ARTICLE: Working With a Live String Ensemble - A Guide for Budding Film Composers
Updated: May 25
The string family of instruments has long been the cornerstone of the orchestra. With their lush and expressive sound, it's easy to see why they have been such a prominent feature in both classical and film music. Working with a live string ensemble is the holy grail for most budding film composers, but it can be an intimidating task if its something you have never done before. In this article, we will guide you through the process of arranging and recording your piece with a string ensemble.
Step 1 - Finish your track in your DAW
This seems self-explanatory, but first things first you need to get your track finished. This means making firm decisions on the structure, arrangement and musical elements that make up your piece.
Step 2 - Split up your parts
Most string libraries come with ensemble patches meaning we can play in chords just like we would do with a synth pad. However, strings are for the most part single-line instruments, meaning they only play one note at a time. This means that we need to split up our parts into four voices. We recommend following this process:
- Create 4 new midi instrument tracks - Violin1, Violin2, Viola, Cello
- Copy down the midi from your string vst
- Go through each instrument one by one and delete the notes that you don't need.
For example, Cello only wants the lowest notes, Viola in the middle and then Violin 1&2 can play the top two lines.
Most DAWs should have built-in notation capabilities and will take the midi data and arrange it as notes on the stave automatically. Double-check that you have changed to the appropriate clef for each instrument, as most DAWs will default to a piano layout. You should be able to easily change this in the score editor in your DAW.
Cello - Bass Clef
Viola - Alto Clef
Violins - Treble Clef
Step 3 - Articulations, Accents, Dynamics, Slurs
Once you have split up your parts for the appropriate instruments, its time to get into the nuts and bolts and add in all the little details that make up your piece. Go through note by note for each instrument and input as much information as you feel relevant. Most DAW score editors will have functions built in that allow you to do this.
Articulations - Different playing styles. Is your piece all long flowing notes (Legato) or do you have short notes as well? Are the players using any non-bowing techniques such as pizzicato (Plucking strings like a guitar) You should go through your piece and mark down all of the articulations for each instrument.
Accents - An accent is an emphasis, stress, or stronger attack placed on a particular note.
This is marked by a small downward-pointing triangle symbol that is placed above the note you want to be accented. Accents are most commonly used on rhythmic passages.
Dynamics - Dynamics refer to how loud or quiet a part is, and are marked with a p or f on the score. ppp is very quiet and fff is very loud. You can also add crescendos and decrescendos for parts that swell and recede in volume. Dynamics marking is very important as it will give your piece a better sense of movement and really ramp up the emotion during more intense sections.
Slurs - A slur is a symbol in musical notation indicating that the notes it embraces are to be played without separation. For bowed string players, a slur means to play a group of notes in one bow. This means to play the notes without changing the direction of the bow.
You don't need to go overboard with all of this, but the ensemble will definitely appreciate having a few indicators of how you want the parts to be played. You can also have a chat with them on the day to finalise everything and they can mark this information on their scores with a pencil.
Step 4 - schedule your recording session & Send your parts to the ensemble
You should now have all of your parts laid out with all of the articulations, dynamic markings, etc. The next step is to find a group of players to hire for the recording. We recommend contacting conservatories and music colleges in your area, as they will likely have a number of string quartets and larger groups that are hungry for work. A quick google or facebook search should be enough to find a group that is right for your project. Explain what you want to achieve with the recording session, the number of pieces, location of recording, etc and agree upon the hiring fee.
You should also discuss the logistics of the recording session, such as will they be bringing their own music stands? Will they use printed music or read from an iPad? How long will they need for lunch breaks?
Once all this is discussed and agreed upon you can send your parts as pdf files to the players for them to begin preparations.
Step 5 - Stem out your piece and create click tracks
Bounce out all of the different parts of your track as stems. This will allow for more flexibility when creating headphone mixes for the players on the day of recording. You can stem out your track in instrument groups, so if you have 6 different percussion tracks you can bounce them as one and call it "Drums" The finished stems for your track may look something like this:
Guitar Bass FX
As well as creating stems, you should also make a bounce of just the metronome from your DAW. This is extremely useful as it will keep any tempo mapping or time signature changes that you have in your piece.
Step 6 - Set up your recording space
Create a space that will function as the "Control Room" for the session. This is where the composer and engineer will set up their equipment and run the session. Set up the players chairs in the spot that gives the best sound, which will usually be somewhere in the centre of your recording space. You can make adjustments once the players arrive and start running through the piece. In terms of microphones, we recommend using an XY pair to capture the room, with spot microphones to capture individual instruments. Be careful not to place the mics too close, as string instruments can have quite a harsh top end, especially the violin when playing in its upper register.
STEP 7 - Running the Session
Let the players do a couple of run-throughs of the piece to work out any teething problems that there may be. Remember to ask for advice if this is your first time. The string players will have a lot more experience and will know how to get the sound that is the best fit for your music. Once everybody is happy with everything you can start recording takes.
Listen keenly and follow along with the sheet music as best as you can. Its worth having a notebook on-hand to write down any specific thoughts or ideas you have whilst recording.
Give direction to the players in between takes if there are any adjustments you want to make. Players will play what is written down so it's up to you as the composer to communicate your intentions for a specific phrase or section if they didn't quite play it as you have envisaged. String players fingers need time to warm up, so once they are in the zone It's a good idea to "strike while the iron is hot" and get a few solid takes in quick succession. Remember to relax and have fun. Hearing your music played live in front of you is one of the greatest feelings as a composer, so be sure to savour the moment!
Step 8 - Mixing
With the recording completed, you can now import them back into your DAW session and start mixing in the live strings with the rest of your track. You may still decide to use a string ensemble vst as a blend layer to add extra depth and fullness to the strings, or to fill in the bottom end that a double bass would usually occupy.
Although this guide was written with a string quartet in mind, these tips should apply to working with most instruments in small-medium sized ensembles. We hope you find this article useful. Have fun applying this guide to your own projects. If you enjoyed this article please check out our ultimate guide to audio post- production: https://www.344audio.com/post/the-ultimate-guide-to-audio-post-production-sound-design
344 Audio is an Audio Post Production studio in Manchester.
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