Creativity, Music

How to organize the tracks in your album

Are you a musician planning to release an album but struggling to put your tracks into a coherent sequence? Are you planning a live concert but feeling unsure how to organize the program? Here are some tips that might help.

These tips come from my own experience as I put together an album of new music I’ve composed over the past five years. I’ve got 35 tracks with a playing time of 93 minutes. My mastering engineer requires a track order before he’ll begin work on the project. Each track needs to have a number — 1, 2, 3, 4… — and the engineer needs the tracks ASAP. Here’s why the problem is impossible:

  • There are too many options. If you have 35 items like I do, the number of ways you can organize them is 10,333,147,966,386,144,929,666,651,337,523,200,000,000.
  • Each option is time-consuming to evaluate. Listening to the material in any particular order takes a 93-minute investment which is emotionally exhausting.
  • My reactions change each time I listen. I might like a certain transition between two tracks the first time I hear it and not like it the second time.
  • If I listen to a certain order too many times, I start to memorize it. Then it’s hard to tell whether I like it because it’s effective or just because it’s familiar. Familiarity is confounding.
  • I’ve dedicated years of my life to creating this material, so the stakes are high. A bad order means that my tracks will compete with each other rather than elevating each other. Some pieces will not have a context in which they can shine.
  • Each piece was conceived on its own, without thought to how it might fit in a sequence. The pieces all have different styles and moods. I had no plan for how they were supposed to fit together.

But as I write this post, I’m in good shape. My track order is mostly finalized and I’m ready to send it to my mastering engineer next week. An impossible problem became possible for me, thanks to these ideas:

  1. Think of a story that you want to convey with the tracks. I’m grateful to @alexgardner for offering this suggestion when I reached out for help on Twitter. At first, I thought that my tracks were so heterogeneous that they couldn’t fit into any unified narrative. What I realized is that the narrative doesn’t have to be evident to the listener. It can be a “secret” story — one that’s known only to me — one whose only purpose is to help me wrap my mind around the problem.
  2. Make a list of track attributes. I’m grateful to @gahlord for this suggestion, also via Twitter. I created a spreadsheet listing the starting and ending note of each track and a brief description indicating bright/dark, fast/slow, and long/short.
  3. Decide on a goal for the ordering. In my case, the goal is to sustain a sense of variety throughout the album so that each track can be experienced fresh. I decided that variety and contrast are more important to me than grouping tracks by theme or emphasizing similarities between them. My desired shape is “fractal” rather than “linear.”
  4. Pick a middle piece — one to go right in the center of the album. Then go through each of the remaining pieces and ask if it should come before your middle piece, or after your middle piece. This lets you break the problem in half.
  5. Next, choose your first and last pieces. Now you’ve got: Opening -> Middle -> Ending.
  6. Next, distribute your biggest pieces. What are the longest, densest, or most important pieces remaining? Pick the top two and put one in each half of the album. Now you’ve got Opening -> Big Piece #1 -> Middle -> Big Piece #2 -> Ending.
  7. Try to make contrasting pairs — two tracks that are very different, but that also sound good together and flow well, one into the next.
  8. Now try to identify twins — two tracks that are very similar. Experiment with placing twins before and after a contrasting pair, as if to form a ring around it. So if A and B are a contrasting pair, while X and Y are twins, you’d have something like X -> A -> B -> Y.
  9. Make a provisional commitment. Choose an order as quickly as you can, and then rename all your tracks according to that order, using filenames like 01_MySong, 02_MyOtherSong, 03_MyOtherOtherSong. This gives you a reference point to measure future changes against.
  10. Now see if you can improve your provisional order by swapping pieces, so for example, the piece in slot 5 and the piece in slot 11 might trade places.
  11. Make short clips out of all your pieces. Each clip should consist of the opening 3 seconds plus the closing 3 seconds of the piece. Once you’ve made these clips, you can put them in any order you’re considering and listen to the whole playlist in a minute or two. This is a way to quickly preview an order without having to listen to all the material over again.
  12. Once you’ve arrived at an order you feel good about, review each track and use your intuition to determine whether the track is “happy” in its current position. Does the track get along with its neighbors? Does it sound better in their company than it would sound all by itself? If you find any tracks that aren’t “happy” move those ones, but leave everything else where it is.

These ideas worked for me — maybe they’ll work for you too?

3 thoughts on “How to organize the tracks in your album

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