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]