On The Identification and Fixing of Live Show Arrangement Problems

Some of you all may remember my heartfelt letter to musicians about arrangements, and how they really are best treated as the musicians’ responsibility. In that article, I got into concrete examples of how arrangement issues manifest themselves.

This is sort of a follow-on to that. It’s addressing the same basic topic, but from a different angle.

Even with the examples that I wrote about, knowing when you have an arrangement problem isn’t always intuitive or obvious. I had years and years of experience behind mixing consoles without finally having the “Ah HA!” moment about why some bands just seemed to “happen.”

Of course, I’ve had plenty of experience with bands that DIDN’T sort themselves out, and that’s actually a good metric for determining if you have an arrangement issue.

Do You Sound Like A Band, Or Does Someone Have To Make You Sound Like A Band?

One of the dead giveaways regarding arrangement problems is the way that an audio craftsperson works on your show.

Let me be clear: It’s entirely possible for an audio-human to dial up a bad mix and get similar results. However, better arrangements resist bad mixing far more than poor ones.

With that being said, let’s assume that your friendly, neighborhood noise-management-artisan is basically competent and non-malicious.

1) If this person has no choice but to constantly ride fader levels to make your mix sound right, you probably have a poor arrangement.

2) If this person has to do a lot with EQ to make the different parts fit together, you probably have a poor arrangement. (This is apart from basic, corrective EQ required to make the audio rig sound decent in a particular environment. There might be a lot of that, but that’s not on you.)

In other words, arrangement quality is INVERSELY proportional to the musical corrective action required of the sound tech. Great bands with great arrangements don’t require me to fix anything. I just have to translate the songs through the PA – and actually, that’s a pretty good analogy. With a bad arrangement, I have to go beyond just helping the “onstage language” interface with “audience language.” If I’m able, I also have to correct the original grammar, fact-check, rewrite for clarification, and THEN translate.

If you’ve worked with an audio-human that you trust, you may want to ask them a question: “After we’re all set up and ready to go, do you have to work really hard to mix us?” The answer to that question might end up telling you a lot, especially if your arrangements are significantly “broken.”

Fixing Things

If it’s broken, fixing it should be a priority. How do you go about fixing an arrangement?

I’ve talked about this kind of thing before in multiple ways, but most of those approaches have been either abstract or anecdotal. I want to try a different approach here: The analogy.

To start, let me have you take a look at the three center shapes from this article’s illustration:
freqOverlap
“But, Danny,” you say, “that’s only one shape.”

Is it? Oh – sorry – I seem to have an arrangement problem. Let me try something…
timeSeparation
See? Three shapes.

This is a depiction of a classic problem that I run into. Several players try to occupy the same frequency space, at the same overall volume, at the same time. That is, their instruments have relatively similar tones, and the notes being played have similar fundamental frequencies. (For example, everybody is playing middle C, aka C4, a fundamental frequency of 261.626 Hz.)

If the instrument tones, notes, and volumes must stay the same, then the way to differentiate the shapes is limited to space. Of course, music is a very strange sort of magic. It’s very “Dr. Who.” In music, time IS space. If the different instruments play at different times, they will naturally separate and become identifiable.

Of course, the different musicians can all play together, but take turns being at lower volume.
volumeSeparation
Triangle and square have turned down to give circle a turn. Later, circle will do the same, and either triangle or square will be the lead part. It’s another bit of wibbly-wobbly stuff, in that size IS volume.

Are space and size the only solution? Not at all! I’ll bet you can see all three shapes now, even though they’re all happening at the same time, and are at a similar overall size:
frequencySeparationIn this case, the instruments are all playing significantly different notes. Just as a color of light corresponds with frequency, so does a “color” of sound. The complicating factor with sound is that a lot of harmonic content is involved. The instrument makes the fundamental note, but the overall tone of the part comes from other, mathematically related frequencies ringing along with that note. You may find that you need very large separations to make this work, especially if everybody is playing chords. (You may find it helpful to build a chord out of several instruments playing one or two notes each.)

There are many other possible permutations of all this, of course. These fundamental ideas, however, are enough to construct most (if not all) of them. Once you identify an arrangement problem, you DO have the tools to create a solution.

Oh, and one more thing: This also applies in the studio. If the producer or engineer has to build a ton of automation curves, program lots of “mutes,” or do a truckload of EQ to make your song work, you might want to go back and work on the song’s construction instead.

  • Back in my band days, a four-piece band was lead guitar, bass, drums, and keys OR rhythm guitarist. If you had a lead singer that didn’t play an instrument, that was fine, too. But if you had BOTH keys and rhythm guitar, they couldn’t both be playing chords at the same time all the time – one would have to lay out or lay back or play something else. The rhythm guitar could play arpeggios or harmonize the lead (Allman style) or the keys could stick to arpeggios or “trumpet stabs” or something that would not step all over the rhythm guitar’s chords.

    If you added a horn (I was mostly a rock sax player), the horn would need to negotiate for “space” with the lead. Groups like Three Dog Night, Chicago, and BS&T could get away with having 6-11 pieces because the keys and rhythm guitar were careful never to compete for the same space, and the horns never competed with the lead guitar for the same space.

    An exception might be certain ska bands, in which EVERY instrument is competing for the same space at the same time, to create a homophony that is almost unique to that genre. But, sadly, most of you aren’t playing ska.

    This is an oversimplification of what Danny is trying to say, but hopefully it will help you sort out some of the most basic problems he is addressing.