Last week we looked at what orchestral music can teach us about arrangement and the three components of arrangement.

Today let’s talk about instrumentation. If you take away nothing else from this little orchestral series, pay attention today.


How do you decide what instruments to add to a song you’re producing? Do you always add a B3 and doubled electric guitar? (It’s okay, I do it, too.)

Pretend for a moment that you’re a composer, and you’ve been hired to write a film score for Braveheart II: The Adventures of Bill Wallace, Jr. If all you had at your disposal was a standard orchestra, what would you do to make things interesting and engaging?

You can’t put a crazy EQ on the violin section. You can’t run the french horns through a fuzz pedal (although that would be cool). You can’t pan the cellos left for one song and right for the next…they’re sitting in chairs on a stage.

Once you’ve established a good arrangement (melody, chord structure, dynamics), your next job is to figure out how to use instrumentation to capture the listener’s attention without fancy engineering tricks.

How do you decide what instruments to use in a song? Do you pick instruments that complement each other? Or do you only choose instruments that occupy the 250 Hz range? (Leaving a muddy mess to clean up later during mixing.)

The Key to Instrumentation

I’ll be honest, I’ve never mixed an orchestral session, but I imagine there aren’t a lot of drastic EQ cuts and boosts. I bet the bulk of the work is wrapped up in capturing the sound of the instruments in the performance hall. The instruments are already blending together well. The engineer’s job is to simply capture it.

So what is it that makes these instruments blend so well together? The instrumentation. Very rarely in an orchestral piece are all the instruments playing at once. The composer chose specific instruments for specific parts, based on how those instruments sound.

I mentioned on twitter last week that I was writing a series of articles on orchestral music and what it can teach us, and @eclifton123 replied with this:

@eclifton twitter.png “Instead of EQ’s and comps, they mixed with instrument timbre.”

That’s HUGE. What would happen if you applied that same thought to your mixes? What would happen?

I’ll tell you what would happen. Your mixes would get better…MUCH better. Why?

Proper instrumentation makes mixing SO MUCH EASIER.

Imagine pulling up a session, turning up the faders, and everything sounds great…WITHOUT any EQ or compression. Does this ever happen to you? I’ll be honest, it rarely happens to me. I get so caught up in getting everything recorded, and I subconsciously think to myself, I’ll just “fix it in the mix.”

What I should do instead is choose instruments that occupy a specific frequency range. Have the guitarist play a part higher up on the neck to keep it from covering up the other guitar parts. Move the piano part up an octave. There are a million ways to apply this.

Think of it from a composer’s point of view. When the orchestra is playing, you can’t EQ the violas to sound more bright. You’d be better off having the violins, or maybe the flutes, play that part.

Proper arrangement and instrumentation will inevitably make your mixes sound so much better. You won’t be fighting against the instruments. You’ll be working WITH them.

Comment Question:

In the comments below, answer this question: What instrumentation changes can you make to a song you’re currently working on to make it sound better BEFORE you mix it?

[Photo by jordanfischer]

8 Responses to “How Orchestral Music Can Help You Get Better Mixes – Part 3: Instrumentation”

  1. Ryusei Kawano

    Most of the time if I have a chorus with guitars, bass, vocals, drums I’ll add a synthesizer part in the background, but I’ll have the synth play 1 or 2 octaves above the guitars so you can hear it in the background and it isn’t going against the guitars.

  2. Scott Girvan

    For myself, as a piano player, my left hand often is the bad guy. Along with that I am left handed and therefore I tend to play the lower register hard. This more often than not makes for a mud pie.

    It takes ‘on purpose’ playing, but when I go easy on the left hand, even though it feels awkward, the sound is better in the mix – unless it’s a piano only tune.

  3. Bob Sorace

    I think this is where producers come in. A band will come in with the basics of a pretty good song, and the producer can see the possibilites of where to take the song. The band is too close to the song to see or hear what should be done, but you bring in a fresh pair of ears? Wham! Instant hit, just like Skippy said, the drummer comes in and changes the song from a ballad to an upbeat hit song. Fresh perspective, new directions.

    Of coarse there are bands that don’t need a producer, and are pretty brilliant on their own, but it’s hard I think to wear so many hats at once.

      • Bob Sorace

        Agreed, but I think it’s harder when you’re doing your own music. The ability to step away from the mirror to get a complete picture of the whole is essential and hard when working on your own tracks. But when working on other peoples songs I don’t seem to have a problem doing both, the artist may not like what I’m suggesting, but that’s a post I think you already wrote about if I’m not mistaken.

        I actually wrote an orchestral piece using all virtual instruments, and it’s not bad for my first time. I actually tried to think of where everyone would be sitting, cellos on the right, violins on the left, percussion in the middle etc. I need to re-visit it when I get a new computer so I can kind of clean it up a bit.

        By the way, I “like” the like button!

  4. Anonymous

    Joe, the change that I’d make – or what I’d do to begin with – would be to develop the arrangement *before* the band and I started working on the song!

    When you get into jazz or classical stuff, the arrangement is an *integral* part of the song, but with your basic rock band, the *vast* majority of songs aren’t really *arranged* as much as they just *happen*; the musicians will all play a part that fits, and that’s the end of it. It usually doesn’t progress much beyond that, and the musicians miss out on the *possibilities* of the song! What has the potential to be *great* remains mediocre, simply because the musicians don’t take the time to *make* it great!

    What’s *right* for the song?

    Keep that question *firmly* in mind!

    In “That Thing You Do”, the bandleader wrote the title song as a ballad; the new drummer put a beat to it, and it was a *hit*! It was *totally* right for the song, and the drummer *unlocked* the potential of the song!

    The Beatles are probably the *best* example of taking the time to find the potential in their songs. Listening to early versions of songs (i.e., the “Anthology” series) shows that their music would often be *drastically* different as the arrangements developed!

    If you’re a musician, you owe it to yourself to experiment and try different things until you *know* what the song is all about, inside and out! 🙂


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