The following material is adapted from chapter 5 of The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski
The Arrangement: Where It All Begins
Good balance starts with a good arrangement. It’s important to understand arrangement because so much of mixing is subtractive by nature. This means that the arrangement, and therefore the balance, is changed by the simple act of muting an instrument whose part either doesn’t fit well with another or doesn’t fit in a particular section of a song. If the instruments fit well together arrangement-wise so they help build the song dynamically and don’t fight one another frequency-wise, then the mixer’s life becomes immensely easier.
Tension and Release
All art is built around tension and release, which is just another expression for contrast. It’s big against small, fat against slim, wide against narrow, and black against white. In photography it’s shadows against light, in painting it’s light against dark, in music it’s loud against quiet, and in mixing it’s full against sparse. That’s what makes things interesting; you never know how big something is until you see something small to compare it to, and vice versa.
All good arrangements are filled with dynamic changes, which means loud versus quiet and full versus sparse. One of the jobs of a mixer is to create this tension and release when it’s not there, and when it is, to emphasize it. This is done by muting and unmuting tracks and changing the level of certain vocals or instruments at points within the song.
When two instruments occupy the same frequency band and play at the same volume at the same time, the result is a fight for attention. Think of it this way: You don’t usually hear a lead vocal and a guitar solo at the same time, do you? That’s because the human ear isn’t able to decide which to listen to and becomes confused and fatigued as a result (see Figure 5.1).
So how do you get around instruments conflicting with one another? First and foremost, a well-written arrangement keeps instruments out of each other’s way right from the beginning. The best writers and arrangers have an innate feel for what will work arrangement-wise, and the result is an arrangement that automatically lays together without much help.
It’s not uncommon to work with an artist or band that isn’t sure of the arrangement or is into experimenting and just allows an instrument to play throughout the entire song, thereby creating numerous conflicts. This is where the mixer gets a chance to rearrange the track by keeping what works in the mix and muting any other conflicting instruments or vocals. The mixer can influence not only the arrangement this way, but also the dynamics and general development of the song as well.
To understand how arrangement influences balance, we have to understand the mechanics of a well-written arrangement first.
Most well-conceived arrangements are limited in the number of arrangement elements (not mix elements; there’s a difference) that occur at the same time.
Generally, a group of instruments playing exactly the same rhythm can be considered a single element. For example: A doubled lead guitar or doubled vocal is a single element, as is a lead vocal with two additional harmonies. Two lead guitars playing different melody lines or chordal rhythms.
The foundation is usually comprised of the bass and drums, but can also include a rhythm guitar and/or keyboard if they’re playing the same rhythmic figure as the rhythm section. Occasionally, as in the case of power trios, the foundation element will only consist of drums, since the bass usually needs to play a different rhythm figure to fill out the band’s sound, so it therefore becomes its own element.
A pad is a long sustaining note or chord that adds a sort of “glue” to the arrangement and therefore the mix. In the days before synthesizers, a Hammond organ provided the best pad, and was later joined by the Fender Rhodes. Synthesizers now provide the majority of pads, but real strings or a guitar power chord can also serve in that role as well.
The rhythm element can come from any instrument that plays against the foundation element. That can mean a double-time shaker or tambourine, a rhythm guitar strumming on the backbeat, or congas playing a Latin feel. The rhythm element is used to add motion and excitement to the track. Take it away, and the track loses a bit of life and energy.
A lead vocal, lead instrument, or solo.
Fills generally occur in the spaces between lead lines or can be a signature line. You can think of a fill element as an answer to the lead.