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Hard Truths: Your Arrangement is More Important Than Your Mix

Hard Truths: Your Arrangement is More Important Than Your Mix

Welcome to Hard Truths, the series on the LANDR Blog where we cut through the noise and take on a harsh reality from the world of music production. This is the advice you might not want to hear—but will make you a better producer. 

It’s easy to lose your focus during a difficult mix process. There are so many factors that affect the quality of your end result. Keeping track of all of them is confusing.

Room acoustics, choice of monitor speakers and the quality of your audio interface and VST plugins all have a big impact on your mix.

But even if you make the effort to set up your home studio properly, you can still find yourself struggling against the song itself.

Here’s today’s hard truth: you’ll never get a great mix of a song with a poor arrangement.

In fact, the arrangement is actually more important than the mixing process for the success of the song as a whole.

Mixing is an extension of arrangement

Mixing and arrangement are deeply linked. They’re different approaches to controlling two basic elements of music—timbre and texture.

Arrangement is the way the instruments in a song interact with the composition. It’s the part of songwriting that deals with which instruments play which parts, and how they play them.

Arrangement is the way the instruments in a song interact with the composition.

Arrangement used to be an entire musical discipline. In the past, popular music drew heavily on a canon of “standards” and traditional melodies.

Labels hired arrangers to create new versions of familiar material for specific artists or recording sessions.

Expert arrangers were in high demand for their ability to rewrite these timeless songs for whatever instrumentation the occasion required.

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Some of these recordings sound incredible, despite the limitations of early recording equipment.

Preview of youtube video


Back then the only way to capture a large ensemble effectively was to fine-tune the arrangement so that every element could be heard.

Arrangers used tools like dynamics markings and articulations along with their understanding instrument textures and registers to manipulate the timbre according to the needs of the song.

You can think of mixing as an extension of this same idea just using different techniques. Mix engineers use compressors, EQ and other mixing processes to “arrange” the tonal and dynamic in a song.

The power of a good arrangement

The benefits of good arranging don’t stop at making your mix better. Paying attention to the arrangement is important in good songwriting.

Memorable music will always work on its own. But a strong arrangement puts the spotlight on the best parts of your song.

Memorable music will always work on its own. But a strong arrangement puts the spotlight on the best parts of your song.

That goes double for smart mix decisions. Decluttering the texture to let a vocal shine or choosing the right synth tone for a busy lead can make or break a song. But there’s a lot to consider.

Arrangement is a broad topic that includes everything from instrument choice to song structure. Here are some basic tips to remember for good arrangement in music:

  • Leave space where possible
  • Minimize conflict between parts in the same range
  • Add and subtract elements as the song develops
  • Don’t obscure the lead (vocal, rhythm)
Preview of youtube video

Prevention is better than cure

A great mix gives each element of a song its own distinct sonic space.

Every mix is different, but the good ones have a lot in common. Clarity, balance and definition are qualities most mix engineers strive for.

You can do a lot to achieve those qualities using tools like EQ, compression and reverb. But mix processing can only take you so far.

Extreme EQ and aggressive compression can leave your basic tracks sounding flat and fatiguing.

If the sounds in your mix need so much processing that they end up barely recognizable, the tracks themselves might not be the problem—it could be the arrangement.

Your mix will be a lot less effective if you’re fighting the arrangement at every step.

Your mix will be a lot less effective if you’re fighting the arrangement at every step.

The best approach is to start your mix process as early as possible. That means arranging with your mix in mind right from the start.

Make choices as you write and arrange so that mix naturally works well even before you start adding compression and EQ.

And if something isn’t serving the song well—you have to have to be ready to cut it.

Even if a sound feels great on its own, you have to be ruthless if it doesn’t work in the mix.

Over time you’ll develop instincts for which arrangement decisions to avoid for an easier mix.

These qualities vary from song to song, but the general guidelines in this article are a good starting point.

Preview of youtube video

Mix musically

Mixing isn’t just a technical process. It’s an essential creative step in the lifecycle of a song.

Mixing musically means respecting the sounds you recorded and enhancing them—not making them worse.

But to do that effectively, you have to start with the right materials. A song that suffers from poor arranging is a bigger roadblock to a good mix than almost anything else.

Before you get frustrated with your mixing skills or the gear in your studio, spend some time thinking about your arrangement.

It could be the defining factor that turns your mix around.

 

Michael Hahn

Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.

@Michael Hahn

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