String Ensemble Production for the Novice

There's nothing that highlights the tension between creative ambition
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The Kronos Quartet record at Womens Audio Mission’s studios

in San Francisco.

Photo by Terri Winston

There’s nothing that highlights the tension between creative ambition and studio pragmatism quite like navigating uncharted creative territory. Case in point: I recently produced a string ensemble session for the first time, and I learned a lot, to say the least.

I divined a few universally applicable recording precepts from the experience; these are far from revolutionary, but they’re important to remember:
• There’s no such thing as “too much preparation.”
• Everything takes twice as long as you’d assume.
• Garbage in, garbage out.

• Step away from the car.

I’ll call them out as I run up against them (and more often than not, I had failed to recognize them until it was too late) over the course of the following studio narrative.

The project in question was a stately, meditative piece for piano that our singer wrote for our band’s second LP. After laying down the initial living room demo, we were curious to hear what the song would sound like with orchestral accompaniment. I, as a solo violinist, did my best imitation of a chamber string ensemble, tracking roughly a dozen overdubs. The demo arrangement was done collaboratively and on the fly, with me trying out compositional ideas and my bandmates offering feedback.

Once we got the thing to a place we all agreed was working, we started talking about what the album version should sound like: Should the string part be performed on a Mellotron? Should it be me, overdubbed, like in the demo? Should we hire the London Philharmonic? After listening to “Eleanor Rigby” and Nick Drake’s “Way To Blue” as references, we decided that a small ensemble would make the most sense, so I distilled the demo arrangement into a trio—a cello and two violins. In my mind, we’d do one pass live as a trio, then double that for a faux-sextet sound.

The uninitiated string-tracker might wonder why, with the ability to multitrack, one wouldn’t be able to make a single string sound like an ensemble, or an ensemble sound like an orchestra. Leaving aside the obvious range limitations of a single given instrument, there are acoustical limitations: A group of players activates a physical space in a specific way that is for all intents and purposes impossible to recreate virtually. In the tracking room, the ensemble becomes a single entity, pushing sound waves around as a unified source. When the same players are double- or triple-tracked in the same space, spatial acoustic anomalies start to become noticeable, in some cases, as a low-to-midrange buildup that can peak exponentially with dynamic swells in the part. The more layered takes, the more pronounced these anomalies become. You’ve got some engineering wiggle room—and unless you’re producing a classical recording, there’s no benchmark for a “natural-sounding” recording—but the simple rule-of-thumb should be: If you want your part to sound like a quartet, hire a quartet.

After securing some players through recommendations from fellow musicians, I set about scoring the part in Sibelius. I played back my demo of the string part for my bandmates using general MIDI sounds. Here’s where it would have made sense to find a decent string sample library and play the string part along with the demo piano recording. It’s difficult to picture what will work and what won’t when your reference sounds are so far from where you hope they’ll end up. We ended up making changes to the arrangement during the tracking, something that could have been avoided had I put time into a more fully-realized Sibelius demo (see Precept 1).

The song was only about three minutes long, with the strings entering at roughly the halfway point. I scheduled the players for two hours, figuring that would be plenty of time to get a respectable 1:30 to tape. But after four hours, we still weren’t sure that we had enough solid takes to piece together a usable comp (see Precept 2). At that point, we had to stop because the violinist had a prior commitment. Panic set in.

I should make it clear that our players were great and can’t be faulted for any of the stresses of the session. I had sent them the score and the demo recording a week prior to the day of recording, and they both showed up prepared. But as soon as we started rehearsing, a few crux production concerns abruptly revealed themselves. For starters, intonation is a killer. And inconsistencies in pitch become even more apparent when you’re listening to three string instruments as opposed to 60. As a violinist myself, I was somewhat aware of this going into the session, but part of me assumed that once we started double-tracking the trio, those inconsistencies would blur in a pleasing way—something like the way a full string section generates a lush chorusing due to the miniscule playing inconsistencies from player to player. It turns out that pitch differential threshold is a lot higher than I would’ve liked. When the engineer and I listened back to a few layered takes, sour notes jumped out to the point of rendering some chord voicings nonsensical. Double-tracking only served to intensify intonation issues (see Precept 3).

I had decided—again, partially due to budgetary reasons—that I would play 2nd violin. This meant I was playing the role of arranger, producer, and player. It also meant it was impossible for me to accurately critique what was being tracked while it was being tracked (see Precept 4). After a few frustratingly almost-there takes, I stepped into the control room and let the violinist we’d hired alternate between the 1st and 2nd violin parts.

I did get at least one thing right, by accident: The hired players both had a history of playing together (at wedding receptions and corporate cocktail hours and the like) and had an established performance rapport. That’s the kind of thing you can’t engineer on the day of the session, and it’s integral to capturing a professional-sounding ensemble recording. String players need to literally breathe together, especially in the naked setting of a small ensemble. Removing myself from that dynamic helped matters all the more.

After we sent the string players home, we decided to put the song away for 24 hours and work on something else, a move I credit to our engineer, Beau Sorensen (who also must be given credit for the wording of Precept 4). The next day, Beau pieced together a rough comp, and announced that we had a more than workable set of tracks from the previous day’s efforts. The two of us then sat down and pieced takes together bar-by-bar, and after about 30 minutes ended up with a string part that had all the movement, nuance, and emotion I’d hoped it would have.

The next time I get the opportunity to produce strings, I’m going to make sure I:
• Hire a full, prefab ensemble
• Schedule at least a day of rehearsal prior to the studio day
• Produce a more fully-realized demo that uses a nice VST library
• Schedule more than enough time, then schedule double that.
I suggest anyone looking to produce a string ensemble do the same.

Owen O’Malley is a musician and freelance writer living in Chicago. His band is called Bailiff.