StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘string section’

Recording a String Quartet at a studio in Herefordshire

Monday, August 5th, 2013

A couple of Mondays ago, myself and Julia (cello) recorded session strings for a talented independent singer/songwriter called Dave Roberts who had written all of the strings for four of his tracks and initially hired me to notate his completed midi files. From the beginning, Dave was a pleasure to work with as his instructions were very clear and he had a real attention to detail which resulted in well written string parts that complemented his songs really well.

 The recording sessions took place in a rural area of Herefordshire in a first class recording room. This must rank as the most idyllic location we have recorded in thus far, and the spacious, wood paneled rooms had thick curtains on adjacent walls which created an cleverly controlled sound. Both Dave and studio engineer Adam presided over the session, which involved a solo string quartet (with myself playing the viola, second violin and first violin parts).

Recording violin and viola parts

Recording violin and viola parts

 As it’s always good practice to start with the lowest instrument (so that each subsequent layer can build on the accurate tuning of the bottom part upwards), Julia recorded the cello part first for all four tracks. In situations like this, it’s also good to record each instrument separately (and not simultaneously) so that the producer can then have the ability to mix and process each of the four instruments separately. Her rich sound filled the room and as always proved a hard act to follow. I then added a viola layer over her cello tracks, making sure the tuning was kept spot on. This is potentially a tricky way of doing it, as in a ‘live’ string quartet, players will be continually adjusting their intonation with both players above and below them. With overdubbing, if any notes are not exactly in tune, it could make it hard for the subsequent layers to blend well.

 After the two violin parts were added we then returned to one of the tracks which had tremolandos all of the way through (a rapid repeating of a single note which creates an atmosphere of tension in a piece of music). As these seemed better suited to a larger string section, we took the decision to over-layer four violas and eight violin parts all in all.

 Recording sessions often involve lots of playback and sonic adjustments, and therefore studio time can slip away easily. The whole session on this occasion was completed half an hour early and everyone was happy with a job well done. It just remained for myself and Julia to travel the 100 miles or so back home again!

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. . .!

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.

Session for Philip G. W. Henderson

Friday, November 16th, 2012

On Sunday 28th October we once again recorded music by the composer Philip Henderson. The music was a suite of movements entitled ‘Sea Voices’ and scored for a string section of 5 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and a double bass. The recording venue was in Milton Keynes and the sound engineer had rigged the entire recording space with duvets in order to deaden any ambience created by the room.

We started recording just after 10am, with Ben the double bassist located in a separate room with a talkback link and synchronised click track. As the musicians were all excellent sight readers, the session proceeded smoothly and the entire recording was finished by 6pm, with a very happy composer. He had driven down from Leeds earlier in the day so was fatigued by the end but also uplifted by the results!

Re-recording strings for a track

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

A few months ago, I received an enquiry from a composer / music producer who had already recorded some live strings for his track but hadn’t been happy with the playing, so had decided to get them re-recorded. I’ve had several enquiries from potential clients who have wanted strings professionally arranged, which were then to be recorded on a budget by a friend or amateur player in order to keep costs down. Almost always, this proves to be counterproductive as the accuracy of tuning, tightness of rhythm and the ability to phrase in a musical way with a good tonal range are qualities that require an accomplished player. When corners have been cut by hiring music students, amateur players and semi-professionals, the standard of the end product is often disappointing and the music does not stand up to the scrutiny of professional ears (such as radio stations, record label representatives or music libraries).  

The client whose music was being re-recorded had originally brought in a young player who he quickly realised could not give the strings the sound he was looking for, but the second attempt had involved a professional player from a well known symphony orchestra and this too had fallen short of the standard required. As the player was unaccustomed to projecting as a soloist and spent the vast majority of their working life ‘blending in’ to a larger section, they had struggled to give the solo violin part enough substance.

 Understandably the client was nervous of hiring in a third player and was only reassured by the ability to view youtube videos and hear sound samples of the string section on our website. We recorded three violin parts with four layers for each one (12 overdubs altogether) and the whole session went smoothly with a happy outcome and relieved client at the end.