StringSection Blog

Recording Projects

Studio Strings – How to mic up and record live strings. . . .

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Composers and producers are always looking for ways of recording high quality strings at an affordable price, without having to fly off to Central or Eastern Europe. For some time I’ve been working on this idea and have finally come up with some really convincing results. It’s all about looking at how string sections are recorded on classical music releases. Years ago as a freelance violinist, I played in a number of orchestral recordings, and noticed that mics were used more sparingly than I thought might be the case. Often a single stereo mic would be placed in front of each section – so one for the first violins on the left, another for the second violins left of centre, a third for the violas right of center, one for the cellos on the right and finally one for the double basses at the end. This was reinforced by having a couple of ambient mics suspended above the whole orchestra, so the emphasis was on the whole sound rather than on individual players. When I listen to classical symphonic recordings where you can hear the front two players of each section slightly more prominently than the rest, I know that the mic placement is too close. The object is to capture the ‘merging’ of the sound when heard from slightly further back, where the acoustics of a hall can have an influence.

I’ve done a few recordings for clients where my violin (and viola) has been overlayered several times with a close mic placement on every take. The end result has been pleasing, but there was a definite ‘hazy’ sound which was the result of the surface noise being captured when the bow is drawn along the string. If this sound is multiplied, say eight times, then this can become a problem. Reverb will help to soften the effect but it won’t eradicate it fully. This sound of bow and rosin against string is even more obvious when recording the lower strings (cellos and double basses). There’s also the issue of breathing and even fingers on the strings, all of which can be amplified as the layers build up.

To eradicate this effect, we’ve used a single stereo mic (suspended from a distance of about four feet from the instrument) with an ambient mic at the back of the room (although we’ve subsequently recorded to good effect without the ambient mic). In the first two takes, a single player emulates the ‘front desk’ of the section by assuming a seating position slightly to the right of the mic on the first layer and slightly to the left on the second. For the next couple of layers (numbers three and four), the player then sits around three feet further back from the same mics, and again records one layer on the right and then on the left. We now have two ‘desks’ of violins with a single, static mic placement. The process is repeated for how many ‘desks’ (or pairs) of violins you require. Another way to do it (if you happen to have a number of chairs to hand (!), would be to set say, eight chairs in four rows of two and get the string player to move seat for each subsequent layer. If you follow this procedure for seven first violins and then the same for six second violins, six violas, five cellos and maybe two or three double basses, the end result will be an impressive 26-piece string orchestra, using as few as three players (one double bassist, one cellist and a violinist who also plays the viola). Once the engineer has grouped the threads into sections and then panned the sections from left to right (to reproduce the seating arrangement of a real string section), you’ll end up with something very lifelike.

It’s worth saying that this method only works if you use exceptional players, capable of really precise rhythm and intonation over many identical overlayers. If you had a good amateur or student player inexperienced in this type of recording work, then all the inaccuracies would instead become amplified and the end product could be messy! Players need to be incredibly conscientious about the quality of each take, as rhythmic and tuning errors make each subsequent take harder to play to. The musicians also need to be able to add variety to their tone and vibrato from one take to another to mimic the different playing personalities within a ‘real’ string section. This is also true of the natural crescendos and diminuendos that a musician will make within a phrase – these should vary slightly but generally be consistent over all of the takes. So, it is a painstaking process and often the musician and engineer will work in tandem, assessing the overall sound as it is built up.

Some tracks – in particular pop or disco tracks already have plenty going on in the bass, supplied by drums, bass guitar or synths, so when it comes to a string arrangement may only need stringed instruments in the upper register (violins and violas). Sometimes, a recording of this nature can be done using only a single player who can play both violin and viola (as many violinists can). Still, a skilled player overdubbed should still produce a better, more realistic string sound than a sample string library. Although the idea of recording a live, full string orchestra might appeal to those on an unlimited budget, any orchestral musician will confirm that even in the best orchestras, there can be a few ‘weak’ players in the section, or perhaps a couple of players having an off day, leading to inaccuracies in tuning and rhythm. In the controlled environment of a studio, a few really top players overdubbed with great care can actually sound more accurate and tight than a full orchestra.

David Roberts – St Clears Album

Monday, April 6th, 2015

It’s always a pleasure to receive in the post a little package and realise it’s an album you’ve been part of. It’s even nicer when you genuinely enjoy the music contained on it and this happened the other day when a copy of the album ‘St Clears’ dropped through my letterbox. It’s a really lovely collection of songs by an up and coming singer, songwriter and guitarist called David Roberts. String Section supplied the session strings for the tracks ‘So Long’, ‘Indian Blues’, ‘The Glowing’ (where cellist Julia Graham contributes a beautiful cello solo) and ‘Changelings’. Producer Adam Huyton and mixer Andy Seward have done a fine job in creating warmth and clarity in the sound. It compliments David’s songs perfectly as they have a gentle, elegiac and wistful quality which is genuinely affecting. You can read an extensive review of the album here:

Listening back to the finished product brought back some happy memories of the day we spent recording the strings. The studio was located in rural Herefordshire and whilst Julia recorded her cellos solos in ‘The Glowing’ I went for a nice walk across the river and enjoyed some lovely views. Julia did likewise when I recorded a couple of tracks without her – I seem to remember her returning with a couple of punnets of strawberries!

I’d like to wish David well with promoting the album and hope that it receives the attention it deserves.


Recommendations When Booking Session Musicians

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Early in December, we were engaged as a string quintet to record two pieces of music for a client who was producing some samples of pieces for film and television productions. I’d previously assisted with scoring both pieces, one written for a string quartet with solo trumpet and the other for a full string orchestra.

We began by recording the short piece for trumpet and string quartet. The piece lasted under two minutes and didn’t contain any music which posed much of a problem as far as technical difficulty was concerned. But to our dismay, it was immediately obvious that the trumpeter (who had been booked independently of ourselves) was not getting anywhere near the notes. He seemed unable to play below a certain dynamic and kept splitting notes. As he progressed through more and more takes, he started to adapt the trumpet part by simplifying it and missing out quite a lot of the notes, but even then the sound he produced was coarse and unsuitable. For our string quintet sitting in the studio whilst this took place, attempts to record the trumpet part were uncomfortable to watch.

Despite using quite a lot of valuable studio time, the result was still not at all good. Eventually this was resolved by a different player (recommended by our cellist), coming in a few days later and re-recording the trumpet part easily and perfectly on the first take – with which the composer was both relieved and delighted. We also learned that the trumpeter who had struggled so much had charged a far higher fee than the rest of us, yet none of the music he recorded was useable. What people choose to charge for their services is a matter purely between themselves and the client they are dealing with, but it made me aware that booking any musician does require at least a certain amount of trust. After all, it’s not really practical for clients to ‘audition’ musicians in person before hiring them, and most professional session musicians simply wouldn’t have time to do this.

So, how do clients make sure that they are going to book excellent musicians, fluent at sightreading, who are going to be able to turn up at a recording studio and get it right within the first couple of takes whilst taking on board directions from the producer and doing their utmost to record what was intended by the composer? Equally, how can clients avoid a ‘dud’ who may waste studio time and money, often holding up the finished product by several days as parts then need to be re-recorded by a professional?

Firstly, it’s always a good sign if a musician has a website which demonstrates their talents.  A comprehensive, well-designed site will reveal much about the attitude and perfectionism of the musician involved. Ideally it should have an array of recorded samples in different genres, as well as displaying previous work and client testimonials. Also, word of mouth is often very reliable – good studio engineers and other experienced professional musicians will know who is good to work with and often have a mobile phone contact list of high quality session instrumentalists.  Any classically trained musician working in or around one of the big cities will usually have played with leading symphony orchestras or performed on West End shows, so will know plenty of people who they can recommend. Also, an all-round variety of work can be a good sign (so, a busy London-based freelance player will have orchestral work as well as chamber concerts, recitals, film and session work on their c.v.).

One danger is being overly impressed by a single statement on a CV, for example, if a player claims to have played with a well-known rock or pop band or recorded in a famous studio, also look for other work that they’ve done to support this. We have come across situations where a particular musician didn’t do an especially good job for that ‘famous’ client either, but is still using it on their cv anyway to solicit more work!

Quotations from reviews in well regarded classical publications are always a good sign – but if the most recent quotations are 10 years old, it’s worth wondering whether their playing is still as good as the review would lead us to believe.

‘Youtube’ is also an excellent resource, as many musicians nowadays have videos showcasing their playing. A lot of these are also recorded ‘live’ in concert, which is very revealing – clients can gauge their playing really well without any editing being involved.

Although the client on this particular job said that he’d learned a valuable lesson, all the members of our group felt unhappy that he had been faced with this situation, especially considering how many exceptional trumpeters work in and around the capital!

Recording a String Quartet for a Short Film Score

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

On Tuesday 11th November, a composer called Paul Tyan hired our string quartet for a recording session, to provide strings for a short film entitled ‘The Wing’, written by Nick Landa and directed by Assaad Yacoub.

Recording a String Quartet for Paul Tyan

Recording a String Quartet for Paul Tyan

The recording took place at The Smokehouse Studios in Wapping, London – and was engineered by Jonathan McMillan. During the session we recorded three short pieces for the film as well as an additional track of ‘string sound effects’, small fragments of sound which could then be inserted into the film as appropriate.

Vaughan Jones and Joanna Lee - Violins

Vaughan Jones and Joanna Lee – Violins

As the conductor was present to conduct and guide the session, we were able to get it exactly as he intended and he was very happy with the overall sound. Very little editing was required, with tracks laid down generally in single takes. We also experimented with recorded the track with and without the use of a click track. As is often the case, the click track can ensure clinical, rhythmical accuracy but this can compromise the natural feel between the four players and small, expressive nuances in the performance can be lacking. Playing without the click track can provide this space and feel but can slightly alter the timing as the speed of the track can vary from the precise click speed.

When recording for film or television, tracks often have a specific time frame, down to a fraction of a second – which is why click tracks are so frequently used. In this instance, the timing was less critical so the composer took the decision to conduct a couple of the tracks without the click which we all felt would have straightjacketed our performance.


Overdubbing a 30 piece String Orchestra

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

In May this year we took on one of our biggest ever jobs: namely, to record a 30-piece string orchestra for 12 songs. The client is a well known music producer and songwriter and he had contracted the services of string arranger Samuel Kimuli. Samuel originally hails from Uganda and is a wonderful pianist/organist, jazz improviser, composer and orchestrator. The challenge was to overlayer and create the effect of a 30 piece orchestra using only a handful of players (violins, violas, cellos and a double bassist).

 The string parts were very rich and a main feature of all of the tracks so our first job was mapping out the size and proportions of the strings. We settled on 6 first violins, 6 second violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos and 3 double basses. Normally tracks need more instruments in the higher registers (as the effect is naturally thinner), but as we recorded the violas and cellos simultaneously (in adjacent full soundproofed booths, meaning that there was no ‘spill’ from one to the other) we decided to do 6 cello overlayers at the same time as the 6 viola overlayers.

Tuning is must be absolutely impeccable when recording this way. When producers or songwriters have the luxury of 30 orchestral musicians simultaneously playing and recording, these musicians will make constant subtle adjustments to their tuning in order to ensure that the overall intonation remains very tight. When different parts are overlayered separately, the danger is that small deviations in pitch start to accumulate and by increments, the overall effect starts to sound out of tune of fuzzy. This can actually be exacerbated by many recent developments in recording techniques that have meant a use of autotune to regulate and flatten out pitch. One of the joys of listening to an acoustic ensemble such as a string quartet is that the four instruments aren’t quite perfectly in tune in an equal temperament. It is the minute and constant adjustment of intervals (by widening and narrowing within the emotional context of the music) that makes these performers sound so ‘soulful’ and tonally expressive. In the more uniform world of pop records, it is incredibly important to keep the tuning totally pristine, otherwise once it is placed within the track, even fractional errors will be noticeable. If the vibrato of the strings is narrow enough, autotune may be applied in post-production in order to align slight errors in tuning, but if the natural vibrato is thicker, this can disturb any application of autotune, causing the notes to ‘wobble’.

The whole process of overdubbing requires immense concentration and a rigorous analysis of each take before moving on. Just as when we perform as a full section, we had to ensure that the strings sounded really warm and lush, with natural phrasing, tight rhythm, tuning and a feel which many former clients have referred to as ‘heart and soul’. This is the nicest compliment to receive as when hiring professional session musicians, all the other qualities are taken for granted. This after all, is why people often reject samples and look for real strings: they are capable of giving a track an extra dimension of emotion and class. 

I’m very excited at the prospect of hearing the end result as the vocalist in the tracks had a fabulous, powerful voice, the songs were really brilliant and production values high.