Re-Voicing and Arranging Music – an example

This is the third article in my series on writing and arranging a piece of music. We covered simple note choice and then song structure. I was considering walking through one of my pieces then this gem came along and it is even better as you get to see a before and after.

Billy McBride posted his latest piece in a forum and I happened by. I have listened to some of Billy before. He is interesting as a composer but hard to get into. This piece sounded kinda awful. Yes the synth sound was big which is cool but there is no variety and he comes off sounding like an autistic savant as his notes just fall out in an endless blob, topped with manic MIDI drumming. That said there was something in there that had me know there was a magic piece if it could be set free. Here is the original piece:

Here are parts of the conversation between Billy and I:


Sounds a bit manic, lots of notes but all seem in the right place.

I would like to hear you branch out into hearing your music as other do instead of how it is in your head. This is proof you can put notes together in an interesting way but the sounds and production let you down.

Clearly every section seems to have a sense of story (make one up after the fact at least) but sounds and general production are making it harder for the listener to get into what you are saying as it is very samey and MIDI flat.

Or another way, this is a big piece notewise but the sound will make it hard for all but the few of us who still listen to records from 1984-8 from guys like Larry Fast, Patrick Moraz… and have learned to hear through the flat synths (oh how it pains me to say that as a synthsist).

I wouldn’t suggest changing your style merely working it bit more. If you are open I am on holiday right now and would be interested to take a poke at re-voicing and imaging a piece for you.

If you are interested I need the MIDI with some sense of explanation of what the sections are and any desired narrative (story). You may be shocked with what you get back (hearing yourself through other ears) but it will be fascinating either way.


Thanks Benedict for your comment and kindness. I have always wanted to collaborate and would be happy to send to you the MIDI. It is basically a simple two tracks. One drum and one keyboard(though with the keyboard I am layering the sounds). I would love to have your interpretation of it.

So I get three MIDI files, two have drums and one is six minutes of notes. The drums make no sense (even with the same patch opened) and the notes not much more. The notes are by default played by a Piano sample. I let them play several time feeling a bit blank then I hear some minor seconds (discords) that could be Keith Emerson and I start to catch on. This is where the piece is at, this is my way in. I tell Billy about my Keith moment and he replies:


I knew this piece was much better than it appeared. When I reduce to just piano then you have some real moments of Keith Emerson brilliance in here. But there is still oddness as sections appear to change mid bar and you seem to avoid having a melodic line…
My gut tells me there is a story to you and I’m missing something.


I think Keith Emerson is good to listen to and I like very much the way he plays so I have been kind of aspiring to his playing style.
The way I make almost all of my music is kind of like a bird actually. They have something to sing, sometimes singing without any reason to, and they sing all kinds of different riffs and melodies.
I do have lots of stories, which is why I am an author.  I like to write about a variety of special life experiences.  Here is a site called Scribd. if you would like to read some.
But, music is my passion because It seems to be the only thing in my life that I am always motivated to do or listen to.  I used to think my music sounded like the kind you would hear when a car chase on television happened, but then I started seeing it as acrobat music like the kind circuses play.
Now I have two ways in. The music is still a blob but it has to be changed from birdsong to a composition with Classical/Prog Rock leanings. I tried a few options and the Upright piano is just superb here for power, intimacy and to let Billy’s notes flow freely. I hooked right in and did my best Edward Scissorhands impersonation. This is the result (read the captions):

Now we have a pretty amazing piece of music, even if the stock sounds sound a bit stilted at times. The  overall result shows Billy’s original composition in a vastly better and stronger light. Sure I added and and moved a few bits but that is the job of a producer. Interestingly a sense of melody is now there without any melodic help from me other than to free the music. I made Billy sound like the Billy he really is under his limitations. Job done.

Billy then explained his method a bit more

Thanks again Benedict, I appreciate your hard work; and I am inspired to look at my music in this kind of way and consider the spacing and orchestration of your professional touch. My family will love it too!

I tend to record this music on a Yamaha keyboard and I use an organ sound when I am composing it live.

To answer Billy’s request to better understand how to do this himself (and to share here) I replied:

The sound you use to first record matters little really as you will want what allows you to hear the notes and harmonies you want. As you change to other instruments in an arrangement/mix, some of those will change a bit (listen to the electronic version) but no too much. So don’t look to change that in a hurry as you don’t want to break that flow you have.

Once you have run your course and hit stop, start listening to what you have as a whole, like you would hear a pop song on the radio. What needs to be here to make it flow or make a narrative of some kind? That may not come easy for you at first. But do what I did and play the track through looking just at the notes and see where you change. Cut there and that is a section. Do that till you get to the end. You can see clearly how I did that with your notes. I may not have followed your expectations but I followed what the notes were saying/breathing.

Then whilst still thinking of the piece as a whole (like a movie even) see each section as a scene, the shower scene needs a graveyard scene, or whatever, to make it flow. The way you let your notes out you need to add variety in tempo, volume, timbre, repetition and just plain space.

Tempo: you could just drop the BPM but that is a one-off trick so drop the rate that the listener is expected to take in notes. Your flow is fast and generally pulsing so insert a scene with slower notes and slower sounds between your more frantic moments. This is what the string so, I even chopped out most of the repeating notes and dragged the notes out to the muss length of that  phrase like a real string section so it smooths and slows the pulsing.

Volume: you naturally play with some variety but in a piece like this the final mix needs lots of light and shade so you can add a surprising amount just be altering velocities. In several places I grabbed phrases and raised or lowered velocities in a block to create a sense of curve over the section. The listener hears the subtle difference as delicate to forceful. With the brighter Brass I did something similar using the Filter cutoff.

Timbre: different sounds give a lot of leeway. Ravel’s “Bolero” is very repetitive but the steady progression of instruments lets it work very well. You will still naturally gravitate to pouring out your notes in a blob but by changing timbres later you create light and shade easily, so long as they all blend and contrast in a smooth a meaningful way.

Repetition: pop music is all about repetition. Classical seems not to be so repetitive but that is simply because it is a bit more hidden. Your initial piece had no real repetition which makes it feel like it fell out in a rush. Repetition allows the listener to breathe and also become familiar with the themes. I just grabbed the parts that felt right and used them as breaks through the piece to tie it all together. I didn’t overdo it as this isn’t an ABBA record but a form of classical like Philip Glass. Having some parts (notes & sounds – any kind of pattern really) repeat suddenly gives the piece a shape and sense of home when it passes though those familiar points.

Space: as I keep saying you play a million notes and they become pretty dense and pile up as the listener doesn’t have time to take them all in. That backlog becomes frustrating and the listener switches off. Space is what all artists define whether they realize it or not. Look at Zen art and that is all about maximum image from minimum paint. Old school sound engineers used to say maximum illusion from minimum voltage which is the same thing. Your million notes are part of your style but learn to work in space later using the techniques above and good old fashioned pauses to let the listener catch up and digest, ready for the next notes.

– – –

This ends up a huge article but I think it is worth it overall as it offers many lessons

  • compose as you do naturally but before you release, step back and see the piece as others are likely to
  • always think; light & shade, space & action, hard & soft all in a flow or narrative
  • even if the notes don’t really change, a different arrangement can really open things up
  • a new sound can do the same
  • having a third person to help produce your work can give you a massive revelation that you aren’t giving yourself

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