This week, we were delighted to receive some complimentary copies of the new album by Usman Riaz entitled ‘Circus in the Sky’ – for which we provided a string section (as both an orchestra and solo instrumentalists) on three of the tracks: ‘The Adventures of the Lost Boy’, ‘Descent to the Ocean Floor’ and ‘Fragaria Dreams’. The album is released through EMI Pakistan and is a varied and eclectic mix of styles. Usman is developing a big following as a guitarist and composer. Some excerpts from his latest album can be heard here:
We wish Usman all the very best with his album and look forward to working with him again in the future.
On Sunday evening, starting at 6pm – three of us were engaged to add six individual string parts to 8 tracks being independently produced by a singer songwriter. The studio we recorded in (After Dark Studios in Soho) was chosen by the client and this was the first time that we’d recorded there.
Our brief was to record live strings for 8 songs (with us recording in the region of 40 minutes of music) and this was completed within the 3 hours which had been allocated for the session. One reason that the recording went so smoothly was that plenty of preparation had been done on the scores beforehand, with me arranging and notating the string parts on Sibelius software and emailing these over to the client for approval. By the time we arrived at the studio, the scores were all ready and note perfect so that nothing needed to be changed on the evening (which could have disrupted the session and eaten into valuable studio time).
The client was delighted with the result at the end of the session and commented that adding live strings to the track had added a sophistication and soulfulness that could never have been achieved with samples.
Back in the summer, we were approached to take part in a very exciting project – to record the real strings strings for a song by composer Leigh Haggerwood. Leigh (who has recently become known as his Victorian alter ego ‘Travis Shenanigans’!) had the idea of writing a proper Christmas song, with festive lyrics and a real ‘feel good’ melody and as soon as we heard it, the players on the session realised it was extremely catchy and likely to do very well indeed. In these days of large record company promotions, the X factor and various facebook campaigns to download silence or novelty songs, it’s a refreshing change to hear a proper old fashioned Christmas Song that actually makes you feel… well…. Christmassy! The song is called ‘My Favourite Time of Year’ by the Florin Street Band and is well worth a listen over Christmas. Because the project was entirely self funded without record company backing, it’s down to the general public to support it and get it into the Christmas charts. If initial response from everyone who has heard it so far is anything to go by, it should do really well as it is far more original than anything else released over Christmas.
The string parts were quickly notated and we went into Sarm Studios to record them in the same week as Leigh had gathered the English Chamber Choir and a whole host of other talented British musicians including James Ryan on drums to appear on the song.
By autumn, it was time to record the video which was filmed overnight at Blists Hill Victorian Town in Ironbridge Gorge and it was a real pleasure to appear in the film, playing a busking violinist in period costume – re-creating the violin solos and string parts that we had recorded back in August.
When I was at music college, I did quite a bit of busking to make ends meet, so although I’d never busked in a top hat before, I felt very at home in the role!
Today, the Florin Street Band website is now up and running and the video and song can be enjoyed online – the band also have a facebook page where people who like the song can keep up to date with all the latest news.
On Sunday the 6th December, we were booked as a string quartet comprising two violins, a viola and cello to record at the ‘Engine Room’ (part of the group of Miloko Studios in London). We were required to record string parts for seven tracks for an independent band – as these weren’t string arrangements that we had been asked to write, we simply had to turn up and play the music given to us on the day. The bands style favoured irregular time signatures which kept us on our toes with large sections being done in a single take to capture a live feeling of spontaneity. The end product certainly enhanced the sound with the tracks gaining richness and depth as a result of including live strings. In a couple of tracks, the producer discussed the possibility of using the tracks laid down by the four session musicians to add a top layer to existing sampled strings – this technique is becoming increasingly popular where there are many different sounds in the mix and can certainly help the strings to sound more convincing than only using samples.
Some of the work that String section does involves providing strings for composers or bands financing their own projects on a limited budget. People believe in a track enough to invest in live strings (rather than samples), but simply cannot afford to hire a full sized string orchestra without going overseas and potentially compromising on quality. Occasionally, in order to keep things within budget, or because only a few of us can fit into a smaller studio, we have overlayered the same players in order to create the impression of more musicians.
Although this might sound straightforward and the obvious answer to keeping costs down, it is actually a skillful process that only very good players are able to pull off convincingly. It is vital that the first string parts laid down are rhythmically perfect with 100% accurate tuning, as any slight discrepancies of timing or tuning can become exaggerated with a subsequent overdub. It’s often the case that this first layer takes the longest time to record and get right. If a handful of players are to successfully layer their sound a second or even third time, it can potentially end up sounding weird and slightly artificial – rather like a choir made up of the same few voices, without the variety of sounds produced by a large group. One way to overcome this is for the session musicians to add a little variety to each take, without disturbing the rhythm or intonation. This can be done by varying the speed of vibrato, changing the weight of sound and even playing a passage on different strings (so that some notes on the lower region of the violins ‘E’ string for instance could be played higher up on the ‘A’ string). A good engineer will help enormously and can subtly change the position of the microphones between takes to avoid ‘phasing’. ‘Phasing’ is where the identical frequencies are replicated or fractionally overlap, causing the sound to become sort of ‘fizzy’. When overdubbing, if particular care isn’t taken to avoid this, what started out as a high quality group of session string players can end up sounding more artificial than samples – which completely defeats the object of hiring live session musicians in the first place.
When overdubbing is done badly, it’s easy to tell straight away what’s gone on, especially in exposed passages. However if over-layering string parts is done with care and attention, the sound can be quite flawless- but success really depends on having excellent players, a sensitive producer and some very precise ears for detail.