How to produce and arrange orchestral sounds: Strings

In the first part of our new series, we offer tips for beginners on how to coax a huge orchestral sound out of your DAW, beginning with the biggest orchestral section of all: The strings

Spitfire Audio Hans Zimmer strings recording

Photographs courtesy of Spitfire Audio 

We can all agree that when an orchestra gets involved in a music production, it adds a certain level of power to proceedings that you just can’t achieve any other way. The orchestra can be considered a living, breathing, organic collective of instruments, which, just like the development of music technology, has evolved significantly – both technically and musically – since its inception 400-or-so years ago.

The orchestra’s point of origin can largely be traced backed to the musical reign of the genius composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The extraordinarily prolific Bach could easily be considered the equivalent of the commission-based media composer of his day, composing many works to order throughout his career while developing a complex musical style that laid down many of the harmonic ground rules which we all abide by today.

Always keen to expand his musical horizons, Bach assembled a group of musicians that many consider to be the earliest iteration of the modern-day orchestra, although the numbers were considerably smaller back then, and Bach’s group consisted of around 10 players. As history marched on, so too did musical development, and with the onslaught of the classical and romantic eras of Western classical music, so the size of the orchestra grew, with an exponential increase in numbers of players throughout each musical period.

Once we reach the 20th-century era of classical music, composers such as Stravinsky and Shostakovich expanded the size of the orchestra to greater heights again, with up to 100 players, and the addition of extended instrumentation, such as bass clarinets, piccolo trumpets, cor anglais and all manner of percussion that could be struck, beaten and shaken.

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Spitfire Audio Hans Zimmer strings recording

To our modern ears, the 20th-century era has been unbelievably influential, with works such as Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring almost literally causing a riot at its first performance, so radical was the use of the orchestra, coupled with boundary-stretching composition. This, and other works like it, went on to inform film composers working in Hollywood, while also providing the infamous Orchestral Crash samples that were so prevalent on the Fairlight CMI and E-MU samplers of the 1980s.

With such an influential and historical backdrop, including a real-world orchestra in your production is an enticing prospect, but this does of course come with a price tag. Hiring even a small orchestra is an expensive business; not only must you hire the players, you also need to hire a venue to record them.

So instead, we’re going to look at how to approach scoring electronically, with the aim of creating an orchestal sound for your compositions that sounds powerful and believable – and we’re going to start with the string section.

Laying the ground rules

If you’ve ever been to a classical orchestral concert, you’ll probably have noticed that the largest section, by some margin, is the string section. Individually, string instruments are not the loudest instruments in the orchestra, but they are normally the section that plays the most.

The string family is comprised of four instruments: violin, viola, cello and double bass. The violin is the highest of the instruments and is also the only instrument in the string section to be represented twice, normally with at least three players per section, up to a maximum of 18; more players equals a bigger and richer sound.

Figure 1: String selection – Ranges and transpositions

The standard orchestral configuration is to have two violin parts, operating as separate entities, being described (radically) as violin 1 and violin 2! Violins can play pretty high and sound fairly shrill, in contrast to the viola. Being pitched lower and with a larger instrumental body, the viola can sound more weighty and sonorous.

As an instrument, it is often the butt of jokes, but it offers a sublimely beautiful tone which many use solo. Being larger in size again, the cello moves us firmly into the bass register, with a resonating body that reflects the depths of pitch it can play, while the double bass is the biggest of the lot. Difficult to miss, due to their sheer size, these instruments add vast bottom end to the sound which, unlike conventional electric bass guitars, can sustain.

Spitfire Audio Hans Zimmer strings recording

As these instruments all have their specific pitch ranges, they intertwine perfectly, as one section crosses over with another (see Fig 1). In order to make an orchestral part feel and sound more believable, it’s a good idea to consider two elements; the first is the notes that you use within a given chord.

You remember our old friend JS Bach? He had a trick which, although nearly 400 years old, still rings true today, and that trick is all about using each note within a chord once, with the exception of your root note. So in the case of a chord of C major, you’ll want to use the notes C, E and G, with the root note of C being used twice. Some of you might have noticed that this is only four notes, and we have five string instruments. We’ll come back to that momentarily…

Voice control

By spreading these notes across the range of the string-section instrumentation, you begin to build up what we call a voicing. There are further rules regarding voicings, but as a general guide, notes which are spread evenly across the section, or keyboard, will yield a more pleasant-sounding result. The higher you move in pitch, the closer together
you can convincingly place notes from the chosen chord, while continuing to play by Mr Bach’s rules.

This pacifies four out of the five instruments and will work perfectly well for first and second violins, viola and cello. Without wishing to use the double bass as a spare part, these will always sound very powerful when placed one octave below the cello. It could be argued that you are now triple-using the root note, but more often than not, when employing basic harmonies, this voicing will sound good in this setting. You can see this example of a C major as the first chord in Fig 2.

Orchestral Manoeuvres, string section
Figure 2: String selection – Voice/part leading

Should you ever be confronted with the prospect of printing parts for string players, there are considerations to be aware of. When dealing with the double bass, any note you write will sound one octave lower than written. That’s why you can often use the same notes that are in the cello part, and they will sound an octave below.

The second piece of useful information applies to the viola, which should be written in a clef known as the alto clef. To work out what the notes are, use the middle line as your reference point, as this is middle C (C3). Fig 2 shows how you would represent this on the upper line, with the lower line demonstrating how it sounds at pitch.

Returning to Mr Bach, his second useful rule concerns a principle known as part or voice leading, and this is where it’s sensible to make each note, written for each instrument, move as closely as possible to the next. A smoother movement will largely sound better, depending on context, and is a great guiding principle when considering how to arrange your parts.

Spitfire Audio Hans Zimmer strings recording

By the very nature of part leading, you will find it much simpler to work in this way with the upper parts, whereas bass parts often have a tendency to jump around, unless you consider using something known as an inversion. This is where you might choose not
to use the root note in the cellos and basses, which might sound odd in theory, but is surprisingly common and effective in practice.

Taking Fig 2 as an example, you can see how the second and third chords in this sequence are both inversions, and create a lovely sense of a rising line in the two lower parts as a consequence. If the cellos and basses are doubled in this setting, it’s going to sound beautifully strident.

Take a bow

The way that the instruments within the string section are played largely falls into two categories; either bowed or plucked. The bow itself is a long piece of wood, with horse hair stretched across it, the tension of which can be tightened. The tighter the bow, the tighter the sound it can make, with players holding the bow in the right hand.

Rosin is applied to the horse hair, which allows the hairs on the bow to make greater traction with the string being bowed, while the left hand is used to press down the strings to achieve different notes. Each instrument in the string section has four strings, which are separated in intervals of a fourth or a fifth, in a similar way to a guitar or bass guitar.

Spitfire Audio Hans Zimmer strings recording

For an acoustic instrument, there are an incredibly large number of sonic and timbral possibilities available, according to where and how fast the bow is placed. The default setting is known as arco, which is literally an instruction to a string player to use the bow. This yields a sustaining sound, as the bow travels across the string. The faster the bow moves, the louder the sound gets, resulting in a more intense tone. This is often coupled with vibrato, where the player will create a small movement in the left hand, creating a subtle cyclic change in the pitch.

As playing becomes more aggressive, this movement might become more agitated, with an intrinsic link often being made between the volume and the amount of vibrato. Once the bow has reached the end of its travel, the player merely reverses the direction of movement. It takes years of practice to make this seamless and is literally described as a down bow or an up bow, dictated of course, by the direction of travel.

Players might also be required to play legato with the bow. This means that one note follows another in a seamless fashion, and legato is particularly effective when linked with the previously mentioned part/voice leading.

Players may also be requested to pluck the strings with their index finger. This is known as a pizzicato, or pizz. In its most basic usage, this yields a short sound with a bit of an attack. It’s often pretty quiet, but within the realms of a full section, will sound perfectly loud enough. If you’ve ever watched any factual television, you’ll have heard pizzicato strings in abundance, as it continues to be a very fashionable sound to evoke comedic and mysterious moods.

DAW-chestration

The final obstacle standing between you and string-section nirvana is to think about how to play and program strings with your DAW. All commercial string libraries offer considerable control over various aspects of the sound, all of which are available to control via MIDI Continuous Controllers (MIDI CC).

If you feel confident playing the keyboard, you might like to consider a new way of playing, which could be regarded as a very similar discipline to playing a synthesiser. If you have a controller keyboard, which is equipped with MIDI-assignable faders, or even a desktop MIDI fader-based mixer, this is perfect for controlling elements of performance, while playing or recording into the DAW.

Spitfire Audio Hans Zimmer strings recording

The vast majority of libraries assign timbral/dynamic volume to the modulation wheel, which also translates as MIDI CC 1. By playing the keyboard, while moving the mod wheel up and down, you should hear a change in volume, but with better libraries you’ll notice that it’s not just volume changing, but the timbre of the instrument itself.

That’s down to the speed of bowing, and proceeding with something as simple as recording a little bit of mod-wheel movement within your track will immediately make your strings sound more realistic. Many libraries also offer control of vibrato, in a similar manner. The new Studio String instrument found in Logic Pro X 10.4 default assigns the mod wheel to both dynamic and vibrato control simultaneously, offering a more intense string performance, as the volume increases.

If you have access to more than one MIDI fader, either on your keyboard or via a desktop MIDI fader controller, you can assign separate faders to both of these parameters, which does yield a greater degree of control, while a third MIDI fader could also be applied to MIDI CC 11, which is labelled Expression. This is used by most as an overall volume control, different from the timbral and dynamic control, and will prove useful at the mixing stage.

If your current MIDI setup does not contain any form of mod wheel or MIDI fader, it’s possible to add something pretty cheaply; the Korg nanoKONTROL is a basic and useful device for such a purpose, or if you prefer working onscreen, simply draw in the appropriate MIDI CCs in your DAW’s editor, but always think about the musical shape that you’re trying to convey.

The bigger picture

There is something unbelievably gratifying about arranging strings. If you have access to full ensemble patches, merely playing around with these in a pianistic way is a great way to get a feel for what you might ultimately arrange, but in order to try and achieve something more realistic, it’s important to try and get into the mindset of the instrumentalist you’re trying to imitate.

This is where writing a string arrangement with a part-by-part approach will really pay dividends. It’s also important to think about where you might employ this instrumental colour; listen to other music that is similar to your chosen style of track and listen to how things are used.

Strings may be there as a colour, only used occasionally, rather than the continuous main event, and when these instruments are layered across the frequency and stereo spectrum, they’ll sound immense – beautiful for the more sympathetic or romantic setting, or aggressive if you’re scoring a forthcoming cinematic apocalypse…


Product highlights

Spitfire Audio Studio Strings

Spitfire Audio
Studio Strings £199

Recorded in Studio One at AIR, this Native Instruments Kontakt Player-compliant package is an excellent starting point which offers a dry studio-based acoustic with all of the essentials you’ll need to get started. The section is considerably smaller than a full symphony orchestra, but is perfect for commercial production.

Cinematic Studio Strings

Cinematic Samples
Cinematic Studio Strings $399

Recorded with a Hollywood-style string section, it’s hardly surprising that CSS has become something of a hit with media composers. Offering a drier soundstage acoustic, CSS has one of the most elegant and usable interfaces on the market, with stunning legatos and con sord samples across the board; it’s also complaint with the NI Kontakt Player.

EastWest Hollywood Strings

EastWest Sounds
Hollywood Strings $399 / $19.99 with Composer Cloud

As the name implies, this is another Hollywood-style library, which offers a bright and clear sampled vision of a string section. Rammed full of the usual articulations, this library differs from some by using the EastWest Play virtual instrument for playback. It’s also available as part of the EastWest Composer Cloud rental option, which makes it highly affordable, alongside many of the company’s other products.

Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings

Orchestral Tools
Berlin Strings €840

Distinctly European in flavour, Orchestral Tools’ flagship string package is very comprehensive, and was recorded at Berlin’s renowned Teldex Studio. It is also available alongside a series of expansion packs, offering additional timbral colours with specific solo players within each section, and is NI Kontakt Player compliant.

Spitfire Audio Chamber Strings Professional

Spitfire Audio
Chamber Strings Professional £899

This top-of-the-line package from Spitfire moves into ‘deep sampling’, with a very extensive range of both articulation and mic position, recorded at the famous Lyndhurst Hall at AIR Studios. The chamber focus means a smaller string section, but this doesn’t mean it lacks power. This is a firm favourite with many producers and media composers, for good reason, and is also NI Kontakt Player compliant.

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