StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘String orchestra’

Usman Riaz – Circus in the Sky

Friday, December 14th, 2012

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.

The Size of a String Section

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Last weekend we spent quite a lot of time in the studio, recording some original music which I had been asked to compose for an album. We recorded three pieces, all for string orchestra and after all the mixing / mastering had taken place, I made an interesting discovery.

Having been given the brief of writing and recording a piece for string orchestra, I had composed something in nine part harmony and it had been recorded for 47 piece string orchestra – including 12 first violins, 12 second violins, ten violas, eight cellos and five double basses – roughly the same sized string section as an opera orchestra. The final mix sounded powerful, emotionally intense and quite cinematic – several people commenting that it would be ideal as a film soundtrack with quite a panoramic feel.

Nevertheless, it didn’t have quite the right sound for the album (it needed to be warm, rounded and mellow) so after scratching our heads a little, the engineer muted about half of the instruments and re-mixed it, this time with 28 parts – 8 first violins, 8 second violins, 5 violas, 4 cellos and 3 double basses. Despite being a smaller section (more like a chamber orchestra), this really benefited the music. By dropping half the section out, it became clearer, purer and less intense with all the crescendos and diminuendos becoming more subtle and less ‘in your face’ than the larger orchestra had sounded.

This came as a surprise to both me and the client who had originally been quite set on a full orchestra and it goes to show that in certain circumstances, less can definitely be more. So when arranging strings for a piece, or as in this case composing new music with a specific aim in mind, it’s worth thinking of what kind of impact the strings are going to have – rather than being more powerful and ‘better’, could a huge orchestral sound actually detract from the music, losing the subtlety and clarity that a smaller section would have brought?

Perhaps composing strings for chamber ensemble or solo strings and bringing it further forward in the mix can have more impact than a symphony orchestra sized sound in a track.

Writing for strings on a Keyboard

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Throughout history, many composers have been primarily keyboard players yet have still written magnificent works for stringed instruments. They were able to do this by leaving the keyboard behind and gaining such a profound understanding of how a stringed instrument works that it was as if they were highly accomplished string players themselves. Many were associated with or had close friends who were famous performers and often concertos were written with help and collaboration from a specific player. One famous example would be the Brahms violin concerto which had much input from the Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Joachim.  The point behind this is that the great composers took a lot of time and often went to great lengths to gain knowledge of the workings of an instrument they did not play themselves.

The big problem with scoring music for say, a string orchestra on a piano or other keyboard is that the writer will be necessarily limited by their hand span. Therefore, chords will be written that feel comfortable within the span of the keyboard players’ hands, but do not necessarily relate to the end product when played on stringed instruments. This is particularly true when strings are incorporated into a larger track where they are only one element within the whole. Here, the spacings of the strings need to be measured against the existing harmonies and textures within the track – it may well be that in a certain passage, low cellos and violas are accompanied by very high violins leaving a massive gap in the middle. This would be perfect in a song which had a thick middle register, but if the pitch of the track suddenly changed, the strings would need to adapt and move with it so as not to leave a gaping hole in one of the registers. Potentially if this was written on a keyboard, the composer or string arranger may be limited by the way their hands naturally fall so intervals of e.g a major 10th which could be exactly what the music needed might not be written as it was awkward for the hand span of the keyboard player.

Another problem with arranging strings on a keyboard is that notes are necessarily depressed in a vertical direction as the keys are pushed downwards in a percussive way because the piano is a percussion instrument with ‘attack and decay’ in each note. This is not what is replicated on say a violin where the sweep of the bow and swing of the fingers can often take place in a more horizontal fashion, so a midi file played on a keyboard which is notated exactly for strings may end up with gaps between each chord that are not in keeping with the natural life and movement that strings would normally have. On a stringed instrument, a note can come out of the silence and fade in softly, growing and swelling before fading away – you cannot replicate this on a keyboard because on a piano, the note is always at it’s loudest at the beginning when it has just been played. Whichever instrument the composer writes on, they need a good knowledge of articulations and markings that are specific to stringed instruments, otherwise the music will lack detail and not come ‘alive’ when played. This can end up being a waste of resources as top session musicians are called upon to perform undetailed music that doesn’t lift the track as intended.

Perhaps one reason that synthesised strings (even the very expensive libraries) can sound so artificial is not necessarily the poor quality of the sampled sound but the fact that they have been composed and inputted by someone who is not thinking like a string player.

In the next blog I’ll be writing more on this subject as many people don’t realise that so much more can be achieved with strings when the composer gets away from the keyboard or midi and starts to think like a string player.

String Parts for a Singer Songwriter

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

This weekend, we were asked to record the strings on two songs for a talented singer songwriter who is producing her own album of melodic ballads. As over the previous two weeks I had been arranging the strings on both tracks in collaboration with the artist, I was really looking forward to recording them and hearing how they would sound on live strings. Although the Sibelius software that I use for arranging can give me a pretty good idea of how the parts will sound, it can’t really add any of the feeling and sensitivity that we do when we’re playing on acoustic instruments.

The string arranging had been done to a brief and a couple of Sibelius versions had gone back and forward via email until our client was happy. One of the tracks required intricate writing with a view to having an 8 piece string ensemble (like a string quartet but thickened to two players per part). The other song already had synthesised strings in the mid range which needed to be replaced with the real thing and expanded to really open the song out. In this second song, it was important for the string parts to really enhance the track without getting in the way of the melody or other instrumentation, so as I was writing for a 48 piece string orchestra, the arranging had to have a very light touch with the ability to have richness and power where necessary.

We started the recording session at 4pm and didn’t finish until after midnight! Although the session had taken longer than anticipated, the results sounded stunning and we’re very much looking forward to hearing the final mix.

Enhancing Synth String Parts

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Although some clients who require string parts arranging for their tracks just give the string arranger ‘free rein’ to compose the parts in their own way and send the file over for approval or amendments, there are many people who already have some idea of how they’d like the strings to sound and have started to put together some strings for their track using Logic or other software. When this happens, I am usually sent the finished track with some ‘guide strings’ in and asked to notate these ready for studio recording (a relatively simple job), or to make them sound more natural by adding some movement or spacing the chords to allow the strings to sound fuller and more rich. When synth strings have been played in on a keyboard, it’s always a challenge to give them the characteristic feel of a real string orchestra because fingers going down on a keyboard cannot move in the same way as fingers naturally move up and down a stringed instrument. There are also clients who simply send the basic chord progression that they’d like and ask me to create something more elaborate with the strings, rather like producing an elegant frame for a painting – simply embellishing the existing ideas with the finishing touches. An example of this could be a track where the strings have all been programmed in the mid range on sampled synths and listening to the balance of the track overall, the range of the strings could be expanded. Extending the range can give the whole track a feeling of a ‘lift’ and lend it a sense of climax that it couldn’t have achieved with synthesised strings in the middle register. It’s also a matter of taking into account where the range of existing instruments and vocal lines are, then putting the strings in the ‘gaps’, weaving harmonies around what is already there.