Last weekend we spent quite a lot of time in the studio, recording some original music which I had been asked to compose for an album. We recorded three pieces, all for string orchestra and after all the mixing / mastering had taken place, I made an interesting discovery.
Having been given the brief of writing and recording a piece for string orchestra, I had composed something in nine part harmony and it had been recorded for 47 piece string orchestra – including 12 first violins, 12 second violins, ten violas, eight cellos and five double basses – roughly the same sized string section as an opera orchestra. The final mix sounded powerful, emotionally intense and quite cinematic – several people commenting that it would be ideal as a film soundtrack with quite a panoramic feel.
Nevertheless, it didn’t have quite the right sound for the album (it needed to be warm, rounded and mellow) so after scratching our heads a little, the engineer muted about half of the instruments and re-mixed it, this time with 28 parts – 8 first violins, 8 second violins, 5 violas, 4 cellos and 3 double basses. Despite being a smaller section (more like a chamber orchestra), this really benefited the music. By dropping half the section out, it became clearer, purer and less intense with all the crescendos and diminuendos becoming more subtle and less ‘in your face’ than the larger orchestra had sounded.
This came as a surprise to both me and the client who had originally been quite set on a full orchestra and it goes to show that in certain circumstances, less can definitely be more. So when arranging strings for a piece, or as in this case composing new music with a specific aim in mind, it’s worth thinking of what kind of impact the strings are going to have – rather than being more powerful and ‘better’, could a huge orchestral sound actually detract from the music, losing the subtlety and clarity that a smaller section would have brought?
Perhaps composing strings for chamber ensemble or solo strings and bringing it further forward in the mix can have more impact than a symphony orchestra sized sound in a track.