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April 19, 2003

No matter how good the samples, sampled strings will never soundconvincing or authentic unless you write idiomatically for them.Playing a bunch of two-fisted chords with a string patch will soundlike, well, a keyboard player playing a string patch. Learning somebasic orchestration techniques with give you an understanding of how towrite for strings.

If you’re writing an arrangement that’s more complexthan a single violin line or cellos doubling the bass part, thenit’s a good idea to write out your score, even if it’s justa quick sketch. I will often sketch out a simple four- or five-partstring arrangement on two staves. If it’s a more complex, lineararrangement, I’ll write it out properly on four or five staves.It’s much easier to concentrate on the MIDI performance ifyou’re not also fumbling around searching for notes.

Without a doubt, you should set up separate MIDI tracks for basses,cellos, violas, and violins (two tracks if you’re writing forseparate first and second violins) and assign appropriate sounds tothem. Sequence the sounds one part at a time, using a volume pedal ormod wheel to shape the dynamics appropriately. I usually start at thebottom (basses or cellos) and work my way upwards through the sections;I usually get better results that way, but you should experiment tofind what works for you. That step will get you much of the way downthe road to good string ensemble emulations.

However, if you want to make your strings sound more realistic,you’ll need to invest more time and more MIDI tracks. Layeringadditional sounds on top of the basic ensemble sounds can really giveyour arrangement more life. Try combining samples from differentlibraries or layering solo instruments or smaller sections withensembles from the same library. The key is to sequence the part againusing the layered sounds. The deviations between the variousperformances will make the resulting sound unique; it will also helpconceal any flaws and minimize the static nature of the varioussounds.

As manufacturers continue to push the envelope with innovative sounddesign, it’s becoming much easier to create convincing stringensembles with samples. Some of the larger libraries provide separatebanks of first and second violins, treating them as separateinstruments within an orchestral setting. The number of availablearticulations is growing, too, allowing composers to mock up texturesand articulations that weren’t available a few years ago.

One area that I should address is arranging for smaller ensembles.Many great string samples are based on a dozen or more players playinga single note, which works fine for a big unison line. In the realworld, though, a first violin section with 16 players will normally bewritten in two-part—or even three-part—divisi(divided). In two-part writing, then, only eight violins play eachpart. It’s not uncommon to have divisi writing in all thestring sections at the same time (except for the basses).

Obviously, if you try to use a 16-violin sample for a two-partdivisi, you end up with the sound of 32 first violins, producingan unsatisfactory shift in timbre. It gets worse when you incorporatemore divisi writing and more layering in your arrangement.

The fix is to have more samples of smaller ensembles. In an idealworld, we would have A-, B-, and C-section varieties to choose from,consisting of different samples of the same articulations. That wouldallow the three sections to play in unison without creating doublingartifacts and also play in divisi with the appropriate shift intimbre. One or perhaps two smaller sections would be ideal as adoubling agent for a larger ensemble sound. String sounds are uniformenough that small timbre shifts caused by slightly changing the numberof players are acceptable, but sections that jump from 16 to 48 playerswhen you play a three-note chord makes it obvious that you’reusing samples.


Another library to watch for is EastWest/Quantum Leap’sSymphonic Orchestra ($3,480), which should be shipping by thetime you read this. The massive collection will consist of fourvolumes—Strings, Woodwinds, Brass, and Percussion—which canbe purchased either separately or as a complete set. The Strings volumewill contain sections of 18 violins, 11 violins, solo violin, 10violas, 10 cellos, solo cello, 9 basses, and harp.

Symphonic Orchestra was recorded in a 2,500-seat concert hallby a two-time Grammy Award-winning engineer of classical recordings,and it features members of a top U.S. symphony orchestra. One of thelibrary’s unique features is that it was recorded with multipleperspectives: close mic, stage mics, and hall-surround mics.

The 24-bit samples are all phase-aligned, allowing the user tocontrol the balance of microphone perspectives. Considering the qualityof previous libraries by these developers, I won’t be surprisedif Symphonic Orchestra quickly makes the “must-have”list for arrangers, composers, and producers.

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