“Are those *real* strings?” - Breathing life into your music. Pt 2

Part 2: Score preparation


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

It is assumed, at this point, that you are fairly knowledgeable in terms of basic music theory and familiar with the instruments for which you are writing, including ranges, styles and colours available.

In my quest to utilize more live instruments, especially strings, I haven’t turned my back on sampling by any means. Sequencing with samplers is extremely useful when planning to record a live string section, and can remain a valuable time saver. I think of it as a great tool for trying ideas and for creating demos. Using DP, my DAW/sequencer of choice, I run a selection of Kontakt libraries, LA Scoring Strings, East West, etc. The big difference here is I do not need to go into too much detail to program them, thus saving a huge amount of time. So, for my more recent projects involving live strings, you can use a generic basic sample, such as a ‘solo string ensemble’, for programming.

It is still advantageous to program pizz, tremolo and arco passages, if only to hear how they blend into the piece. But instead of programming up-bows, down-bows, modulation-wheel crescendos, key-switches and portamento adjustments, i.e. all the things that will come naturally with the live players, one can save the time for working on the actual score, which should be very detailed. For the rest, trust your imagination.

Program for the score, not for the performance
If the prospect of handwriting a sketch is intimidating, here is an idea that works well from a keyboard player’s perspective. Using the generic string patch (solo ensemble), create a string part on one track. Try to aim for four voices in your playing. Use the expression pedal for nuances. Once completed, copy this track into four other midi tracks and name them violin 1, violin 2, viola and cello. Assign different midi channels to your individual string tracks if you would like to adjust CC levels independently. Now you have four identical midi tracks. Going inside each, delete the lower notes from the vln 1 track, upper ones from the cello track, etc, until you have four individual parts to work with. This will become your quartet. When this is done, you can delete the original ‘dummy’ track.

Working within the individual instruments, check that the lines flow well. Correct the missing notes you will likely have, add some if necessary. Then get more creative. Try to make it interesting as a part. Adding the occasional passing note, change voicings, inversions. In your DAW’s mixer, adjust the panning to get an idea of the fullness of a live quartet, usually vln 1 towards the left, followed by van 2, vla and cello towards the right. This way you can also focus in on the individual tracks for coherency.

Perfect your pre-recorded tracks
If there are tracks that you intend to keep (i.e. not record live in the session) make sure you are happy with them as a performance and leave them unquantized. For example, if there is one in my song, I tend to keep the piano/keyboard part. This saves time and money in the studio and, in the case of an acoustic piano, the necessity to have it tuned (which would be an expense passed down to you)

Once you have your mockup completed, ensure everything that will be played live in the studio is heavily quantized. Save this quantized version as a different file or sequence, so you can preserve the unquantized (less robotic) programation for use as a studio reference. Ensure you are within the range for the instruments and that everything sounds correct to you on playback. Also, if you have used ‘key-switches’ in your programming, remember to remove the extra trigger notes from the charts. Basically, the more accurate and attentive you are in this stage of the process, the more time you will save in the next step: importing into scoring software (if you are using it).

Make your score as detailed as possible
Whereas DP has reasonable score editing capabilities, I find it lacks flexibility and certain details compared to a purpose-designed application such as Sibelius. So at this point, I export the quantized strings into a midi file and import that into my scoring software. Then, within the software, check that the quantizing was accurate and ensure the score is the most detailed possible.

There are good reasons for this amount of detail. If you choose, you can leave the players alone in the live room whilst you spend your time in the control room, listening and hearing things come together in context. There will be no need to conduct, as the musicians will have a click track to work with, and all the nuances and articulations will be written. Ensure the key and time signatures are correct. Errors and missing details in the score can disrupt the session. Be extra careful with enharmonics! Some scoring software can get them wrong!

You should by now have a score just about ready for the musicians. Save the scores for now...you can come back to them later.

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Meanwhile, here is another little taster from a more recent recording session (excerpt). Once again, a comparison between two versions of the same excerpt. The first is using samples, the second is live from the session. Ending of an original holiday song ‘Snowfall’.

Coming next: Selecting the studio and reserving the musicians.

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


“Who wrote this s*** anyway?!!”

Happy music making!