An Arrangement a Day Helps You Mix, Work & Play
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
Preface note: in this article, I'll be discussing at length a recording I recently made. If you want to listen to the music whilst you read, you can download it here.
The Inspiration - Ryuichi Sakamoto: Playing The Piano (2009)
Ryuichi Sakamoto's 2009 album Playing The Piano is a compilation album of sorts. On it, Sakamoto performs some of his better known compositions rearranged as piano duets (two pianos). He performs both parts of the duet himself; recording one part and then overdubbing the second part.
Considering many of the songs on this album originated as either progressive electronica or as large-scale symphonic works, Sakamoto skilfully distills his compositions down to their significant and fundamental parts, and then builds his arrangements in ways that capture the mood, pace and emotional content of the original versions whilst also crafting different emotional colours in the process.
This album got me thinking…
Could I Do Something Similar with My Own Songs; Moreover, What Could It Teach Me?
Inspired by Sakamoto’s work, I've set myself the task of taking four songs from my back catalogue and rearranging them for duet (or possibly trio) piano (all performed by myself, like how Sakamoto did). Not wanting to lose myself to a large scale project, I'm laying down some restrictive ground rules:
Arrangements must be written and recorded on the same day
Complete one arrangement a day for four consecutive days
Spend no more than 4 hours on each arrangement (including recording)
No prior practice or development of ideas
No revisions on subsequent days
Tempo of piano arrangement must be close to that of the original
Beyond the above rules, I am also focussed on capturing the mood and sentiments of my original compositions, with the inclusion of some new colours/flavours by exploring more nuanced and intricate chord voicing; the kind of chordal voicing I often shy away from when producing synth-heavy music as they (the chords) can get lost in the mix or over complicate an already harmonically dense production.
Lastly, I can't possibly hope to be as refined or delicate a player as Sakamoto is; he’s simply world-class. However, practice makes perfect and this should be a good opportunity to push my playing a little and not rely on MIDI-editing to fix mistakes.
I will perform the songs on my Fatar Studiologic-880; an 88-key fully weighted piano-action MIDI controller. I will send MIDI-control from the SL-880 to my Roland Jupiter-50, which has state-of-the-art acoustic piano modelling for the best realism I can hope to achieve in my home studio. (Yes, I repainted the SL-880 pink, but that's a story for another day).
The Arrangement/Production Process
Day 1 - Cycles At Sundown from the EP Girls On Bikes
Day 2 - Reflection from the EP Her
Day 3 - Good Future from the Synthaid 2018 charity album
Day 4 - Girls On Bikes from the EP of the same name
I won't bore you with a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of what I did. You'll know what I did when you listen to the music. It's worth noting however that the initial idea of duo or possibly trio piano arrangements went out the window, as most songs ended up with four separate piano parts (partly due to my inability to properly execute what I wanted with both left and right hands simultaneously, and partly because some of the arrangements I came up with simply warranted more than two or three piano layers at times).
On the whole, each day went relatively smoothly, with mostly positive results. Day-one took me right up to the four-hour mark, but the other three days were complete in approximately three hours each (including relearning parts of some songs, as I'd forgotten what I'd played when I composed them!).
There were a couple of instances where I was a bit stuck and needed to do a great deal of takes before getting the right take. For example, the bass-line on "Cycles At Sundown" is pieced together from lots and lots of 2, 4 and 8 bar takes (I'd arranged a bass part too complex to play with one hand, and struggled to play it consistently with two hands). The improvised solo section on Girls On Bikes also took a long time to get right.
With the tracks recorded and a few days away from the music in order to clear my mind of what I'd created, I sat down to mix the recordings and reflect on the positives, the areas for development and any lessons I might gleam from the process.
Post Production Analysis
Practice Makes Perfect - My personal high-points of the four days are the latter two productions (from days three and four). Perhaps there’s an element of chance in that the songs I chose for the last two days better lent themselves to this sort of piano arrangement. However I suspect that as the week progressed, I simply got better at crafting space with dynamics whilst working with the same instrument (across different registers). Furthermore, I think that taking a disciplined approach to playing the piano daily meant that by the end of the week my fingers were better exercised and I was better able to translate feeling and emotion in to expressive play.
Consider the four days in order; day one, I was very keen to get going and attacked the keyboard fast and hard, resulting in a fast paced, very loud arrangement. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the excitement of a new project and eagerness to get stuck into recording. Day two, I was attempting to do complicated timing phrases with chord placement and occasionally fluffed my dynamic control or slightly missed the timing cues.
By day four, I was leaving entire bars of silence in the arrangement and focussing more on understatement, whilst also executing more refined and nuanced phrasing with greater control and restraint. Put simply, day four is superior in both understated arrangement and performance when compared to day one. Arguably, evidence that across the four days, I relaxed into the playing and as a result, arrangement and performance improved.
Furthermore, by the end of the week I found ideas and creativity would manifest more quickly and they were more coherent and refined ideas. Evidence perhaps that I was exercising and improving the creative parts of my brain, as well as the muscles controlling my fingers.
Tonal-Dynamic Symbiosis - In this masterclass by Oscar Peterson, who is arguably one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Jazz pianists to ever live, he speaks of using detailed tonal control in relation to dynamic range. Furthermore, he ties this tonal-dynamic control not only to the expressiveness of the performance, but also in terms of directing other band members, and helping best fit what's required for the arrangement of the piece at any given time.
He demonstrates with the example of repeatedly playing the same short phrase with such tonal variety that it appeared to intonate; similar (as he put it) to the intonation in human speech.
Put very simply, the harder the hammer strikes the string, the louder the note and the more present the high harmonics. It's very obvious when you think about it, but it's something that I feel is often under-appreciated, even by famous and highly regarded pianists.
To illustrate this point, let's refer to a diagram I'm borrowing from the article Hammer Nonlinearity, Dynamics and the Piano Sound by Daniel A, Russel (Kettering University, Michigan).
The above picture is demonstrating a C2 on a piano being played with soft dynamic (pp) and a loud dynamic (ff). We can clearly see how the loudly played note has an excessive amount of high-frequency harmonics versus the quietly played note, where harmonics trail off at about 1600Hz.
Consider day one of my experiment and listen again to the crescendo (last 90 seconds or so) of "Cycles At Sundown". In order to build intensity in that crescendo, I played all the parts harder and harder (double, or even triple forte to use the musical term). That is, after all, a tried and tested approach; build intensity by playing evermore forte. If there were just one piano in the arrangement (alongside other instruments), it probably would have been ok, however there were many pianos and therefore things start to unravel (tonally).
What's apparent is that multiple pianos all playing dynamically loud results in harmonics from the low notes filling the overall mix with mid-range and high-frequency information (exactly where the melodic top-line is).
Borrowing again from Russel's article, consider the diagram below.
Here we can see just how much more potential harmonic information there is in the lower notes when compared to the high notes. Each note in the diagram is played double-forte and it's clear to see how the C1 at double-forte has the potential to crowd and intrude upon higher notes, even as high as C8 (all those detailed and rich harmonics from the very thick, coiled bass strings on the piano versus the purer, lesser harmonically detailed tone of the thinner-gauge strings in the upper register).
During the crescendo of "Cycles At Sundown", I'm hammering across the whole range of the piano (between the various piano takes) and therefore, the upper-mid harmonic information is simply over-crowded, which creates the illusion of an unfocused melody, as the ear is confused over what the primary musical part is.
With this failure to properly take into account the harmonics of loudly played low notes on "Cycles At Sundown", it's no wonder I experienced mixing difficulties and the arrangement generally feels crowded towards the end of the song (and ultimately that the crescendo generally sounds a little overwhelming and unrefined).
During mixing, I needed to automate high-shelf EQs on the bass, baritone and tenor piano parts towards the end of the song (pictured above - you can see me shelving a significant 18db off the bass-line) to ensure these parts didn't clutter the mix and conflict with the top-line melody.
Even with this automation, the lower parts are still not ideal and were I to repeat this process, I would have exercised more restraint on the supporting parts (still playing progressively forte towards the end, just not to such an extreme). A subtler dynamic crescendo in the low and low-mid registers would have given greater tonal control in the mix overall, focussing the listener's attention more coherently on the melody.
Whatever way I think about it, it seems so blindingly obvious now, yet having played the piano for over 20 years, here I am, making this blindingly obvious mistake. It's a wonderful wake-up call, and if I only take this one thing away from these four songs, I'll consider improving my dynamic-tonal control in the lower registers a very worthwhile lesson, and one I wish I'd learned 15 years ago.
Lessons Learned & What It Means for Multi-Instrument Productions
The overwhelming theme here is restraint. Restraint in arrangement and dynamics were key to making the high-points a relative success (days three and four). Lack of restraint in arrangement and dynamics, resulted in an overload of tonal information and is where things start to get a little messy (day one and to a lesser extent, day two).
For a long time now I’ve worked to the mantra of Less-is-More. Nevertheless, when you take on a project such as this, whereby every part of the arrangement is the same instrument, it enhances and expands the tiniest imperfection into a hugely significant talking point, such is the tightrope of frequency-masking when dealing with multi-layering the same instrument. Tiny mistakes become very bold statements about areas in your craft that need improving. It’s eye-opening and quite an artistically refreshing experience.
Another key point from this is that repetition builds fluidity and confidence. Again, something we all know: Practice-Makes-Perfect; however the stark, bare-bones approach of the multi-layered piano truly hammers this point home, exposing minute imperfections in ways that more complex productions could potentially mask, whilst also giving you confidence to adopt the less-is-more approach.
I noticed a tangible improvement in my craftsmanship across just four days; imagine if you or I were tasked with writing a song or arranging a song every day of every working week (as a job - like the old Tin Pan Alley composers)?! Of course, we’d have our off-days, but ultimately the improvements in our respective craftsmanship would be near exponential (which probably explains why the Tin Pan Alley composers were able to pen some of the most notable and memorable songs of their time).
Lastly, as it took me four or more parts to properly piece each arrangement together, it gave me an even deeper respect and sense of awe for what Ryuichi Sakamoto achieved with his album Playing The Piano. The man is simply a genius and pianist of incredibly ability.
Try it for Yourself
If you’re reading this and you produce music that uses a multitude of instruments, but like me, you have a specialist discipline in one particular instrument, I’d strongly encourage you to undertake a similar exercise. In a perfect world, I'd love it if you could document it and put it out there for the world to hear, warts and all, as I’ve done, to help others learn. If you’d rather keep the findings to yourself, that’s fine too; but do it nonetheless!
As mentioned above, this exercise highlighted the significance of my oversights and technical shortcomings, and thus has shown me what and how I need to improve to better both my practical musicianship and arrangement (which in turn will lead to easier and better mixing at the engineering stage). I'm confident a process such as this can work to help others improve their craft too.
Listen to the Recordings
I’ve released these four songs as an EP on my BandCamp. Click here to download it. Have a listen while you read and I hope you enjoy at least some of it, if not all of it.
I also hope this will serve as some inspiration for you to undertake a similar self-examination of your own craft and discipline, in the pursuit of ever-improving your own music making.