StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘real strings’

Overdubbing a 30 piece String Orchestra

Wednesday, 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.


Re-recording strings for a track

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

A few months ago, I received an enquiry from a composer / music producer who had already recorded some live strings for his track but hadn’t been happy with the playing, so had decided to get them re-recorded. I’ve had several enquiries from potential clients who have wanted strings professionally arranged, which were then to be recorded on a budget by a friend or amateur player in order to keep costs down. Almost always, this proves to be counterproductive as the accuracy of tuning, tightness of rhythm and the ability to phrase in a musical way with a good tonal range are qualities that require an accomplished player. When corners have been cut by hiring music students, amateur players and semi-professionals, the standard of the end product is often disappointing and the music does not stand up to the scrutiny of professional ears (such as radio stations, record label representatives or music libraries).  

The client whose music was being re-recorded had originally brought in a young player who he quickly realised could not give the strings the sound he was looking for, but the second attempt had involved a professional player from a well known symphony orchestra and this too had fallen short of the standard required. As the player was unaccustomed to projecting as a soloist and spent the vast majority of their working life ‘blending in’ to a larger section, they had struggled to give the solo violin part enough substance.

 Understandably the client was nervous of hiring in a third player and was only reassured by the ability to view youtube videos and hear sound samples of the string section on our website. We recorded three violin parts with four layers for each one (12 overdubs altogether) and the whole session went smoothly with a happy outcome and relieved client at the end.

Keeping it real?

Monday, January 17th, 2011

A few weeks ago, we were asked to provide strings for a pop song where the band had written their own string arrangements and required us in the studio to just record the written parts. The session went well and everyone was happy with the finished recording but on the way out, the cellist and I were discussing a phenomenon which we’d noticed in this and other recordings. Namely that when a composer or songwriter produces a lot of music using synthesised or sampled string parts, their ear becomes naturally accustomed to this sound and they instinctively try to get the real strings in the studio to sound more like samples!

To us, as players this seems slightly strange as all the natural inflections, subtleties, articulations, dynamics and phrasing are what make real strings sound so good and stand out to lift a track to a new level. The engineers / producers / composers who don’t work with real instruments often try to iron all these little varieties out, so that the strings sound very smooth and lifeless – in other words it’s like looking at a photograph of a woman who has been airbrushed, it may be ‘perfect’ but any character or individuality has been lost.