Arranging Master Class:

Richard Carpenter

by Daniel Levitin

[Appeared in Electronic Musician, May, 1995]

One of the distinguishing features of pop tunes in the sixties was their lush horn and string arrangments. A good arrangment not only brings texture to a composition, it can also go a long way to setting the right mood, and adding excitement to the tune. One of the most gifted arrangers to emerge in popular music is Richard Carpenter, one half of the duo he formed with his sister, the Carpenters.

While Karen drew most of the attention as the vocalist, Richard's behind the scenes contributions to the Carpenters' success is immeasurable. He acted as A&R man, selecting tunes, he wrote many of their hits (such as Yesterday Once More and Top of the World), and he played keyboards. In addition to these roles, he also arranged and orchestrated nearly all of their recorded output. It is these contributions as an arranger that have earned him a reputation among insiders as one of the best pop arrangers of all time. Five nominations for a "best arrangement" grammy testify to this.

"The arrangement is everything," Richard explains. "No one could think more of Karen than I do, but you can have the best singer on the planet and the best song, but if you don't have the right arrangment for that song and singer, the singer's going nowhere and neither is the song. The arrangement is everything that makes a hit record."

A good arrangement becomes inseparable from the song itself. Subsequent artists who cover such a tune find themselves keeping these arrangment ideas, because performing the song without them is unimaginable. Try to imagine the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction without the distorted guitar lead at the beginning, or U2's New Years Day without the heavily reverbed piano intro.

What made Carpenter's arrangments so clever and musical, and how did he come up with them? One characteristic of his work is that he gives each instrument a unique place, not just in the frequency spectrum, but also in time. Featured instruments weave in and out of the spotlight, filling holes where necessary, but never stepping on each other. The different parts of his arrangements lock together to form a seamless whole.

Superstar arranging.

A case in point is the Leon Russell/Bonnie Bramlett composition, Superstar, one of Carpenter's most beautiful arrangements. The song was first recorded on Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishman album with Rita Coolidge on vocals and Leon Russell on piano. But Richard first heard its potential as a Carpenters single when a then barely known Bette Midler sang it on the Johnny Carson show. Richard's arrangement introduced lots of new music that has become so identified with the song, so inseparable from the melody, that when people go back and hear the other versions, they're overwhelmed by the sense that something is missing from them.

Carpenter starts of with a harp glissando (see score) using the Eb (V) major scale (the song is in Ab). The glis starts on F and ends on G a 9th above, as the strings come in on an F (vi) minor chord. Just as the harp reaches its G, Richard introduces an opening theme he wrote, played on the oboe. At first the theme anticipates the first few notes of the vocal melody which enters 9 bars later, and then it evolves to an entirely new melody, a sort of variation of the main vocal line.

As the oboe decrescendoes in bar 5, Richard brings in a three-part french horn line, which ends on an F minor (in second inversion) in bar 8. But you won't find this last chord anywhere but the old vinyl version of their second album; Richard recently added 3 more horn voices to the track using Kurzweil horns, putting the 10th on the botttom; and it is this version that was pressed onto all CD versions of the tune. "We'd play Vegas a couple of times a year," Richard explains, "and our conductor in Vegas, Dick Polumby, came up with this idea. He said, 'have you ever tried filling out the arrangement?' And he played it for me on the piano and it was beautiful, so I said 'do it!' So he wrote that into the charts and from then on - this was '72 or '73 - we did it that way. When we remixed the song for the Yesterday Once More album, I didn't want to hire a band just for that one chord on the remix, so I played the Kurzweil, adding it to the existing horns."

Notice next, in bar 9 [00:20 on the CD], how Richard sets up the main rhythmic theme for the song, a dotted quarter-eighth-half note rhythm on the kick drum and bass, doubled on the left hand of the piano for a really fat, and commanding, sound. Enhancing the fatness of the sound is the way the bass comes into bar 9 by dropping an octave - when Joe Osborn finally hits his low F from an octave above, it sounds like lowest note you've ever heard.

This introduction to the tune is very carefully crafted to set the mood, and uses orchestral instruments to provide a lush texture. Richard's opening oboe theme is all most people need to hear to recognize the song. Two groups recently covered the song - Sonic Youth (on the If I Were A Carpenter tribute album) and Chrissie Hynde (under the pseudo-band name Superfan, from the Wayne's World soundtrack album) - and they left Richard's intro line untouched.

Richard's use of "call and response" lines is also classic, and typical of his approach to creating cohesion between different instrumental parts. At the top of the second verse [00:52] Karen sings the lyric "your guitar" on the notes G-F-C (recognize this from the oboe intro?), and this line is then immediately echoed by the violins.

For the chorus, RC pulls out all the stops. Hal Blaine's drum fills coming into bar 26 ("B" on the chart) are accented by Richard's frenetic electric piano fills. A tambourine plays 16th notes throughout the chorus, adding to the rhythmic build. Karen sings the first line of the chorus, "Don't you remember you told me you loved me baby," which is answered by the trumpets in bar 27 with a horn fill that is one of the most recognizable signature lines in all of pop music, filling the space between vocal lines with a bright, Tijuana-brass type fanfare. To many, it would be unthinkable to perform the song without this line. Although Chrissie Hynde left it out, Sonic Youth kept it, transferring it to piano.

Coming out of the first chorus, a 10 bar interlude parallels the intro, complete with harp glissando [1:35] and the obligatto oboe. Notice that this second time through the theme, Richard's grand piano echoes the oboe line in octaves in "call and response" style.

Another interesting part of the track is Karen's vocal performance. Listen to the way she sings the words "far away" (at from 00:34 - 00:37 on the CD) - while holding the word "away" she brings out a subtone in her voice that conveys deep and troublesome emotions. Richard knew her range incredibly well, and his choice of key made moments such as this possible. Karen was also a master at phrasing - in the subsequent words, "I fell in love with you," she sings just behind the beat - not unlike Sinatra - playing around with the time to impart more depth to the vocal.

Let Me Be The One.

Another of Richard's witty arrangements is the brass part for the Paul Williams/Roger Nichols tune Let Me Be The One, also from their second album, "Carpenters." Scored for three trumpets and two trombones, in bar 5 of the tune Richard writes horn hits on beat 2 and on the "and" of beat 3. These propel the song rhythmically into bar 6, where the usual thing to do would be to repeat the rhythm. But instead, Richard delays the bar six entrance by half a beat, putting the next hits on the "and" of beat 2 and straight on beat 4. This lack of symmetry takes the listener by surprise and spices up the rhythm of the arrangment. Note also how Richard voices the sus4 chord in bar 8 for a fat sound: the trombones take the root and 7th, while the trumpets cluster tightly with the sus4, seventh and octave.

Richard usually knew exactly what he wanted, and he was not afraid to be stubborn about gettting it. For most of the tunes, Richard didn't just write out parts for orchestral instruments, but he wrote out all the drum beats, too, the kick, snare, hat and crash, in most cases leaving the fills for the drummer to improvise. On Let Me Be The One, however, Richard knew exactly what he wanted. "To me, the fill [into bar 5] had to go tiba-dump, dump, so I wrote it out that way. Richard also wrote out the bass parts, and wrote out certain fills the way he wanted them, too. At first, this approach ruffled session bassist Joe Osborn.

"At first Joe wasn't a big fan of mine," Richard recalls. "He was hot on Karen and just put up with me - I don't think he really wanted me around. I wrote a fill for him note for note for Crystal Lullabye and he looked at it and he said 'I can't do that. The bass won't go that high.' And I said, 'of course it'll go that high!' Now when he was doing the Mamas and Papas and Never My Love [the Association] and Travelin' Man [Ricky Nelson] and all that, he could never read a note - he was just a natural musician. And the producers would put up with him learning the songs on the spot because he was so damn good. But a chart meant nothing to him. So they'd play him the demo or sing it to him - John Phillips would play him California Dreamin' - until he learned it. "It finally got to him and so he taught himself - or had someone teach him - how to read. He was reading by the time he worked with us. And I'll tell you, once he learned how to read, he was among the best in the business. That Man Smart, Woman Smarter thing, where it starts on the downbeat and yet it sounds like a pick-up, ba-bomp - when we counted that off, and it was a room full of good musicians - the only person who came in was Joe Osborn. You know, just like the theme from The Apartment sounds like it's starting on a pick-up, you can't tell where the downbeat is. So we'd written out this part and he played it and of course it worked fine. And as soon as that was done, he said 'you're a genius!' And I said, 'I'm not a genius, Joe, all I did was write what I picture you doing!' "

Close To You.

This is one of Richard's arranging secrets: he loves certain players, and he'll write parts just the way he imagins they would play them. For the flugelhorn solo in Close To You, for example, Richard tried to imagine how Herb Alpert would play a part written by Burt Bacharach. When it came time to do the session, though, Alpert wasn't available so they brought in Chuck Findley. But Richard had written out the way Herb would naturally bend notes at the end of phrases [see score in bars 38-40]. "Chuck didn't play it that way at first, but I worked with him and he nailed it. A lot of people thought it was Herb - Bacharach thought so, too. But it's the way Findley is playing it."

"Arranging the ending of that tune was a problem for me," Richard continues. "I hate fade-outs and try to avoid them. Now we had the background vocals doing the wah-ah-ah-ah-ah part and then what should come next? Well, again, I thought, 'how would Bacharach do this?' He often had these kind of trick endings, like at the end of Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head, [sings ending of Raindrops]. Completely new music. Why is it there? Well, why shouldn't it be there?! It makes it! It's a neat part, in fact, the best part of the record. And obviously, that's why we ended the song with the wahs - they're an important part of that record. Then in rehearsal, Karen came up with the idea to push [syncopate] the third one, and that is great."

Of course, the Cranberries' new version of the song retains the wah-ah background vocals. How could they not?


"I never really learned how to technically orchestrate," Richard says. "There's a credit that says 'special thanks to Ron Gorow'. Ron is an actual orchestrator, and a hell of a nice guy, and he understands my idiosynchracies and we've been working together for over twenty years. I would usually work out all the instrumental parts on a piano and then Ron would sit next to me and write down what I played! I write music, of course, but I never spent so much time at it that it became second nature they way it is for Ron. Plus, I always felt it was a bore to sit down to write out music!"

In general, Richard works from the general to the specific, sketching out some rough ideas and filling them in later. "When I'm just starting the arrangment, I'll listen to the song and I'll think, 'I want the strings to come in here.' I can't tell you at that point in time what exact notes they're going to be, but I know I want strings. I'll know also whether it's going to be a single line or a pad.

"To me, the best things are inspired things that just fall out. Of course, this goes for writing tunes, too. Nichols and Williams said they wrote We've Only Just Begun in something like four minutes. And it didn't take much longer for me to write Yesterday Once More. When I was arranging Superstar, for example, that horn lick [sings the horn part from bar 27] was just there - I didn't have to stop and think about it. As soon as I heard 'don't you remember you told me you loved me baby' I heard ba-da-da-dap-da--dada-da in my head."

Carpenter says another crucial aspect of arranging is to pay a great deal of attention to the key, optimizing it for the singer. This means getting to know your singer's capabilities and deficiencies intimately.

In the old days, when he arranged everything on the piano, he says he would "just picture it, and cross my fingers! Now, of course, with what I have in the other room [his current home studio - see sidebar], I can take home a rough, lay down a track and futz with strings and brass all I want.

"It's so much easier now, with modern technology, because I can get some semblance of what the string parts are with my synths. Even though they certainly can't duplicate them. But back then, there was nothing - I just had to envision them. There's a setting on the D50 I like called 'Arco Strings' and it's not as buzzy as some of the other ones. The buzzy ones really bug me. With the synths I can fine tune an arrangement more. And I can get it so I know exactly what it is before we go into the studio with the real musicians. When you add MIDI and sequencers, you have a great tool. You can fiddle around with things at home before you get to the studio, and sof course tuff's so good these days that if you get proficient with the equipment you can just dump it onto the multitrack when you get to the studio.

"For an arranger and a keyboardist, just having a different sound'll bring out a different emotion, maybe a different series of chord changes. I can go to a Rhodes and immediately start playing something different than I would on a Baldwin, or a Steinway, or a Wurlitzer electric - because the sound brings out something different.

"I don't like the idea of becoming fossil, because I used to be up on all the new technology. It's scary how fast things have changed. It doesn't seem that long ago that the Arp Oddysey came out. I kept mine, I figured I'd show it to my kids some day. It seems like all anybody got out of that thing was that one sound, you know, like at the end of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Lucky Man: oo-wee-oo, wee-oo, wee-oo."

In summary, the key to good arranging, according to Richard, starts with these steps: (1) Find a song you really like. (2) Make sure the key is exactly right for the singer. (3) If the arrangment doesn't just "fall in your lap" through pure inspiration, build it up slowly, working from general ideas to more specific ones. (4) Weave instrumental and background vocal parts in and out of each other, and in and out of the lead vocal. Don't bury parts by having too many things going on at once. Let the arrangment echo forward and backward to other parts of the song. (5) Don't be afraid to stubbornly insist that players give you what you really want to hear.

Carpenter's Tool Box:

Richard's home studio is warm and comfortable, and is built into the bottom floor of his Southern California home.

Equipment includes a Yamaha Upright Acoustic ("I love these because they have the dampers, the 'apartment mode' so I can play after the kids are in bed"); Yamaha electric piano; Soundtracs 32x8x8 console; Alesis ADAT; Roland R8M and JB880 sound modules; Proteus II; Emax II; Peavy Bass module; REV7, Quadraverb, SPX900, Mac Centrus 650; Performer, Finale, Tannoy SGM10-B speakers, Alesis 3630 compressor; SV3700 DAT; Hafler power amp.