"Improving Your Arranging And Mixing Skills




How many times have you started out writing a perfectly good song, but by the time you’ve finished it didn’t measure up to your original vision? It didn’t end up as good you thought it could sound?


This probably includes all of us at some time or other. And the problem usually lies not in the songwriting skill, but in the way the song was realised by the time it came out the other end of the sequencer.


The song sounded fine as an idea and a sketch, but somehow it subsequently went wrong. Or maybe you mixed and arranged as you went along, but the end result was never right. This points clearly to weaknesses in arranging and mixing technique. Technical weakness, if you like. Technical weaknesses we all share to some degree.


So how do we set about improving this? One solution I’ve found useful over the years is, from time to time, to use midi files to practice with. Use downloadable midi songs.


Midi files off the web? I can hear some of you barfing already. There’s no doubt that midi files have a bad name in an age when everybody is supposed to be a songwriter. Or at least a teeny-weeny bit original with that latest synth you just scored off the web. But before you totally croak, step back a bit and think.


You’d like to be a better arranger and mixer wouldn’t you? You would?


So read on…


Using Midi Files

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By midi files I mean downloading free midis off the net, like a favourite old tune, or a pop tune you like. Because you probably won’t find much else out there. So adjust.


Let’s think about a pop cover.


Now let’s think about the advantages of doing this, some good musical reasons for having a shot at a new approach.


Try these reasons:


* You get music material to practice on without the hassle of having to spend a whole weekend writing a song.
* Taking a cover and doing something decent with it presents a real worthwhile challenge to the musician in you.
* The whole process will do a lot for your arranging and mixing ear. It’ll upskill you.
* It only takes an evening, though it might take more if you hit the mother lode.


Step One - Find the Song

The next step is to find a song that you like, or are curious about. It might be a really corny number, or it might not.


You might well find that the arrangement you unearth from the web isn’t that good musically. Or conversely you might find a rippingly good version, or even buy a top notch arrangement from one of the many companies who sell midi songs on the web.


No matter. Press on. Find yourself a song. Load the song into your sequencer, load up your best GM font, and listen to it.


It’ll be far from perfect, because downloadable midis rarely are, but you’ll start to get a feel for how the song has been realised. You’ll recognise its twists and turns. You’ll learn the different sections in detail, the verses, choruses, bridges, and where they are on the timeline.


Now you’re ready to start work


Step Two - Strip It Out

At the start of each track there’s usually a bar that holds the midi data based on the old arrangement, like midi channel, bank number etc.

Load your editor and delete it all. Likewise go through each track and strip out all the controller data you find. So all you’ve got left is bare midi notes as tracks, the very barest arrangement.


Step Three - Find the Feel

It’s here you decide on your interpretation of the song.


You might want to make an acoustic version of a fave death metal, or an uptempo trance version of a slow ballad, or do something completely spontaneous and imaginative. Whatever you choose, find drums and bass from your arsenal of sounds and get some sounds going. Mute all the rest of the tracks.


In spite of the fact the file might not be amazingly interesting, once you hear your own sounds coming through, or your own interpretation emerging, it’ll start to get interesting. Try playing with the tempo, or put a shuffle or groove in, until you’ve got a d’n'b feel that you like.


You might want to cut and paste the bars around and move things about to change the shape of the song. Or add filters to the bass, or put the drum kit through some experimental kit you’ve been dying to try out. Keep dabbling at it until you like the sound of your own d’n'b. There should be something a bit compelling about it.


Get the feel the way you like it.


Step Four - Building the Song

Usually there’s a pad to find next, to colour the d’n'b tracks. This is another chance to try out that new bank of presets you downloaded over the weekend, or maybe put in a dulcimer just to be different (it’s surprising how many ethnic sounds cut through very well).


Notice we haven’t even got down to the melody lines yet. Work at the pads and chorus chord sounds til you find something that fits well with the d’n'b. Remember, you may not even need the lead and vocal lines once you’re through. After all, this is an interpretation, not a copy.


What you’re aiming for is a d’n'b and pad/chord sound that sounds great. Use your arsenal. Have different pads for different sections of the song. Play with your fx toys. Listen hard for a sound that you really like, that has an “image”, that makes a statement.


Step Five - Capping off the Song

Ready for the lead lines now?


Well, maybe. Or even maybe you don’t want the lead lines, or maybe it all sounds better with laid back non-lead type sounds. You could even fire one of the leads into a wacko percussion kit. Find yourself lead and vocal voices that you think are interesting and that fit with your d’n'b and pads.


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The original song might sound like a million miles from home by now, but however it sounds, it should sound listenable. There should be some quality to your ideas. You may have to backtrack and make all sorts of midi editing changes, like velocity levels or controller info where you want to add more life.


You might want to replay some of the parts yourself on your keyboard, or work inside your editor and make something completely different. You might want to add harmonies to some of the lines. Or write whole new lines. It’s all about your choice, and it’s all about what sounds good to you.


Go for it.


Step Six - The Mix

You may very well have been adding effects or working on the mix on the way. But this isn’t a lesson on mixing. There are plenty of those available on the web.

The key is that you now have a sound that needs producing. So go produce.


Now, up to this point it’s all probably been quite quick, maybe less than an hours work. And this is the beauty of midi files. They’re so quick to work with. In an hour or two you’ve arranged an original version of your cover, ready to roll into the mixer.


Spend as long as you like here. The mixer is where you can have a good stab with effects, eq, compression, and experiment. If you wanted you could bounce all your midi tracks down to audio and mangle them in a beatslicer. Choose your poison.

The basic aim is to produce your arrangement, do your mix so that it has a sound, a well produced sound. And remember that a rearranged midi song file gives you a sense of freedom to play with the mix that sometimes is hard to achieve with songs you’ve written yourself, as it’s so easy to get too self-conscious with your own music.


After all, this is only a cover. It’s only a midi file you pinched off the web.


So mix it well.

Master it well.

It’ll probably take you another afternoon.


Enjoy it. That’s another musician’s weekend clocked up. And maybe you’ll be a better arranger and mixer for it.


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