Core Points Of Arrangement

Monday, August 10, 2009 at 5:21 pm

I previously covered a specific way to approach arrangement — Loop Sculpting. I thought I’d try and put that in context by talking about my attitude towards arrangement in general.

I believe every track has a “core” to it; something central that everything else hangs on. What this core consists of could be just about anything, as long as it’s something. If you’ve ever seen a climbing vine, it makes for a great analogy. Climbing vines grab onto whatever’s solid, be it a rock, a fence, or a house, and climb. By doing this, they can get higher up, closer to the sunlight, without having to put a lot of energy into making themselves tall. They’ll grow in a spiral around a pole, or weave themselves around a rectangular latticework.

With loop sculpting, the core of the track is your pile of loops. The point of origin is how all the loops stack on top of one another; how they relate and interweave. Once you have that down, all you really have to do is “unroll” it into a full-length track.

I often use something other than loop sculpting — I hang the track on the drums. I’ll get some Roland noises lined up and just program two minutes of drums… something that sounds like what a live drummer might play, with groove and variation. After I’ve gotten a song’s worth of drums, I’ll just listen to it for a bit. If I’ve done things right, a melody starts to suggest itself — even assert itself. It often starts to happen before I’m finished with the drums. I program the melody in, and then the process repeats. When I play back the drums and melody, something else will suggest itself. I just connect the dots until the track is finished. If you list Luke Vibert amongst your influences, I highly recommend you try hanging a track on drums. Listen to the way he uses samples, with this technique in mind.

Drums are but one of the things on which you can hang a track. One of my favorite examples of this approach is The Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which demonstrates how wacky you can get with this. The Beatles (well, their lackeys and studio assisstants) got recordings of the music from all sorts of merry-go-rounds and the like. Then, they cut the recordings up into regularly-sized segments. They put the segments in a box, shook them up, and taped them back together at random. This process was repeated until they got a loop they liked. The whole track is based around that loop: the drums follow it, the vocals follow it, etc.

Somewhere in between that and drums would be hanging the track around a bassline, a melodic hook, or even a lyrical idea. If you’re a fan of more “abstract” music like Autechre, well… rig up something in max/msp to generate interesting noise, and then hang everything around that noise.

Don’t think of this as walling yourself off from potential options. What you’re really doing is putting some options aside for the moment, in order to get things done. When you sit down in the studio, you have a blank slate — you could do pretty much anything. Somehow, you have whittle all that possibility down into a specific reality. When you say, “I am basing this track around a drum line” or “I basing this track around a tape loop of carnival music” you lop off a large chunk of options that would otherwise distract you. It focuses your efforts; it gives you a specific direction in which to proceed.

This has all been presuming you don’t already have the track arranged in your head. Sometimes, a song will just come to you — plays in your head, and nags at you to make it real. In that case, it’s better to work top-down: You figure out what the core of the song you’re hearing is, and how the rest of it hinges on that core. Massive Attack’s 3D suggested a great way to do this:

I think you can write a song on paper, describe the sounds and plan the fucking track out and the arrangement without actually writing music. I do it as a fucking set of images, drawings, arrows and lists—that’s how I write.

In short, sit down and doodle it out!! Figure out the core points, and stress your snare sounds later.

instead of picking a core around which to base a song, you figur

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