Avoiding Stringy Situations (VOL II) - Production Tips For Working With Strings.

10-24-2013 10:22 AM

Welcome back to part two of string production. This article is a follow on article from part one, so if you haven’t read that, I would suggest reading that first here.

This article will be addressing the low end of the string family, cello and the double bass, as well as taking a look at the psychology of string players, and some considerations for overall string arrangement & production.

The Cello (or Violincello)
The cello is the tenor voice of the string family. A soulful, warm sounding instrument, the cello fills in the higher low-end lines in a string arrangement and provides low-mid range sonic texture in a string ensemble. The player utilizes a variety of bow holding techniques to play the cello, depending on the style. The tuning of a cello copies exactly that of a viola, but an octave lower. Like the viola, it is capable of playing low register notes, but is also very versatile and often used for performing higher register solo and descant melodies.

Cellos are naturally large sounding due to the size of their frame. The cello is tougher to play than higher register instruments, and requires more control and finger tension to perform the larger intervals. It has a beautiful earthy tone, and if recorded right, a beautiful high end that makes it incredibly unique in its sonic footprint.

For recording purposes, there are many ways to record a cello. The most successful position I have come across for a full bodied close micing of the instrument, is a large diaphragm microphone pointed parallel to the fingerboard about 8 inches out from the bridge. This provides a close full tone, while allowing enough room for the player to perform. Sometimes large diaphragm microphones don’t catch the finer details in a recording, favoring instead the fullness of the instrument in question. A nice idea is to set up a second small diaphragm condenser, aimed roughly at the same point, but further up the body, to capture the high end characteristics of the bow squeaking and the players hands traversing the strings. Be sure to check for phasing!

As for stereo and room mic techniques, the previous article’s descriptions apply for cellos and doubles basses alike.

The Double Bass (or Contrabass)
The double bass is the veritable low end of the string family. One of the largest instruments in the orchestral family, the double bass has a huge resonating tone that can often be felt as well as heard. The range of a double bass can reach an impressive Low E and is tuned in 4ths ascending. Double Basses take up a huge part of the bottom end, resonating mostly around 50-400hz. Something to note is that this instrument is often best not used in an arrangement that also includes an electric bass guitar. Both of the instruments occupy exactly the same space, so carving out room for both can be difficult. Considering this at the arrangement stage may save you a lot of work later on.

Recording techniques for this instrument are mostly the same as the cello. The resonance of the double bass is significant so be sure to carve out any unnecessary low frequencies when EQing as they can be troublesome when balancing your mixes. Depending on the dimensions and size of the body, particular frequencies will resonate more so than others.

String Psychology
One pertinent thing to remember in a studio setting is that the perception of performance varies between producers and engineers, and the performers themselves. Performance and simultaneous objective analysis are near impossible unless you are very used to analysing your own work for production purposes. The majority of string players are used to performing as part of an ensemble, and as such their awareness of the finer aspects of tuning is not always what it could be. This is no fault of the player, but more so the fact that numbers compensate for any tuning variation that might exist within the ensemble. In fact, when recording large numbers of strings, tiny tuning discrepancies are actually what help the “ensemble” effect to happen. However, when placed in a solo or quartet environment, the tuning becomes absolutely noticeable.

A simple way to treat this is to meet the players in advance and demo them. Play them back the demos, and see if they personally think it is good enough (in a nice polite way!). Encourage the player to reflect on their own performance rather than feel like they are being ‘corrected’ as such. This can become a serious motivator for good quality and help regulate the quality of takes, as long as you play it right.

Consistency in Production
A simple tip for keeping consistency with string recordings is to retune after every take. Tuning up might seem like a basic thing, but when working with fretless instruments that are susceptible to tuning discrepancies, the engineer and producer need to be aware of how quickly this can degrade the usability of takes.

This is a good way for engineers and producers to regulate the performance standard and keep quality consistent. Over and above this, keeping the mood and atmosphere healthy and focused is essential for good string recordings. Giving dynamic direction is also a great way to encourage strong performance. Classical players largely go by classical terms, so using these to communicate what you mean will ensure an accurate performance. Here is a comprehensive list of common terms that you should be familiar with when working in any classical music scenario.

An important note too is that most semi or fully professional string players are used to working within three hour blocks. Three hours is the traditional industry block of time for recording sessions, so it is good to work to this expected format.

Authentic & Digital
Finally, if after everything, your string recordings are still lacking in places, layering digital strings underneath your recordings it an excellent way to ‘thicken’ out the production. Bear in mind that the best results appear when you take into consideration the expression and dynamics of the samples. Try to use samples that recognise the value of accurate articulations. If you are layering samples, make sure the articulations in question work together for true authenticity and cohesion.

Have you got experience with string production? Leave your tisp in the comments below and tell us about any tricks you have for getting the best out of your string productions.

Denis Kilty is an Irish commercial songwriter, music producer, composer and mixing engineer based in Dublin. – www.deniskilty.com