You’ve written a new song that’s sturdy enough to be performed with just a guitar or keyboard for accompaniment. Which raises the age-old question: how much extra stuff should go into the making of the multitrack? While the style of the song might dictate the approach to arranging, often it’s a matter of taste—some would rather have very little adornment and just let the song speak for itself. Fair enough—however, with the right ideas and some recording dexterity, you can punctuate certain passages with brief bits of vocal harmony, instrumentation or other accents that can help turn a quality song into a compelling master.
Highlight the hooks. To most people, a song’s “hook” is its chorus or lead riff, but there can be all kinds of tasty bits throughout that may be worth emphasizing during the production process. Handclaps can be surprisingly good at introducing a chorus or pre-chorus, or you can try overdubbing maracas, tambourine, or other percussion instrument during select portions of the song. You could also fill any space in the lead vocal track with a few bars of melodic guitar, then repeat the lick in the same spot on the following verse.
Change the scene. One way to hold listeners’ attention is to continually adjust the dynamics so that your 3-minute song contains any number of “scene changes.” It could be as simple as introducing a second guitar at the start of verse 2, or perhaps muting the bass track for a portion of the final chorus. You can also use effects to create sonic “hooks,” such as adding a splash of reverb to the end of a solo break, putting the drums through a lo-fi filter during the bridge, and so forth.
Orchestrate it. While not quite the same as the human touch, keyboard and sampling technology has come far enough to allow even at-home arrangers the ability to add orchestration such as woodwinds, horns, string quartet and the like. Using the main progression as the template, you can craft an arrangement of moving chord clusters that can add “lift” to certain sections of the song. Tread lightly, however—as with all synthesized sounds, you’ll want to keep the level just high enough to give the impression of a group of players, rather than a fistful of digital bits.
All together now. Your arrangement might look good on paper, but the real test is listening back to ensure your additions properly blend with the song’s main ingredients. Start by setting rough levels as well as approximate pan positions for each track, then gradually adjust the faders and pan knobs until the overall sound begins to gel. The idea is to create a pleasing balance between upper- and lower-register instrumentation—too much high end can make the track sound abrasive, particularly when played loud, while an overload of bottom can lead to a muddy mix that’s lacking in clarity. While the easiest remedy is to mute any offending parts, you can also try adjusting the channel equalization so that each track has a unique EQ “profile.” Additionally, moving the pan positions ever so slightly can sometimes help break up a logjam of like frequencies.
Above all, go easy on the extras. Once you get going you may find yourself inundated with all sorts of spontaneous ideas, and subsequently record the whole lot. Bear in mind, however, that too much accompaniment can have the opposite effect, turning your track into a barrage of sonic clutter. Leaving ample space throughout the song will make your insertions that much more effective—while also giving your listeners’ ears a break.