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Making Arrangements: Part 4

A Rough Guide To Song Construction & Arrangement By Big George
Published March 1998

Debbie Wiseman.Debbie Wiseman.

PART 4: This month, Big George persuades more famous musicians and arrangers to give you the benefit of their hard‑won wisdom. This is the last article in a four‑part series.


Apart from being one of Great Britain's top film composers (see interview starting on page 152 of this issue), Debbie Wiseman also does all her own arrangements and orchestrations. She spared me a nanosecond of her time to explain a few of the arrangement techniques she used while she was scoring the forthcoming film Tom's Midnight Garden.

"I tend to orchestrate as I go; there's no point in writing something high and frivolous for a cello which will eventually be played by a piccolo. Planning out what different members of an orchestra are going to play is similar to picking a football team. It's no good having a centre‑forward playing in goal, but sometimes you do want a defender to make an attacking run.

"It's most important that every single line you write for a section should be a workable line in its own right. The strings are the heart of any orchestra — a perfect section would comprise 16 first violins, 14 second violins, 10 violas, eight celli, and six double basses. If you use a smaller section you have to be careful, as every little intonation and bowing shift will be more exposed. The more strings you have, the richer the texture, and the more expressive you can be harmonically. A section of eight first violins, six second violins, four violas, four celli and two double basses is a big enough canvas to work with to achieve a fully symphonic depth to the sound, but you will have to tailor the harmonies so as not to leave any part exposed. If I'm writing primarily for a string ensemble, I might start with the melody played by the first violins, followed by the melody accompaniment played by celli and the basses. I don't tend to double the celli and the basses together very often, as that can make the texture sound heavy and lumpy. I have the basses coming in and out to emphasise different passages, either playing arco or pizzicato. As the piece develops, the violas might take on the melody and the second violins' counter‑melody might meld into the first violins' figure. The role reversal will be different for every arrangement I do — there really are no hard and fast rules.

"Sometimes the strings are there only as a bed for the woodwind. If you only have a small violin section — say, eight players — you can give the sound a real boost by doubling their part with a flute. If you want the flute to take a lead role in the piece, on the other hand, it's important to clear the rest of the orchestra out of its tonal range. Otherwise the sound becomes muddy and indistinct, and you can lose the flute's definition.

"As for developing an arrangement, I'm composing a solo flute piece at the moment, and prior to the cadenza (the flamboyant solo section) I've kept the arrangement quite sparse. Then, at the end of the flute's moment of glory, when it's time to start up the orchestra again, I've eased them in and then voiced the first and second violins in and around the flute's melodic line, to strengthen the figure. I've also included answering passages between different instruments to add an extra element to the arrangement. Oboes and bassoons work well together in this way, as do flutes and clarinets. But the main thing with orchestral arrangements is this: if something is going to happen, like a soaring woodwind line exploding out of a quiet section of the piece, it's worth milking the moment prior to it happening. In other words, keep them waiting.

"I know a lot of composers use orchestrators, but I do it all myself. I find orchestrating goes hand in hand with the actual compositional process. I will write for a specific instrument as I'm composing, rather than sort it out at the end."

Snake Davis

Snake Davis.Snake Davis.

Chris 'Snake' Davis is about as cool a musician as it's possible to be in Great Britain. Apart from being live musical director for international pop icons M People, his CV reads like a Who's Who of chart‑topping turns, from George Michael to the Spice Girls, the Pet Shop Boys to Primal Scream, Mark Morrison to Take That, Sir Paul McCartney to Ray Charles — and so on. As either head of a wind section or the entire section himself, he always leaves a recording session sounding infinitely groovier than it did when he arrived.

But just how does he go about arranging live versions of hits like 'Search For The Hero Inside Yourself' for M People?

"When we go on tour it's important to give the fans what they want, which is longer, interactive versions of the hits. I'll look for sections that can break down, or somewhere we can stick a solo in, that will groove along for a couple of minutes. With 'Hero', in particular, we re‑arranged it so that during the chorus the whole band stops, and we get the audience clapping and singing along for 16 bars, then the drummer kicks back in, and then the rest of the band follows. We also changed the dynamics, replacing the snare for a rim‑shot for the intro and first verse. It made the chorus thunder in, which gave the song another dimension.

"Typically, endings need to be sorted out, as on records they usually fade out. You can spend bloody ages trying fancy chords and dead stops and intricate little fills, but nothing works better than a nod and everyone stops. At the end of some songs we'll go round the chorus quite a few times, with someone blowing over the top, the audience joins in the singing, and it cooks.

Debbie Wiseman: "If you only have a small violin section, you can give the sound a real boost by doubling their part with a flute."

"Rehearsing for tours these days involves a lot of pre‑production, just the same as albums do. We'll start with Paul Heard, me and Merv (our programmer), in a room for two or three days getting the structure of the songs together. Then we'll take what we've got into a dingy rehearsal room and work things out with the rhythm section for a week or so. This is for tracks that, on record, might have had a lot of time spent on getting a keyboard bass part and sequenced rhythm together. The bass player and drummer will take it live, as there are loads more options with live players to get a killer groove to evolve, and that's when things start to happen on stage. Live, we use sequencing in a very small way, and if there are things that can't be recreated live we prefer to put them into a sampler so the keyboard player, with the simple push of their index finger, can produce 10 Snake Davises playing the hook. I'll also use my EWI [Akai wind controller] to play large sections live. In truth, it often doesn't hurt to leave out a string section that may have taken a week to record in the studio. I'm a great believer in things being different on stage than on the record. To me it's not a compliment if fans come up afterwards and say, "that sounded just like the record". I prefer it when they say it was different from the record, or better.

"Coming up with fresh arrangements for different tours is something we like to do. On a single like 'Sight For Sore Eyes' there are an extra five remixes which were done by other people, and we'll take elements from them to include in the stage versions. The Brothers In Rhythm remix of 'Open Up Your Heart' was one we particularly liked, so we basically arranged their completely sequenced version for a live band. It also had a two‑minute intro which really built up musically before Heather [Small, lead singer] came in singing, which allowed her time to go off and change her dress.

To hear Snake Davis in action, pick up any one of a hundred hit records over the past 10 years. You might even have caught him a few years ago as the sax player on Jonathan Ross's TV show. Alternatively, there's a Snake Davis Band live album called Reaching Out, available mail order from Andrea Parker, 50 Oxford Road, Carlton‑in‑Lindrick, Worksop, Notts S81 9AZ.

Pete Thomas

Pete Thomas.Pete Thomas.

Pete Thomas has spent the last 20 years securing his place in history as one of the all‑time great British rock drummers, first coming to international prominence as the engine‑room for Elvis Costello, from '(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea' right up to his latest album All This Useless Beauty. His career has covered a vast area; he's worked with such artists as Latin kings Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, Squeeze, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Jones, Sir Paul McCartney, Tasmin Archer, Matthew Sweet and The Waterboys, right up to the latest Bond theme sung by Sheryl Crow.

His career started long before punk rock, when, after a two‑year stint with pub rock legends Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers (while still a teenager) he moved to the West Coast of America to join the country‑rock giant John Stewart (best known for writing the Monkees hit 'Daydream Believer'). While out there he learned to play red‑hot country guitar, and if he wasn't such a freak for the drums he could probably have made it as a Nashville Picker. Increasingly these days he is called upon for his unique flair for thumping the best out of guitar‑strung singer/songwriters.

"The first thing I do when I get to a session is get the artist to play the song to me, all the way through on guitar or piano. I've got a shorthand way of writing the arrangement out, by simply sketching the structure (for example, 4 bars intro/8 bars verse/16 bars chorus, and so on). It only takes me once through the song to write it out, unless there's something I don't understand — then I'll always ask to go over that bit again, for as long as it takes. That's usually enough to get going, but if it's a tricky one, with loads of accents and weird bar lengths, having a shorthand version makes dividing up a sheet of manuscript and writing out the parts in full a hell of a lot easier.

"What often happens with singer/songwriters is that they've got a great song, with great lyrics and perfect chords, but they've only 'sort of' worked out the arrangement, and there are some bits that go all squirmy, so this is the best way for me and them to get to know exactly what happens throughout the tune. So when I start to play the song I've got an accurate map to tell me what's going to happen and when. As for the pattern I'm going to play, I usually get them to mouth the beat they can hear in their heads, or they'll play it on their knees. I don't ever try and get clever with it — if that's what they hear, that's what they'll get. If I'm going to get a bright idea it'll occur as we're playing the track.

"Another thing I do early on is tune my drums to the musical key of the song. If the drums are in tune with all the other instruments, it's going to sound right to begin with. I find it mad when studio engineers try and get a drum sound before they've even heard the song. It's definitely going to change, depending on the pitch I'll tune the toms to and what snare I'm going to use.

"A lot of the time it's just me and the rhythm guitar/singer, maybe a bass and sometimes a keyboard. The main aim is to get the drum track down with all the intensity needed to support whatever the producer might want to pile on top of it later. As long as the drums go down, everything else can be patched up or replaced. But it's best when there's a full complement of players. Then if someone's doing a great solo I'll think, 'How can I lift this part of the song and make it more exciting?'. The ride cymbal is the first place I look to, and if it's a storming performance I'll give the bell end of it a good old whacking.

"Working with Elvis Costello on over a dozen albums and a million tours, I'm used to a singer singing at full tilt every time he opens his mouth, whether it's the first time through a song, or at a sound‑check, or a live TV performance in front of an audience of billions. So when I'm recording I like to have the singer doing a guide with all their emotion coming out. That way I can feel where something might need a little push, or alternatively where something needs a bit of space."