This month some of the people who actually get their hands dirty with arranging — often for the household names in popular music — pass on their thoughts, hints and tips.
As well as writing for SOS, Dominic Hawken has composed hit songs, including a Christmas Number One, for East 17, and has written for and played keyboards on their last two albums. He's also involved with producing Ant & Dec, and working with up‑and‑coming band Alibi and Prodigy‑esque girl duo Swallow. In the past he's worked with such famous entities as Malcolm McLaren, Donna Summer, a Tribe called Quest, and Errol Brown.
"In the early days of the pop industry, roles were more clearly defined. Songs were composed by songwriters, vocal and orchestral performances were extracted by producers, and the results recorded and mastered by audio engineers. The arranger's task was to translate the chords and melodies into an orchestral score, which could then be performed in one take by a team of musicians.
"Today, of course, the modern palette of sounds is no longer limited to classical instruments, and arranging is often an integral part of the songwriting and production process. An incredible array of synthesizers, samplers and other tools is now available to aid the creative process, and digital technology allows us to shuffle entire sections of music around until the perfect format is achieved. In pop music, above all, the role of arranger has merged with those of musician, programmer, producer and writer, to become a vital part of the creative process.
"For me, arranging is primarily about creating moods. A good arrangement should hook the listener from the intro, and hold their attention through the song as the parts and melodies develop. Sounds and chord structures should work together to surround the vocal and evoke the appropriate emotions. Everyone has their own way of achieving this, and there can never be an 'ultimate' arrangement for any track — experimentation is the key.
"Songs can evolve from a wide range of starting points. You may be working from a demo, with many of the parts already defined, or you may have just a title. Either way, it's good to start by taking an objective step back. Imagine how the song might sound on your car radio, segued between adverts as you negotiate a particularly tricky junction on the M25. What sounds would grab your attention, and make you turn the radio up? As the music continues, which melodies fill your mind and keep you enthralled? Try to translate your ideas into reality as quickly as possible. The more you work on a song, the less objective you become, and your first impressions are often correct. You might listen to a track thousands of times as you work on it, but the general public will be lucky to hear it a couple of times on the radio before it drops from the playlist.
"Start by developing a fundamental groove, which will underpin the entire song. I find it helps to work with a basic 'old‑faithful' set of sounds — drums and percussion in the sampler, 'real' instruments from a selection of sample players, and an assortment of other synths. Using these familiar sounds, I can quickly build up the bare bones of an arrangement and test my ideas. As the groove begins to emerge, I begin to replace the original sounds with new and stronger versions. If you're stuck for inspiration, think of other great songs with a similar feel, and try incorporating some of the rhythms. You can use software tools like Steinberg's ReCycle to slice up beats and move sections around, or reverse them to add interest. The old adage "it's not what you play, it's what you don't play that counts" still applies — if you get stuck with a certain part that's not working successfully, leave it out and move on to another. Never confuse complexity with creativity; it's usually the simplest melodies and sounds that are the most memorable and have the greatest effect.
"From a listener's point of view, the two most important sections of any pop song are the intro and the chorus. The intro sets the mood of the song, while the chorus is the section that filters through into the listener's subconscious and delivers the ultimate hooks. Often the intro is a cut‑down version of the chorus, with some of the instrumentation muted. Use it to grab attention, preview the main riffs, and then drop down into the first verse. Work on these sections first, and then move on to tackle the second verse, middle eight and outro. It's always good to try and record a guide vocal as soon as possible, so that you can build the arrangement around the voice rather than leaving it to the end of the session. Remember that the voice is the most important instrument in any song and should be treated as such. Some musicians can get so carried away with producing their epic backing tracks that the vocal becomes totally swamped, or sits 'on top' of the track rather than within it.
"Try to ensure that the chord structures and sounds work together to generate emotion, and take advantage of the entire sonic spectrum, using sounds with frequencies that complement each other rather than compete. Clever panning and equalisation on the mix can also help in placing each instrument within its own 'space'.
"Above all, get creative. Keep pushing yourself to find new tricks and techniques to give your arrangements that extra edge. Take regular breaks while you work, to keep your objectivity, and always try to judge your arrangements from the perspective of a new listener. Oh, and that other vital thing I forgot to mention — enjoy it!"
Andy Bush (trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn, amongst others) and Steve Hamilton (all flavours of saxophone and woodwind) make up one of the most in‑demand horn sections on the British session circuit: Hook Horns. Working for artists including Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, The Brand New Heavies, Swing Out Sister and Blur, they know a thing or thousand about getting a tasty horn part onto a track.
"Our basic philosophy of how a horn section should be applied to a track is 'Musical Seasoning' — to be used sparingly to add some colour. When you enter the studio you have to leave your horn player's ego at the door. We're there to give the track the lift the producer or artist wants. It's not about how technically stupendous you are as a player; it's all about the groove you can add to the track, to give it the right feel. We're there to be sympathetic to the song, and as a rule the best horn lines are the most idiomatic to the genre of music you're working with. That's why it's essential to have a knowledge of the heritage of horn writing in popular music, to be able to use the style most appropriate to the track.
"Recommended tracks to listen to, for brass arranging and playing at its simplest and melodic best, are: The Average White Band's 'Pick Up The Pieces', which is basically a selection of riffs in the E‑flat Dorian minor scale, Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition' an E‑minor Pentatonic tune, and the middle section of Wilson Pickett's 'Midnight Hour', which shows that melody is everything — although if you want to know everything there is to know about four‑part harmony and contrary harmonic motion, check out any of JS Bach's chorales — they are the gospel when it comes to harmonic movement.
"It's important, when writing harmony parts, to keep the notes of the higher voicings as close together as possible. This gives a dense, thick sound to the section. This doesn't apply to baritone sax parts, which are perfect to play an octave below, or for low counterpoint leads to the main section. The most powerful and expressive range of any brass instrument is generally the middle 60%. Think of a Fender Rhodes, which has a lovely warm sound in the middle range of its keyboard, but the highs and lows start to fall out of range, becoming thin at the top and muddy at the bottom. It's often the same with horns — with the exception of tenor sax, which has, at the top of its range, a very 'pokey' quality, excellent to sit below a top‑line trumpet. The bottom extreme of the tenor sax's register is very ballsy, which is perfect for rock and roll hooks. Very high trumpets are also great, but often need support so that the texture does not sound 'spread' and full of holes.
"A strong sound can be obtained from just a tenor sax and a trumpet playing in unison, or in simple two‑part harmony, but adding an alto sax will give the section brightness and diverse harmonic possibilities — and it's in a register to fully support a lone trumpet player. Two trumpets and two saxes make up a full‑on brass section and, if the budget allows, adding a trombone will give a real thickness to the sound and will allow for the accommodation of serious harmonic inversions.
"One of the most successful sections to blow their horns since the beginning of rock and roll are the Tower Of Power horns. They're made up of two trumpets, two tenors and a baritone sax, used for rhythmic counterpoint. One of the trumpet players doubles as a trombone player and one of the tenor players doubles on alto, giving them the ultimate combination of voicings.
"With regard to recording, it's important to get the high‑energy sound of a brass section onto tape. Brass lines are often best recorded very loudly, with maximum intensity, but keeping the sound very focused at all times. If you record someone screaming at the top of their voice and then play it back quietly, it will still sound like a scream. Whereas if you record a whisper and turn it up really loud it will still sound like a whisper. Dynamics, always very important, are best applied using mic technique and choreography, to avoid a loss of intensity.
"The ideal environment for recording brass is a semi‑live room. There was a trend a few years ago for recording everything in dead areas covered in egg boxes or expensive acoustic tiles that do the same job, but a room with some natural 'splash' adds a much better quality to the sound and is easier to play in. Saxes and trombones should be close‑miked, and trumpets are often best recorded between three and six feet away from the mic, if possible. That allows the whole EQ spectrum of the instrument to be captured without the mic clipping and losing high frequencies. The best mics for horns are Neumann 87s or 47s, or AKG Tube, 414s or C3000s. Rode NT2s are also very good. For the full bright intensity of a brass sound a touch of compression can help, but it's best to record and mix with absolutely no EQ on the desk. For hi‑tech intense horns, tracking of each part is often the key, but this requires extreme accuracy to avoid any loss of sharpness and clarity.
"If you're arranging for a horn section, make sure you write in appropriate rests to allow the players to breathe; horn players can have tremendous stamina, but they do need to breathe at least once during a three‑minute song!"
Andy Bush studied under American horn guru Jerry Hey, who has played and arranged on thousands of massive hit records: Michael Jackson's Off The Wall, Earth Wind & Fire's Raise!, and Rufus with Chaka Khan's Stompin At The Savoy, which is a live gem. Big George
Legendary rhythm and blues producer Peter Gunn talks about his arrangement and production techniques.
"Record companies bring me in at the pre‑production stage, where the songs are usually in need of some sorting out. They're either too long (especially the outros) or the choruses aren't strong enough and in desperate need of a good hook, and the arrangements are often very one‑dimensional. So the first thing is to get the song structure into shape — maybe put an instrumental chorus at the beginning of the song, link up the first two verses, make the third verse drop down to a much sparser arrangement, add a solo section after the middle eight, and maybe add a stop break to give the song a kick. The next step is to get the bass and drums working. Drummers tend to over‑play, so I sit them down to listen to something like James Brown's 'Hot Pants', which is an incredibly funky track with a solid backbeat, but the drummer is playing it dead straight, with only the occasional simple fill. Then I get the bass player to lock their part in with the kick drum. If there's one rule I use for arranging rhythm parts it's 'Less Is More'. If I'm working with two guitarists I get them to take on different rhythmic elements, rather than both of them playing the same part, which is what they usually start out with. Sometimes it's a simple, almost undetectable element within the rhythm pattern that will lift a song from being another track to being something extra special.
"Adding horn sections or keyboards is easy: I get a section in and tell them what I want, they do all the work themselves, and it always sounds exactly how I wanted it. But when it comes to lifting a song there's nothing more important than percussion. The three main elements I use are shakers, tambourines and hand claps. I have my own secret recipe to making shakers and I always turn them up loud in the mix. With tambourines I use two different techniques: first is the traditional rhythmic hand shuffle, over which I'll use a large piece of wood bashing the tambourine on the beat. With hand claps I find it easier on the band's hands to use two planks of wood whacking against each other; mic boxes give a different but just as effective sound. If you add a track of the band clapping over the top of this you get a killer hand clap sound, perfect for classic records."
You can hear Peter Gunn in action on the forthcoming Virgin Records release by Camden Town's answer to the Stooges, Electrocuting Elvis. This features the certain‑to‑be‑a‑hit‑record cover of the Doris Day classic 'Move Over Darling'.
When it comes to lifting a song, there's nothing more important than percussion.
Eliot Kennedy has written Number One hits for the Spice Girls and Take That, and has also worked with Dannii Minogue and Boyzone, and for Michael Jackson's label MJJ. We asked him about his favourite studio gear for getting arrangements together.
"From an arrangement perspective that's kind of difficult, and I might have chosen an Akai sampler simply because you're able to arrange complex harmonies, sample them and put them in a tiny bit of memory, do the same with horns and work that way. The sampler is the key to the way I arrange, but of course it has to be integrated with a computer. If I had to name a single piece of gear it would probably have to be the Roland JV1080, just because of its flexibility and multitimbrality. I also like the upgradability of a 1080 — you can load in so many cards and never worry about running out of sounds. It's also got 64‑note polyphony, so you seldom run out of voices. You can get drums, keyboard parts and a bass line together on just the one synth, and literally write several demos with just that one synth."
And getting the basics down is one of Eliot's essential tips: "Don't think too much about how the record's going to sound at the end of the day — a lot of people have this vision in their head and struggle with the initial sounds. Just get the parts down and make sure the song is working musically rather than aurally. Then, once you know it works, you can dress it up in any fashion you like. That's why I like the 1080, because you've got some good solid sounds in it — the basses and piano, for example — so that you don't have to mess around trying to find a sound." Nigel Humberstone