Arranging Sampled Strings

Publish date:
Image placeholder title

By David Baron

THE FIRST THING I DO WHEN ARRANGING SAMPLED STRINGS IS TO LISTEN TO the composition at hand and determine what the general style is. The number of virtual players is what I zero in on next. For example, the Motown sound uses a smaller group of strings, while ’60s pop tends to use groups as large as octets. Today’s radio rock often uses even larger groups of strings. My next step is figuring out the role of the strings. I ask myself, “Are they playing lead lines or chords? Are there any solo lines? Which articulations does this style typically use?” I then usually make a guide track using a piano sample to outline a “reduction” of the string parts. Next, I find samples that fit the group size and articulations I need. I’ll load up solo violin, viola, and cello, with long and short articulations, if I’m doing a quartet arrangement. Typically, I’ll need at least legato, staccato, and pizzicato articulations. I also like detaché patches for pop. They’re separated without being as short and strident as staccato. Many sample libraries also include swells and runs, which can be very effective at making parts sound real. Here are two of my favorite sampled string secrets.

Ex. 1. Soul Revival Strings

Strings play a prominent role in the “soul revival” sound that artists like Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Duff y have made popular. In Ex. 1, the violin register does most of the heavy lifting, since in this style, the bass and mid-bass registers are usually filled up with electric bass, piano, and guitars. The calling card of soul strings is how they’re articulated. A typical passage will mix long and short notes, with the shorter notes usually playing passing or approach tones between the longer ones. The timbre is usually bright, with little or no vibrato. Here, I provide harmony with cello, viola, and second violin, with the first violins playing the long and short melody notes in the top two staves. I always play the root note with lowest available instrument, and I use the viola and second violin to divide up the rest of the chord.

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

Ex. 2. Farenheit Rigby

Accenting in different places within the bars as patterns change can give your string parts momentum, as seen in Ex. 2. The Beatles created a vocabulary of strings that influenced pop music in an epic way. The angular style of their song “Eleanor Rigby” was a direct descendent of Bernard Herrmann’s score to the film Farenheit 451. That score uses small groups of strings playing spiccato with well-placed accents and dynamics. I usually start by playing a spiccato cello patch. The root is the anchor to which you usually add the fifth, then a third or an octave. The cello should mark the chords without needing support from other instruments. The viola and violin each play two-part harmonies, and are mostly rhythmically matched to the violins to impart a bouncing feel.

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

***Click here if the player below doesn't load correctly.


“Excessive room reverb on string samples usually doesn’t work well for pop music,” says David Baron, who has appeared on records by Michael Jackson and Lenny Kravitz and now cranks out jingles and cues from his studio, Edison Music Corp. “On the other hand, samples that are too dry can sound fake. I like using smaller hall-type reverbs with a fair amount of pre-delay. For Ex. 1, I used NI Kontakt playing the Cinematic Strings Pro library, along with some solo violin patches I’d ported over from my old Akai library. The reverb was a plate program from the Bricasti M7 hardware unit, as well as Massey’s TD5 tape delay plug-in on the violins. For Ex. 2, I used both MOTU Mach 5 and Kontakt to host Miroslav Vitous Spiccato and Dan Dean Solo Strings, respectively. I pan the violin towards the left, the viola center, and the cello to the right.

“Use separate patches for each instrument, as this fights playing strings like an organ and forces you to think of all of the parts separately, as an arranger working with real string players would.”