“Are those *real* strings?” - Breathing life into your music. Pt 4

Part 4: Preparing the session


Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Score preparation
Part 3: Selecting the studio and reserving the musicians
Part 4: Preparing the session
Part 5: Session day

At this point, the score is saved and the temp tracks, along with all the ‘keepers’ from your demo, are ready. The studio is booked, the musicians on standby. You are only a few days from S-Day.

Final score prep
This is a good time to finalize your scores. Double check them, paying special attention to nuances, articulations, enharmonics, and anything else that could potentially disrupt a smooth session. Ensure all tempo changes, time signatures, key signatures are clearly marked.

Measure numbers are useful on every measure in the score but in the extracted parts (for the individual musicians) keep them only at the beginning of each stave, to avoid cluttering the chart. Rehearsal letters at the top of sections can be useful but as long as frequent measure numbers are present, they are not essential.

Orchestrating tip: Avoid unison violins in the same octave, especially in a higher register. In a larger section it is the norm, but with a quartet you will get a level of dissonance that won’t gel very well. In the lower range, doubling a viola and cello can still sound rich and warm.

Extract the parts and make certain everything is placed where it should be in the scores. Most scoring software handles this automatically but glitches can occur. When you send these (in pdf format) to the leader of the quartet or the individual players, send an mp3 of your demo as well. Musicians generally won’t spend hours poring over a chart before a session (I fall into this category myself!) but will generally appreciate a heads-up as to what is going to be played, thus potentially saving precious studio time.

Time to print and stick!
Print a hard copy of the score along with each of the charts. The musicians may print off their own from the pdf, but be prepared! Whilst apologizing to trees everywhere, the musicians’ charts should be printed single sided, and taped full length down the back of the join so that the charts open flat. You want to completely avoid page turning during the recording (for focus and noise). The score, however, can be double-sided, as the only one likely to read it is you, and in the silent comfort of the control room.

Back to the tech side
Prior to the session, send the studio all relevant audio files. This will enable the engineer to prepare the studio in advance and hopefully have the ProTools (PT) sessions ready to roll.

Files to send to the studio...
Whereas some of the following files can be skipped, you will find them more than useful tools to have available. For example, on a recent session in the UK, I had to reschedule the strings to the morning session because of a time conflict with a couple of the players. As the studio had demo files of all the other tracks, we were able to use those for playback so the strings could get a context as they recorded.

1- A demo of the songs in mp3 format (to give the engineer an idea of what you are aiming for).

2- Individual demo files of the string section (useful for an initial read-through for the musicians, for style) and, if applicable: drums (rough mix down), bass, any other instruments, demo vocals if available.They need not be too detailed…save yourself the time and trouble. Use the unquantized files…they will sound better. These will be used for playback only.

4- Your pre-recorded tracks (that you want to keep as part of your final recording, if applicable) for playback, as well as for incorporating into the final mix if you are doing it at the studio

5- A midi file of the master tempo track. This can be dropped into the PT session along with markers and any irregular measures and tempo changes, thus ensuring an accurate click-track for the players.

Ensure these files line up with each other and are consolidated to zero. This will mean they can be dropped into the first measure of a ProTools session and everything will be perfectly aligned, including measure numbers, which will also correspond to the measure numbers on the score and charts.

Finally, to be super efficient, let the engineer know which instruments will be recorded for each song. The tracks could then potentially be set up in advance into PT.

* * * * * * * *

Here is a brief video clip from a recent studio session in the UK. An excerpt from an original 40s style holiday song “(I Only Want To) Come In From The Cold”. The video progresses from the first string read-through in the morning (during the setup of the mikes) until early afternoon, when we see the drums and guitar being added. This was one of three songs recorded during the same session.

Coming soon: Session day.

As always, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments.


Happy music making!