“Are those *real* strings?” - Breathing life into your music. Pt 3

Part 3: Selecting the studio and reserving the musicians


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

So, maybe you have decided to give this idea a second look. How do you go about setting up something like this?

What to look for in a studio
As mentioned previously, medium sized professional recording studios are competitive these days, thanks largely to massive popularity of the home studio. The primary consideration would be the presence of a live-room; a comfortable recording environment with space for a number of musicians. A string quartet can fit comfortably into a moderately sized room, with space for four chairs, music stands and a ‘room’ sound. In order to create a good, comfortable space, a studio with a live room (separated from the control room) would be ideal. We are only looking at a quartet here; however, a quintet (with added upright bass) could be added depending on the style of the music.

(tip: If the song is in a lush jazz style, (such as the 40’s style holiday song coming up in Pt 4) consider recording the bass with the rhythm section session instead of with the strings. This will not only mean you can opt for less space, it will also make your string session easier to manage)

Ask the engineer how they would record strings; not everybody has had experience with this. If the studio has a live room, there is a good chance they have. With a whole realm of information online about the process i.e. correct balance of room mikes and close mikes, types of mikes etc, so I won’t go down that road here. Analogue or digital? Most pro studios these days offer digital (usually ProTools). The digital format will allow you to leave the studio with the raw tracks (preferably submixes) and potentially mix them yourself.

One of the most important factors of studio selection is your rapport with the engineer. You will be spending an intense day with this person, so you need somebody who is not only fully in control of their recording equipment but sympathetic to your needs. Somebody who communicates well from the outset is an invaluable asset. When you are visiting potential studios, chat with the engineer about his past projects, taste in music, etc. If you strike up a good relationship, you have found the right engineer for your project.

Reserving the studio
For the sake of this example, let’s assume we are planning to record three songs of average, commercial length. For this, in general you will be looking at two sessions on the same day. One morning session (i.e. for the rhythm) for 10am - 1pm (because musicians and early mornings rarely mix!), and an afternoon session from 2pm to 5pm, for the strings. These sessions are completely interchangeable, providing you have done your preparation (more on that later).

When it comes to cost, try to avoid an hourly rate. Most studios offer a simple daily rate, so you have the flexibility to go into the evening for the mix, or for any extras, without extra cost. The beauty of today’s digital recording environment is that there are usually very few extras involved for final delivery formats.

You will need to agree on a delivery format, especially if you plan on leaving the studio with the files with the view of doing the final mix yourself.

Finally, make sure the studio has a great coffee machine.

Booking the string players
If you don’t already have a contact, ask the owner/engineer for recommendations for string players. A referral from the studio itself would imply the musicians would know how to work in a studio, and be familiar with working with headphones and a click. Although it’s a good idea to send the charts in advance to the quartet leader for distribution, good sight-reading players are important, as time is of the essence.

Hiring an actual formed quartet, if available, is preferable to individual players. Players who are familiar with each other won’t take valuable time finding their chemistry in studio. Booking a quartet also means that you have only one contact to deal with, the leader, thus saving you time on administration and coordination. Cost can vary depending on location, but generally string players are available and more than happy to accommodate, especially as a morning session is not likely to interfere with an evening engagement. Expect to book the musicians for a 3hr session, not by the hour.

Coming next: Preparing the session.

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


Happy music making!