StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘string arrangement’

Studio Strings – How to mic up and record live strings. . . .

Friday, September 4th, 2015

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.

Little Star Lullabies…..

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Little Star Lullabies’ – Track 1: The Stars Come Out to Say Goodnight

This album of music started life as a single track composed for the recent release entitled ‘Music for Healing, Relaxation and Massage’. On that album, all the tracks were timed at exactly five minutes in length and I ended up writing a piece that didn’t quite fit in with that (and as a result didn’t end up on the album). It was over eight minutes long and had a childlike lullaby feel to it that sounded out of place in the ‘healing’ context. I put it to one side and the idea of doing a sleep and relaxation album for babies and small children was hatched (that piece ended up being the final track called ‘Across the Milky Way’).

I wanted to start the album with music that was both warm and comforting (being mindful that many people would download single tracks and therefore play them in a different order!). Although this is increasingly how people are listening to their music, when you have an album in mind the track order is as important as the structure of the individual items. ‘The Stars Come Out to Say Goodnight’ is scored for a string orchestra of five different violin parts and a viola part (in contrast to a typical string orchestra which would consist of two different violin parts, violas, cellos and double basses) and it is this combination which gives the sound a light and airy quality. In addition there is a harp, a piano and a glockenspiel.

The piece begins with a harp lightly accompanied by some strings and a single piano line. It has suggestions of a musical box and the key of F major is warm and familiar. Soon the main theme is introduced on the piano and accompanied by the harp and glockenspiel and it’s this combination that suggests the stars of the title. Later, this theme reappears in the string arrangement with the six interweaving strands of violins and violas giving it a shimmering quality with the glockenspiel again adding a ‘twinkling’ effect above it all. Hopefully enough to help any child want to drift away into sleep!


Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

‘Saltando’ is an Italian musical term used when string players are being asked to play with a rapid, bouncing stroke in the middle of the bow – rather like sautille bowing. The speed at which this is executed allows the bow to bounce slightly off the string between each note of it’s own accord. The natural springiness of the bow gives the feeling that the bow is actually bouncing without intervention (although the reality is that it’s momentum which allows this to happen).

Saltando strokes, like Sautille strokes are both rapid forms of playing ‘spiccato’ (a generic term meaning any bowing where there is a lift between each note).

From a player’s point of view, both saltando and spiccato seem to give the impression – both visually and by the sound they make – of a vertical bouncing of the bow. The reality is actually different, with the bow being encouraged to brush the string in a horizontal way, so there is only a fractional lift at the end of each stroke. When played loudly however, there can be a much more noticeable lift (for example in the final section of Sarasate’s ‘Zigeunerweissen’ which we have a sound clip of on the home page of the String Section website) which gives the sound an energy that lends excitement and dynamism to a string arrangement or composition.

Open Strings in String Concertos

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

When a string player refers to an ‘open string’ it means that one of the four strings is being played without the left hand fingers being involved or touching the string. The word ‘open’ is appropriate as the sound the strings make is highly resonant and pure in sonority. Pieces of music based on scales or arpeggios that derive from open strings have a powerful, projecting quality that allows the stringed instrument to resonate freely. It’s no coincidence that many of the famous violin concertos have been written in the keys of an open string (G, D, A and E on a violin), for example the Beethoven and Brahms Concertos in D major or the Mendelssohn Concerto in E minor. Bach wrote violin concerto’s in E and A minor and Mozart’s three most famous violin concertos were written in G, D and A major. One notable exception of a great Concerto that is not written in an open string key is Elgar’s Concerto in B minor but this is still a very strong key on the violin with an open D string present in a B minor scale. It could be said that this work has a more complex key character which Elgar would have chosen for a reason.

Boccherini (who was himself an accomplished cellist) used the keys of the open strings of C, D, G and A on the cello in several of his cello Concertos, however two very celebrated Concertos for cello are written in less likely keys with the Dvorak Concerto being in B minor and Elgar writing in E minor. Elgar’s choice of key is interesting because it relates to his choice of key for the violin Concerto (both being a fifth above the highest open string of the respective instruments). The Dvorak Cello Concerto is a bit puzzling because B minor may not project as well on a cello as say G major but then a B minor arpeggio also can include an open D string.

Open strings on a viola are C, G, D and A (being an octave above the cello) and Concertos for this instrument include works by Bartok, Hindemith, Walton, Telemann, Stamitz and Rolla. Telemann, Walton, Stamitz and Rolla followed the norm of writing for open stringed keys and made the best use of the wonderfully resonant sound of the viola.

In a string arrangement or composition for string orchestra, the use of open strings can have a striking effect as the simultaneous ringing of several open strings generates a marvellously full and resounding note. When a composer sits down with the aim of writing a work for string ensemble or solo stringed instrument, by harnessing the qualities of an open stringed key this can help the piece to be comfortable to play and utilise the benefits of open strings to the utmost.

Up and Down Bow Staccato….

Monday, May 17th, 2010

This is a technique reserved for the most skillful players and when executed rapidly and cleanly, up and down bow staccato can have a mesmerising effect. It is different from normal staccato in that the bow in effect scoops several times in an up or down direction with a gap in between each note. Slowed down, the bow presses into the string (like the martele) and then releases as the bow travels before stopping – and then the whole process starts again. The movements and distances involved are minute and many players find that stiffening the bow arm is a way of playing this effectively.

Up and down bow staccato is notated as a series of notes with dots above the note heads all slurred together, often as many as 24 notes in one bow. This is exactly the same notation as for an up or down spiccato passage and it is up to the players judgement as to which technique to use. As an example, in Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen there are many such passages but as they are notated so rapidly, they cannot be played as staccato at such a high speed and therefore must be spiccato whereas in Wieniawski’s second violin concerto (first movement), there are passages of semi quavers that are written at a speed where an up bow spiccato wouldn’t be impressive, but an up bow staccato would wow the audience!

In a string arrangement, it would probably only be written at a very slow speed – perhaps accented to create an attacking or percussive feel with the strings. Only in a string concerto that was designed to show off the talents of a virtuosic performer would the rapid up or down bow spiccato be written.

It may well be that putting a passage of rapid up (or down) bow staccato in front of a group of studio musicians could cause a few raised eyebrows and would generally be written for a solo instrument (where the player was warned in advance!)