StringSection Blog

Overdubbing a 30 piece String Orchestra

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.


The Hidden Violin

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.’  


The trouble with a click track is……

March 2nd, 2014

A click track is one of the most useful tools available in the recording studio. For many years it has helped musicians to gain a rhythmic tightness whilst multi tracking, as well as being used in Film and T.V. for the purpose of synchronizing music with on screen action. It can however be a restriction when attempting to record any piece of music which requires rubato (nicely summed up as ‘the temporary manipulation of the rhythmic pulse, to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, but without affecting the overall pace’).

Recently I was asked to arrange a waltz from a famous 19th century opera, to be included in a feature film. When listening to a magical performance of it by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the great Sir Thomas Beecham, it left me wondering what the secret of their magic was. Before the main theme is even stated, a short introduction accelerates towards fanfare-like chords, ending with a dramatic pause. The melody then melts in tenderly and engages the listener with the contrast already presented (like entering a warm room on a chilly day). The piece crescendos and subtly speeds up through its sequences of ascending scales. This is contrasted with a much more extrovert and bold second subject, whose character is confident and metronomic. But it is clear that the sensitive (almost insecure) first subject of the Valse is given a slightly different speed and tonal shade depending on the key it is played in. The contrasts of the push and pull in the tempo conjure up different emotions in the listener; whereas the first and second themes are given entirely different characters, like actors in a play.

My brief as a string arranger was to orchestrate the piece for string sextet and to try and capture some of Beecham’s magic through his skilled use of rubato. When we came to the studio, this was without doubt a challenging piece to record with a click track (for the combination of 2 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos), as everything had to flow organically, yet move around the click track without deviating a single beat. The inner parts that often have the job of providing the second and third beats of the waltz were the trickiest of all as these had to lend stability to the dance without sounding rigid. The whole track will accompany dancers in the film and my hope is that they will feel completely comfortable dancing to the track, without any of the lilting quality being lost.


Scordatura – for convenience rather than effect.

February 11th, 2014

Recently, I recorded some string parts for a client, who had written pieces for a string quartet, but only sixteen notes of this fell below the range of the violas by only one semitone. Rather than booking in a cellist and the client paying one musician a minimum two hour session fee to play just 16 notes, with the agreement of the client I detuned my viola by a semitone and played them myself. Because they were covered by higher Bs written an octave above, it wasn’t noticeable that they were out of range at all, and the end result was very satisfactory. Scordatura used more for convenience than effect.

The word ‘Scordatura’ means ‘to mistune’ and it is the technique of changing the conventional tuning on a stringed instrument in order to change the tonal quality or harmonic possibilities of the instruments. Violins, violas and cellos are all tuned in perfect fifths and occasionally the pitch of the strings can be adjusted in order to create a special effect. A famous example of this is at the beginning of Camille Saint-Saens’s symphonic poem ‘Danse Macabre’ (Op. 40), where the solo violin has an E string detuned to an Eb. This creates an interval of a diminished fifth when played with the open A string and is used to describe death as a fiddler summoning all the skeletons from their graves. 

One of the most celebrated innovators of scordatura was Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber who wrote a collection of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo, known as the ‘Rosary’ or ‘Mystery’ sonatas. Each sonata employs a different tuning for the instrument. Jeremy Eichler wrote: ‘The alternative tuning, known as scordatura, is not some minor technical detail. Each new configuration is a secret key to an invisible door, unlocking a different set of chordal possibilities on the instrument, opening up alternative worlds of resonance and vibration. The violin quite literally changes the essential qualities of its own voice’. 

The great Italian violin virtuoso and innovator Niccolo Paganini also used scordatura in his first violin concerto, but this was for different reasons. Originally written in the key of D major, he instructed the player to tune the entire violin up a semitone and perform the work in Eb major instead, in order to give the solo part a more brilliant tonal quality.

When writing for string quartet or string orchestra, it’s worth bearing in mind that the bottom note of the cello and viola is a C. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the key of B major or B minor should be avoided, only that the tonic note of this key will fall a semitone below the range of both instruments. Having said that, Ludwig Van Beethoven, perhaps the greatest master of the string quartet, wrote more than one work for this format in the key of Bb major!



Florin Street Band – Winter Wonder

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!