Music arrangement from a Tresbear perspective

September 20, 2016

creative image - music in generalIn the last post (Changes in music arrangement, use of stems) we talked about a change in our music arrangement process and our use of stems in music production. To summarize, on the last two CDs, we did little if any arranging until we began the mixing process. This created a music production bottleneck which took a long time to get through because Ray Dryden, our sound engineer, was suddenly swamped with large numbers of stem files to review as we’d waited until mixing to do any arranging of the songs.

The previous post did not cover details about the aspects of arranging music; here, I will describe music arrangement from a Tresbear perspective.

In music, an arrangement is a musical reconceptualization of a previously composed work. It may differ from the original work by means of reharmonization, melodic paraphrasing, orchestration, or development of the formal structure. Arranging differs from orchestration in that the latter process is limited to the assignment of notes to instruments for performance by an orchestra, concert band, or other musical ensemble. Arranging involves adding compositional techniques, such as new thematic material for introductions, transitions, or modulations, and endings. Arranging is the art of giving an existing melody musical variety. 
— Music arrangement definition from Wikipedia

creative image - sheet music
I will approach the topic of music arrangement in terms of what we do here in the Tresbear Music studio with our own songs.

Starting off, I usually write a melody line on my mandolin. Next, I bring in my friend and acoustic guitarist Bob Nobles to play the song with me. Once we get a good feel for the song, we will chart or write out chords that fit the melody line. The choice of chords will determine the overall feel of the song.

If we are aiming for a simple arrangement, we might keep a simple I, IV, V arrangement using the basic G, C, and D chords. If we are going for a more complex arrangement, we might add minor chords, transition chords, and/or walkdowns. We tend to pick chords that will work with the instrumentation that we are planning to use on the recording.

In the case of our music, the instrumentation starts with the rhythm section using bass and rhythm guitar. On top of the rhythm we overlay the lead instruments: mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitar, banjo (on bluegrass tunes), Irish penny whistle (aka tin whistle, for Celtic tunes), or clarinet (gypsy tunes). We have each instrument play backup to my mandolin playing. After recording these parts, we hand off all the resulting stems to Ray Dryden, our audio engineer, who puts it all together to create one or more versions of the song.

A stem is the digital recording of an instrument or vocal in one microphone or input. Normally, when an instrument is recorded we have two microphones recording: A main microphone (close to the given instrument) and a room mic just outside and above the headstock. Put together, sometimes just barely off time with each other, these two stems give the instrument a rounder deeper sound. For electric instruments, there is a direct line into the audio interface which then feeds into the computer to be digitally recorded by the software, a popular digital audio workshop called Protools 11.

Tony Huber & Friends - top half of album cover
Some tunes start with an introduction while other songs start with the main melody. The instrument providing the lead on the introduction may or may not provide the lead on the first runthrough, depending on the length of the introduction and/or whether the instrument provides what we want in the first runthrough.

We normally want a fairly straightforward approach the first time through to establish the melody. More inventive takes are usually placed near the end of the song. After the lead is recorded, we try to provide a primary backup, an instrument that compliments the lead instrument. For example, guitar normally plays in a different register than mandolin and will stand separately from the mandolin. If using a fiddle to back up a mandolin, you might have the fiddle play the back up in a lower or higher registry than the register the mandolin is playing in.

Normally, we will want a different sounding instrument to lead the second time through to provide contrast. So if the mandolin led off, we might want a guitar lead in a different register to come second, and so forth with the various other leads.

So, from a Tresbear Music perspective, the purpose of music arrangement is to keep the songs fresh while keeping the integrity intact.

Resources: Music arrangement

mixing board

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