June 17


Want To Produce Higher-Quality Recordings? Think Like An Arranger

By Keith Livingston

June 17, 2016

arrangement, live sound, recording

People ask me to help them with their recordings, all the time. They want a professional sound, and don’t know how to get it. Almost every time, they couldn’t get a pro sound, even if they went into a big studio. Why? Arrangement.

I used to run sound for a band who had arrangement problems. They were all good players, with good ideas. However, the bass player did a lot of thumb slapping and popping (popping is where you use the fingers on your ‘picking’ hand to pull up on the strings so they slap back down). The popping had kind of a ‘honky’ sound (not like he was a honky — honky, like a horn. I suppose I could have said horny).

The keyboard player played a lot of high midrange stuff, as did the guitarist. The vocal had a lot of the same frequencies too. I was complaining to a fellow soundperson that it seemed like the players were playing their parts without listening to each other. He said, “You mean Jazz?” Ha!


No, not like jazz. Instead, these folks played parts they liked, but they didn’t consider how their parts fit in sonically, with the rest of the band. Most everything was in the same frequency range — midrange and high midrange.

The mix was OK, but it was a fight. If I tried to get the guitar to a good level, the keys would be lost. If I pulled up the keys, the vocals would disappear. And so on.

If you go into a big, expensive studio with that happening, you’ll run into problems.

A friend of mine ran into a similar problem with a speed metal band. The guitar player had a massive sound, with a ton of power in the low end. But he’d never considered how that affected the bass guitar. Just a little less in the guitar’s low end, and the bass would fit right in.

It All Fits Together (Maybe)

Musical instruments fit together. They are prominent in different frequency ranges. Hopefully, those frequency ranges fit together. Let me give you an example . . .

A kick drum (bass drum, on a drum set), often has a lot of its power contained in the 60Hz range (We can measure frequency, or pitch, in Hz. The A above middle C is 440Hz). A bass guitar, in the 80Hz range. The kick has a fair amount of woof, from 200-500Hz. Us sound folks often EQ a little of it out. Coincidentally, bass can be heard well in that range, if you find the right spot.

Bass guitar and kick drum often play together, in time. And importantly, bass guitar, and the kick drum can fit together very well, because of the complimentary frequency situation. But if the kick drum is not tuned well, or not EQ’d well, they don’t. If the bass is playing up high when the kick hits, they may not mesh as well. If the guitar has an extreme amount of low end in it, it can muddy up the kick/bass waters.

Get the idea?

Well, that same idea applies to all the other instruments, too. Everything has its place. And if you think about it, and listen, you’ll see what might be interfering with what. So, what do you do?


If you play a different voicing on the guitar, will it fit together better with the keyboards, or vocals? Can the keyboardist transpose up an octave, or would a different sound compliment the other instruments better? Should you lay out for the break? EQ your amp to sound good with the other instruments — not how you think it’s supposed to sound.

Recently, I was asked to listen to a demo a friend of mine had recorded. She had a lot of really good ideas. But many of them were played at the same time, with similar sounds, in the same octave. So, I told her . . .

Pick out the best ideas/hooks for this song, and save the rest for other songs. With what’s left, transpose some of the parts up or down an octave. Don’t bring some parts in until later verses or choruses. Sacrifice some ideas you had, for the sake of the song. Does adding that part move the song forward, or are you just in love with it?

In other words, think like an arranger 🙂


Keith Livingston

About the author

Keith Livingston started recording his own music in the late '70s, on a 4-track. He worked his way into live sound and studio work as an engineer -- mixing in arenas, working on projects in many major studios as a producer/engineer, and working in conjunction with an independent label.

He taught audio engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle, from 1990-1993, and in '96, contributing to authoring several college-level courses there.

He was General Manager of Радио один (Radio 1) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Now he spends his time recording his own songs wherever he roams, and teaching others to do the same.

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