Creating realistic string parts with samples is an art in
itself. While it is necessary to have at least one quality library, the
lines quickly blur between traditional orchestration and modern
sequencing. Knowing when to emulate the time-honored techniques
diligently —and when to ignore them and exploit the virtual aspect of virtual instruments—is oftentimes the key to effectiveness.
Nothing is more boring than strings playing long,
sustained notes the whole time, which is tempting when pulling up a
string sound on a keyboard. It’s a good idea to get familiar with other
articulations, especially short bows, as they’re almost always necessary
alongside sustained notes to pull off authentic melody lines. Make sure
a good articulation collection is loaded up ahead of time, so that it
is easy to switch between them as necessary (see Figure 1).
| Fig. 1. Cinematic Strings loads its entire collection of long and short
notes as key-switched articulations. A unique feature is a knob that
changes samples for playing high or low on the neck.
If strings are not carrying the primary melody (as in a
pop arrangement behind a singer), try to find the empty spaces in the
music to highlight lines, accents and color. Think melodically,
especially for the violins on top and celli on bottom, then fill in the
middle parts as necessary. The lines themselves don’t have to be
brilliant compositions; however, a well-shaped simple melody you can
sing that fits into the arrangement will do wonders for making samples
This also applies to frequency ranges. Try to find the
“holes” that aren’t being filled and voicings that aren’t being played
by other instruments. Strings sound great in open voicings (notes of a
chord spread far apart), so use that to your advantage. Less is often
better—you don’t want to constantly double notes already taken by
keyboards or guitars and thereby clutter certain frequency ranges.
Samples tend to cause muddiness a lot faster than live instruments, and
be especially aware if a vocal is present. One technique that works
particularly well for sampled strings is to double a melodic line two
octaves apart, omitting the octave in between.
When time permits, I often build up each section of the
strings with multiple passes of smaller ensembles from different
libraries. When going for a big orchestral sound, I usually settle on a
main ensemble patch from the library that most closely suits the
character I’m looking for (that often changes with each piece). If that
particular library also contains some small ensemble or solo
instruments, I may also grab one of those for uniformity. More times
than not, I usually turn to my other libraries for their small sections
and solo instruments, as I’m also looking for some contrast to the
overall sonics with these added layers (see Figure 2). Especially
with short bows, the feel is usually different enough between libraries
to add some nice complexity that sounds more human.
|Fig. 2. Dan Dean Solo Strings contains some great small ensemble patches
that change the number of players via key-switches or modulation wheel.
Once I have a handful of patches for, say, the first
violins, I record each pass as a separate MIDI performance and pay close
attention to each patch’s unique strengths. Here, MIDI control messages
really come in to play. The concept is simple: Make sure the best
attributes of a particular patch shines, and use them to mask any
weaknesses in the other layers at any given moment.
Each library administers their controllers differently,
but make sure you have separate authority over CC 11 (expression) for
riding the dynamics of the line versus CC 7 (volume) for setting the
overall balance (see Figure 3). In reality, I usually have to
edit CC 11 after all my parts are initially recorded to get both the
layer blends and overall melodic shape just right; later, it’s not
uncommon to automate CC 7 for more tweaks when mixing. Some patches let
you modulate attack and release times (CCs 72 and 73), while others
address envelope in the library interface.
|Fig. 3. In this fairly simple sordino arrangement, two sample
layers are used for each section. The controller information for
dynamics and volume is unique for each patch, with the controller data
for L.A. Scoring Strings on its own track in Logic.
Due to the relative uniformity of the string timbre, you
don’t have to be quite as finicky about maintaining the correct number
of players at all times as with woodwinds and brass; however, keeping
the “weight” of the sections under some control when sequencing goes a
long way towards maintaining authenticity. Be especially aware during divisi writing, and don’t be afraid to omit layers from time to time.
Unlike many keyboard instruments, the intonation of a live
string section is not equal-tempered. String players instinctually and
dynamically adjust their pitch to more pure intervals based on the
harmonic mission of the moment. A general result is that lower notes are
slightly flatter than equal temperament while higher notes tend to rise
a bit sharp, as the resulting intervals are actually more pure. If your
workstation or sample library allows, setting your string patches to
“stretch” or “pure” can make them sound more realistic in certain
settings; especially alongside an acoustic piano that has been stretch
Sometimes that last bit of magic isn’t found in your
sample libraries at all. A common technique among jingle and TV
composers is to add a live player on top of the string samples. Most
common is to record a single violin and/or a cello on top of the
samples, which does wonders to smooth out all the transitions between
articulations. A good player will intuitively connect all the phrases in
a refined way, typically making your samples sound more realistic.
Be sure to not record too closely, as you want to
complement the samples, not stick out like a solo. If you can get three
passes out of your live player, all the better. Repositioning the
microphone between takes and using some subtractive EQ to remove
unwanted frequencies should help to further blend them with your
samples, especially after applying a unifying reverb to both.
In lieu of a live player, an old trick is doubling a high
line with a string sound from an analog synth, which can provide a
certain presence and life. Tweak the filter cutoff slightly towards the
bright side, get rid of any built-in chorus, set the attack and release
fairly short, and tuck it in until you only notice its absence when
muted. You’re listening for air and a little edge, not more mush.