Arranging: The Score Meets The Studio

Probably too much to ask.

As a writer and arranger, I’ve spent considerably more time behind a pencil (both a literal one and the figurative one on my computer) writing scores than I have behind the board in the studio recording their performance.  That’s beginning to change, and the more time I spend mixing my own arrangements, the more I’m struck by the ways in which the two disciplines are similar, as well as one giant new aspect that mixing brings to the arranging process: namely, by using stereo pan, the mixer has the ability to move musicians around on a virtual stage.  This allows  an arranger/mixer control over not only the rhythmic, harmonic, and dynamic range of the music, but also the physical locations of each individual instrument.

I thought I’d write a bit about that and share some recordings in which all four aspects are manipulated in concert to a particularly nice effect.

The Score: Rhythmic and Harmonic Axes

When writing an arrangement for an ensemble, be it a jazz big band, a rock group, a vocal choir, or a string quartet, I tend to start by thinking in two basic dimensions – rhythm and tessetura (where in the harmonic spectrum the notes fall, i.e. low/high notes).  The rhythm is the X axis, with each instrument’s assigned notes occurring over time, while the tessetura is the Y axis, depending on the “height” of the note played.

Music is all about tension (and release), and arranging is all about space.  The manipulation of the space on the X and Y axes brings tension and release to the music – the farther everyone is apart on one or both axes, the more space there is in the music, rhythmically and harmonically.  Write everyone close together, and things sound more dense; bring them farther apart, and the music opens up, each part gets more distinct, and there is less sonic tension.

Of course, there are a billion nuances to this – having everyone playing the same rhythm (i.e. synchronizing the X axis) while playing a wide-open harmony (wide, separate Y axis), or vice-versa (vastly different harmonies played with large amounts of rhythmic space between them), as well as all of the shades in between, can lead to all sorts of different types of musical peaks, valleys, and fireswamps.

It’s also worth noting that there is at least one other axis – dynamics, or how loud/soft the music is – but in the interest of simplicity, I’ll keep this post to just the two axes.

Plus, who the hell cares about dynamics, anyway? (Kidding!  Jeez.)

The Studio: Same Two Axes Apply

In the studio, the same axes apply, whether or not the person mixing the song actually wrote the music being mixed.  People sometimes think of manipulation of recorded sound as being somehow different from writing and arranging music in a score.  It’s not.  Both disciplines are concerned with the same frequencies, the same rhythms.  It all happens on those same two axes.

However, there is an interesting third factor brought into the recording process – the stereo pan, or where each track is “placed” from left to right in the mix.  It opens up quite a bit of space to be able to physically arrange where each musical part is coming from.  Panning a guitar counter-melody hard left sounds considerably different then leaving it dead center underneath a vocal melody. Good record producers get a lot out of manipulating their panning along with the musical arrangement.

i36634er0apOn The Shins’ album Wincing the Night Away, the band gets an ethereal, floating sound very similar to the that of their first release, Oh, Inverted World, with one notable difference. Joe Chiccarelli was brought on to produce the newer record, and he brought some serious space-manipulation chops with him.  After all, the dude has produced Zappa, as well as Oingo Boingo, and you know how I feel about them. Listen to “Red Rabbits,” a favorite track of mine from Wincing – there is nothing even close to that kind of manipulation of the stereo spread on Inverted World. While that first album had a nice, dreamy sound to it, it was a bit of a mess, mix-wise; everything was on top of everything else.  I don’t mean to say that it didn’t sound good (I love that record), but the band wasn’t getting the most out of their in-studio arranging, and wouldn’t, until Chiccarelli coaxed it out of them on Wincing.  If only I liked all of the songs on Wincing as much as I like the songs on Inverted World. Ah, well, maybe the next one will have it all.

f92087aap9eAnother album that sticks out as having brilliant musical arranging and mix arranging is The Mars Volta’s De-Loused in the Comatorium. Shit, this record is a shining example of every-damn-awesome thing that is possible in the studio.  It’s a dense, borderline schizophrenic freak-out of an album that I could listen to a hundred more times and still be hearing new crap the hundred-and-first time through.  I’m not sure which of the guys behind the production of this record did more between guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and old production hand Rick Ruben, but Rich Costey also deserves special mention for his work mixing it.  I mean, I can’t imagine the look on his face when they dropped it on him like a two-ton elephant carcass of awesome, just, “okay, man, have at it.”  The mind boggles.

It’s tough to single out an example of the kind of musical/mix arranging I’m talking about – the whole album is pretty incredibly mixed.  Take the mid-album track “Eriatarka.” At any given point, there is some crazy-ass guitar improvisation/riff going on while singer Cedric Bixler is caterwauling away, and the whole thing comes together in ways that something with such disparate elements just has no business coming together (not harmonically, anyway).  The stereo mix has everything to do with that.

In fact, not only is the stereo pan used to keep everything working together, but so are the tonal qualities  and EQ of each instrument – Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar tones are manipulated in such a way as to allow keyboard lines or vocal echos to come out in the mix; this is similar to using the harmonic Y axis to free up space in the EQ for other instruments or vocals.

What the Hell Already, Kirk?

Okay, so; to bring it home:

For me, being able to sit behind the board and mix my own arrangements is a really, really freeing experience.  In fact, having that power makes up for the fact that, from a technical standpoint, I’m not the absolute bee’s knees at mixing.

It is as if I am able to write, in my scores, under the instrument name: “Lead Trumpet.  Stand stage right until letter A, then move to stage center.  Move back to stage Right for three bars at letter D, then leave stage entirely at F.  Crouch beneath flute at letter K.”

Would that that sort of choreography were possible in chart-writing!  As things stand, it would probably just lead to a post-recording session beat-down from the brass section.

f91763pvo5gThe closest thing I can think of to that is the way the fabulous Maria Schneider arranges her sections – rather than stacking her band Saxes/Trombones/Trumpets like every other big band in the world, she arranges them left to right, with the rhythm section in the middle.  It gives her fantastic separation among the parts, and really highlights the way that she writes cross-sectional voicings.  Take a listen to her beautiful tune “Journey Home,” from my favorite record of hers, Allegresse, and picture the band arrayed in a semi-circle, saxes on the left, trombones and rhythm in the middle, and trumpets on the right.

That sort of physical manipulation of the band only scratches the surface of what’s possible behind the mixing board.  As I become more and more comfortable with the concept, I find myself writing arrangements this way from the start – hearing the X and Y axes, but leaving room to consider the physical arrangement, free to move not only notes on the page, but instrumentalists around the stage.

Bringing it together, one tune at a time.

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