How To Choose the Right Instruments for Your Productions
We’re getting into the last stretch of our One Person Production Machine series by Ed Elefterion. If you haven’t read the previous 11 posts in the series, I highly recommend checking them out here.
His take on songwriting, arranging and producing as a multi-instrumentalist in the home studio is both inspiring and entertaining. This week he discusses orchestration and instrumentation, the vital selection that dictates how your song will sound and feel.
What instruments tell your story?
A baritone sax sounds different from a bass guitar. A pipe organ, different from a piano. An acoustic guitar is different than an electric. Each of these examples pair instruments of the same register (range of notes) but it’s obvious how each instrument has its unique character.
Sometimes this character is referred to as timbre (pronounced tam-ber). It’s what makes humans audibly recognize individuals in a crowd. I bet you could pick your loved one’s voice out from a room crowded with voices [Editor’s note: see the Cocktail Party Effect].
It’s the same thing with instruments. You know a baritone sax when you hear one or a piano or a harp or a kazoo.
If you think of each instrument this way, you can more easily imagine them as characters in a story that you’re telling with sound (and often lyrics), and you can start to see how the characters you choose impact the story they tell.
When I’m telling a funky story, I’m not reaching for an upright bass…I’m reaching for the electric bass or a baritone sax (or both). When I’m telling a smoky jazz love story, I’m not reaching for a pipe organ…I’m reaching for a piano (maybe a grand if it’s classy, maybe an upright – and slightly detuned – if it’s common). It depends on the story.
Orchestration often defines genre – and vice versa. If nothing else, genre tells you what sounds your audience expects to hear. I find it useful as an obvious place to begin populating the world of my story.
Here are the usual instruments (characters) in some top genres.
- Rock: guitars, keys, drums, bass.
- Country: guitars, keys, drums, bass – but maybe a slide guitar and less distortion.
- Blues: guitars, keys, drums, bass – but really focus on the tone of the guitar and keys.
- Hip-Hop: drums, bass, pads, keys, some guitar but not highlighted.
- Funk: bass, drums, guitar, keys.
- Rap: drums, percussion, pads, keys – for hooks.
- Jazz: keys, drums, bass, horns (trumpet, sax), guitar.
- Classical: strings, woodwinds, plus everything else…except for guitar.
I begin with instruments that typify the genre I’m working in then I widen my palate to include specialty instruments. I give the story a unique character by including unique characters.
The Power of Specialty Instruments
Just one specialty instrument will change a song from good to great in the mind of your audience. From the moment they hear it, their ears stand up and start searching for it again…and searching for other sounds.
They listen more closely.
When you use the usual instruments, they listen with a passive quality. They lean back and receive the sounds. But when you introduce something unexpected…now they’re on their toes, no longer leaning back to receive. They’re leaning forward. They’re active participants.
That’s exactly what you want.
When they’re actively listening, boredom is defeated.
Entertainment 101: don’t be boring.
The Five Families
There are five specialty instrument families that I turn to when I want to make my songs sound unexpected and unique.
Take note: I don’t let the fact that I don’t play these instruments get in my way. I dream big and use virtual versions. They work perfectly well if I exploit their strengths and mix them wisely.
- Strings: upright bass (plucked and bowed), cello, violin, viola, harp.
- Woodwinds: saxophone, harmonica, clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon.
- Brass: trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn.
- Synths: pads, stabs, arpeggiators (or sequencers), the sky’s the limit.
- Sound FX (ambient sounds, not musical instruments): crickets, barking dogs, sirens, crowd noise, etc.
And that brings me to the very special, specialty instrument:
When I think of “drums” I think of a standard drum kit: kick, snare, hats, cymbals, toms. When I think of “percussion,” I think of everything and anything else that makes a sound when you hit it. That’s why I’m giving it a special group of its own.
There are two basic subgroups in the percussion family: Pitched and Unpitched. I’ll include some examples for clarification but visit Wikipedia, and you’ll see that the list is very long and equally fascinating.
There’s a world of interesting knocks and rattles out there.
- Pitched: bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, chimes, gongs…etc.
- Unpitched: hand claps, snaps, woodblocks, castanets, shakers, tambourine, cowbell, etc.
Bang What You Got
Unpitched percussion is a real blast because you can let your mind run wild. Grab whatever you got and bang away. I’ve used salt shakers of various sizes, a bag of coffee beans, tabletops, various books and magazines, scraps of wood, shoes smacked together, hubcaps, baseball bats, rocks…you get the idea.
Paul McCartney tapped away on a book in his lap for the drums to Blackbird and Tom Waits shaped a career out of suitcase lids, brake rotors, drawer bottoms, pots, and pans.
If you’ve never thrown a mic in front of something weird, you’re missing out. Such fun. Try it.
Since I Gave Up Hope (I Feel Much Better)
When you focus your listening to the orchestration of this track, you’ll notice that I used a few specialty instruments beyond the typical rock orchestration of drums, bass, guitars (acoustic and electric), and keyboards. There are three kinds of saxophones (baritone, tenor, alto), a trumpet, and several sound FX (ice dropping into a glass, several attempts at igniting a lighter, inhaling a cigarette, a big exhale, and a party crowd talking and laughing).
Of these, the most special was the sound FX because none of them are instruments. I use the ambient sounds like a Foley artist does on a radio show – that’s where Foley art began. Today, it’s used more in cinema than anything else.
Foley artists tell stories with sound FX. Shoes approaching in the distance, stopping with a shuffle, keys fumbling, one goes into a lock, turns the lock, a creaking door (pitch moving from low to high), more shoes walking (only louder now), stopping, the creaking door again (this time pitched from high to low), a latch closing, keys tossed and landing, a voice speaks. The beginning of a story told in sound.
If you haven’t listened to radio plays from the 30s and 40s, you’re missing out. Google it and listen to one. They’re short, very clever, and they’ll give you lots of ideas on how to use sound fx in your music.
Strangeness is Powerful
If you’re always using a specialty instrument…it’s not special anymore. Strangeness is powerful to an audience, and it comes in many forms.
Sounds themselves can be strange (like the specialty instruments), how you use time (the distance in seconds between sounds), rhythmic changes, dynamics (differences in volume), lyrics, structure (two bridges next to each other, or no chorus)…all of these can be made strange by how you arrange them.
Details, Details, Details
The accumulation of details, one linked to the next, combine to create a unique work of art.
I put details in as soon as I think of them. If I think of using a trumpet, I load my trumpet VST and write those parts with those sounds playing. Working this way inspires me. It helps me hear how best to use the sounds and helps me hear what other sounds want to be there – or which ones don’t.
I’ll also overdo the parts. That is, I’ll write a trumpet line for the whole chorus (or even the whole song) knowing full well that I’ll eventually cut most of it.
The same goes for the little guitar stabs or melodic lines that float in to decorate the lyrics or fill in a gap. I’ll record a lot of guitar lines through the whole song; then I’ll isolate the bits that sound right and move them to a place that feels right.
Often, I’ll know more about what doesn’t work than what does. When I don’t know the best place for an instrumental phrase, I’ll pick a general area (between line 1 and 2 of a verse, let’s say) and I’ll randomly drop it in. Once it’s somewhere, then I have an easier time knowing where it belongs and how it fits into the larger scheme.
It’s all about the details.
Without them, the track is either just a demo or a well-considered stylistic choice – aimed squarely at a specific goal with my audience in mind.
In the next post, I focus on vocals. Lead and backing. I’m looking forward to writing it and putting it out here for you.
Musician, Heal Thyself
I used some of my own tips last week when I wrote a new song and was stuck on the question of whether or not to use an Intro/Outro. I decided not – after writing them and trying them out. Maybe I’ll end up using them somewhere else in some other song I haven’t written yet.
The song’s called Paradise Burns and was inspired by the fires in California last November.
It’s structured simply: Verse1, Chorus, Bridge, Verse 2, Chorus. The chorus is just one line, and the orchestration is very sparse. I even use some specialty instruments…gently.
I wrote it in a day, recorded it in two, and by the end of the week, the mix and master was done. I’d love to hear your questions and comments about it…or any of the material I’ve shared.
If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Shoot me an email, and I’ll help you out with a:
I’ll listen to your demo, we’ll Skype for 15 min, and I’ll tell you what I’d do. You can take my ideas (or not) and execute them yourself.
Or, if you want more direct help, we can talk about how much (or how little) you want me to be involved.
We’ll work out a fair price…I’m not in this for the money. I’m an artist, too, and I won’t exploit other artists. But more on this later.