How to Write a Song: A Full Guide to Arranging Music (2021)

As a website dedicated to covering the best digital pianos available, it’s no surprise that we’re huge proponents of digital music. Nearly everything we do these days relies on computers to some degree, and music is no different.

One technology that you’ve almost certainly heard of is MIDI, seeing that it comes bundled with nearly every modern keyboard and digital piano without fail. While it might seem archaic, it is one of the most powerful tools in a keyboardist’s arsenal.

This is the second entry in our series focused on the fundamentals of making music with software. Previously, we tackled the ugly boilerplate of linking up our keyboards and computers. We then showed you how you could make use of software pianos for more flexible recording features.

Depending on your degree of tech savviness, the last article was either trivially easy, or a helpful guide to the digital realm of music making. Either way, we hope it served as a nice introduction or review into the world of music software.

What We’re Doing This Time:

I ended the last article with a bold claim. I said that the combination of software instruments and a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) was all I needed to make a radio-ready song. This time, I’m looking to prove it, or at the very least, build towards that goal.

The piano is a gorgeous sounding instrument, and we all enjoy a good piano-solo piece from time to time. However, a DAW’s capabilities are somewhat underutilized if we only use it solely to record pianos.

Today, we’ll be showing you how to make song arrangements. Specifically, that means we’ll be adding on some other instruments to our songs.

I’ve got an idea that could use some drums, bass, and acoustic guitar. (Assuming the global pandemic is over), we could rent a studio, and gather a few acquaintances with the prerequisite experience.

However, let’s set some constraints. Is it possible to make this idealized arrangement using the bare-bones setup we built in the last guide (which doesn’t even have a microphone)?

It’s probably not surprising (as this article wouldn’t exist otherwise), but the answer is yes.

Our Setup

As a quick recap, these are the tools you have at your disposal after last time:

  • A MIDI Keyboard/Digital Piano – Our main way of translating our real-life playing into data. I’m using the Nektar SE49.
  • A competent computer – Doing things in software requires some horsepower from our rig, but any system built/released in the past 7 years or so should work fine. I’m personally using my mid-range Windows 10 production laptop.
  • A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) – The main brains behind the operation. This will act as the hub which handles recording, editing and syncing things up. Like last time, I’m using Ableton Live 10 Suite, but you can use any DAW you have access to. Ableton Live 10 does have the longest trial period amongst all modern DAWs though, so give it a shot if you’re uncertain. If you want to know about other DAWs, Ben has an excellent rundown covering the pros and cons of the modern DAWs.
  • VST Software Pianos – A convenient way of getting studio-quality piano sounds without needing complex mic setups or audio connections. I’ll personally be using AiR’s Mini Grand, which is a simple piano plugin that I’ve been falling in love with lately, but you can opt to use any piano sound you personally prefer.

We’ll be sticking to the same setup as last time, with any additional tools being freely available software plugins that you can download right now. I suggest downloading and installing all of these plugins before booting up your DAW again, as DAWs perform scans each time they detect plugins, which can take a while.

Drums

Steven Slate Drums 5.5 Free. Steven Slate Drums is one of the top tier drum plugins available, and it released a free version back in 2018. This is an absolute steal, and the drums themselves sound awesome. Whether you want light or heavy playing, these drums are definitely radio-ready.

Alternative: MT Power DrumKit 2. If there’s a downside to SSD 5.5 Free, it’s the large sample count. If you’re using an older system, it might not be worth the performance hit despite how good it sounds.

MT Power Drumkit was my freeware drum plugin of choice for years before SSD went free, and it still holds up, especially if you want modern rock-style drums.

Bass

Ample Sound Ample Bass P Lite. Many bass plugins are horribly unrealistic. A real bass only has 4 strings, and try as you might, you can’t play notes from the same string at the same time.

Most sample-based bass plugins don’t take a real bass’ limitations into account and end up falling flat. Ample Bass P Lite uses some nifty programming to fix that, and it sounds great to boot. Even if you need slap bass or ghost notes, it has you covered.

Guitar

Ample Sound Ample Guitar M Lite. Similar to the discussion about realistic basses, guitars are tough to play on piano, and even the most skilled keyboardists can’t emulate strumming well.

AGML, much like its younger sibling, ABPL, tracks the notes you play and ensures that everything is humanly-possible. It also features a nice strumming sequencer, which sounds so realistic that I’ve gotten away with using it in commercial jingles.

Strings

Spitfire Audio Labs. Labs is a plugin that does way more than just strings, but It’s definitely one of the best freeware string libraries available out there.

You get well sampled legato strings that sound better than most bundled string orchestras in digital pianos, and you can expand it further with the Strings 2 library, which features different articulations like Pizzicato.

It’s very easy to get sidetracked in the Labs ecosystem, so we’ll just stick to the original Strings library.

Synthesizer

Ichiro Toda’s Synth1I think many modern productions benefit from some subtle synth sounds, and Synth1 is one of the best. One glance at the site and you might think I’m joking around. Synth1 is one of the ugliest software instruments, period, but that doesn’t take away from its sonic capabilities.

Don’t worry about its intimidating interface, we’ll be using some presets courtesy of KVR user Mr Wobbles.

The selection criteria for these plugins was simple. They needed to be free, and they needed to sound great. Generally, you don’t expect too much from stuff that costs nothing, but these plugins are undeniably the cream of the crop, and I’ve used them all in some fashion for commercial productions or demos.

Simply download these plugins and install their VST formats into the VST folder previously made in the last tutorial. If you’re using Logic Pro as your DAW, remember to use the AAX format instead, as VSTs are not supported.

Why aren’t you recommending (insert plugin here)?

Apart from the piano, I’d recommend just trusting my choices for now. We’re all pianists here and can be quite picky with our key sounds. Same goes for every other virtual instrument, but it’s preferable to just get started with some solid choices without worrying too much about whether these plugins are truly the best.

Plugins are a deep rabbit hole that you can easily fall into if you’re overly curious. Back when I was starting out, I spent way too much time trying out different plugins instead of making music.

For what it’s worth, I’d like to reiterate that my recommendations are definitely radio-ready, and I’ve used them all in commercial productions at some point of my music-making career.

Preliminary Preparations

If you’re following along with Ableton, note that I will be working in the horizontal Arrangement view, as opposed to the vertical Session view which the program defaults to. You can switch to this by using the ‘Tab’ button on your keyboard. This also makes it easier for other DAW users to follow along.

Now that we’ve selected our instruments, let’s set up our production environment. This section might seem tedious and ugly, but dealing with the riff-raff beforehand will undoubtedly save time in the future.

Also, we’ll take this opportunity to troubleshoot common issues.

As with last time, we’ll be using a Digital Audio Workstation to handle the heavy lifting. We’re working with Ableton Live, but you can use any modern DAW.

The same principles apply regardless of the application, and you’ll be able to apply the skills you learn here to any situation.

Last time, we simply used our DAW out of the box, and it worked well enough for simple piano recordings and MIDI editing. However, we can make the experience smoother by making a few tweaks and doing some checks beforehand.

First things first, let’s choose the right audio driver and buffer size. Apple’s MacOS tends to handle this great by default, so you can get away with ignoring it for now.

If you’re a Windows user, I highly recommend using ASIO drivers, which solve a lot of issues related to DirectX audio drivers, such as latency.

For Windows Users

You might have struggled a bit with latency issues in the last article if you’re running an older system. This isn’t really your fault, as Microsoft’s DirectX audio drivers aren’t ideal for music making.

Most Windows-based music makers use a different audio driver type known as ASIO, which sidesteps the problem by bypassing your motherboard’s audio processing.

The ASIO protocol often comes bundled with external audio interfaces, but we can virtually emulate that (with all the performance gains) by downloading ASIO4All. This is an open source audio driver that only kicks in when you’re using DAWs or music making programs.

Since we’re working with multiple instruments, I’d say installing it is mandatory. Feel free to skip over this if you already own an external audio interface.

Either way, once you have ASIO4All installed, simply go into your DAW’s audio settings and select it as your audio driver of choice.

Buffer Size Settings

You might remember a discussion about buffer size in the last article. Essentially, lower sample buffers are better at reducing latency, but also more CPU intensive.

Try lowering the buffer size to 128 samples and seeing if your computer can handle it. To do that, click “Hardware Setup” in the Audio section of the Preferences window.

Most systems won’t have an issue at first, but if you start to hear some glitches in the later parts of this guide, feel free to push it up to 256 samples instead. Changing these on the fly doesn’t affect anything apart from latency thanks to DAW’s built-in sync clocks.

Next, let’s try tuning the user interface. You might be satisfied with your DAW’s default look and feel, but I subscribe to the mindset of ‘no one size fits all’, and tweaking things like font size and color scheme can go a long way in making the experience more pleasant.

User Interface Settings

This is something I always do with software programs. Oftentimes, the program’s default look and feel isn’t perfectly aligned to your preferences.

This is particularly obvious if you’re using a high-resolution monitor, as text is so tiny that it’s barely readable.

Something else I like to use is Dark Mode. If you spend extended periods of time in front of a computer screen, having a primarily dark color theme is easier on the eyes.

Thankfully, Ableton Live includes these customization options. This is accessible via the same Preferences tab, under Look/Feel. My personal settings are shown above, but feel free to play around with the sliders until things look comfortable.

Finally, let’s check to see if our VST plugins are correctly installed. Every DAW scans for new plugins on startup, so we should be fine in theory.

Unfortunately, some plugins might have a weird install path, or perhaps you’ve been using a custom VST plugin folder. The easiest way to test this is by loading your plugin in the DAW and seeing if it loads properly.

If you’re having problems, I’ll cover a few common gotchas down below.

Common Problems With Plugins

A good habit to get into is to check your plugin folder before installing any new ones. You can check this from your DAW’s preferences menu. I find that doing this avoids a lot of the frustrations involved with plugins.

Also, bear in mind that plugins often come in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Most modern plugins have embraced the 64-bit format, which has the benefit of being able to use more than 4 GB RAM.

Ableton Live 10 completely removed 32-bit plugin support, but certain other DAWs (like Reaper) include bridging capabilities which ensure compatibility.

Just to be safe, and for the sake of stability, go with 64-bit plugins. The performance gains are well worth it.

Now that we’ve dealt with the annoying part of the process, we can actually get into the meat of this guide. Let’s make some music.

Step 1: Write a Song

This step is probably the most long-winded part of the whole process, but it’s what I consider to be the most important aspect. Even though we’re simply doing a rough tutorial on arrangement tools, having a good idea will help immensely.

You might be familiar with the term ‘noodling’, which refers to the process of randomly playing ideas with no rhyme or reason, and never truly remembering or perfecting them.

This is something you should strive to avoid. Even if you have a very rough idea, that’s better than starting from zero. After all, even the slightest bit of direction can drive progress.

To make the most of this guide, I’d recommend taking an hour to find some ideas. Play chords and melodies on your piano, and record it. Even if all you have is an intro + verse, it’s better than nothing.

If possible, try thinking about the instrument set you currently have. We’ve got pianos, drums, bass and guitars. That’s a full band, so try working within those constraints.

Once you’re done, we can start making the idea more complete.

For the purposes of this tutorial, I’m going with an idea related to my work with my label. I’m aiming to write a Taiwanese-Pop Rock track, with a decent tempo of 80 beats-per-minute and a catchy back beat. I also want to keep things sparse enough to leave space for the vocals and topline.

It’s a rough idea, but it’s enough to build upon.

Knowing what I want also means I can set the tempo and metronome for easier recording. Note that I’m also using a count-in of 1 bar for easier recording too.

You might notice that I’m using a time signature of 8/8. It’s just personal preference, but I like having a faster metronome to keep rhythm. Feel free to leave yours as 4/4, or even 3/4 if you’re in the mood for some waltz.

Step 2: Recording the Foundational Idea

Since we’re pianists, we’ll begin by recording the piano parts first. If you’re a bit confused about where to start, you can check out our previous entry in this series, where we guide you through the fundamentals of recording software pianos.

As a quick recap, we load our piano plugin, activate the metronome, and arm the piano track for recording. Then, all we need to do is hit the record button, and play to the beat. Remember, we’ll be adding drums and bass to this song, so it’s best to play as much on rhythm as you can.

Key Assignment: For convenience, I also assign my computer keyboard’s ‘R’ key to the record button. This lets me record different takes without needing my mouse, which saves time.

I personally took a few takes before getting one I’m satisfied with, so don’t be afraid to comp multiple takes together.

For example, you can see that I’ve used separate takes for the intro and the verse. You might consider it cheating, but my stance is that it’s my responsibility to write good songs, not to get perfect one-shot takes.

Comping: At its most basic form, comping involves taking different takes and stitching them together. This is most commonly used on vocal performances, sometimes being as drastic as using different takes for each word syllable. There are very detailed ways to do this in other DAWs, but Ableton Live’s comping functionality does lag behind the competition.

Something worth noting is that we’ll likely be re-recording these parts at a later date. This is simply the base idea which we’ll be building upon, not the final piano part. If you want to apply some of the MIDI editing techniques we discussed previously, feel free.

MIDI Editing: Common edits you might want to make are velocity and note timing edits, which can easily be done with a few mouse drags. The best way to familiarize yourself with the available tools is to just noodle around with the settings and hit the play button to audition your changes.

Remember that Ctrl/Cmd + Z is the undo shortcut, and can often save you from an edit gone wrong.

One of the most useful tools available to DAW users is quantization. This automatically attempts to align your notes to the current grid, making it perfect for correcting timing inaccuracies without changing the overall feel of your playing.

By default, the quantization options are heavy, and align everything perfectly, making things feel robotic. However, we can dial back the intensity to around 30%, which makes things feel tighter, but not overly sterile.

Here’s the idea I came up with. It’s a bit bland at the moment, but do remember that I’m writing this knowing that there’ll be other instruments and a vocalist. Leaving some space will make our job easier in the future.

Note that most of the audio clips you’ll be hearing have some basic equalization and compression applied to them, so they might not sound exactly like what you have.

I just did this so you won’t need to reach for the volume knob every time due to inconsistent levels, and also just to ensure you have a pleasant listening experience.

Step 2.5: Saving the Project

At this point, we’ve taken the first step down the road of making our idea complete. It’s as good a time as any to save our project.

Most modern DAWs are very stable and rarely crash, but I can still remember the times I’ve lost hours of progress because of a power outage or some other miscellaneous issues. Get used to saving with the Ctrl/Cmd + S shortcut, and you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration.

You can name the file anything you’d like, but I personally like to name my project files in the format ‘{BPM} – {Track Description}’, replacing the curly braces with the corresponding details.

In this case, I’m saving the song as ’82 – Pop Rock Draft’.

This simply adds a layer of organization to things and ensures that you’ll be able to recover the project file years from now without resorting to an exhaustive search.

Step 3: Laying Down a Beat

At this point, we’ve got a rough draft laid out, it’s time to start building upon the foundations.

You could easily start with other instruments instead, but I personally like beginning with drums. Here’s why:

  • Rhythm is key: It is a lot easier to play ‘in the pocket’ when you’ve got a beat to play along to.
  • Plan out the energy: Laying down the drum beat beforehand lets me plan out interest points like chokes or fills, and serves as fun reminders to play along to.
  • Control the pulse: If you’re trained in contemporary music, you might have learned that it’s possible to manipulate the ‘feel’ of a song by modulating between normal- and double-time.

There are 2 main ways to record drums. We can either play it on our keyboard or use MIDI sequencing. Depending on your proficiency with keyboard drumming, you might prefer one over the other.

Here’s a quick list of the standard MIDI drum mappings:

 

This layout based on the General MIDI specifications and is practically used on Steven Slate Drums. It is also very convenient once you get to grips with it. Proper live playing is out of the scope of this guide, so I’ll leave it up to you if you want to learn more.

Keyboard Drumming: Drumming on the keyboard has a multitude of styles, which is coincidentally also true for real drumming. Most people opt to play the kick, snare and toms with their left hands. This leaves their right hand available for all the cymbals.

This is a barebones explanation, and if you really are interested, I’d recommend reading a more in-depth explanation of the topic.

I’m not confident enough in my keyboard drumming capabilities, so I’ll be working with MIDI Sequencing. This is also easier to work with if you’re not too familiar with drumming concepts.

MIDI Sequencing: We briefly mentioned this last time, but MIDI Sequencing simply refers to the process of laying out notes with a mouse, rather than recording MIDI. This is very useful for drum tracks, as we don’t want too much rhythm drift, if any at all.

The core of a drum beat is the kick and snare. We’ll focus on only the C1 (Kick) and D1 (Snare) keys for now.

We’ll start by creating a new MIDI track and loading in the Steven Slate Drums plugin. Then, load the available drumkit by clicking the Deluxe 2 Free Edition kit.

Note that I’ve renamed the piano track ‘Piano’, and named this new MIDI Track ‘Drums’. I try to keep things organized whenever possible. It’s another small but helpful habit that works really well.

We then insert an 8-bar MIDI clip around our piano part.

To do this, we simply highlight the area where we want our drums to be, right click, and select the ‘Insert MIDI Track’ option. This gives us an empty MIDI clip, which we can double click on it to begin editing.

Let’s begin by laying out a simple ‘4 on the floor’ drum loop. The kick hits on every beat, and the snare hits on every other beat. Remember that you can use Ctrl/Cmd + C and Ctrl/Cmd + V to copy and paste, saving time.

This sounds a bit bland at the moment, and that’s because we’re not using any cymbals. Let’s add in the main ‘pulse’ with some double time closed hi-hats. Note that I’m adding in occasional open hi-hats, and also using different velocity levels to add some variation.


Thanks to our excellent drum samples, the beat already sounds polished. However, it is a little repetitive. Let’s move the notes of the 4th bar to add some variations.

We’ll also add a crash cymbal on the first beats of the 1st bar too. These are very simple fills, but they make our programmed drums sound a bit more human.

Note that I’ve removed a few hi-hat notes during the fills. A drummer only has a pair of hands and feet to work with, so let’s keep things realistic.

Fills: I’m deliberately keeping things simple by not using the toms (white keys between F1 and C2). However, feel free to experiment with them to come up with some more varied fill patterns.

Right now, when we play back our beat with our base piano recording, we get something that sounds like this.

It sounds good, but it’s not exactly what I’m looking for. Now that we’re familiar with sequencing drums, let’s take our time and design a drum beat that fits better.

Since I’m going for a rock-style, I want a more driving beat, but I also want it to be brought in gradually. I’m also not a huge fan of the four-on-the-floor beat, so I made a few drastic changes here and there, making it sound a lot more rock-like.

Here’s how my final MIDI clip looks like and how it sounds.

1) A lot of drummers love using both the left and right crash сymbals simultaneously, so let’s do the same. Note that I’ve also nudged the crash cymbal MIDI so that they don’t all hit at the exact same time.

2) The darker hues indicate that these snare notes have a lower velocity. These are ghost notes, which keep the beat rolling with the drummer’s free left-hand.

3) These fast snare notes are what drummers know as ‘flams‘. This doesn’t really sound too realistic, as real flams are rarely perfectly on the beat, but in the context of the full song, this still works.

4) No one said crashes can only happen on the 1st beat, so let’s occasionally add some impact to our on-beat snares.

5) At this point, I’ve moved away from the open hi-hats and transitioned to ride cymbals. The occasional double time notes here are inspired by jazz drummers and is a nice way of adding more groove to the beat.

Now that’s more like it. I did add a few ride cymbals at the end for variation, but otherwise, I’ve kept things relatively simple, achieving different sounds with velocity variations, rather than adding in different drum parts, such as the toms.

Ghost Notes: This is probably the biggest difference between our basic beat and the final one. I’m adding in some low-velocity snare hits to keep the beat grooving, even outside of the off-beats.

Hopefully, the clip also highlights how I’m using the drums to plan out certain “interest points”. At the end of the first 4 bars, I’m adding in some elements of a ‘lead in’, where my drums do a few cymbal runs before coming in with full force. This is something included in my initial piano draft, and using drums, I’m making that idea a reality.

A real drummer would probably have a few nitpicks, but I think this is good enough for now. Let’s continue on with the next part of a song’s backbone, the bass.

Step 4: Adding In the Low-end

Basses are commonly referred to as the backbone of music, and I personally agree. Basses are really hard to get right, but putting in the effort can be the difference maker.

Again, proficient piano players can easily get away with playing the bass parts out live, but I’d like to take this opportunity to guide you through melodic MIDI sequencing.

In the last section, we used MIDI editing to draw out our drum beats, and I’d say the results speak for themselves. Let’s try replicating that process here. Start by creating a new MIDI track, and loading up the ABPL plugin.

There’s a lot of features on ABPL, but its default fingerstyle legato playing is exactly what we want. If you’re interested to use staccato or slap bass sounds, try hovering your mouse over the on-screen keyboard on the plugin interface to find out more.

First, let’s start with a simple bassline that follows our chords. We’ll stick to the absolute basics for now, and simply use the root notes.

I’ve left in my original piano MIDI as greyed out notes for reference. You can disable notes by hitting the Numpad 0 key if you want to do the same.

If you’re lazy, you could just copy over your piano track’s MIDI and just remove the upper notes, but I don’t recommend it. Remember how we said that rhythm is key, and how we used it to justify our use of sequenced drums?

Well, the same applies here. Drums aren’t the only aspect of rhythm, the bass is another major player.

Even if you do decide to work with the copy, try using some heavier quantization to keep the rhythmic pulse solid. This is what we have thus far.

It sounds fine for now, but it’s a bit off. Remember, the bass is primarily part of the rhythm section, so we’ll need to work with the drums, as opposed to just following the chords.

A simple rule of thumb is to follow the kick drum. This gives a very solid rhythmic pulse, and in most cases, this is enough. You could also try cutting off the notes on the on-beat snares, before bringing it back on the next kick (this is something I follow very loosely in this song).

I realize that my original drumbeat is a bit hectic, but using these simple rules, we end up with something like this.

This time, I left the kick and snare drum MIDI in for reference. I already know what chords these are, so the piano MIDI isn’t all that necessary.

This is already miles better than our previous take. It feels like the drums and bass are operating as a unit, and that’s really all we need for most songs.

It is a bit boring though, and no actual musician will leave it at that. Let’s try spicing things up. You’ve probably noticed at this point that I’ve left my song fairly sparse.

Let’s try filling up those gaps with a few bass fills.

Most contemporary keyboardists will probably know a lot more about the theory behind composing bass parts, but I’ll stick with simple rules.

We’ll stick to the scales, and try a few different ways of passing between the chords. We can do this by simply shortening the notes at strategic points, and filling the blanks.

We’ve made our rhythmic pulse much more interesting, and dare I say it, more human.

To be completely honest, I often find myself leaving bass parts to session musicians. There’s just something magical about an experienced bassist that takes things to the next level. We could try to emulate that in MIDI using slides and hammer-ons, but I think this will serve its purpose for now.

As a side note, you might find yourself wanting to mute previous tracks or just to lower their volumes. In Ableton, these are by the track controls on the far right of the arrangement view screen, right beside the ‘arm record’ button.

These are massively useful controls to have, so get used to them.

Step 5: Adding a Strummed Guitar

Much like basses, guitars can be played in a multitude of ways. We could play notes, essentially using the guitar like a piano that’s limited to 6 notes of polyphony. However, the strumming technique is what I’m looking for this time.

Strumming is something practically impossible to emulate using keyboards, and often you’ll find yourself resorting to a session musician or sample pack if you want to get the desired effect. However, AGML is one of the few plugins which makes programming strumming parts easy.

Well, easy might be an understatement. It takes a bit of set up and understanding, but the results are very much worth it.

Once again, let’s load up a new MIDI track, and plop AGML into it. The interface looks extremely similar to ABPL’s, so feel free to explore it if you want more detailed customization of your guitar sounds.

The interface defaults to note-based playing, but we can switch over to chord strumming mode, we’ll need to do a bit of prep work.

First, let’s activate the strumming edit mode by clicking on the corresponding button. This brings up an interface that seems very complex. The difficulty of understanding this page really comes down to your level of proficiency with guitars.

1) The chord shape designer. If you’re a guitarist, you can place virtual ‘fingers’ at your ideal fretboard positions. If you’re not, don’t lose hope, as there’s…

2) The chord selector. You have 24 slots to work with (13-24 accessible with the 2 button at the lower right). You start by selecting the chord root (C), and selecting the chord type (minor). This dodges the need to know guitar fingering, which is a plus for songwriters!

3) The pattern designer. You get the typical up and downstrokes, as well as the half-stroke variations. You also get individual strings, choke and ghost notes, but I’ve kept things simple by using the 3 main strokes.


Considering we’ve already got our chords laid out in the draft stage, we can add our chords into the list right away. For now, I’m sticking with my initial chord ideas, primarily using major and minor chords, with a dominant 7 and diminished chords for passing.

If you’re so inclined, you could also add in special inversions or augmented versions of your chords, such as adding 7s and 9s. This adds a bit of harmonic interest to the mix, but we’ll keep things simple for now.

The nice thing about using MIDI-based sequencing is that we can easily change our chords in the future by just clicking a few buttons.

If you find strumming editing confusing, I’d try watching a few videos of acoustic guitarists doing strumming to wrap your head around things. Even taking a bit of time to recreate real strumming patterns can go a long way in familiarizing yourself with this plugin.

To hear your sequenced strumming pattern, you can click on the play button to audition your changes. Note that it syncs to your tempo as well, which is just one of the wonders of modern music software integration.

To start, let’s just use the default pattern provided by AGML. This is a very basic pattern, but it does sound alright once we arrange it well with our song. I’ve assigned chords 1 to 5 as the chords used in my song.

I realize that C# Major is repeated in slot 2 and 5, but I intend on adding in a different inversion for the last bar later on. I’m quite fortunate that my song idea just has 4 chords.

Then, we flick the switch on the left to switch the plugin to strumming mode…

…and play the corresponding chord patterns through MIDI. Do reference the keyboard of the plugin to see why I’m hitting these specific notes.

Essentially, the lower notes here switch the chords. The upper note chooses which strumming pattern to play. In this case, I’m just using a single pattern, which is why things seem perfectly usable.

This seems a lot like programming, and the MIDI clip above makes absolutely no sense musically. However, it’s a nice way of including high-quality guitar strumming in our song without actually recording a real guitar.

This is how it sounds so far. For reference, the chords of the main section are D# Major, C# Major, C Minor, and B Major.

I’d say that sounds okay, but there are a few problems. The simple pattern fits surprisingly well, but it doesn’t fit in as well once I unmute the drums. In fact, it fails to follow the rhythms we previously planned out meticulously. Personally, I think the biggest issue is that the guitar’s dynamics are completely off.

The former problem is easy enough to fix. Let’s change the pattern by customizing it. It’s very finicky, and I’ll admit that I was really tempted to just ‘cheat’ by grabbing my acoustic guitar and recording that, but let’s stick to it. We also don’t need to limit ourselves to a single strumming pattern.

Using different keys lets us add in variations and call them as necessary. I’m using a few other pattern slots to get a bit of variation, particularly for our two fill sections.

After adding some chord inversions, this is what we’ve got.

A screenshot of Strumming Pattern 2 which I sequenced. Note that I made a few of the strumming strokes lighter, as indicated by their darker hue.

Now, I’m using 3 patterns instead of just 1, and they sound just a bit closer to what I initially intended.

Let’s add the piano back in, and lower the volume slightly.

It’s a massive improvement, but we did need to spend quite a lot of time on it. I could probably make a few more changes to make it sound even more realistic, but I think it’s good enough as is. The guitar isn’t the main instrument of the song, and with a bit of sound balancing and mixing, it’ll fit right in.

While I could have just mic’d up my guitar and did the same thing without the hassle of sequencing, it’s nice to know that plugins like this exist for people who don’t own/know how to play guitars.

Note-based Guitars

If all you need is note-based guitars, you’re already good to go. Playing any key on your keyboard will trigger a note on the virtual guitar, and you’ll see that the plugin attempts to force your notes into the limitations of a real guitar.

For example, playing a note from the same string will cut off the prior note automatically, either with a slide or hammer-on depending on the current shape of the other virtual fingers.

As someone who plays guitar as well, I am immensely impressed, and I’m surprised that the same pre-processing techniques aren’t already implemented on higher-end keyboards and workstations.

(This also explains why I’m overly harsh when evaluating built-in guitar samples, I mean seriously, a free plugin can do this, so why can’t the big-name brands do something similar?)

Step 6: Adding Orchestral Strings

Our song already sounds quite complete, but it lacks a little something. Most of the time, we’d be looking at adding in a sustained musical element, like legato strings to our song.

Thankfully, these are key-based instruments. That means you won’t need to learn any strange techniques just to get a satisfactory tone out of your plugins.

As always, we start by adding in a MIDI track and loading Spitfire Audio’s LABS plugin. Just remember to load the strings library from the dropdown menu as well.

Now, you can just play along to your track naturally, and I suggest doing just that to start things off. Getting a feel for the string library you’re using is important, and lets you understand the nuances about how velocity affects the attack and release of the samples.

If that last sentence made no sense, don’t worry too much. Attack essentially refers to the time a sample takes to reach maximum volume. A high attack makes a sound have a swelling quality, whereas a low attack gives sounds a punchy, direct effect.

Meanwhile, Release refers to how long a sample takes to die out after your keys are released.

Remember to try playing around with your mod wheel. In the case of LABS, it controls the volume of the strings. On certain other string libraries, it might give you a manual vibrato control.

Personally, my process with string production goes something like this.

  • Begin by recording live MIDI playing as a scratchpad for ideas.
  • Use heavy quantization and manual editing to clean up the recording.
  • Do a bit of MIDI sequencing to add interest.
  • Manually edit the velocity and modwheel MIDI to add realism.

It’s a nice loop of experimenting and improving things iteratively, which feels like an efficient way of working. I have seen pros do single live takes, but I’m not at that level yet.

As an illustration of how the process works, here’s what I initially came up with. I’m using some basic block chords with 7s and 9s, and I’d say it sounds decent.

Do note that I’m also using another technique for realism. I’m trying my best to keep the maximum number of notes playing at each time consistent for every block. A string quartet or orchestra can’t add in new musicians on the fly, so imposing this limitation helps maintain a sense of consistency.

If I had one complaint about this, it would be that the strings sound a bit like an afterthought. There isn’t any real ‘development’ throughout the song.

Now, I’ll try adding in a few manual edits to emphasize passing notes and fill a few gaps within the song. The MIDI looks a bit more complex now, but I personally think the results are well worth it.

For a very crude overview, note how the strings slowly ascend to higher octaves, while also having an incrementally increasing gap between the low and high notes. Music isn’t inherently visual, but sometimes, adding in ‘patterns’ like this is a good way to add interest.

Apart from that, I’ve also used the MIDI editor to add some modwheel modulation. You can access this via this little symbol beneath the MIDI editor, and selecting the corresponding MIDI CC to change.

You probably noticed that ‘Hold Pedal’ (sustain pedal) and ‘Pitch Bend’ are options as well. Try experimenting with those if you want.

My idea has a simple outro with only the piano, so having a descending mod wheel makes the strings die out gradually.

Having all instruments altogether, it sounds like this.

I think it sounds quite nice. The strings are mixed at a lower volume, they sound like they are part of the song. It also sounds like it is working with the rest of the instruments rather than being tacked on.

At this point, I think our song is ready for exporting. I would then send it over to a topliner or lyricist to add on some vocals. However, it isn’t quite there yet.

Apart from the obvious problem of being unmixed, it also doesn’t sound ‘special’. It definitely sounds ‘good’, but we really should try to make it sound ‘interesting’.

If you’re already satisfied with what you have, feel free to skip the next step. However, I think knowing how to use synthesizers is a valuable skill to have.

Step 7: Adding Electronic Synths

One of the things I love about making music on a computer is the huge variety of available sounds. Physical analogue synthesizers are extremely expensive, and they’re likely out of reach of the general public. Fortunately for us, software synthesizers exist, and there are a lot of them.

Synthesizers are one of my favorite musical instruments, and that comes down to the huge degree of customization you can do.

Most synthesizers expose nearly every aspect of the sound engine to you, and that degree of control feels really liberating.

The steps of operating a synthesizer are well beyond the scope of this article, but you don’t necessarily need to understand what all the knobs do.

We’ll simply be using some presets but applying some changes to make the sounds fit our song better.

We’ll cover two main synthesizer sound types, namely pads and arpeggiators. Just bear in mind that you can just as easily use synthesizers as basses, leads, or even as a sound effect generator.

First, let’s try using a pad sound instead of our strings.

As per usual, we’ll begin by loading in a new MIDI track and the Synth1 plugin. This time, we’ll also mute the strings track. In Ableton Live, this is done by clicking on the speaker icon on the corresponding track.

Next, let’s confirm if our preset pack from Mr. Wobbles was properly installed. If you’re having some trouble, try checking some of the answers off this forum post. Essentially, you want to click on the ‘opt’ button on the interface and assign the preset pack to a free bank.

Unfortunately, the default presets on Synth1 don’t do a very good job of showcasing its capabilities. Thankfully, the preset pack we recommended comes with a ton of incredible sounds that are usable straight out of the box.

We can then load the bank by clicking on the bottom-most text display. In my case, I have the preset pack assigned as bank 00. Clicking on it also reveals all of the 128 included sounds, labeled by type.

Since we’re looking specifically at pads, let’s choose preset no. 75, PAD Euphoni. This is a gorgeous pad which includes a subtle bit of movement and some great width. We can then record or sequence our desired pad parts.

Personally, I just copied over the MIDI from my strings track and moved it up an octave. Since I kept my strings arrangement fairly simple, it slots right in. Remember the modwheel modulation I added? That also affects the synth’s filter movement.

Here’s how it sounds with the strings muted.

It sounds quite nice, but I do miss the straightforward richness of the strings though. Luckily, we don’t need to choose between one and the other. We can layer the two sounds, and have them play simultaneously.

To make the pad sound sit better with the strings, I’ll make a few modifications. I feel like the synth pad takes a little too long to die out, so I’ve tuned down the amplifier release and the delay feedback. It also takes slightly too long to ‘open up’, so I lowered the attack of the filter slightly.

1) Amplifier envelope which affects the sound’s volume over time. I’ve tweaked the Attack (A) and Release (R) knobs to suit my song.

2) Filter envelope which affects the sound’s brightness over time. Again, I modified the Attack (A) and Release (R). Feel free to play around with the frequency and resonance as well.

3) Built-in delay unit. I turned down the Dry/Wet and Feedback controls to make this more subtle.

Feel free to tweak the knobs to see what they do. These are the settings I used for the following audio clip.

I also opted to remove the lowest note from the pad MIDI as well as the modwheel modulation. This removes a bit of the unwanted low-end movement, which I think is ill-suited for my song idea.

This is how the end result sounds like.

I lowered the volume of the pad heavily, but you can still hear it adding in some ‘etherealness’ to the strings. I think synthesizers are really well suited for enhancing existing sounds this way, as they’re so otherworldly that you can cut out the portions which you dislike.

I also did apply a low-cut equalizer to remove some of the low-end rumble, but that’s something we’ll talk about more in the last entry of this series, focusing on mixing.

Finally, let’s add a pretty arpeggiator to our fills. I don’t really want this sound to be a constant presence throughout the song, I just want it to lead into the second half of our main instrumental section. Think of it as some subtle ‘ear-candy’, which potentially adds some memorability.

Load up your last new MIDI track of the day, and add in a new instance of Synth1.

Instead of using one of the included arpeggiator presets (labeled ARP), I’ll be modifying one of the lead presets. I chose to work with preset 28, LD Lunar. This is a gorgeous lead sound, but we can also use it as an arpeggiator with a few modifications.

These are the modified settings I used. You might notice that there’s a little Reverb unit beside the plugin, and that’s Ableton’s reverb unit, which you can add in as well from the Audio Effects section.

Much like last time, we’ll be reducing the amplifier release, which reduces the tail of our synth sound. We can add in reverb next time.

Instead of using the built-in arpeggiator, I personally prefer writing my own arpeggio lines to be played. I added in this MIDI track to the end of our lead-in section, and here’s how it sounds like.

Note that the corresponding MIDI Clip for this synth is really short, and as intended, just leads into the 2nd half of our main section.

I personally think it adds a nice, playful touch to the transition. One might even call it cute. However, it is, at least in my opinion, something that sounds a bit more memorable.

Step 8: Finalizing Things

Just to get an idea of where we’re at, here’s what the full song sounds like.

It’s always fun to look back at how we’ve built up our idea track by track. We’ve come a long way from our bland starting point, and even after years of doing arrangements, it still amazes me how we can transform a simple idea into something that sounds so full.

Just for comparison’s sake, here’s our initial piano draft.

Naturally, I’ve been cherry-picking takes and ideas to use in this guide. You’ve probably found yourself unsatisfied with a few things you’ve done thus far. I bet some of you who’ve been following along have gone back and rerecorded or changed certain parts.

That’s completely fine, and in fact, I highly recommend it. If you’ve gotten into the habit of incremental saves or version control, you’ll have easy checkpoints to come back to as well.

Once you’re satisfied with your song, you can export it as a WAV or MP3 file (depending on whether your DAW supports it).

In Ableton Live, you can export an MP3 file alongside the WAV file by toggling the ‘Encode MP3’ option.

Step 9: Coming Back

I wouldn’t rush to upload the track to Youtube, or even to share it with your friends. I personally like letting a song ‘simmer’ for a day or two, before coming back to fix certain issues which I might have missed during the initial rush.

Working on a song non-stop for hours inevitably results in ear-fatigue, which causes humans to make some less-than-desirable decisions. This can be somewhat mitigated with experience, but I’ve made enough mistakes in my day to know that I can’t be trusted.

Conclusions

I really hope that this article has provided some insight into the process of making arrangements. I hope I’ve given you the same magical ‘Eureka’ moment I had when I first realized that I didn’t need a studio and session musicians to make music that sounds professional.

This isn’t meant to be a thorough guide, so certain parts might seem a bit vague. Instead, I tried to give you the essential steps, and talk about some tricks of the trade I’ve picked up over the years.

I also hope that the format of including sound clips works out. Music is an audio-based medium, and simply describing why I did certain things might not get the full point across. This way, you get straightforward feedback about why I opted to do things in a certain way.

You might have even disagreed with some of my decisions. I do that all the time as well. Most of the time, the final arrangement that gets sent to the client or vocalist doesn’t even have a single track from the day 1 draft.

What’s Next?

We’ve kept things extremely simple thus far. Apart from our computer and a MIDI keyboard, we’ve got very little in terms of hardware.

If you want to record some real instruments or vocals, like the bass and guitar parts we discussed above, you’ll need to start building a studio, which is understandably tough if you’re on a budget.

Luckily, Ben Knight has written a series focused on the hardware and software requirements of a modern music producer. This article gives a high-level overview about the gear you might need and is a great read in general if you’re looking to get serious.

We also haven’t talked too much about VST plugins, choosing only to focus on a select few free options.

If you’re a pianist who’s interested in composing or arranging, you owe it to yourself to read this article by Samantha van der Sluis. She covers all of the industry’s leading piano VSTs, and why they’re among some of the most-loved plugins out there.

Finally, it’s worth noting that our songs aren’t truly complete yet (and no, this isn’t some philosophical bit about da Vinci’s ‘Art is never finished’ quote).

We still need to apply a bit of mixing to make our songs sound pleasing to the ear. As of right now, the musical content is good, but it feels like the sounds aren’t cohesive.

I sometimes find that unmixed (or badly mixed) songs feel like the different instruments are recorded in different environments, which ends up hurting the listening experience.

In the final part of our guide on making music with software, we’ll talk you through the mixing process, and show you how we can take our song to the next level.

If you’re interested, stay tuned.


You might also like:

How to Use a MIDI Keyboard: VSTi Plugins, Recording, DAW Basics

How to Use a MIDI Keyboard

Virtual Instruments: In-Depth Guide + Best Free VSTi

Virtual Instruments and Best Free VSTi

Best VST Plugins: Must-Have Effects for Any Budget

Best VST Plugins

2 Comments

  1. Avatar Andrew December 15, 2020
    • Lucas Welter Lucas Welter December 15, 2020

Leave a Reply