How to Arrange Songs Like a Pro in 10 Easy Steps
I am certain in one thing – all of us take great pride in song arrangements we compose.
But how do we make our songs loved by record labels? Radio stations? Worldwide listeners?
It starts off with creating an appealing and professionally sounding song arrangement that will keep listener’s attention and tell the story of the song.
Though all songwriters approach arrangement process with great enthusiasm and a lot of positive energy, more often than not it turns into a very long and frustrating process where it seems that trial-and-error never ends. As a paradox, with more time invested – less close to the desired outcome we are.
In this post, together with Julian, Supreme Tracks’ arranger and one of NYC’s most talented music producers, we have created a comprehensive 10-step song arrangement guide guaranteed to:
- dramatically improve arrangement quality of your songs,
- teach you how the top arrangers go about arrangement process and
- save you a lot of time you’d spend chasing your own tail.
This guide is a sequence of steps, so make sure you follow the steps in the order presented below.
As a matter of fact, the most important tip in this guide is to stick to the sequence of arrangement steps presented below.
So, here we go.
Step 1: Make sure if the song works on its own
Does the song work on its own if you were to play it on a piano or on a guitar alone whilst singing? If the song isn’t already “great” on its own, no amount of production or arranging will fix this.
- Do you have a strong chorus?
- Is the main melody line in place?
- Do you have a good melodic or harmonic “hook”?
Work on your song until you make it sound great “naked”, just with a piano/guitar and voice. It is of critical importance to honor these step. A bad song will stay a bad song, even with the best arrangement and production. A good song will stay a good song, even with less than adequate production.
Make sure you get your song to sound like a good song before proceeded to step 2.
Step 2: Check what genre(s) does the song encompass
Before the arrangement/production session starts, you must ask yourself – what genre(s) does the song encompass?
Once this is decided, it may be very useful to find a couple of reference tracks. Reference tracks are incredibly important in both the arranging/production and mix/master phase of any recording. Some might say, “I don’t want to copy anyone because I want to be completely original.”
But the truth is, even the pros at the very top – who are very original – are constantly referencing other material.
Whether it’s just a light listen for inspiration or to check how someone else approached a certain situation, everyone does it and it’s essential. It’s pretty difficult to replicate something exactly, so don’t worry about copying someone unless you’re literally copying them note for note, part for part, instrument for instrument, etc.
Think about using reference tracks as “being part of the conversation” of music production at large.
Step 3: Confirm if the song has a good length. Are all the different sections the correct length and do they complement each other?
This step falls a bit into step one, “Does the song work on its own?” but the arranger/producer may want to modify the form of the song for the recording. Sometimes the way a performer plays the song live can differ from the studio version. For the recorded version, it’s very important that the song is as succinct as possible.
Step 4: Make sure you have a decent scratch lead vocal
“When I start arranging and producing a song, it’s imperative to have a decent scratch lead vocal to work from. Without it, you can make some pretty bad decisions.” – claims Julian.
The lead vocal will help guide you in your decision-making while arranging.
For example, without hearing the vocal you could easily make the arrangement too dense. This not only will result in a less than pleasing final recording, but will also make your mix engineer’s job a lot harder. The best-recorded songs have arrangements that have the perfect balance of production density.
All the different elements of an arrangement/production should have their own space and sonic range.
For example, you don’t want to have the bass playing one line and the keyboard playing a different one in the same range.
Step 5: Drums and other rhythmic components
Besides the lead vocal, the drums/rhythmic components of the song are the most important part of the arrangement because they take up the most sonic space, give the listener the “groove,” and dictate a large part of how the song feels.
Firstly, should the drums be acoustic (real) or sampled? Obviously this step is not applicable to stripped-down arrangements (like piano/vocals, voice and guitar and strings, etc.) Once this is figured out, you may want to take a listen to one of your reference tracks. Where should the drums come in? Where should they come out? What general patterns will the drums be responsible for?
If the track will employ a real drummer, your arrangement should just plot out the general direction of what the drummer should play.
Don’t obsess over programming fills or feel. A good drummer will make those decisions for you.
This brings us to another point: you need a really great drummer if you’re going to use acoustic drums. And, the drums must be very well recorded. If the drums are not recorded to perfection, your entire song will sound like it’s not recorded with perfection. And remember (for all you lo-fi lovers), you can always subtract and make it sound gritty and lo-fi by choosing how many mic channels end up in the final mix and what type of processing is used. Also remember, you can’t use just a mono mic on the drums and expect the final mix to sound like a pop country song that just hit the radio from Nashville.
Step 5a: Programmed drums
If you program the drums yourself, you have to think like a drummer. More often than not, just writing in the patterns on the grid leads to flat sounding results (unless you’re intentionally doing an 80s drum machine throwback type song).
The best producers and arrangers make use of tastefully going off the grid and using different velocities to give the drum arrangement feeling.
Little details like making sure the kick, snare, and hi-hat don’t all hit at the exact same moment can make your arrangement sound fatter.
A real drummer would never be able to play those three elements at the same time down to the millisecond, but they benefit from it because then our ears hear each element a bit more distinctively. When producing, I will often push the kick ahead of the beat by a few milliseconds and push the hi-hat back. This is all is dependent on the song and has to be dialed in with taste. There are wonderful “groove” plugins for MIDI (Ableton Live makes it really easy) that will change the velocities and timing subtly on your drum programming that will give it life. Once again, you can’t just use any old “feel,” but with experience you can find ones and modify them to fit the song.
Step 6: Bass and bass elements
Once the drums are mapped out in your arrangement, the bass (or bass elements)—in most cases—comes next.
- Where does the bass come in on the arrangement?
- Where does the bass drop out?
- In what range does the bass play on the verses and on the choruses?
If it’s a standard pop song, you’ll want to make sure that the bass “opens up” on the chorus, meaning, the bass is not playing quietly in a high register when the refrain drops.
If you have a “real” bass player on your track, it’s imperative—just like the drums—that it is expertly recorded and played. Nothing could be worse for your track if the bass is lacking clarity, low end frequencies, and groove.
If you have synthesized bass on your track, be cautious of sub basses and “phat” presets. If the sub bass is the only bass in your track, the patch has to be designed in such a way that it has some harmonics in the mid-range so that the ear can find it when listening on speakers that don’t have good low-end response.
For example, you may not hear certain sub bass patches on laptops, iPhones, and select ear buds and car stereo systems. It may sound beastly in the studio or in the club with excellent sub woofers, but in the rest of the world, it might completely disappear. The opposite goes for “phat” presets. You may find a preset for a bass while working with one of your favorite synths that sounds absolutely huge, but when sitting in an arrangement, it kills the track and doesn’t leave room for anything else. Be cautious of “stereo” basses and patches that have a lot of high-end information. Most of the time, you want a bass patch that is mono and doesn’t go too high into the frequency spectrum. Exceptions do apply though! Experience will help you make these decisions.
Step 7: Main driving harmonic component
Harmonic information comes next in the arranging stage: guitars, keyboards, synths, strings, etc. This part of the arrangement can be pretty open ended and free, but I always think of Spider Man’s uncle in this situation, replacing the word power with freedom – “with great freedom comes great responsibility.” It’s a good idea to check your reference tracks to see what instruments you may want to use.
Is the song’s main driving harmonic component a keyboard instrument or guitar?
Many songs either have guitar or piano as the main complimentary instrument to the lead vocal. This instrument will more often than not play throughout the whole song. Once you have this figured out, it’s all about peppering the arrangement with choice material. You can’t really teach this or learn how to do it in an article. It’s all about trial and error and experience. You’ll want to use your harmonic instruments to shape the contour of the song.
For example, on the chorus sections, you’ll use more of your sources to make the arrangement denser and phatter. For the verse sections, you’ll more than likely to make it thinner.
Classic examples are doubling the guitars on the chorus section (and panning them left and right), or making whatever source you have go from being mono to stereo.
Pro tip: If you decide to use horns or strings in your arrangement, you’ll want to make sure that the parts fit the song incredibly well. Most songs cannot have the intricacy of an Earth, Wind, and Fire horn arrangement. Most of the time, you’ll want to use horns to fill in the spaces with tasty simple lines or “pad” the parts where the vocalist is singing. The same goes for strings. And while there are some amazing sample libraries out there for strings and horns, a lot of the time even with expert programming, those libraries can fall short and make your production sound cheesy. So, use them for demoing and arranging, but when it’s time for the production and recording process, make a wise decision!
Step 8: Contemporary pop and EDM considerations
A note about synths and contemporary pop and EDM: it’s very important to listen to a lot of this music and learn how all the parts fit together.
The best synth stuff and EDM may sound very dense (and sometimes it is), but more often than not, all the synths are working together in a sophisticated complimentary fashion. And though there may be a lot of patches and “sounds,” it’s all about being sequential with them, meaning, you hear them one after another, not at the same time. Or, each part is doing its own thing in its own sonic range.
Step 9: “Production dust”
The last phase of the arrangement production (before doing all the vocals) is “production dust.”
For an acoustic arrangement this may be adding percussion in various parts of the arrangement. Classic examples would be a shaker part coming in on the second verse and a tambourine on the bridge.
In more contemporary styles, this would be all the “white noise” swooshes and sound FX such as impacts, risers, uplifters, downlifters, etc.
When using these FX, it’s very important that they fit the song. For example, not just any bundle of risers will work for any arrangement. Even better, create your own FX for each song. It’s more time consuming but can lead to wonderful results. If you use pre-made FX (which is totally fine) just be sure that you have access to a lot of different libraries so that you’re not roped into using only a select few FX. They can really stick out in an album or EP if you use the same ones over and over again.
Step 10: Background vocals
Assuming the lead vocal has been pretty much “fixed” the whole time while in the arranging/production phase, coming up with some background vocals (often referred to as BGVs) really spices up a track and gives it life.
As the producer/arranger you may have ideas about what the BGVs should be, but I’ve found from my experience it’s better to work with the vocalist(s) directly in the studio. Some good examples of directions you can give to your vocalist(s) are:
- “Double that line in the verse” so you can accentuate a certain phrase.
- “Sing the chorus a third above or below” so you have a harmony track.
- “Sing an additional part so we have three-part harmony.”
Note: three-part harmony can be tricky. In general, for pop songs, I stick with “church” three-part harmony and you can learn how to put those parts together by learning how to harmonize a C Major scale. The succession of notes is as follows: C major triad root position, D minor triad root position, C major triad 1st inversion, D minor triad 1st inversion, C major triad 2nd inversion, D minor triad 2nd inversion, back to C major root position. Note the exclusion of the 7th degree leading tone (B)! When there’s a leading tone in the melody, you’ll have to work BGVs around it to fit the context and genre. Generally, just a regular V chord voicing will work, but you’ll have to hear it.
Going forward into recording and production process
Once your arrangement is finished, you’re ready to move on to the recording and/or mixing process.
More often than not, the arrangement or production may change a little bit. For example, the mix process might indicate that you need to subtract or add certain elements from the arrangement, and this is totally fine and normal. All processes of recording a song bleed into each other to a certain extent. Just keep abreast of how the song is sounding in terms of the big picture.
Listen to it against your reference tracks.
The final product is much more important than all the little details discussed in this checklist, and it’s very easy to get lost in the all the particulars.
A good song is a good song and will sound great no matter what you do in the arranging/production process, as long as the arranger/producer doesn’t make decisions that destroy the song. A bad song is a bad song and no matter how much high quality production/arranging/mixing is done, it will always be bad. Quality starts from the beginning and is something that must be maintained all the way down to the final master.
HOW TO CREATE BEST SONG ARRANGEMENTS CHECKLIST
For a grand finale, here’s the summary checklist – follow these steps in order to ensure your song arrangement captivates the listeners.
- Does the song sound great on its own?
- Form and length of song have been determined
- Genre(s) of the song has been determined
- Reference tracks have been found (1-3 references)
- Decent scratch vocal has been recorded
- Decision made – acoustic drums or programmed drums?
- Drum parts have been mapped out or programmed
- Bass part(s) has been worked out, complimenting drums
- Harmonic instruments (guitars, keyboards, strings, etc.) have been tastefully chosen and compliment the melody, bass and drums
- “Production Dust” (percussions, FX, etc.) have been tastefully added
- None of the elements in the arrangement clash with each other
- Ideas for BGVs are in place
So there you have it. Best of luck with your arrangements and remember – practice makes perfect!
If you need any further support with your song arrangements, you can always get in touch with us at Supreme Tracks. Our Oscar-award winning arrangement team will work with you to create highest quality arrangements for your songs.