It’s often difficult to strike a balance between under and over arranging a production.
On occasion, a song is such that what’s needed for it to sound complete is wonderfully obvious, but most of the time it’s part of a producer’s job to find just the right amount of spice for the recipe. Here’s the dilemma though: If you leave a production too sparse it will sound unfinished and potentially dated, but if you add in too many elements they may distract from the focus of the song. In either case, the result will sound unprofessional.
There are aspects of merit at each end of the spectrum though. There is an incredible honesty to the live-off-the-floor-esque approach to production. This type of audible documentation has roots deeply set in the earliest days of recorded music and implies a sense of heritage, and a purity of craft, that our modern recording voodoo has corrupted. But it’s that very heritage that can make these productions sound dated and unfinished by today’s standards.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are dense, elaborate productions that allow us to discover something we hadn’t heard before with each new listen. These types of productions tend to sound more professional simply because more of the frequency spectrum is filled out, however, the temptation to overproduce is always present. Will more spice make the sauce better? To a point, yes, but without an objective sense of how all of these elements will combine together you can easily end up putting in too many elements that, from an arrangement standpoint, all serve the same purpose.
So how do we strike a balance? I think that the first step is to realise the problem underlying the addiction to overproducing: It’s quite common to add too many elements to an arrangement because the existing sounds are lacking. Your instinct says that the production needs more, because effectively it does, but you’re looking for solutions in the wrong places. This misguidance usually stems from an unawareness of the many details involved in making a recording sound professional. It’s “the last ten per cent,” as I call it.
It’s incredibly rare to have a simple, straightforward (or inexpensive), recording setup. A guitar part isn’t just a guitar player, an amp and a mic. It’s a guitar player, splitting their signal to multiple amps, each of which has two mics on it, going to nice preamps, etc. A snare drum isn’t just a mic over the top rim. It’s a mic on top, another on the bottom, bleed into the overhead and room mics, some compression and EQ, a pile of samples tucked underneath, etc. These added elements help occupy more of the frequency spectrum and make the production sound fuller and more complete without the addition of more parts to the arrangement.
Another way of addressing lackluster productions is by layering sounds that play the same part. These sounds could have similar sonic characters, such as doubling guitars or vocals, or they can be completely different so as to add complexity to a part. Synths are great examples of this. Often I’ll combine several synth parts together, each on their own track but playing the same part. The key in this case is to make sure that each part is bringing something different to the overall character. A deep Moog Taurus-like sub bass can be combined with an aggressive Arp Odyssey-like sound to create a sonically-complex bass part that runs a larger portion of the frequency spectrum than either sound on their own.
As a producer, I’d say that I lean more towards dense productions and I admit that you never really kick the temptation to keep adding in elements. There is one underlying rule that us ear-candy addicts must be aware of though: There is a point of diminishing returns. Regardless of if you’re adding some flare, or layering sounds, or multi-miking, or doubling parts, if you keep adding to a production it will eventually become over-crowded, and on a more functional level, phase cancellation will inevitably haunt you. With each new element that is added be aware that it’s not always an addition. The very nature of phase cancellation is a subtraction, and if you’re not paying close attention, the result could be the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve. For this reason alone we all have to learn a bit of restraint.
Ryan McCambridge is an experienced producer, engineer, writer and audio educator from Toronto, Canada. He is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and the frontman of A Calmer Collision.
Ryan's websites: www.bitcrushing.com / www.acalmercollision.com
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