StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘session musicians’

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.


Well written string arrangements…..

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

Last Monday, we recorded three songs for an independent singer / songwriter based near to Milton Keynes. The client had written a number of songs, many of which required strings – either as a full orchestra or a string quartet. Sometimes, when non string playing musicians approach us with string parts that they’ve arranged themselves, results can be variable. One common problem is string parts that have been played into a keyboard and scored by a midi device (such as protools), without the understanding of notation. If the parts are inputted inaccurately, then all kinds of rhythmic anomolies can be present in the scores, as well as instruments frequently being allocated the wrong clefs. Sometimes the programme is not aware of the intended key and copes by placing accidentals all over the music, making it more difficult to read. Sometimes, the wrong enharmonic notes are assigned (such as a Db instead of a C#) and this takes time to comprehend, even for experienced session musicians.
Setting aside notation issues, we have often received parts without any use of harmony, such as individual lines of instruments all playing in octaves. This does not make best use of having a live string orchestra in the studio as a far greater effect can be achieved by scoring sympathetically for strings.

When session musicians are presented in the studio with inappropriately scored music, or scores which are full of mistakes, not only is costly studio time wasted, but it can sometimes feel that the full potential of what live strings can offer is not being made best use of. If bands and musicians invest in the services of a professional string arranger, the qualities of of hiring an orchestra to play on the track can be far more effective.

This week, we were delighted to be given string parts that were well written for the instruments and were harmonically full. They also had a conversational feel with one instrumental line answering another and the overall effect was complimentary to the rest of the track and a real pleasure to play.

My Favourite Time of Year (Studio footage)

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Thanks very much to Leigh for uploading this video of the various musicians who contributed to ‘My Favourite Time of Year’ – by the Florin Street Band. It has little snippets of the strings in action and gives a good idea of the studio processes involved in co-ordinating various session musicians, recording live strings in the studio and making a pop record.

Recording session at Air Edel studios

Friday, June 18th, 2010

Earlier this week, we received a phone call from a music production company who specialise in writing music for television advertisements and films. Having recorded the piece with synthesised strings, they were looking to hire string players and replace the majority of them with live musicians so we were booked to go in today to record at Air Edel studios in London.

Various drafts of the advert were recorded so that the client and advertisement director could liaise and choose the most suitable version. All in all there were 8 different versions, varying in length between 30 and 40 seconds.

Having received the call on the Monday, I had to book the other players, exchange contracts, do a little bit of notation of string parts (so that when we walked into the studio we could make best use of every minute), so that we were all ready to go this morning. In fixing session musicians, a lot of work can be exactly like this – of a ‘last minute’ nature, so the ability to deal swiftly with enquiries, work on the score and in booking players is vitally important. As we have a pool of strong players, we can always confidently book musicians that we know and trust, assured that they are not only reliable, but that their playing is of a high quality which will shine in a recording.

We look forward to hearing and seeing the final advert when it’s aired on television within the next few weeks.

Rubato and working with a Click Track

Monday, March 15th, 2010

The literal definition of the Italian word ‘Rubato’ is ‘robbed time’, which doesn’t seem to be a particularly attractive way of describing something that adds such emotional meaning to a piece of music. In essence, it is where music is slowed down or speeded up to create an expressive effect. When done with artistry and musical sensitivity, rubato can subtly ebb and flow but without distorting the rhythmic pulse. What is taken away is always added back, rubato would never slow a pulse down and then not regain it later on, it is in a sense elastic.

In the studio, the only way of effectively playing rubato in an ensemble is through playing ‘live’, where all the session musicians are actively listening to each other and making minute adjustments as they play. It would not be possible to achieve a natural ‘pulling up’ or quickening with a click track. A click track is frequently used in recording situations, especially where string parts are to be added over existing instruments or vocals – it takes the form of a metronome beat heard only in the headphones of the session musicians who are working on the track. A click can be speeded up or slowed to suit the beat of the music players are working on and can even accelerate or slow down, but this rarely sounds very natural.

When music is of a metronomic nature (such as rock or pop music), then a click track can be highly effective and when used well, will not be betrayed in the end result. Recordings can sound perfectly natural where a click track has been used and often can have a tightness and accuracy that could only be achieved with a lot of rehearsing. Of course, if multiple overdubs are used then a click track is an essential tool and will cut down the studio time needed.

In more sophisticated music which is ever changing, the use of a click track can be more of a hindrance than a help and in that situation, musicians opt to use their ensemble skills and the end result will hopefully be far more natural.