StringSection Blog

Recording Projects

The Hidden Violin

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Last week the classical label ‘First Hand Records’ released a disc of solo violin music which I recorded last year. The disc is entitled ‘The Hidden Violin’ and this refers to the choice of repertoire: of the 13 tracks only 3 had ever been recorded before. This might not sound too surprising and if the repertoire consisted of music written in the last 50 years, this would not have been particularly unusual. But the fact that the most recent work had been written in 1919 and the oldest in the 1840s means that the music contained on the disc most definitely fell into the category of ‘neglected’.

 So, is the music any good or does it deserve to have been allowed to collect dust and be forgotten? Well, I would alter its category to that of ‘neglected gems’ as all of the music rewards repeated listening. This is part of the reason why so much of the chamber music repertoire doesn’t see the light of day: it is just a little too challenging to fully grasp on the first listening, yet increased familiarity rewards the listener greatly.

 The two main works on the disc are the two solo violin sonatas by Benjamin Godard, the prolific 19th century French composer who wrote over 450 works before his untimely death at the age of 45. Much of his music is unfairly dismissed as ‘light music’, yet these works display a wonderfully fertile musical imagination and turn of phrase which charms the ear and carries the listener along in a sweep of inspiration. As Godard was also an exceptional violinist, they are very well written for the instrument and explore much in the way of technique, but always at the service of the music.

 The rest of the disc comprises works by Christian Sinding, Franz von Vecsey, Léon de Saint-Lubin and Joseph Joachim. All were either great violinists themselves, or in the case of Sinding, an accomplished player. The piece which explores the possibilities of the instrument the furthest is the ‘Fantasie sur un thême de Lucia Di Lammermoor’, a wonderful reworking of the celebrated sextet from that opera. To quote from the booklet notes, Saint-Lubin really does throw everything into his Fantasie, including such techniques as ‘…simultaneous left hand pizzicato and cantilena playing, ricochet interspersed with rapid arpeggios, double stopped tremolandos (with the melody punctuated on a higher string) and downward scales of triple stopping.’  


Florin Street Band – Winter Wonder

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Last Sunday I travelled down to the rural setting of Englishcombe (near Bath) to participate in the ‘ Winter Wonder’. This is the Florin Street Band’s follow up video to ‘My Favourite Time of Year’ and has been eagerly anticipated by many fans of the original Christmas song. The composer behind the project is Leigh Haggerwood who is also a talented multi instrumentalist and producer. Leigh wrote the music and lyrics for both songs, as well as undertaking all of the scoring and production. We first met him when he contracted some of us to record the strings for ‘My Favourite Time of Year’ at Sarm West Studios and since then, we have been delighted to have contributed to other songs by Leigh, including ‘Winter Wonder’ where real strings were required throughout the track.

Leigh adopts a highly visual approach to his music and often has a specific storyline in mind. This can be very detailed and as such, he had a very specific idea of the look of the video, as well as the choreography of individual sequences. My role in all this was to follow up my appearance as the Victorian busker in ‘My Favourite Time of Year’ by appearing as a performing member of the Florin Street Band on stage in ‘Winter Wonder’. The live band provide a backdrop to festivities which include dancing, drinking ale, general festive merriment and partying.

Interestingly, the video was filmed at a speed 11% quicker than the music was recorded. This is a technique frequently employed by cinamatographers to create a particular look to the film. However, miming is never straightforward and in order to achieve an accurate result, the bow I used during the filming was especially unrosined, so as not to make any sound whilst miming – and importantly not to annoy all the other members of the cast /crew during several hours of filming. The same technique with an unrosined bow was used when four of us were called in to be filmed (as a string quartet) for a television drama a couple of months ago. The problem with unrosined bows is they have no traction, tend to skate around on the strings, and are therefore quite difficult to control, particularly during intricate violin solos. When making the Winter Wonder, I realised it had been easier to record the solo for real in the studio than to mime it later on, which may seem odd!

The whole shoot seemed to go well and the musicians were required for around 7 hours overall. It has to be said that it was a fairly cold 7 hours, as a proposed heater (fed into the barn via a pipe) was deemed to block a fire exit and had been disallowed, so no heating was available in a chilly barn in December. Nevertheless, it was all worthwhile and we hope that the Florin Street project goes from strength to strength!

Tich – Love on Christmas Eve

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, we were hired to play for a recording session at the new Fitdog Studios in Northamptonshire. We have recorded several times with Chris at Fitdog so it was a real pleasure to return to work on four tracks by his talented daughter, Rachel – who performs as ‘Tich’. Here’s a video of one of the songs, which is due to be released on the 8th December on itunes. The song is called ‘Love on Christmas Eve’ and both Magda (cellist) and I put in a little appearance in the video, as well as playing the strings throughout the track.

We wish Tich every success with her new release!

Recording Strings at the Premises Studio, London

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

On Sunday we were hired to play for a recording session for Jim Perkins (of Bigo & Twigetti) at The Premises Studios in Hackney. It was the second time that String Section have recorded for Jim and it involved laying down strings for three tracks. Two were compositions written by him (one, an atmospheric piece for a film soundtrack) and the third consisting of strings he had arranged for a pop song written and produced by Tony Holland. The only two musicians present were myself (on violins and violas) and Tony Woollard on cellos. 

The first piece was written for double string quartet (so, 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos). This is a particularly exposed combination as any discrepancies in tuning or timing become very obvious. Also, the tone quality on each of the two unison parts needs to be well matched. When overdubbing strings in this type of scenario it’s always best to keep the vibrato fairly narrow on the first layer in order that the second layer has something very clear to play with. 

The second track required a larger sound and had about six layers on each part. Some sections were written with pizzicato and here the challenge when overlayering is to remain scrupulously accurate to the click. This can be achieved by internally subdividing (this is where the musician counts in his or her head in a smaller note value than the beat, so instead of counting four crotchet beats in every bar, the player counts say, eight quaver beats). Mental focus is important to avoid wasting any valuable studio time. The track also contained very high notes on the first violin part: some which were two octaves above the top ‘E’ string. Stratospheric stuff indeed, but this is a region of the violin that can be highly effective when writing for a string section (particularly in film music). 

The third track was the pop track and here the strings added a fullness and warmth which hopefully will complement the track well. As a guide we had a piano and vocal in our headphones and as the strings built up we asked Ollie the engineer to change the balance in the headphones so that we increasingly listened to more strings and less of the track (this is good practice as once the foundations of the string parts have been laid, it’s good to be able to blend with the string sound as session musicians record each subsequent layer). 

It was great recording at The Premises as many of the recording rooms are the perfect size for studio strings: large enough for up to eight players to record simultaneously but not quite large enough for a whole string orchestra.

Recording the upper strings at the Premises Recording Studios

Recording the upper strings at the Premises Recording Studios

Recording violin and cello parts at the Premises Recording Studio

Recording violin and cello parts at the Premises Recording Studio


Recording Strings at Orpheus Studio in Shoreditch

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

A couple of Mondays ago, we recorded string parts for a client who had composed a 9 minute long piece of music scored for vocals, brass, percussion, strings and woodwind. All in all, 6 first violins, 6 second violins, 5 violas and 5 cellos were recorded, transforming the track with an orchestral depth and richness of sound. The client also asked Tony (cellist) to tune his cello down a couple of tones and record some notes which would normally be below the register of the cello which would usually be between the note C (2 octaves below middle C) and potentially an A string reaching up as high as a D (over an octave above middle C).

The decision was made to stagger this recording session, so the cello parts were recorded in the first two hours, whereas the viola and violin parts took in the region of five hours. The reason we did it this way was to avoid the ‘spill’ that often occurs between microphones when instruments are recorded together with separation, but are intended to be mixed separately. Recording one section after another enabled the engineer (Richard Campbell, who owns the studio and is the in-house engineer and producer) to have full control over every single stem. He was therefore able to process all the various layers individually to create a completely authentic sound as if a whole string orchestra were seated in a much larger studio.

 Working with Richard at Orpheus Studios was especially easy as he reads music fluently and had a good understanding of orchestral instruments, meaning that he was able to refer to our notation (and specific bars) when indicating which point we were to come in on a particular take. Richard was so efficient at editing that he was ready to start recording the next take almost immediately.

 When we all finished at around 7pm, the composer and engineer were delighted with the end results. Much work is still to be done on the track, but we look forward to hearing the end result.