The Human Element

On the assumption you're not proposing to invest £1,000 or more to hire a real horn section, as your bedroom studio isn't quite big enough to accommodate them (and neither is your pocket) you have two options. Option one: buy a sample CD, as advertised in this very magazine — on these audio or CD‑ROM discs (ranging from £30 to £200) are literally thousands of segments to choose from. All you have do do is find a suitable section which fits your requirement and punch it in.

The big plus side of using sample CD's is that they offer you real horn sections, playing with optimum dynamics and recorded with the correct microphones, all at the touch of a button. The downside is that you might not find anything on the disc worth sampling or which fits the bill for what you had in mind.

Option two: or, to put it another way — 'you don't have a sampler'. If this is the case, don't despair, there are many tricks of the trade at your disposal, both organic and through the wonders of binary code!

Despite the fact the MIDI sound module companies of the world have never got near to cracking a really accurate impersonation of a proper horn section, you can actually get pretty close with a bit of work. All modules respond to at least a couple of MIDI controllers, and there are plenty to choose from for added expressiveness and reality. (see MIDI Controllers box).

When you're adding a synthesised horn section to your track, try using a number of different patches for different qualities of tone and note duration. For long notes, maybe use a lush brass sound with some breath control and a touch of modulation as the note builds. For short, staccato sections use a sound with a fast decay, but then put all the different parts through a compressor (don't 'spare the rod' on this one — give it plenty) and maybe a touch of overdrive distortion as well (but do spare the rod here — a touch of distortion means a very small amount of growl on the sound not reducing it to a fuzzy noise!).

With modern recording, sequencing and sampling techniques it is possible to layer thousands of synthesised horn parts on top of each other, however, this doesn't mean that the effect will necessarily be more powerful. In fact, when laying down realistic horn section parts, it's better to try to limit yourself to no more than a three part harmony structure and have just one voice per part. If there are no harmony parts, the fewer the synth voices layered the stronger the part will probably sound.

Cock Your Bow And Get Pizz

Unlike horn and brass sections, the lush sound of strings has pretty much been perfected by the makers of sound modules, apart, that is, from string flurries which are available by the lorry load on sample CD. 'Video (may well have) Killed The Radio Star', but MIDI has certainly put a whole generation of highly trained string players into the Job Centre. Still, serves them right for being, in my opinion, a stuck up bunch of elitists, on the whole. Just a personal view which should not prejudice you against hiring the entire violin, viola, cello and double bass sections of your local orchestra to play on your next demo. This will, however, set you back the cost of a small terraced house.

Also, unlike horns, voicing string sections, especially with the luxury of a couple of hundred pounds worth of MIDI, is a case of the more the merrier. If you have the necessary multitimbrality and mixing facilities, bank 'em up as high and wide as you like! Of course, you can be as subtle as you like too — a single cello playing a simple figure can sound awesome.

Split the strings into different parts and voice the elements of chords along different paths. Remember, last month I went over parallel fifths (what d'ya mean you didn't get last month's issue?). Start by voicing strings with one line moving upwards, another moving down and a third moving as little as possible. And remember the other trick from last month, holding the highest note of the song's key across the chorus, that is a real uplifter, as both the Pet Shop Boys and the Communards would testify.

Talking of whom, the figure used in just about every high energy track consists of a note on every beat chased by the same note an octave higher on the third and forth quarter note. This is just another handy tip, which used wisely can add to the groove of your music, or used recklessly and with no regard to the boundaries of rationality can turn your home‑cooked demo into a worldwide smash. So, when you get into arranging, be creative — don't be just be influenced by other arrangers, steal their ideas for yourself!

Master Class

Good music isn't tied to any particular genre or time period, it is and will forever remain simply good music. Having a big promotional budget or catching the media wave for 15 minutes won't make a record great as the years go by.

I've picked out four exceptional records which show the very best qualities in different aspects of arranging. You may not like one or more of the artists, but only a bigoted fool would question their excellence.


Frank singing at the peak of his powers with the best big band in the world (at the time), the Count Basie Orchestra, arranged and conducted by a young, but very experienced Quincy Jones. This double album is 'The Bible' for arranging horns with class, and in tune with the content of the material and the singer's style of performance. Recorded in 1966 in Las Vegas, it shows the power of musicians playing written parts with more oomph that an entire Iggy Pop tour. Yes, there are a few sad old cabaret songs dotted around, it's a Sinatra concert for heaven's sake, but the class moments outweigh them by at least 100‑1. The beginning of the show, for instance, drummer Sonny Payne strikes up a killer hi‑hat pattern with Basie playing a one fingered vamp while the MC announces "and now, a man and his music" and the musical heavens open. You think I'm gushing? Just check it out for yourself. In the first song 'Come fly with me' alone, there are counterpoint alto sax gems coupled with a press roll on the drums in sympathy with the vocal line (sung in lazy frame of mind and written as such), which is chased by the trombones. Every song is crafted to perfection and every note is hand written by a master.


Six months is a long time in the world of music sequencing technology, so a dozen years ago must be the Stone Age of computer produced music. Yet still, to date, there's no record to touch Scritti Politti's second album for the sheer perfection of it's sequenced arrangements. Put together primarily on a Series II Fairlight, it has more intelligence in one song than the entire career of the majority of sequencer based artists.

Since this ground‑breaking record (which contains versions of 'Wood Beez', 'Absolute' and 'The Word Girl'), they've made only one other album (the nowhere near as good 'Provision') and produced a couple of very iffy dance pop singles for the likes of Shabba Ranks. But anyone who makes an album this slick, intelligent and ahead of its time has nothing else to prove. If you know the album, you know what I'm on about, if you don't, check out the best of the mid eighties.


Sugar sweet, home cooking American drivel at it's worst? Maybe. But listen to the precision of every note, every harmony, every string line and be impressed but the fact it was the work of a couple of clean cut mid American kids in their early twenties who worked harder at their craft than most, and got closer to perfection than anybody.

From the single oboe line at the beginning of 'Superstar' to the big vocal chords in 'Close To You' there isn't a wasted harmony or string note to be found. Contrary to popular belief, the music of Karen and Richard is the standard that most big arrangements can be judged by. Whether they were using a full blown string ensemble, layering their vocals, or both, the music was complemented, not complicated. Richard's arrangement of the Bacharach/David song 'Close to you' keeps only the two five note piano figures played before the line 'That is why, all the girls in town' line from Burt's original arrangement.

The Carpenters also show the importance of allowing musicians to 'blow' over a constructed part. Take the blinding guitar solo at the end of 'Goodbye to Love' played by Tony Peluso. He was jamming over the song in rehearsal and Richard heard him hit a particularly killer lick and asked him to construct a solo using it. The result was one of the all time great pop fade‑out solos.


In the history of modern music there have many one man bands. Mike Oldfield and his Tubular Bells, 'the artist we have always known as Prince', not forgetting Don Partridge and his 'Rosie'. But of all the performers that have played, produced and arranged their own work, no‑one has had as diverse a career as Stevie Wonder. Of the three stages of his career, the middle one shows a 21 year old man inspired. 'Innervisions' marks the mid‑way point of this period. Recorded using Moog and ARP synthesizers as they were being invented, programmed by Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil.

Songs like 'Living For The City' and 'Higher Ground', starting with Stevie playing the drums (that is, actually sitting behind a kit whacking sticks against skins and cymbals), to constructing chords one note at a time on bulky, unpredictable, monophonic synths, with playing so damn funky it makes James Brown sound like a karaoke backing track. If you aspire to playing everything on your own tracks, humble yourself with a listen to perfection a quarter of a century old. What a shame the biggest hit he's ever had is the bland 'I Just Called To Say I Love You'. Ever since then, I feel his music has been 'Chicken in a Basket' middle of the road nonsense.

MIDI Controller Numbers

0 Bank Select

1 Modulation Wheel

2 Breath Controller

3 Undefined

4 Foot Controller

5 Portamento Time

6 Data Entry

7 Main Volume

8 Balance

9 Undefined

10 Pan

11 Expression

12 Effect Control 1

13 Effect Control 2

14 Undefined

15 Undefined

16‑19 General Purpose 1 to 4

20‑31 Undefined

32‑63 LSB for Control Changes 0 to 31 (where greater resolution is required)

64 Damper/Sustain Pedal

65 Portamento

66 Sostenuto

67 Soft Pedal

68 Legato Footswitch

69 Hold 2

70 Sound Variation/Exciter

71 Harmonic Content/Compressor

72 Release Time/Distortion

73 Attack Time/Equaliser

74 Brightness/Expander‑Gate

75 Undefined/Reverb

76 Undefined/Delay

77 Undefined/Pitch Transpose

78 Undefined/Flange‑Chorus

79 Undefined/Special Effect

80‑83 General Purpose 5 to 8

84 Portamento Control

85‑90 Undefined

91 Effects Depth (Effect 1)

92 Tremolo Depth (Effect 2)

93 Chorus Depth (Effect 3)

94 Celeste Depth (Effect 4)

95 Phaser Depth (Effect 5)

96 Data Increment

97 Data Decrement

98 Non‑Registered Parameter Number LSB

99 Non‑Registered Parameter Number MSB

100 Registered Parameter Number LSB

101 Registered Parameter Number MSB

102‑119 Undefined

120 All Sound Off

121 Reset All Controllers

122 Local Control

123 All Notes Off

124 Omni Mode Off

125 Omni Mode On

126 Mono Mode On

127 Poly Mode On

A Man With The Horn

The Memphis Horns (the two man operation of Wayne Jackson on trumpet and Andrew Love on saxophone) are without doubt the most listened to horn section in the history of music. At the beginning of Rock 'n' Roll, barely out of high school, they were playing with the likes of Elvis Presley, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, and four decades later they're still going strong with a CV which reads like a directory of pop music greats, including U2, Rod Stewart, Stevie Windwood and many more. Despite augmenting their line up by with as many as eight additional players, a good chunk of their work has consisted of just the two of them, alone on stage.

They developed a system they called 1,3/5,7. It is how the two of them manage to develop the musical hook during a double chorus and throughout the course of a song. Wayne Jackson explained "When we're blowing on a tune, the first time through I'll take the root melody and Andrew will play along a third higher. Then when it comes around again I'll take start on the fifth note and he'll bust his balls playing the seventh. We swap around who starts where, sometimes, but that's the equation we always use, and it always works too."

Which only goes to show, sometimes (or more accurately, usually) Less Is More!