If you’re pitching your songs to the fast growing film and TV song market – or thinking about it, which you should be! – there is one challenge that seems to overwhelm a lot of songwriters: Broadcast Quality recordings. It may seem like big a deal but it really isn’t. Read on!
For the film & TV song market, your song (or instrumental track) will be used “as is.” Production schedules don’t allow for time to remix or request changes from you. While they will edit the track to fit a scene, that involves only cutting or repeating sections of the song. So, in terms of recording quality, your track needs to be competitive with other tracks that are being used in this market
Also, to really be successful as a film & TV songwriter, you want to create a constant stream of new material. Does that mean you have to hire a pro studio and session musicians, then spend more $$$ and hours mixing every song you want to pitch? It does if every song has to sound like that fully-produced Electro-Dance-Pop track on the radio! Luckily, you don’t have to do that!
Consider this: In film & TV, the most-popular tracks from major Rock bands like Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam are the “unplugged” ones… the simple productions. (The songs are “Home” and “Just Breathe.”) The most popular song genre in many of today’s most successful prime-time TV series is Indie Singer-Songwriter, a style that features a stripped-down sound based on acoustic guitar or piano. In other words, a barebones arrangement.
WHAT IS A BAREBONES ARRANGEMENT?
In the world of film and TV music, less can definitely be more. Often a simple arrangement can be as effective as a full band recording with layers of electric guitars and synthesizers. A single instrument, such as acoustic guitar or keyboard, plus a vocal may be all you need. Adding a bass to anchor the bottom keeps the arrangement spare and yet fills plenty of space. A percussion part, like a shaker, adds a light groove and another texture.
Basically, what you’re aiming for is an arrangement that uses the minimum number of instruments to get the essence of the song across – the energy and emotional feel.
Three good reasons to record a barebones arrangements:
- A minimal arrangement allows the singer to be the focal point of the song, creating an intimate, emotional sound that works well under scenes with or without dialogue.
- For home studio recording, a simple arrangement is likely to give you the best outcome. The less you have to juggle in the recording and mixing process, the better!
- A stripped-down arrangement moves any song toward the singer-songwriter style, which is the most popular genre in the film and TV market.
Four keys to a simple production!
1. Use dynamics
Even in a minimal arrangement, you still need to change the dynamic level of the track in order to keep listeners involved. Adding a single vocal harmony part can lift the energy in the chorus. Adding a second guitar or bass can boost the complexity of the arrangement. Remember that every sound counts so you may want to use real musicians rather than samples, and always get the best performance you can.
2. Fill space
Determine the note range of the vocal melody then build your instrumental arrangement around it. The vocal will usually fill some portion of the midrange so, when working up your guitar or keyboard part, pay special attention to the high and low note ranges. The low notes can anchor the arrangement much as a bass part would. The high note range will add color and fill space above the vocal range. Adele’s “Daydreamer” and Nick Drake’s “From the Morning” are good examples of guitar arrangements that surround the vocal and fill a lot of sonic space.
3. When a steady rhythm is needed…
A rhythmic strumming style on acoustic guitar can lay down a groove that eliminates the need for a drum track. Listen to Damien Rice’s “Cannonball” to hear a three-guitar strummed style that sets up a steady beat. Eddie Vedder’s “Rise” nails the rhythm on mandolin.
Piano can set up a rhythmic feel using arpeggiated chords (playing the notes of a chord one after the other instead of together as in Adele’s “Someone Like You”) or by playing a steady, repeated rhythmical phrase. Both acoustic and electric piano sounds will work. A percussion instrument, like shaker or conga, can keep the beat and still preserve the minimal feel.
4. The vocal is the centerpiece
In this style, the vocal is king and everything else is there to give it support. These vocals are usually direct and honest, almost as if the singer is speaking directly to the listener. Singing close to the mic and keeping the vocal dry in the mix (go light on the reverb) is a good approach.
In Adele’s “Someone Like You,” the piano part is in the vocal range but the EQ keeps it in the background, allowing the brighter vocal sound to stand out. Some of today’s singer-songwriters are adding more reverb to create an atmospheric feel in the vocal a la Bon Iver’s “Holocene.” It all depends on the effect you want to create. Even in a simple arrangement, there are plenty of choices you can make!
When mixing, it’s a great idea to compare your mix with a commercial release that’s in a similar style. Try to get as close to the overall sound and balance as you can.
Here are just a few successful film & TV songs with barebones arrangements:
- “Fireproof” – The National
- “The Stable Song” – Gregory Alan Isakov
- “I Don’t Feel It Anymore” – William Fitzsimmons
- “Shame” – Ciaran Lavery
- “I Do” – Susie Suh
- “Gone Away” – Lucy Schwartz
- “I’m There Too” – Michelle Featherstone
by Robin Frederick
This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.
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