Kim Lajoie's blog

Does your arrangement suit your singer?

by Kim Lajoie on March 13, 2012

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Sometimes I work with low-pitched singers.

Low-pitched singers can have lovely voices. They can be deep, rich and expressive. They often have a very ‘personal’ sound – one that makes the listener feel as if they’re the only person in the room and the singer is performing directly for her/him.

For a producer or engineer, however, low-pitched singers can be challenging to mix. A deep breathy voice, while beautiful on its own, is easily overpowered by other strong instruments in the song.

Unfortunately, if you’re trying to make such a voice work in a hostile mix, you’ve already lost. It’s like trying to make a single flute heard over a whole orchestra if it’s playing low quiet notes. The ‘usual’ tricks (complimentary EQ, strong compression, etc) won’t get you very far. The problem is not caused by the mix, so why would it be fixed in the mix?

In truth, this kind of problem occurs a few steps back in the workflow – the arrangement and instrumentation. This is the process of determining how best to express the song in sound. Essentially, it is the choice of instruments to play on the song and the choice of what they’ll play.

To create an arrangement that supports and compliments a low breathy singer, lean towards weaker or thinner sounds. Give the voice enough space to reveal its subtlety and depth. If you want harder-hitting sounds, either make them quite low (such as a deep bass or kick drum) or make them sound intermittently (so they’re only sounding some of the time).

Of course, for stronger or more strident singers, it makes more sense to use stronger and thicker sounds. It’ll be easier to mix and help the voice sound less uncomfortably piercing or irritating.

So, certain instrumentation and arrangement approaches work well with certain types of voices. But should you start with the arrangement and choose a singer to suit, or start with the singer and choose an arrangement to suit?

The answer depends on who is the artist.

Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward. If you are a producer for hire working for an singer-songwriter, your job is to make that song shine. You can’t choose the singer, but you have some freedom to shape the instrumentation. Alternatively, if the artist is a composer or producer (perhaps yourself!), there is probably a creative direction that has already been chosen.

Sometimes it’s not so straightforward. The singer-songwriter might have a band or might be stuck on a particular sound. The composer or producer might have some good ideas but can’t find the perfect singer. In these kinds of situations, you’ll need to compromise. You’ll need to pick your battles. And that’s when you need to know just how important the arrangement and instrumentation is. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the arrangement in the (false) believe that any problems can be fixed in the mix.

An appropriate arrangement that supports and compliments the singer will be easier to mix and the result will sound more natural.

Have you had a situation where the singer didn’t suit the arrangement? How did you approach it?

-Kim.

5 thoughts on “Does your arrangement suit your singer?

  1. Hi Kim,

    You are right and yes, most “unsolvable” issues that people can face during mixing could have been prevented in the pre-production stage (arrangement and instrumentation).

    But I’ve also been exposed to cases where all the amount of planning couldn’t have allowed me to fully anticipate all the variables and things simply didn’t sound as good as I would have liked them to.

    That’s when, I feel, it helps to be a perfectionist and not hesitate to re-record the uncomfortable / disturbing / subpar / inefficient part. Of course, you do have to manage the artist’s and musician’s sensibilities who may not necessarily understand the intricacies of why you feel a part should be re-recorded: that’s where people skills come into play!

    I also find that some of these challenges tend to be genre specific. For instance, if an artist has a low voice and yet is focused on playing hard rock music, you can expect to have a really hard time making him shine in between the power snare shots and the invasive guitars. And the same goes with flimsy high pitched singers who insist on playing soul or jazz.

    Of course, I’m not saying an artist shouldn’t try to be proficient in a certain genre simply because his/her voice doesn’t perfectly fit in the cannon, far from it. But I am saying it is the producer’s job to anticipate these difficulties and think of arrangements that will allow the vocals to sit comfortably in the mix.

    Cheers!

    Max

  2. Kim Lajoie says:

    Great perspective, Maxime. Sometimes re-recording a part is the only way to save it. And while experienced producers will be able to foresee and ward off any potential future problems, there’s always a chance of something unexpected happening. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that unless there’s a good chance of something unexpected happening, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough!

    -Kim.

  3. M-phazes says:

    I have had to remix a few tracks that didn’t suite the singer, they have picked an instrumental I had made previously, recorded to it, and it just didn’t mesh. I found going back and treating the vocals as an acapella you’re trying to remix leads to better results in the long run. Also then you can focus on mixing the vocals by themselves and getting them the best they can sound, then building around them (pretty sure you’ve covered something like that in your blog before?)

    Anyway, always great reading! keep it up Kim!
    Cheers

  4. Kim Lajoie says:

    I’ve done that myself too. The way a singer approaches a song can totally change the creative direction. I had this recently when I had a singer in for a project that I thought would be a pretty straight soprano, but instead she gave me with expressive soulful voice that prompted me to rethink my expectations for how the project would end up sounding.

    I’ve written a bit about starting a mix with the vocals here: http://blog.kimlajoie.com/how-to-make-space-for-the-vocals-in-the-mix/

    There a probably a few other blog posts like that floating around in the archives – it’s an approach I’ve been using for years.

    -Kim.

  5. Hi Kim,

    Yes indeed, not making mistakes usually involves not taking risks and to me, that’s not the best way to achieve something ground breaking.

    I prefer to take chances and use my experience to hit most of the time and if ever I miss, well, I re-record 😉

    Cheers!

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