A couple of days ago I spoke to a composer who is looking to hire a string section to record part of his composition for three short films. He’d spent a lot of time working with very high quality string samples but felt that when it came to staccato bowings and phrasing, there was just something missing that gave sampled strings an unreal quality.
What differentiates an outstanding string player from an average one (as well as sampled strings) is his or her ability to really sing through the instrument. All the best players ‘phrase’ so the listener can really hear the whole direction of the music, like hearing a whole sentence rather than a series of single words. When the phrasing is done beautifully, the bow seems to disappear and instead of hearing a succession of ‘down’ and ‘up’ bows, there is a feeling of seamlessness with no apparent breaks in the sound. When this happens, the instrument can really seem to glow.
When phrasing is coming through, it can have a very individual sound for each player and with the very best musicians, it is possible to tell exactly who is playing from their unique sound and characteristic tone. This is rather like recognising someone from their speaking voice or accent, but it is the way they use their speaking voice that makes a person sound so individual. If one has a distinctive voice but talks in a monotone, this will be less recognisable than a person who injects real vitality and variety into their speech. A couple of months ago, a composer sent me an mp3 of some of his work that he’d had recorded by a really good cellist – on listening to it, I recognised the cello sound as being played by a woman I had been at college with 20 years ago and when I queried it, he confirmed that it was her.
In order to convey convincing phrasing to an audience (or studio microphone), the player must really project it with clear definition. Without using the word ‘exaggerate’ there must be a level of commitment and passion that clearly conveys whatever the performers intention is.
Any half measures will strike the listener as bland or uninteresting. There are many excellent players who are so concerned with accurate intonation and note perfect playing that they risk sounding ‘safe’ with little or no phrasing to characterise their playing. This is often evident in good string quartets who display excellent ensemble and great tuning but don’t inject their playing with enough character and inflection.
In the studio, the best way of a string section sounding really impressive is for all of the players to phrase at the same points and really feel the music together. No sound sample as yet can achieve that human soulfulness that gives real strings their ability to move the listener.
Tags: arranging for sampled strings, composing for sampled strings, good phrasing for strings, hire a string section, hire string players, musical intelligence, musical phrases, musicianships, phrasing strings, sampled strings, session cellist, string phrasing