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.