StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘String orchestra’

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.

Scordatura – for convenience rather than effect.

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Recently, I recorded some string parts for a client, who had written pieces for a string quartet, but only sixteen notes of this fell below the range of the violas by only one semitone. Rather than booking in a cellist and the client paying one musician a minimum two hour session fee to play just 16 notes, with the agreement of the client I detuned my viola by a semitone and played them myself. Because they were covered by higher Bs written an octave above, it wasn’t noticeable that they were out of range at all, and the end result was very satisfactory. Scordatura used more for convenience than effect.

The word ‘Scordatura’ means ‘to mistune’ and it is the technique of changing the conventional tuning on a stringed instrument in order to change the tonal quality or harmonic possibilities of the instruments. Violins, violas and cellos are all tuned in perfect fifths and occasionally the pitch of the strings can be adjusted in order to create a special effect. A famous example of this is at the beginning of Camille Saint-Saens’s symphonic poem ‘Danse Macabre’ (Op. 40), where the solo violin has an E string detuned to an Eb. This creates an interval of a diminished fifth when played with the open A string and is used to describe death as a fiddler summoning all the skeletons from their graves. 

One of the most celebrated innovators of scordatura was Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber who wrote a collection of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo, known as the ‘Rosary’ or ‘Mystery’ sonatas. Each sonata employs a different tuning for the instrument. Jeremy Eichler wrote: ‘The alternative tuning, known as scordatura, is not some minor technical detail. Each new configuration is a secret key to an invisible door, unlocking a different set of chordal possibilities on the instrument, opening up alternative worlds of resonance and vibration. The violin quite literally changes the essential qualities of its own voice’. 

The great Italian violin virtuoso and innovator Niccolo Paganini also used scordatura in his first violin concerto, but this was for different reasons. Originally written in the key of D major, he instructed the player to tune the entire violin up a semitone and perform the work in Eb major instead, in order to give the solo part a more brilliant tonal quality.

When writing for string quartet or string orchestra, it’s worth bearing in mind that the bottom note of the cello and viola is a C. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the key of B major or B minor should be avoided, only that the tonic note of this key will fall a semitone below the range of both instruments. Having said that, Ludwig Van Beethoven, perhaps the greatest master of the string quartet, wrote more than one work for this format in the key of Bb major!



Recording Strings at the Premises Studio, London

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

On Sunday we were hired to play for a recording session for Jim Perkins (of Bigo & Twigetti) at The Premises Studios in Hackney. It was the second time that String Section have recorded for Jim and it involved laying down strings for three tracks. Two were compositions written by him (one, an atmospheric piece for a film soundtrack) and the third consisting of strings he had arranged for a pop song written and produced by Tony Holland. The only two musicians present were myself (on violins and violas) and Tony Woollard on cellos. 

The first piece was written for double string quartet (so, 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos). This is a particularly exposed combination as any discrepancies in tuning or timing become very obvious. Also, the tone quality on each of the two unison parts needs to be well matched. When overdubbing strings in this type of scenario it’s always best to keep the vibrato fairly narrow on the first layer in order that the second layer has something very clear to play with. 

The second track required a larger sound and had about six layers on each part. Some sections were written with pizzicato and here the challenge when overlayering is to remain scrupulously accurate to the click. This can be achieved by internally subdividing (this is where the musician counts in his or her head in a smaller note value than the beat, so instead of counting four crotchet beats in every bar, the player counts say, eight quaver beats). Mental focus is important to avoid wasting any valuable studio time. The track also contained very high notes on the first violin part: some which were two octaves above the top ‘E’ string. Stratospheric stuff indeed, but this is a region of the violin that can be highly effective when writing for a string section (particularly in film music). 

The third track was the pop track and here the strings added a fullness and warmth which hopefully will complement the track well. As a guide we had a piano and vocal in our headphones and as the strings built up we asked Ollie the engineer to change the balance in the headphones so that we increasingly listened to more strings and less of the track (this is good practice as once the foundations of the string parts have been laid, it’s good to be able to blend with the string sound as session musicians record each subsequent layer). 

It was great recording at The Premises as many of the recording rooms are the perfect size for studio strings: large enough for up to eight players to record simultaneously but not quite large enough for a whole string orchestra.

Recording the upper strings at the Premises Recording Studios

Recording the upper strings at the Premises Recording Studios

Recording violin and cello parts at the Premises Recording Studio

Recording violin and cello parts at the Premises Recording Studio


Recording Strings at Orpheus Studio in Shoreditch

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

A couple of Mondays ago, we recorded string parts for a client who had composed a 9 minute long piece of music scored for vocals, brass, percussion, strings and woodwind. All in all, 6 first violins, 6 second violins, 5 violas and 5 cellos were recorded, transforming the track with an orchestral depth and richness of sound. The client also asked Tony (cellist) to tune his cello down a couple of tones and record some notes which would normally be below the register of the cello which would usually be between the note C (2 octaves below middle C) and potentially an A string reaching up as high as a D (over an octave above middle C).

The decision was made to stagger this recording session, so the cello parts were recorded in the first two hours, whereas the viola and violin parts took in the region of five hours. The reason we did it this way was to avoid the ‘spill’ that often occurs between microphones when instruments are recorded together with separation, but are intended to be mixed separately. Recording one section after another enabled the engineer (Richard Campbell, who owns the studio and is the in-house engineer and producer) to have full control over every single stem. He was therefore able to process all the various layers individually to create a completely authentic sound as if a whole string orchestra were seated in a much larger studio.

 Working with Richard at Orpheus Studios was especially easy as he reads music fluently and had a good understanding of orchestral instruments, meaning that he was able to refer to our notation (and specific bars) when indicating which point we were to come in on a particular take. Richard was so efficient at editing that he was ready to start recording the next take almost immediately.

 When we all finished at around 7pm, the composer and engineer were delighted with the end results. Much work is still to be done on the track, but we look forward to hearing the end result.

String arranging tips, how to learn orchestration.

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Most of us when composing for a string section or full orchestra will do so in front of a keyboard. In this respect, the process isn’t too different from the time when a composer’s only tools were a pen, a bottle of ink, a blank manuscript and a piano. The gear may be a lot more sophisticated nowadays but the same essential problem remains: namely, how to make our ‘vertical’ keyboard tendencies sound convincing when scored for the ‘horizontal’ melodic lines of orchestral instruments.

When we think and write in chords, we are effectively dealing with harmony. And in its most basic form, harmony occurs in a vertical way (ie. the various notes of a chord are stacked up, one on top of another). However, once the music is distributed between different instruments, these individual notes are then read as a melody (so are in effect played horizontally, one after another). So, the most important conundrum is to ensure that each instrument (or section of instruments) ends up with a melody line in their own right, even if they are merely supporting or harmonizing a more prominent melody. In this way, music notation programmes (such as ‘Sibelius’ or ‘Finale’) are essential in their ability to display and play back each individual instrument’s melodic line. There may be occasions when a section does have sustained notes within a chord, but even here, the subsequent notes need to follow on smoothly (avoiding awkward-sounding leaps). In order to achieve a convincing overall sound, each detail within that sound needs to be melodic in nature.

It helps to get to know your orchestral instruments. If you’d like to learn more about what an oboe can do, for example, look on ‘Youtube’ under ‘oboe concerto’. It may demonstrate the compass of the instrument, techniques such as staccato and slurring, as well as its dynamic range and ability to sustain notes. Then try and write a piece blending the sound with a flute, clarinet or bassoon.

One thing that many of the great orchestral composers and string arrangers have in common is their ability to continually share more than one melody happening simultaneously. Often there are four or even five strands of different melody which can captivate the ear on several levels. And these strands sometimes overlap to provide a unity in the musical line. That’s one of the reasons that the most creative composers are able to achieve clarity, by assigning different instruments and textures to simultaneous points of musical interest.

As such, many major film score composers often study works by the likes of Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Ravel, Holst, Prokofiev, Janacek and Copland (to name but a few) to see how they combine different instruments and continually keep the music fresh by changing instrumentation. This blending and changing of the orchestral palette is a perpetual and ongoing process that unfolds naturally from phrase to phrase in an accomplished composition or arrangement.

When working on an orchestral piece, try dissecting it. So if, for example, you have a violin melody with supporting string parts, rapid woodwind scales and rhythmic french horn parts, try listening to each instrument individually, then pairs of instruments and so on. This way, you’ll develop a feel for sonority as well as individual melody lines. Also, try practising writing a small section, resisting the urge to use playback at all! This will hone your ability to think in terms of individual instruments. This is the opposite approach to assigning a chord to an unrealistic body of instruments, without knowing how the individual parts will sound. It will also avoid the problem of the orchestra ending up sounding ‘muddy’ and noisy.

So in a nutshell – go horizontal and cut out the vertical. . .!