The Secret Life Of An Arranger

Am reposting this one on my new Northsound Breeze page to make sure everything works before we continue on into the fog.

Arranging, The Most Mysterious Type Of Work

Okay, exactly what the hell is an arranger? Glad you asked. I’ll try to answer that, though I didn’t know myself until I took my first arranging class at Berklee. Before that class, I had no idea how all the music behind the singers on the records actually happened. Never thought about it, but if I had, I would probably have thought that maybe the singer told the rest of the musicians what to play. Just never occurred to me. When I finally took the class, I realized that some person out there decided how the band or orchestra should sound behind that singer, (Doris Day, for instance, remember her?) and actually think about what would sound best behind that singer, what size of group would most compliment that singer, make her sound the best. Who knew??! That person, that arranger, had to first hear the song in their head, then imagine what would make their singer sound the best, then write down each musical part for the size orchestra they had decided would work best. All songs are just a melody and a few chords one can play on a guitar or piano. Sooner or later, most of them need an interpreter!

Still with me? Good. In Doris Day’s case, it was simple. Les Brown’s
orchestra was the perfect launching pad for her voice, and for other
singers, as well. Now I googled Les Brown, to find out who his arranger
was, because his band had hit after hit in the ’40’s and ’50’s, and many
of the top drawer singers wanted his band behind them. The best I
coulld do was to find that Les Brown himself had arranged for others in
in college and after college, and therefor, I have to assume that all the
music recorded by the Les Brown band was arranged by Les himself!
Most arrangers never get acknowledged for their contribution to a
song or an album, which is partly why the art of arranging is so
litle-known in the first place.

Here is what some think was my best arrangement. It was done in
1980 for a big birthday party for the 25th anniversary of Coca Cola
being sold exclusively in all the McDonald’s franchises. There was a
get-together of the two companies, and they decided they needed a
music treatment of the different jingles the two had aired over the past
25 years. Doppler got the call, and I got the job. There were no rigid
instructions, just make the piece sound fun and creative, and make
sure they recognize all the themes! I picked only the most popular of
them – You, You’re The One, You Deserve A BreakToday, Coke Adds Life,  At McDonald’s, We Do It All For You,  Have A Coke And A Smile… if you’re under 50, you might not recognize any of these.

Arrangers – Invisible Heroes

So arrangers, typically, are the invisible talents behind almost all music
that has more than 6-7 players. They give most songs their identity, by
capturing the mood of the song and enhancing it with color and depth.
Arrangers are a bit like architects; they have a head-full of musical
ideas, and when they hear a new melody they instantly hear (again,
in their heads) how they’d like that song to sound. If you ever watched
the reality TV show, Treehouse Masters, the boss, Pete Nelson, listens
to what his client wants in a treehouse, then sits down and draws out
his floor plan for that particular job. He seems to know almost instantly big it should be, how many rooms, how to make the most out of the existing views from, say, 20  feet in the air, and draws it all out in minutes, appearing to have thought about this project for weeks!

Well, that’s how it is with your average arranger. We almost instantly
know how many instruments will enhance a song best, and what
mood to set to illuminate the song’s best features. I’ve seen others
struggle with this part, this “imagining the end result” yet it always came naturally for me.

Nearly all the great arrangers are also composers, or perhaps that
should be the other way around… I don’t know. Makes sense, though.
Wouldn’t a person who has music ideas for treating a song also have
song ideas of their own? Of course! Two of my faves, two great
composers who also were great arrangers, are Duke Ellington and
Johnny Mandel. There are many, those two were the first to pop into
my head.

When The Lightbulb Came On

At Doppler Studios, Pete Caldwell first gave me the opportunity to
arrange my own jingles. “It’s your piece, Hulse, go for it. Just tell me
what you need.” Pete, being a quietly brilliant person, soon figured out
for himself what a song or jingle really needed, and in time he would tell
me how many players I could have. As a businessman, he also had the
recording budget to consider. In later years he often picked my rhythm section players  for me, as he learned their individual strengths and weaknesses. This turned out to be a blessing and a curse, for he always got me the right people for the job, but in the process built a stable of players that was small and unique. Most of my jazz musician friends in Atlanta knew I had stumbled into a great deal at Doppler,
and when they didn’t get hired, they figured it was my fault, and I lost some friends over it. It was too bad, because nearly all those players were gifted and versatile… they just didn’t fall into Pete’s loop of on-call musicians. If any of you guys are reading this… plus a few good singers, It wasn’t my fault… I didn’t get to choose!

Still, I didn’t understand that I was an arranger until a drummer and producer, James Stroud, began hiring me to be “his arranger,” and to do horn and string arrangements for the bands he was producing. He first tested me by giving me a record of a David Foster arrangement, and told me to copy it as closely as I could. He even hired the musicians to play it when I finished. Luckily I nailed it, and became James’ arranger! What James never knew was that David Foster wrote very well for french horns and strings, both of which I loved! So it turned out to be a piece of cake for me.

James Stroud

The Agony And The Ecstasy

What I quickly discovered, as an arranger, was the agony of hearing the musici n my head, yet not knowing if it was going to translate to a real band or orchestra. Turned out that all recorded music is dependent upon good and intuitive musicians, a good studio with a good audio engineer. Those elements can make or break a piece in a heartbeat! In that regard, I was extremely lucky throughout my career. More often than I can tell, the musicians and the engineer made my arrangements sound even better than I’d heard them in my head! And there was the ecstasy! Over the years the agony disappeared and I came to take the ecstasy almost for granted! Sure, there were a few disappointments along the way, like the time the WTBS producer, Bill Tullis, made the engineer, Joe Neil, mix a large orchestral recording so poorly that he sucked the guts right out of the piece! It was a sports open theme we had recorded in London, with horn and string players from the London Philharmonic. I was immensely pleased with it, and was anxious to hear the final version, having already heard an exciting rough mix of it in the Recording Centre in North London, and knowing what a great engineer and mixer Joe Neil was.

The day it was finished, Joe Neil walked up the hall and got me to come back to the studio to hear it. Tullis had already left, so it was just Joe and me.
“I’m telling you right now, Mr. Hulse, (he always called me that, for some reason) that you’re probably not going to like it.”
“Do You?”
Pause. “No.”
Joe was right. It stunk. About halfway through, I stopped him. “What the hell did he do to it, Joe? Why did he do this to us?”
“Because he can,” was Joe’s deadpan response. “He’s the producer. He can make it sound however he wants.”
I was furious. “Sounds like he did this on purpose, just to flex his muscles…”
Joe smiled. “I can’t comment on that.”

Later I complained to Pete about it. “Tullis is the client, Hulse. He gets to leave with the product the way he wants it. At that point it’s out of our hands. I understand how you feel, but you’ve got to let it go. You know that as soon as the music hits the tape, it’s not really your baby anymore.”

He was right, of course. That news did nothing for my feelings at the moment, but did underscore how lucky I was throughout my career! In London,Atlanta, Nashville, New York, Raleigh, Boulder and L.A. I was always blessed with great musicians and engineers. I thank them all, knowing that they can make or break any arrangement! Virtually all of them left me grinning! Nearly always I got the credit for a good-sounding arrangement, when so much of the credit should have gone to the players and engineers. In the era of “real players and live recording sessions” it was always a team effort. I’m happy and grateful to have lived and worked in that era.

Steve Hulse

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