There are two ways to work with string samples. One is to use them to try to simulate the sound of a live string section. The other is to approach them as you would any other keyboard instrument and just use them as sounds. Both approaches are valid and useful, but they require different skills. Here I'll discuss simulating a live string section with a sampled-strings library.
FIG. 1: A string ensemble playing an Am7 chord in open inversion. Viola is written in bass clef instead of the usual C clef.
The more you know about how real strings are arranged, and the more sample choices you have, the better your sampled-string arrangements will sound. I currently use MOTU Symphonic Instrument, the Vienna Symphonic Library Vienna Strings samples converted for a MOTU Mach Five sampler, and IK Multimedia Miroslav Philharmonik, all in Digidesign Pro Tools 7.
Most modern keyboards have an ensemble-strings patch, which is usually one consistent sound up and down the keyboard. If you are playing live or don't have samples of the individual string sections, then you must do your best to make this type of string patch sound realistic.
In most string arranging, each section plays the same note. For example, the cellos play the root of the chord, the violas the fifth, the second violins the third, and the first violins the root again, or a sixth, seventh, or ninth. The violas are tuned a fifth below the violins, the cellos are an octave below the violas, and the contrabass is a sixth below the cellos. Therefore, when the ensemble plays a chord, the notes will tend to be spread out across the range of the orchestra in what is called open inversions (see Fig. 1).
Keyboard players tend to play chords in close inversions. Real strings are sometimes written in close inversions, but when keyboard players play string samples in this way, it sounds like a keyboard. If you play the string parts in open inversions, it sounds more like real strings and less like a keyboard player (see Fig. 2 and Web Clip 1).
FIG. 2: A four-bar chord progression scored twice – first using close inversions, then using open inversions.
If you are using MIDI to do your string arrangement, and you have a string sampler that has samples of each of the string sections (violins, violas, cellos, and contrabasses), I highly recommend that you write each part separately. It's a lot more work than just playing chords or lines with a string patch, but it's worth it. Your arrangement will consist of four or five interesting melodies instead of one chord following another.
Sometimes I'll start with the cello part, and other times I'll start with the first violin. If interesting countermelodies occur to me as I'm playing, I'll put them in. I then go on to record the next part. I try not to duplicate notes that were in the previous part unless I want to emphasize a particular line. Because I don't have the gift of perfect musical memory, I will invariably play some notes that result in either unisons, octaves, or bad dissonances, which I go back and fix in the MIDI editor. It gets progressively harder to play the best notes with each successive part, but I can always go back and fix things. When I'm done, I listen to the strings soloed as well as in the arrangement to make sure everything works.
Next I go through each part and carefully draw in MIDI volume commands using a graphical editor. I try to bring out parts that play interesting melodies and to create crescendos and decrescendos that are effective and emotional. Sometimes doing the volume rides can take as long as arranging the notes.
Finally, I'll record the string parts as audio tracks. If you have the tracks available, I recommend recording each string section on a separate stereo track. That way, you can keep control of the balance and dynamics of the string section.
FIG. 3: A multivoice string arrangement with prepared dissonances.
You can get away with a lot more dissonance with strings than with other instruments. While the guitars are playing simple triads, the strings can lay on some minor seconds, raised fourths, and clusters. But it's important to prepare the dissonance (see Fig. 3 and Web Clips 2 through 4). Don't just jump to an exposed minor second; it's more effective to move one voice into a dissonance with a sustained voice. (This is a rule that was made to be broken. If you want a jarring effect, jump right to a dissonance.)
I recommend studying traditional harmony and counterpoint. It also helps to study some of the great pop-music string arrangements. The Goo Goo Dolls' “Iris,” with its excellent use of dissonance, the Beatles' “Eleanor Rigby,” and Simon and Garfunkel's “The Boxer” are a few of my favorites.
Panning for Gold
Many string-section sample libraries, such as the Vienna Strings and MOTU Symphonic Instrument, are already panned to the position they would occupy in an orchestra. If your samples are not prepanned, then pan the first violins to eight o'clock, the second violins to ten o'clock, the violas to one o'clock, the cellos to three o'clock, and the basses to five o'clock.
If the basses are the only bass instruments in the mix, I'll often pan them back toward the center so the mix won't be unbalanced. I bus all the string tracks to an aux track, to which I apply EQ, reverb, and often some stereo spreading.
String samples sound exactly like live strings during the sustain portion of a note, but they tend to be less realistic for the transitions between notes. String players will connect the notes in legato passages, sometimes sliding from one note to the next. Each player in the section will do this slightly differently, creating a very complex sound.
With a sampler, each note gets a new attack. Some samplers allow you to choose between slow and fast attacks, enabling you to move smoothly between notes. Another way to connect notes is to modulate the sample-start position using the MIDI Mod Wheel. Use the full attack for the beginning of a phrase, and then move the Mod Wheel up to remove the attack part of the sample while playing the rest of the phrase. You won't get sliding effects with this technique, but the note connections will be more authentic.
I have not encountered any string samples that have a strong marcato attack followed by a sustain. Usually the marcato samples will be short, and the sustained samples will have slow attacks. So when I need a sustained note with a strong attack, which is often, I mix a small amount of the marcato sample in with the sustained sample. I'm careful not to use too much marcato, because that sounds quite artificial.
It helps to have a choice of sample sets, because each sample set has a different sound and feel (see Web Clips 2 through 4). I sometimes combine sample sets for a larger, fuller sound.
When a full sound is not what you want, you can use solo violin, viola, and cello sounds to create a string quartet. Similarly, use solo strings from two different sample sets to get a double quartet. Mixing a quartet or double quartet with an ensemble sample set gives you a very nice midsize ensemble sound; you can hear the individual instruments, but it sounds rich.
String libraries, no matter how realistic sounding, are just not the same as a live string section. The same samples are used repeatedly, and the number and variety of gestures are limited. But if you work within those limitations and strive to push beyond them, you can create some beautiful arrangements.
Steve Skinner has worked as an arranger-programmer for Bette Midler, Jewel, Celine Dion, R. Kelly, Diana Ross, the Bee Gees, and Chaka Khan. He arranged the musical Rent and coproduced the cast album.