StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘studio strings’

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.

Recording at After Dark Studios

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

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.

My Favourite Time of Year (Studio footage)

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Thanks very much to Leigh for uploading this video of the various musicians who contributed to ‘My Favourite Time of Year’ – by the Florin Street Band. It has little snippets of the strings in action and gives a good idea of the studio processes involved in co-ordinating various session musicians, recording live strings in the studio and making a pop record.

Recording a suite for strings

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

On Sunday, we recorded a wonderful suite of pieces by the talented composer Philip Henderson. Assembled in MBJ studios were myself on violin, one violist, a cellist and double bassist to record (with the use of accurate overdubbing), works written for the combination of 10 solo strings. One of the challenges of the day was to try and judge how much music we could record whilst maintaining the very highest level of playing which would do the pieces justice. On one hand, we needed to best utilise having four session musicians together to cover the maximum amount of music (potentially 5 tracks, amounting to over 30 minutes of music), but it was vital to maintain an excellent quality of playing.

It was an enormous help to have the composer present as he could give us a very clear idea of how he wanted certain passages to sound and bring out the qualities he was looking for. With quite a lot of subtle shifts in tempo and phrasing and some quite tricky passages, we had all anticipated that the whole suite might even take a further day to complete – however it soon became clear that with the super efficient recording work by engineer Ben Jones, our motivation to get as much recorded as possible and crucially the input from Philip, all five tracks were able to be recorded.

We began by recording violin 5 with viola 2, cello 2 and double bass – and found that it took around 3 hours of recording before the double bass parts were complete. A further three hours and violin 4, viola 1 and cello 1 parts were complete. Then 3 more hours were needed to record the violins 3,2 and 1 parts for the first 3 movements of the work. The process consisted of building up from the bottom so that we could keep a tight rein on tuning as well as making the foundation for each track rhythmically perfect.

Any rhythmic untidiness will only become exaggerated with each overdub so there is a real skill in recording this way. We are all looking forward to hearing the end result as Philip Henderson has created some music of real scope which had quite a moving effect on all the musicians involved.

Viola and Cello….

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Yesterday we were asked to add some single viola and cello parts to a track by the acoustic band ‘Shy June’ (Stuart Denney and Gareth Edler) who are currently recording new material after releasing ‘Drive’ earlier this year.

Although the viola is a beautiful instrument, it is not always the obvious first choice (people more commonly think of hiring a session violinist), so it was a real pleasure to be able to bring the rich, mellow qualities of a viola to this track (and also the soulful sound of Julia’s cello).

We wish Stuart and Gareth every success with their forthcoming release!