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The role of the arranger

Description of the role of the arranger in record production.


Before samplers and synthesisers were quite as all-singing and all-dancing as they are now, arrangers were commonly employed to put the music together and work with a number of session musicians to create a musical backing in a style appropriate for the song.

Now, many programmers and keyboard players effectively take on the arranger's role themselves, for the simple reason that a few modules, and a few CD-ROMs perhaps, can supply just about any instrumental sound that could possibly be required, and all you have to do is play the notes into a sequencer and you have an 'instant' arrangement.

Of course, even though an arranger may no longer be necessary, good arrangements for synths and samplers don't create themselves automatically, so this is no easy option.

For certain styles of music, arrangers are still used. For example, it is difficult to get the best out of a string section, brass section or orchestra, unless you have a deep understanding of the instruments, and the way in which they interact. You could bash out a few chords on a keyboard, get your favourite sequencer software to turn them into musical dots, and hand them out to a group of string players. But would it get the best out of the players and the instruments? I think not.

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Arrangers seem to come in two types, lone arrangers (I think there's a pun in there somewhere!) who work at home with a sharpened pencil and large sheets of music manuscript paper, and arrangers who are themselves members of a string or horn section.

I could also put backing vocalists into this category too since a trio of singers can often work out their own vocal arrangements, saving the producer a job. You will recognise the occasion when you need to hire an arranger when someone says, "I think we need an orchestra on this track", or a jazz band, big band or even choir.

Your first port of call will be your CD collection where you will scan through discs where you remember a song being given the orchestral treatment, and hopefully the arranger will be credited in the booklet.

A call to the Musicians' Union will probably get the two of you in touch. Likewise, you may find that string and horn sections are credited on the CDs on which they appear and you might even find them in the phone book or Yellow Pages.

Of course, I have to say that London is still the centre of musical activity in the UK, as are New York, Los Angeles and Nashville in the US, and you will stand a better chance of finding the arrangers and musicians you have heard of in the metropolis.

If you live elsewhere in the country, you will still be able to find excellent musicians and arrangers, but you might not be able to expect them to have as much experience in recording.

String players in particular find studio recording much more difficult than playing live. The reason is that if they have to wear headphones, they won't be able to hear themselves in the way they are used to and they will inevitably find keeping in tune more difficult.

For a larger group of instruments, the musical director or MD might wear the headphones and conduct the musicians. If the MD doesn't have much recording experience, he may find it difficult getting the musicians to keep pace with a totally inflexible previously recorded backing track.

By David Mellor Tuesday February 1, 2000