1. Have your building blocks ready
I always think of the instruments or parts in my tracks as Lego building blocks. I’ve found this analogy helps better understand some of the basic ideas about building a structure to a song. Before you can do so, you first need the right parts. Now this might sound obvious but I’ve seen myself and many guys getting stuck with a track because we just didn’t have the building blocks to work with. So create them first. Also, try to create the right ones. Various types of instruments with various functions. Stabs for rhythmic melodies, leads for attention and hook, pads for depth and feel, textures for ambience and detail, etc. They each serve a different purpose, it’s like going to battle with all you can possibly have: infantry, cavalry, artillery, etc – they make a strong and efficient bunch together.
2. Have at least as many as you will use
Not having all the required parts often leads to being unable to break out of a loop. You’re in a rut and just haven’t got the ammunition to fight your way out. It can be so frustrating that we often can’t even identify the problem or we’re just not in the right mindset to come up with new parts.
On the other hand, too many bits create clutter. You need to pick the ones you’ll actually use. Letting go is probably one of the most difficult parts of any art really but it’s also a crucial one. Building a structure is your moment of decision: picking what what to keep and what to bin. If you have yet to try what it feels like to ditch a good idea just because it doesn’t quite sit well with the rest of the track any more, definitely give it a go. It feels awesome!
3. Have different sessions
I find it pretty useful to have different production sessions: a dedicated time to just bang out ideas without worrying too much about how and in what order you’ll wanna arrange them. Then at a later point you can start thinking about combinations. Giving some time between these sessions can also be essential. When I create ideas I tend to be very close to them, they often feel large and it’s easy to get lost in them. Which is just as well, but it may not be the perfect mindset for working on the structure. After giving it some time, the parts often feel lighter and easier to arrange.
4. Remove layers to create energy
One might think that piling up parts on top of each other creates a stronger whole. In fact, many times, getting rid of something that’s been going on a while feels like a weight has been lifted and creates energy. A couple of good questions to keep asking throughout the structure are “Do I need that sound there? Or does it actually get tighter if I remove it?”.
The fewer the parts it takes for a great sound, the better – simple as that. When my drums and bass already sound ace together I already know I will have them go on their own for a while in the track, and I can then add more on top of them – already have some of the arrangement sorted. Always good to save resources for later.
6. Start with the peak
It can be a good idea to first create the highest energy point of your song so you know your limits and don’t end up with a track that would need more nitro and boost but you’ve just used them all and you can’t go any higher.
7. Logical but surprising events
It always works a treat when you can introduce a new instrument in a way that it feels like an absolutely logical improvement, yet it is still surprising and unexpected. It might be achieved by creating a pad or texture out of a lead part, for instance, and first showing off the first, then the latter. That way the lead just feels familiar when it comes in. If you want to try out something like that, extreme warping in Ableton Live or granular synthesis are usually a great place to start for me.
8. Don’t let your project grow too big
By the time you work on the structure, your project may get pretty big and sluggish. Only few things are more annoying in the world, in my opinion. My advice is would be: try to keep your project simple – resample. Always having the option to change any parameter you want, might sound like an advantage but I believe i’s often counter-productive. Resampling an instrument and thus committing to it is a great way to get on with the track and prevent your project from growing too big. You can always save a version of your sound fully tweakable, then resample, save to a new version, and go on with that.
9. Sonic and musical variety
Both are important, still, sometimes we neglect one or the other. If you feel the need to change chords, don’t forget that it may be just the sonic attributes of certain sounds that make the track dull. And vice versa, you can sound design the hell out of a track and still might not be able to make it interesting enough if it’s the same two chords on repeat all the way. That said, I also tend to have different drum patterns going at different parts of a song. It’s a good way of giving more character or identity to a section.
10. Pop music structures
Borrowing ideas from pop music can also work well. Coming up with a bridge, a chorus, or a middle 8 might just be what the track needs to become a little more exciting.
In the intro you probably want to set the pace of the track and when reaching the verse, it can be a good idea to go with a minimum energy/ maximum effect combo. For example, having just the drums and the bass play at the drop especially after an intro that becomes busy towards the end can work a treat. The chorus is your chance to show off your hook, get the main message through, and reach the maximum energy level. A breakdown can give your audience the chance to rest a little, and a middle 8 after a chorus might get the song out of the sometimes monotonous ABAB pattern of the verse and chorus. Also, a bridge connecting the verse with the chorus may be an interesting thing to try. A bridge usually introduces new chords, often moving upwards and if they create any tension, it tends to get resolved in the chorus.
11. Ableton Live tips
a) When working on the structure, have the Brower and Device panels hidden. Use keyboard shortcuts: Alt + Cmd + B and Alt + Cmd + L. Also hide your Return Channels using the key command Alt + Cmd + R.
b) In Arrangement View, Alt + click on the down arrow next to the track name (Fold/Unfold Track Button) to minimise the width of all the tracks in your project. Click again to set it back to where it was.
c) Use Locators by right clicking in the Scrub Area and selecting Add Locator. You can then map any of them to any button on your keyboard or MIDI device, or the numbers on your computer keyboard. That way you can try out different versions in real-time.
d) Insert time by selecting a time range on any of the tracks and pressing Shit + Cmd + D.
e) Erase time by selecting a time range on any of the tracks and pressing Shift + Cmd + Backspace.
Do you have any questions? Have you found the same? Have you found the opposite?
Let me know in the comments below!