“Are those *real* strings?” - Breathing life into your music. Pt 1

Part 1: Introduction


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

Breathing life into your music.

“Are those real strings?”
People listening to my recording projects ask this frequently. Indeed they are real strings. I love using real strings, as much as I love working with the people who play them.

Over the course of this brief series, (consider it a primer) I would like to demonstrate how utilizing a small section (4 - 6 players) of real strings in your recording projects, in the place of samples, will potentially enhance your project drastically.

Whether for an intimate film score or in a song, using a live string section can be ultimately more affordable and less intimidating than you may think, and the end result can be truly breathtaking.

(N.B. Whereas this series is angled towards the use of real strings, it can certainly apply to other instruments as well.)

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Orchestral instruments have been used in film scores since the beginning of movie making. They add an extra emotional dimension to a score, a movie character. They can add a new depth to songs of many styles, from pop, country, jazz and crossover.

Still, you may ask...
“But why not just use samples? Wouldn’t that be cheaper and sound bigger?”

It is true that samples make a world of convenient possibility available with a minimum of space and equipment, on a relatively small budget. Currently touring, I travel with a small studio setup for my time away from performing: an older iMac, my trusty Digital Performer software, and a ton of samples. Yes, I can emulate a full symphony orchestra whilst on tour, churning out large orchestral scores by the ton. In theory.

In practice however, this can be a very tedious, bottomless drain on time and resources. The knowledge involved in operating multiple libraries and samplers, each with their own engines and programming quirks, can be too much to absorb. The amount of dedicated time involved in keeping up with the technology in its ever-changing versions, learning and relearning, installing and reinstalling, can be daunting. It can overshadow the time spent actually making music.

Most noteworthy though, is that when it comes to strings, for example, one can choose between a whole multitude of different ensemble sizes, styles and articulations, different bowing techniques, sound effects, trills, tremolo and pizzicato, con sordini, marcato, staccato, portamento, vibrato and non-vibrato, automated rhythmic segments, pre-recorded segments to ‘drop and play’… the list is endless. This comes with a trade-off: The more controls there are available, the more choices need to be made and programmed in. These choices are trained and practiced into live players. One can easily spend hours, days attempting to perfect something that will reasonably emulate live strings.

So much choice, so little time...
After seeing time disappear in massive chunks of micro-management, potentially leaving you drained of enthusiasm and creativity, you may want to do as I did, and take time out to reflect. Why spend such an incredible amount time trying to construct something that is basically unreal anyway? You are using notes and styles completely disconnected from the context in which they are placed. Real instruments they may be, but in reality they are unreal emotional sounds. These samples are of a musician (or group of musicians) playing notes on a particular occasion, months, probably years before their use. It's no wonder it can be highly complex to manipulate them with your own emotions into something that truly compliments your creation. Music involves phrasing and emotional expression. Working this way is like cutting and pasting the words of an actor into sentences, then manipulating the details to try to get a convincing, moving result. It is possible but inefficient, and ultimately cold.

I came to the conclusion that my time is valuable too! I decided that it is not unreasonable to put this technological mountain aside and hire live, breathing musicians who can nail it in an hour or so, with realtime feel and contextual emotions.

The plan...
Whilst I was in Germany in 2012 touring with my Cirque show, I decided (with my lyricist/vocalist partner Kari) to set a goal: in Berlin, we would record three original songs, using a small string section of five players. As a personally financed project, I would keep the budget to a minimum, use a local studio and musicians. With the massive increase in home studios, medium sized studios with a live room have become far more competitive and are generally well equipped and knowledgeably staffed, usually for a modest all-inclusive daily rate.

Most importantly, I would experience something special: the thrill of bringing something original to life, in the moment it was actually performed.

Over the past few years I have set up, scored and managed recording sessions for original songs and have used small string sections to great effect…without breaking the bank. You can do the same.

With so much use of sampled instruments used in today’s recordings, listeners will notice the difference.

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Take a listen for yourself...

From the Berlin session in 2012, here is a mockup demo taken from the end of the original song ‘Glass and Broken Things’, followed by the studio version (with real strings) of the same segment for comparison.

I look forward to sharing the whole process with you over the course of this five part series. Areas will cover selecting and booking the right studio, the musicians, programming and score writing tips, studio time management, and potential outlay (based on my experience).

Next: Score preparation

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments.

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Meanwhile, happy music making!