The VIrtual Orchestra: String Basics

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Many film and TV scores live or die on how well the strings are conjured. Fortunately, the state of the art of sampled string libraries is finally approaching a level of illusion that can convince all but the most refined ears. As much as we’d all love to play a keyboard and sound like a symphony orchestra, it almost always takes the patient construction of multiple tracks and an understanding of real orchestration to create authentic string passages.

The interweaving of independent lines, subtleties of articulations, and wide range of notes in typical string writing make good DAW sequencing and editing skills an asset. All string libraries, each in their unique way, require a certain amount of struggle and concession to tame the beast. Unlike winds, strings can play for a long time without a break and can be counted on equally for melody, harmony, and rhythmic propulsion. In many ways, the whole string section can be thought of as one big instrument; however, navigating the nuances of the various sections and their respective ranges is the hallmark of good orchestration.


Fig. 1. A Kontakt Multi of muted violas auto-divides chords between three divisi patches in L.A. Scoring Strings. The typical string orchestra is composed of two violin sections (I and II), violas, cellos, and basses. To maintain balance, it’s generally necessary to add more players to each section as the instruments get physically smaller. A full symphonic string orchestra would contain something like 12 violins I; ten violins II; eight violas; four cellos; and two basses. In reality, the sizes of sections vary widely based on period, style, the composer’s intent, and budget. Several of the top string libraries provide unique sample sets for Violins I and II (as they should), including Cinematic Strings, Kirk Hunter Studios Concert Strings 2, East West Hollywood Strings, Audiobro L.A. Scoring Strings, and Sonivox Symphonic Strings Collection.

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When a section needs to cover more than one musical line at a time, it’s further divided into halves (or even thirds), known as divisi (see Figure 1). In a real orchestra, there are a fixed number of players, and as they split into divisi the timbre gets lighter because fewer players are on each note.

Layering ensemble sample patches is common and can be very effective for both creating timbre complexity and to mask any deficiencies in a certain patch. However, be careful of the unnatural size buildup that can result. For instance, layering three large ensemble violin patches made of 12 players each would result in 36 “players” per note, creating an obvious “you used samples” sound.

Hollywood Strings and LASS provide unique divisi patches for each section. Several other libraries provide some smaller sections and solo instruments for emulating chamber groups and divisi, including 8Dio Adagio Violins, Concert Strings 2, and the Vienna Symphonic Library. Another effective technique is to layer several patches of smaller sections for a part and record each patch as a separate performance.

In addition to using patches of smaller sections when layering, adding one or two solo instruments on top of an ensemble can enhance the illusion. Instruments found in Vienna Instruments, Adagio Violins and Concert Strings 2, Garritan Stradivari Solo Violin, and Dan Dean Solo Strings are excellent for this.


Fig. 2. Adagio Violins contains a number of key-switched articulations. Loure, a type of bowed repetition, isn’t found in most other libraries, and can be tempo-synced. Like other virtual orchestra instruments, string articulations are accessed with dedicated patches, key-switches, and MIDI controls; each library applies these differently. In general, string articulations fall into two categories: long bows and short notes. All of the libraries mentioned here offer arco, marcato, spiccato, staccato, tremolo, pizzicato, and trill articulations (see Figure 2). Adagio Violins, Hollywood Strings, and Vienna Instruments explore several of the less common (but very musical) techniques like détaché, flautando, loure, and col legno.

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Muted strings, or sordino, are a big part of orchestral writing. The softer, lighter texture is often used for sweet or poignant musical statements, and a recent scoring technique is to add a sordino string pass on top of a normal pass for a hybrid sound. Adagio Violins, Symphonic String Collection, LASS, and Vienna Instruments provide sampled sordino instruments. LASS Legato Sordino is a separate library completely dedicated to muted strings, and it sounds gorgeous.

Legato mode (not the legato articulation), previously covered with brass and woodwinds, is monophonic and usually employs small transition samples between overlapping notes for greater authenticity within a musical line. Strings benefit tremendously from this, as it’s practically impossible otherwise to recreate the expressive glissando and portamento that happens when strings subtlely slide between notes.

Adagio Violins, Cinematic Strings, Concert Strings 2, Hollywood Strings, both LASS and LASS LS, and Vienna Instruments include legato patches. To a large degree, each library allows you to tweak and control the note transitions. As with all orchestral instruments, you’ll need to roll up your sleeves and do some editing after you record. However, when you spend the time musically crafting lines for each patch of your string section, you’ll hear the difference. The cumulative results just can’t be achieved any other way.

Virtual Space

Fig. 3. Hollywood Strings features five mic positions and convolution reverb from Quantum Leap Spaces. Adagio Violins, Cinematic Strings, Hollywood Strings and LASS were recorded in legendary rooms and provide multiple mic perspectives, usually a combination of close and room sounds that can be balanced by the user (see Figure 3). Although harder on CPU resources when all “mics” are running simultaneously, they really only need to be rendered for your final output. The ability to tailor the character of these libraries provides for a fantastic level of tonal flexibility.

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No matter how ambient or dry the various libraries may be, some unifying reverb is usually necessary to further smooth out the sample transitions and tie everything together, especially when layering different string libraries and/or blending them with brass and woodwinds.

There are obviously many reverb choices available today; however, two standouts need to be mentioned. Lexicon’s “Random Hall” (now found in their PCM Native Reverb plug-in) has long been a staple of countless orchestral scores.

Quantum Leap’s Spaces is a simple and extremely effective convolution reverb plug-in, which features a number of great-sounding rooms and halls catering to orchestral music. Spaces goes a step further with instrument-specific presets that place your samples in the proper position on the soundstage.