Friday, June 12, 2009

Blend, Separation and Clarity: Arrangement

Probably the single most impactful aspect of maintaining a desired combination of blend and separation is the arrangement of the musical elements. In this context, I am referring not so much to harmonic arrangement, but rather to the rhythmic arrangement.

At this point, engineers who would read this might say, "Wait a minute! I didn't write this stuff; I don't have control over the arrangement!" In many situations, this may be the case. However, an awful lot of folks wear various hats in the music production process; you may be an all-in-one writer/musician/arranger/producer/engineer (or some subset). Also, even if you are working with someone else's material, it is not at all uncommon to have some creative input on the tracks as they are being created.

The key aspect to using arrangement in this context is the alignment of the elements. Simply put, elements that play on top of each other, tend to blend together. A good example of this is two rhythm guitars. If they are played in precisely the same rhythm, the result is something that sounds like a single instrument that has the tonal characteristics of both guitars blended together. The effect is most strong if the tonal characteristics of both are similar; it is somewhat less apparent if the tonal characteristics of the instruments are very different (e.g. Les Paul/Marshall Stack layered with an acoustic 12-string :)

The inverse here is that playing very different rhythms will help separate the instruments. If one rhythm guitar is playing straight eighth-notes, while the other is playing whole note power chords, even your grandma will be able to tell there are two guitars playing. Also keep in mind that this is another case where combining the technique with others such as pan can be very effective.

I'm using very blatant examples for the sake of explanation, but of course remember there are lots of possibilities for more subtle way to use this technique. One example might be that two instruments that play together most of the time, but diverge once every four bars during a turnaround. Like everything else with audio production, each situation is different, but use of rhythmic arrangement is one more powerful tool at your disposal in the quest for those magical mixes.


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