The arrangement: the most important foundation for a mix
If you haven’t thought about this, I think you should, from now on. There is a generic belief that mixing quality relies mainly on how good you equalize, compress, apply effects and balance tracks. While all these aspects are important, engineers – and often times the musicians themselves – seem to forget that a poor arrangement will most likely be rendered into a poor mix. In order to understand this, let’s start off by defining what “arrangement” means.
The arrangement is the art of making a piece of music work as well possible for a given context or set of instruments. But most importantly, and within the context of the mixing process, we would like to focus on the term “arrangement” as referred to the density, implying the number of sounds in the song at any single moment, including how many sounds are in each frequency range.
Based on what was discussed above, the “arrangement” is considered with regards to sparsity or density. If the band is trying to create a mix as full as possible, then the engineer can make some suggestions to help, however the aspect I would like to cover today is related to a common problem I typically see in mixed tracks: mix is too full and it may need weeding out.
Adding several tracks with instruments stepping in each other’s “virtual frequency space” has a detrimental effect on how the mix will sound. There is a critical consideration that has to do with the notes and voicings of the different instruments when they play together and may create a “masking” effect in one or more instruments, if there is a substantial overlapping in a given frequency range. As an example, on a piano and bass guitar music piece, when the piano plays in the low register along with the bass guitar, there will be a frequency range which is covered by both instruments and thus create a muddy spot (unclear/undefined sound) in the mix. In this case I typically write the piano part staying away from the bass playing region.
In order to avoid these situations we would like to write the music part in a way to avoid fundamentals overlapping between instruments, or even considering looking at the effects of the overtones of an instrument masking fundamentals of other instruments notes played in a higher frequency. (Example: a crispy bright bass guitar can mask an acoustic guitar in the 800Hz to 1600Hz range).
Here are some basic tips for your arrangement techniques to improve the overall sound of the mix and clarity:
Arrange the piece of music so that each instrument has its own “home” – as much as possible – with regards to the notes ranges it plays.
If there are two or more instruments playing in the same tonal range, use a different rhythmic arrangement for each, so that each instrument is distinct as it plays in different timings.
Work with the musicians to smartly weed out the original song arrangement if you believe that the song is too dense in certain spots by eliminating the instruments parts, which do not fundamentally contribute to the mix. Remember: sometimes less is more.
Consider having no more than one or two instruments at the time for the different 4 mix elements: Rhythm, Accompaniment, Melody and Counter (secondary) Melody. If you build up too many parts for each element, the mix will become a real challenge to manipulate in order to maintain transparency.