This is the second article in a two-part series. Read Part 1 here,.
In the last post we looked at various ways to lay out a song; this post 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 expensive(in money) per bar, which means for an average pop song the fee would be less than *(very expensive)* 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 honored 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 ****, 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!
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.