Arranging electronic tracks can be a challenging task, but with the right strategies it doesn't have to be. In this article, you'll find 10 tips to help you get started and turn your loops into complete tracks. Let's get started!
1. Study the arrangement of tracks. Import them in audio format into Live and mark different sections with place markers. This is how you learn which sections are typically in use for tracks in your genres.
2. Create outlines of arrangements. If you’d like to study other arrangements, you can easily create outlines of what’s inside each section by creating empty MIDI clips. In this way you can learn how different elements evolve over time.
3. Before starting to arrange, move your initial loop forward - for example to bar 49. This usually gives you much more freedom to create the introduction to the track.
4. Arrange from the start of the track, rather than focusing on the drop or chorus section first. In this way you make sure the track progresses nicely. Also, for each track the peak moment happens at a different point, so if you feel like you need a longer or shorter intro, make sure to move the “main loop” to a desired position even after initially placing it.
5. Try to “tell a story” with your track’s arrangement. One approach is to start the track from the foundations, like basic drums - which is very often done in techno and house to allow the DJ to mix into the track. This is not a requirement however, as you can start from any element you like - the key is to make the track’s progression feel natural.
6. The evolution of elements is the most important aspect in arranging electronic music.
- In typical techno and house tracks, a common arrangement would start from introducing basic drum elements, gradually introducing more drum parts along with the bass, and then adding the first melodic elements.
- After that first “section” might come a break where the heaviest drum elements are dropped, and which builds up tension before bringing the drums back in.
- The second section might “drop” to only a selection of the “main loop elements”. It can also progress by more and more elements being introduced to reach the track’s climax.
- After that might come an outro, where more and more tracks fade out, ultimately leaving only the main drum elements to allow the DJ to mix into the next track.
Pay attention to the evolution of elements in your reference tracks. Ask yourself: When do the different elements come in and drop out? Use your insights as a reference point when in doubt of what to do while arranging. Ultimately, as every track is different, it’s usually best to arrange according to what you think will fit your track, instead of copying.
7. Introducing elements doesn’t need to be abrupt. To make transitions smoother, you can use some simple automations. 3 basic ways of introducing elements in your tracks are:
- Gain automation. Some elements might only require the volume to be gradually increased. There are also cases in which gain automation is used at the beginning and end of tracks. This can easily be done with Ableton’s Utility, so that you can still use the track’s volume control for mixing.
- Filter automation. A more interesting sounding way of introducing and fading out elements is by automating a filter cutoff knob - typically a lowpass filter. This can very easily be done with Ableton’s Auto Filter.
Reverb and delay. These techniques sound very interesting - using reverb for transitions makes elements sound very “distant”, and using delay usually results in an “echo” which can last a while after the element stops playing.
8. If your track sounds repetitive and hypnotic, which is often the case with techno and house tracks, small changes make quite big differences, as the sections do not need to sound drastically different from each other. Still, to make these small, strategic changes, you need to be quite creative, as there’s no single best way of adding variation. Luckily with the amount of tools in modern DAWs, you can often do plenty of different things with a single element.
9. There are two main ways of adding variation to a single element in electronic tracks:
- Effects automation. If you’re making dance music then often processing single tracks or groups with DJ-style effects like reverb, delay and filters can add a lot of cool movement.
- MIDI change. This can be a bit more demanding than just adding an effect and automating it. For example, if you’re working on a hi hats clip playing 16th notes, you might just stretch the clip in time (x2) to turn it into a nice 8th note pattern. If you’re looking to add variation to a melodic element and you don’t feel like writing a completely new MIDI pattern, you also have options. For example, you can split clips to play only sections in certain parts. Another approach could be to transpose your melodic MIDI by an octave down or up.
Of course it’s always possible to combine both approaches in a single transition.
10. Don’t get too hung up on details while arranging. It’s usually best to keep introducing a little variation throughout the track, but not too much. Try to keep the structure and the transitions simple. If arrangement isn’t something easy to do for you, it’s probably a good idea to stick to the following idea: “Let’s just keep me as the listener consistently interested, so that the track doesn’t sound boring - the transitions can always be spiced up even more afterwards if needed”.
Once the initial stage is done (and usually this takes some time with longer tracks), you can bounce it to audio, have a break and listen to it in a different setting - for example see how it sounds right after some tracks in your genre, on a different sound system, or in a different space. Try to listen attentively and note down what could be improved. Then you can come back to the studio and make changes.
The process of arranging might go on infinitely, it can be quite a “rabbit hole” if you’re very detail-oriented. However, try not to overproduce by adding too many effects and transitions. Keep in mind that the listener probably isn’t there to listen to fancy effects, but to music, and humans tend to like what doesn’t sound overcomplicated.
I hope you found these tips useful!
If you'd like to learn arrangements in depth, we recommend our full Arrangement Course below: