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.