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Are You A Guitar Arranger?by Phil Gates
Happy Spring to one and all. In this particular installment, I'd like to speak again about guitar arrangement and equalization. This is a touchy subject because we all like our tone, and challenge anyone who attempts to mess with it.
However, sometimes when we mix, we may have to alter that tone to make the song work. Presently I'm on a project where we have tons of guitar tracks in the song. And I mean tons of it. Double tracked acoustic guitars using the direct out as well as mic'ing them, bass guitar, electric guitar clean, electric guitar dirty, electric guitar neck pick up, electric guitar bridge pick up, an old Strat through (just as old) a Thomas Organ Co. Cry Baby Wah, etc. Now that I had put 10 pounds of guitar trax in a 5 lb bag, what was I going to do with it?
First thing is to decide what really needed to stay and what could go. Did all of those guitars need to happen at once? No, not at all. I could actually do an arrangement of the guitars that would work for the song. It's much like thinking about back-up vocals. Do you put all of them in right away in the first verse? Sometimes yes, but more often than not, no. So whether the song is a huge mega-heavy metal track, or a pop tune, maybe a jazz standard, there should be a certain arrangement to everything.
This also leads into dynamics. The dynamics of a song are very important. While the lyrics of a song should be telling a particular story, they're meant to draw the listener in, get them to the meaning of the song, usually expressed in the hook, or chorus, then some sort of resolve, then back to the hook and out.
I will caveat this by saying there are many ways to approach a song. I will use this path purely in a selfish manner because it supports the column topic!
Back to where I was.
The music should be (especially in the case of a song with vocals) supporting the story the vocals are telling. Kind of like a film score does a movie. You might not want to put 148bpm rock music under a tender scene and a penny whistle ballad in a chase scene. Then again- you might. But in general, you get the idea. Match the music to the lyric.
Let's say my song starts by telling a story of true love. Out of my aforementioned totally overstuffed bag of guitar trax, I would pull out of the bag the acoustics first to support the very la-di-da part of the song. First chorus bring in the clean electrics.
Now, second verse. The lyrics now reveal that one of the characters in this true love story hasn't really been so true…(by the way, it's usually never the songwriter somehow).
Chorus time. Axe the acoustics, bring on the distortion baby! So now I might still have some of the clean rhythm guitar trax in there to add some brilliance to the distortion rhythm guitar trax, but I'll use only the neck pick up, clean electric guitars to make sure it stays as dark as the story seems to be going.
Next verse I might still keep the distortion, but tuck it behind either the clean guitars, or the acoustics. It lightens up the song, but keeps that dark cloud on the horizon-so to speak. To get the next chorus to come smashing in to match the now total defiance/betrayal/hurt/mad/I'm-not-gonna-let-you-get-the-best-of-me attitude of the lyrics, I'll probably pull everything but the acoustics in the pre chorus. Everything sounds louder after a quiet spot.
Then comes in the double tracked distortion guitars panned at maybe 9 and 3 o'clock positions, neck pick up clean electric guitars about 10 and 2 o'clock, and the acoustics wide at like 7 and 4 o'clock. Lead vocals belting right through the middle of all of that. Oh yeah, the vocals. With all of those guitars sounding so cool, how do you squeeze a vocal over the top of all of that?
Well here's the deal. This is the part where the EQ change comes into play. The edge of vocal intelligibility is at about 4.5kHz in general for male voices. So knowing this, and knowing that trying to bring the vocal over the top of this is going to sound terrible because the guitars are hot in that same frequency range, something's got to give. Take a look at the EQ curve of a particular distorted gtr track, and listen to it. (See Fig 1"dst gtr no EQ", play Audio 1"dist gtr no EQ")
Nice crisp, distorted guitar with jape (flanger, delay, and other friends of guitar). You can easily see that it is hot in the 2kHz to 5kHz range where the vocal needs to go. So what if we used an EQ to cut a notch, or "frequency hole" in the guitar in that range to let the vocals come THROUGH the guitars, not OVER them.
Fig 2 is a shot of the HydraTone Plug-in EQ I used http://tritonedigital.com to create the notch. There are many EQ's out there, find the ones that work for you.
Fig 2 "hydratone"
I made a cut (a little extreme for the purpose of the exercise) of about 3dB at about 4kHz in the HI-MID section of the EQ. You can see the graph reflects that. Audio 2 is the result of that. Listen to "dist gtr with EQ"
Now look at the result on our meter. See Fig 3
Fig 3 "dist gtr EQd"
You can see much less energy in the 2kHz to 5kHz range, which will allow the vocal to come through more easily.
The loop comes from M-Audio Pro Sessions Loop CD Pop/Rock Guitar Toolbox
To demonstrate further, this loop is at 97bpm. Drop the two in DAW for yourself, loop them, and sing against each. See which one lets the vocal through more.
The idea is, use track choice, panning, volume and EQ to arrange your guitars so that they support the song, support the vocal track, and sound cool!
Have big fun!
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