1. Music & Audio

The Art of Combining Instruments and Sounds

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Finding the right combination of instruments and sounds is an art form, and takes the same creative energy as choosing the right chord, creating a beautiful melody or writing engaging lyrics. A lot of time should be spent in choosing the sounds and instruments you will use in a recording, and how those sounds relate to one another. The instruments you use can define your sound.

People have been experimenting with combining instruments for centuries - or even millennia. Some combinations of instruments that we are familiar with today evolved over hundreds of years. Others were the result of necessity, or an accident, or a crazy idea on the spur of the moment. New musical instruments have been invented as musicians and composers have wrestled with finding the right combination of sounds.

I recently watched that classic old movie “The Glenn Miller Story.” Miller was a musician, composer and band leader who achieved most of his success in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The recurring theme in the movie was that Miller saw the entire band as an instrument, and was searching for the right combination to get a memorable and unique sound that would define his generation. He eventually found that sound by beefing up the sax section and replacing a trumpet with a clarinet (because the trumpet player cracked his lip). The rest is history.

In finding your own unique sound, you should become familiar with the way instruments have been combined by others, and spend lots of time in trial and error and experimentation on your own.

Established Combinations of Instruments

Here are some successfully used combinations of instruments that have been used over the years:

  1. Solo performers. This isn’t really a combination at all, but let’s start as simple as you can get: a single instrument on its own or accompanying a singer. Typically solo performers play piano or guitar as they sing, but other instruments have been used as well. Guitar and piano are particularly suited for solo accompaniment because they can provide both harmony and rhythm. Elton John and Billy Joel have had very successful careers as solo musicians. They focus on interesting arrangements on a single instrument that complement their voice and the song. Many singer-songwriters started as solo performers. One-man bands extend the idea of the solo performer by adding additional instruments that they play themselves.
  2. Folk. Folk musicians play mainly acoustic instruments, including guitar, banjo, harmonica, violin, string bass, flute, recorders and drums (possibly hand drums). A two-guitar lineup is popular, combining strumming or plucking with melody or bass line. Synthesized sounds are normally not used - natural sounds suit the genre much better. For a rockier sound electric guitar may be used, and some of the instruments may be amplified.
  3. Jazz. Guitar is used a lot in jazz, but piano seems more indispensable. Jazz lineups vary, and include a variety of instruments including bass guitar (often upright), clarinet, sax, and brass instruments.
  4. Country. In country and western music, acoustic instruments are blended with electric. Essential to the flavor is pedal steel guitar, which adds sustain, portamento, picking and slurred chords. Dobros are often used to add a brighter, resonating sound to the mix.
  5. Ambient music. Ambient music often features strings or pads along with piano or other instruments. The arrangements are usually very sparse, use sustained sounds with interesting harmonic content, and little rhythm.
  6. Country rock. Country rock borrows the style of country music, but focuses more on electric instruments, for example lead guitar. They may also use acoustic instruments such as guitar, banjo and pedal steel guitar. Rock organ is often used, and sometimes piano.
  7. Rock. Electric guitar (often rhythm and lead), bass guitar and drums form the basis of the rock sound. The guitar sound often depends heavily on effects like distortion and overdrive. These may be complemented by piano, organ and other instruments.
  8. Hip hop. Hip hop instrumentation is very sparse. It features drums (often retro drum machine sounds) and bass, and sparse keyboard or guitar phrases. The sparseness of the instrumentation keeps the focus on the lyrics and the rhythm.
  9. Orchestras. In large productions, orchestras are often used to add extra color to a sound, especially with stringed, woodwind and brass instruments. These musical families were developed over centuries as musicians explored the high, middle and low pitch ranges of a particular timbre. Orchestras have a rich sound that takes a large group of musicians and instruments to achieve. Orchestra sounds are often synthesized and sampled, but nothing comes close to the rich sound of a real orchestra. Composing for an orchestra is a complete study in itself.

Finding Your Own Sound

Once you are familiar with how others have combined instruments, you’ll want to try some combinations of your own. Here are some tips to consider when trying to find your own sound by combining different instruments and sounds:

  1. Consider the musicians and instruments you have available, and start there. The combination might be original from the start, and hopefully sounds good too.
  2. Start with instruments that match the genre you are writing in.
  3. Start with a common set of sounds, and try adding something different or unique to the mix.
  4. Start with a common set of sounds, and replace one of the instruments with something unusual or unexpected.
  5. Take a subset of instruments from two different genres, and combine them.
  6. Find a unique sound combination for the rhythmic infrastructure, and build on top of it.
  7. Play an instrument for rhythm that is not normally used that way.
  8. Look for an unusual combination of electric and acoustic sounds.
  9. Substitute a synthesized or sampled sound for an acoustic sound.
  10. Substitute an acoustic sound for a synthesized or sampled sound.
  11. Find two instruments that blend well in a unique way, and see what else you can add to the mix to enhance the sound.
  12. Try playing a low instrument at the upper end of its range, or a high instrument at the lowest end of its range. See how it blends with the other instruments.
  13. When you combine several instruments, be aware of the role that instrument has.
  14. Try changing the roles you give the different instruments - this can drastically change the way the instruments sound together.
  15. Try playing music from one genre with instruments from another. See how it affects the way the instruments sound together.
  16. Play a section of music with all the instruments you have available, then try removing one or more instruments to see the difference.
  17. Try combining percussive sounds with sustained sounds.
  18. Experiment with using native instruments such as the didgeridoo, sitar, sticks, steel drums and hand drums.
  19. Experiment with different digital effects on your instruments, particularly with electric guitar. See how can you vary other sounds with digital effects.
  20. Create a MIDI sequence of the main parts of a song, and try swapping in different instruments to play those parts. Try varying the relative volumes of the parts until they blend well.

In conclusion, I’d love to get lots of feedback in the comments about your thoughts and experiences:

  • How important is the choice of instruments and blending of sounds to you?
  • Have you found an unusual instrument combination that you love and keep coming back to?
  • Is there a particular combination of instruments that you would say defines your music?
  • How important is the choice of instruments to playing a musical genre in a genuine way?
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