The Digital Arranger

In the “good ole days” music was the result of a whole army of talented people, all working towards the same goal – recording a piece of music. The 3 most important individuals were The Composer, The Arranger/Orchestrator and The Copyist. The role of the Music Arranger has changed dramatically over the last decade. In the commercial world historically the role of the arranger involved liasing with the composer and working with his notes. The composer would provide the melody and some (but not necessarily all) harmony for all the themes in the piece and probably some guide as to which voice (instruments) would play each section. The arranger would then map out, on paper, the orchestration from start to finish, filling out the bars to compliment the melody. This would then be passed to the Copyist who would literally sit and copy out (by hand) all the individual parts of the score for each instrument, or group of instruments, transposing them if necessary for the correct instrument. He would be the one under most pressure as ultimately it was his job to get the parts delivered to the studio ready for the session. With studio time costing hundreds of pounds an hour and musicians, conductors, producers and engineers costing as much (yes musicians were decently paid at one time) you don’t want to be the one holding up the session. If changes needed to be made mid-session it was the copyists job to re-write whatever parts needed changing and make sure they were back by the time the session resumed.

These days, when the budget allows, the team of creatives producing the music is much the same, although arrangers and copyists use computer scoring software to edit and print the score. Key changes, cuts and additions can be made quickly and easily and are ready as fast as the printer can churn them out.

However, great results can also be achieved using a team of just one: The Digital Arranger and it is in this category that I fall. 90% of my work involves creating backing tracks, production music, songwriters demos, jingles and song-a-like tracks which would normally use live instruments by emulating the instruments directly in the computer, using software. Modern sample libraries are so sophisticated that incredible results can be achieved emulating an orchestra, for example, without even hiring a single string player or timpanist.

I always strive to use as many live instruments on my tracks as the budget will allow. Where required ALL my tracks use live drums (played by a live drummer – me) as this is an area which, no matter how good the samples, without expert programming sampled drums stand out a mile and make the track instantly sound like a cheap MIDI file. The live players on recordings don’t even need to be in the same studio at the same time these days. I can have brass recording in one studio, guitar somewhere else, and a bass player sat in his bedroom. Each performer digitally sends his recording to me and I piece it all together.

Its common for one musician to double or triple his recording. Using just 3 players (Trumpet, Trombone & Sax) its possible to create a convincing big band brass section. With good arrangements these 3 players can record each of the 4 or so parts for their instrument using multitrack recording. Combined, they sound like 12 players. You can hear an example of this on my samples page with the popular Harry Connick Jr arrangement of the standard “It had to be You”.

When presented with a track to arrange I usually start with the piano part. Once the piano is recorded (programmed) all the way through and the tempo and any ralls or accells inserted I begin on the orchestration. At one time I would write out the score bit by bit but these days I work directly in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), adding layers of instruments one by one. I edit mistakes in recording with the matrix editor (a representation of the musical part on a grid) and sometimes this itself inspires a particular passage in the arrangement, just from looking at a graphical representation. Its a far cry from the likes of Quincy Jones working through the night sat with the manuscript paper and a pencil on the kitchen table but its often what happens to get music recorded.

Not only responsible for the music, today’s digital arranger is very often also the one who mixes and masters the tracks once recorded. On one recent project I wore many hats: musical contractor (fixer), arranger, producer, mix engineer, mastering engineer, drummer, percussionist, session booker, admin assistant and I made plenty of cups of tea!

Next week: Christmas music of course!

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