As producers, we’re often tasked with the job of taking something unfinished and making it sound whole. This can come in the form of songwriting, production tricks, or even basic elements of mixing that change the way a song sounds as it progresses.
These kinds of skills are imperative if you want to make it as a producer. You don’t necessarily need to know music theory or be extremely technical – you just need to know what sounds good and how different sounds fit together. Understanding these two things with absolute certainty can be more than enough to make you a great producer, even if you’ve never picked up an instrument yourself.
Starting with a Song’s Structure
Regardless of if you’re starting from scratch or from an artist’s composition, you’ll want to start your session by dissecting a song’s structure. Understanding how it weaves in and out between verse and chorus should immediately show you the rising action where the tension builds up in a song and gets released. Generally speaking, your verses should catch the listener’s attention and your choruses should keep it. Everything else that gets added is there to keep things interesting.
While not everything needs to follow a cookie cutter structure, there are certain song structures that have been proven winners for decades. Anyone with even basic music knowledge should be familiar with the “ABABB” approach where:
- A = Verse
- B = Chorus
The second most common structure is “ABABCBB” where “C” introduces a bridge before your song wraps up with a double chorus (and often a fade out when a producer doesn’t have any other ideas for how to end the song).
These structures are the bread and butter of the pop music community and haven’t really changed in years. Every once in a while, a song will come along and smash the charts without following the traditional format, but for the most part these producers know what their audience wants to hear and they follow that blueprint.
Outside of pop, these song structures still prevail. Listeners have become so used to how a song is “supposed” to flow that these structures become anticipated. Songs that deviate can catch a listener off-guard, which can either be a good thing or a bad one. It all comes down to how you use that opportunity where they don’t know what to expect…
A song’s arrangement has less to do with the order its played in than the instruments that are playing at any given time. Arrangement is one of the biggest tools you can use when your listener is caught off-guard to really blow them away with something unexpected and compelling.
Across all genres, this could be anything from an unexpected sax wailing through their speakers to a bass drop that kicks in and sets the tone for everything that comes after. There are thousands of arrangement combinations that could catch your listener’s attention and hold it.
Arrangement is as much about what instrumentation is playing together as it is about what’s not playing at all. Thousands of songs have utilized bridge sections where the percussion drops out completely just to come back in twice as strong right after. Acoustic sections of an otherwise full-band song can also add a lot to a production.
Here are a few parts of your arrangement you should be focusing on:
Without a base, you can’t build up.
It’s as simple as that. A mixer should be focusing on their low end in every single mix to provide that foundation. They’ve got compressors and multi-band processors to make that happen. But if you’re not mixing, how can you add to the cause?
For starters, have an arrangement that appropriately addresses the lower frequencies of your song. Make sure your drums and bass reinforce each other. Get things glued in this space and build as much as you’d like on top of it. If you can nail the foundation, the rest can really be up to your creative discretion.
Every single instruments playing quarter notes might make sense for a first music lesson, but in the modern world of music it’s one of the most boring approaches you can take. With enough instruments playing, utilizing a few different rhythmic patterns between song sections can really create some interesting contrast. Similar results can be achieved with odd time signatures.
Producers without as much input into the songwriting process can also create rhythmic elements through the use of time-based effects like delays. They’re often not as prevalent as the rhythms being performed, but can add a great texture and complexity to even the simplest performance.
If you’re working in a genre that’s particularly technical, make use of polyrhythms. Genres like jazz and metal have effectively used two completely conflicting rhythmic styles in a way that sounds full and detailed.
Having a great top line for your production is essential. People sing along to melodies that they find catchy, so without one, you’re doomed from the start.
That’s not to say that your melody is locked in once it’s written. If the song itself is feeling solid, you can always mess around with the melody to make it something even more memorable for your listener. Take some alternative takes in the studio and see where it goes.
Because of the complexity (or simplicity) of a melody, you should feel free to throw anything at it you want. Play with the rhythm of the melody. Try creating additional contrast between the lead and the harmonies. See what emotions can be evoked with different melodies and commit to whatever feels best.
Once the melody is secure, everything else should be reinforcing it.
Finish Your Songs
I think we’re all guilty of it – you start working on a song, put a ton of work into recording and mixing, then one day save and close and never come back to it again. Why?
Most of the time, it’s because producers and mixers don’t know what that final “10%” is that’s going to make it sound finished. If this sounds like you, I want to help you finish your songs.
JST VIP members get access to mix crits where I tell you what’s working and what’s not. Tell me what you’re uncertain about and I’ll give you my honest feedback. I’ve helped hundreds of bands and audio professionals wrap up their projects and I’m excited to help you along your path as well.