The second part of our string-arranging series ventures into more dramatic musical territory, and explains how to manipulate orchestral string articulations when creating MIDI arrangements.
Last month, we looked at an extract from a string arrangement I wrote for a song called 'Truenorth' by the UK band No‑man (/sos/jun12/articles/string-theory-pt1.htm). The example I chose was a fairly simple, restrained and supportive affair based on chord pads. This is something strings do supremely well, as evidenced by countless pop ballads down the years, but it's only one facet of what they can bring to a track. This month, I'll look at other common performance styles and discuss how to incorporate them into a strings arrangement.
Before moving on to more histrionic examples, I'd like to dwell on 'Truenorth' a little longer, to demonstrate how strings can add subtle rhythmic and harmonic enhancement to a quiet, lyrical composition. This long‑form song features a flute solo played over a rolling 16th‑note acoustic guitar part. The guitarist (Steven Wilson) had also overdubbed an African hand-drum part, so there was already a fair amount of rhythmic action going on; however, I felt the strings could add something in that department, so I wrote the arrangement in diagram 1.
These accented staccato punctuations add drama without upstaging the main event (Theo Travis' flute solo). All the stabs are played staccatissimo (ie. very short), and though notated as eighth notes for convenience, their actual duration is more like a 16th note. By way of contrast, the quarter notes in bars 8‑16 are played full length with no accents. The difference between them and the short stabs is thus very pronounced (akin to the difference between the open and closed hits of a drummer's hi‑hat), and that disparity gives the rhythm a lift and a lilt.
As you can see from the diagram, the acoustic guitar chords (played in an arpeggiated style) maintain an open high E and B string throughout the changes, thereby creating the opportunity for much enjoyable jangling. Sustaining those notes over the bass line of A, C and F adds an interesting harmonic dimension to what would otherwise be a rather plain sequence. I tried to increase the exoticism by using close voicings in the string parts, exploiting the mild dissonance of juxtaposed tones and semitones. Play the first Am9 chord on a keyboard to see what I mean — its C and B semitone interval has a nice bitter-sweet ring to it!
A small refinement occurs in the second eight bars, where the stabs on the first beat of each bar are replaced by longer notes and the staccato accents become a little quieter. That's because, at this point in the song, the flute solo finishes and the vocal re‑enters, requiring a more supportive and less rhythmically pointed string arrangement.
The staccatissimo strings style is commonly used for music of a less subtle nature, being the go‑to orchestral delivery for fast, tension‑building action film cues. This delivery is highly effective in rhythmic ostinatos (repeated motifs of equal‑length notes). I used it myself recently in a short trailer‑style piece, four bars of which are shown in diagram 2.
For this arrangement, I used string samples from Spitfire Audio's Albion, but had I scored it for live players, I'd have given the upper part to violas and the lower part to the cellos. Why not use violins for the upper part? Well, although the notes technically fall within the violin's range, I felt the violas would sound tonally stronger playing the low As and Gs, since the latter pitch (marked in red) is the lowest note on the violin, which can only be played on its open bottom string. And, of course, the lower part could only be played by cellos, as its lowest pitch (the B flat in bar four, marked in blue) lies a tone below the playable range of the viola.
Much of the cinematic music in this vein that one hears nowadays is played in a minor key, often with an intermittent flattened sixth interval thrown in to add an air of mystery and anxiety. (You know the kind of thing — a repeated E-minor arpeggio of E‑G‑B‑G, with the B occasionally changing to a C.) Anxious to give that particular cliché a wide berth, I based my short piece round the harmonically ambiguous scale of G, A, Bb, C, Db, Eb, E and F#, constructed from alternating tone and semitone intervals. Like the whole-tone scale, this scale has no fixed tonal centre — it actually contains four major triads, each of which can lay equal claim to being the 'home key', on account of the identical set of intervals that arises from their root note. Can you work out what the four major triads are? (The answer's at the end of the article.)
To ratchet up the angst in this music, I wrote a bass line that fluctuates unpredictably between F# and G. This undermines the tonality further: on hearing the first four notes of the top line played over an F#, the ear assumes a major key, but that's subverted as soon as the bass note moves up to G, at which point the same four notes take on a diminished feel. Establishing the 'tonal centre' (ie. key) of a piece of music is all a question of context and expectation, and, as you can probably tell by now, my personal preference is to avoid the expected and try not to make the context too obvious!
Like many people, I'm very fond of Indian film and pop music, and have always enjoyed the wonderful string‑orchestra styles associated with those genres. The players attack the melodies with enormous gusto, and their trademark style of sliding between notes adds a fabulous, sinuous feel and (to Western ears) exotic atmosphere to the music. This particular technique doesn't seem to occur much in the European classical tradition, and some purists might even consider it vulgar, but for me it's a highly appealing performance style with great applications in pop and rock. I was therefore pleased to be able to employ it in my string arrangement for Porcupine Tree's 'Sleep Together', a song from their album Fear of a Blank Planet.
The chorus of 'Sleep Together' is based on the simple yet original chord sequence of D, Eb (two beats each) and one bar of A, played in a slowish, heavy rock style with a thundering, John Bonham‑esque backbeat. After a few choruses, the music subsides and a long, slow, agonisingly tense build‑up begins; the bass and drums eventually come back in, and finally, at the 6:20 mark, the guitars are unleashed and the band explodes into the final choruses. I felt that this climactic moment, arguably the high point of the whole track, called for something unusual and attention‑grabbing, so wrote a soaring, Bollywood‑style lead line to be played in unison by the 22 string players.
Diagram 3 shows the first four bars of this tune, featuring the characteristic 'Indian strings' pitch slides (in other words, 'portamento') between most notes. In order to further accentuate the Bollywood flavour, I used the notes of Bb and D# (respectively, the flattened second and sharp fourth) over the A chord, as, to my (admittedly uneducated) ears, that particular combination of scale intervals has a distinctly Indian ring to it!
This lead line was scored for 14 violins (eight firsts, six seconds), and doubled an octave lower by four violas, and two octaves down by four cellos. The three‑octave unison created a big, strong sound which was very effective in this setting, though it's not a technique I'd recommend for general purposes. I thought long and hard about how best to notate the melody. The copyist advised against "overloading the parts” with too many instructions, but since some notes are played without a slide and others feature a grace note instead, I felt I had no alternative but to notate each slide individually.
As always, phrasing was an important consideration: string players usually play all the notes of a phrase under one continuous bow movement, followed by a short gap as they lift the bow prior to starting the next phrase. These gaps (analogous to the breaths a singer or wind player takes between lines) give shape to the music. Phrases are notated by placing curved lines over groups of notes. As you can see in diagram 3, the second and third phrases start on the second eighth‑note of the bar rather than the downbeat, and the last bar is made up of a triumphal high note followed by two fast descending phrases.
In the end, such notational issues proved largely academic, because as soon as they read the words 'Bollywood Chorus' on their parts, the players instinctively knew what to do. From the moment their bows hit the strings, we were transported from cold, drizzly Islington to the humid, sultry climes of Mumbai, the temperature in the control room rising by a few degrees as a little bit of India was grafted onto the music of an English rock band.
Whereas successful acts can command a budget to hire live string players for their albums, most musicians aren't in that privileged position. However, with the creative and intelligent use of samples, it's possible to bridge the gap between real and sampled strings. When working with orchestral samples, one of the keys to creating a successful MIDI arrangement is instant switching between performance styles (aka 'articulations') in real time, emulating the sudden changes in tone colour and dynamics one associates with a real orchestral performance. To make this possible, most sample libraries now utilise a technique called 'keyswitching'.
Diagram 4 shows the keyswitch displays of three leading orchestral strings libraries. Although the graphics vary, the principle remains the same: a key outside of the instruments' playing range is used to switch between articulations, enabling you to make instant changes on the fly. Keyswitches are usually located at the low end of the keyboard below the instruments' playing zone, but sometimes (notably in the case of low‑pitched instruments such as double basses and contrabassoons), you'll find them placed at the top end.
Some manufacturers allow you to create your own keyswitch setups by assigning individual patches to a keyswitch note of your choice, while others provide pre‑programmed 'keyswitch patches' combining all the articulations for a particular instrument or section in a single patch, with each articulation pre‑assigned its own switch. In some libraries you can alter these default keyswitch pitches, which is essential if you want to make your keyswitch articulations identical across different libraries.
One of the most flexible articulation switching systems was designed for the Vienna Symphonic Library's Vienna Instruments sample player by Christian Teuscher. Software for this proprietary player is provided free with every VSL library. A 'matrix' (roughly equivalent to a Kontakt 'multi') holds up to 144 'cells' containing single or layered articulations, and you can switch between the cells via keyswitches, MIDI control change (CC) commands, pitch wheel, velocity or even playing speed (ie. the elapsed time interval between notes, as opposed to the speed/velocity of a key press).
In diagram 5 you'll see a very simple Vienna Instruments keyswitch operation between staccato and sustained violin ensemble articulations (as utilised in the 'Truenorth' string arrangement above), using the low note of C1 to select the staccatos and C#1 to select the sustains. These keyswitch notes are user‑definable: you can change them to whatever pitches fit your requirements.
Keyswitches have their drawbacks: being common‑or‑garden MIDI notes (albeit silent ones), they will appear in your score as extraneous pitches, requiring a major tidying‑up job before a score or part can be printed out. An alternative switching method that avoids this hassle is to use MIDI CC commands rather than keyswitches for articulation switching. Not every library supports this method, and to do it in real time requires a MIDI controller capable of generating user‑definable CC data. but you can add individual CC commands after the event by inserting them in the MIDI 'event list', 'controller display', or whatever your sequencer program calls its itemised display of MIDI data entries.
Although it's a bit of a faff, it is possible to create custom CC commands without owning a dedicated MIDI controller: simply hit 'record' on your sequencer and perform a quick up‑and‑down move on your keyboard's mod wheel, which will generate a string of CC1 (modulation) numbers. Then open up your sequencer's event list, select one of the entries, and edit the controller number from CC1 to a new number of your choice, as shown in diagram 6. I often use CC23, but it can be any of the 'undefined' numbers in the MIDI Control Change table. If your sequencer can't display this, examples of the table can be found online. Having altered the CC number, copy and paste the edited CC command to the desired location in your arrangement, placing it just before the point where you want the articulation switch to occur.
Every MIDI CC number has 128 possible values, so once you'd selected CC23 as your controller, you could switch between (say) six articulations using the values CC23 10, CC23 30, CC23 50, CC23 70, CC23 90, and CC110 — always assuming that (a) the sample library in question supports this particular switching method, and (b) its articulation switching page is set up to correctly respond to these commands!
Diagram 7 shows the Vienna Instruments player programmed to receive CC commands as the articulation switch controller: 'H‑span' and 'V‑span' refer to the horizontal and vertical axes of the matrix grid, while the two rows of numbers on the right represent each CC zone's numerical thresholds. I specified CC23 as the horizontal controller and CC24 as the vertical, so selecting the highlighted '14 Violins portamento' articulation, as shown in the diagram, requires a CC23 value of between 32 and 41 (which selects the fourth cell from the left), followed by a CC24 value of between 21 and 31 to access the third cell down. It sounds complicated, but, once you latch on to the concept, it's actually pretty simple!
A final word on this month's musical extracts, and the samples you need to play them: to accurately emulate the contrasting short‑long deliveries in 'Truenorth' (shown in diagram 1) with samples, you'll need two different articulations: staccatissimo and sustained vibrato. You might think you can get away with just using sustained notes and playing them long and short, but believe me, that sounds pretty bogus: the attack of a short staccato note is completely different from that of a sustain, so you'll need good versions of both.
While every half‑decent string library contains these articulations, it's worth considering that the trend for very short staccatissimos (as used extensively in contemporary film, TV, trailer and game music) is comparatively recent, and that some older libraries' staccatos tend to be longer and less urgent‑sounding by comparison. Another important consideration is that the realistic 'performance legatos' and portamentos, now almost standard in string collections, didn't reach their current exalted state until the advent of the pioneering Vienna Symphonic Library back in 2002, so any libraries released before that date will inevitably lack realism in that particular department.
The choice of which orchestral strings library to buy is a big question, and depends largely on what style(s) of music you want to create, as well as on your budget. Listening to the manufacturers' product demos should give you some useful pointers, and our in‑depth SOS reviews aim to throw further light on the subject! To help give you an overview, I've listed the most prominent orchestral strings libraries of the last ten years, along with links to their SOS reviews, in the 'Which Orchestral Strings Library?' box.
If we go back in time to the 1970s, string arrangers (then considered a star turn almost on a par with the producer) would simply write out their scores by hand, pass them to a copyist and proceed straight to the studio, where the recording artists (if they bothered to show up) would hear the arrangement for the first time. If the artists didn't like what they heard, it would be too late to do anything about it — because although you can make micro‑changes on the day, it's not practical to completely rewrite a string arrangement and scribble out new parts for 30 players in the tight time-frame allotted to an average string-recording session!
Those days have long gone. Today's string arranger needs technological know‑how as well as musical chops, but it would be a mistake to prioritise the former over the latter. Knowing how to lash together a sonically convincing MIDI orchestration bristling with keyswitches, dynamic modulation and impressive‑sounding samples is arguably not much of an achievement if the music being played is bog‑standard and boring.
The moral, as ever, is to keep focused on the music and try to be imaginative and exploratory in your musical ideas, at the same time as keeping a firm hand on the technical chaos that can ensue when working with MIDI and samples. I hope some of what I've written will be of help for both of those endeavours. Next month, I'll be joined by the gifted composer and arranger David Hearn, who'll serve up some useful masterclass tips, while I continue to give you my personal take on the big subject of arranging for strings.
'Truenorth' (Bowness / Wilson) is from the 2008 album Schoolyard Ghosts by No‑man www.no‑man.co.uk.
'Sleep Together' (Wilson) is from the 2007 album Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree www.porcupinetree.com. Thanks to the composers for permission to use extracts.
(Quiz answer: the four major triads that can be constructed on the scale of G, A, Bb, C, Db, Eb, E and F# are A major (A, C#, E), C major (C, E, G), Eb major (Eb, G, Bb) and Gb major (Gb, Bb, Db). Their minor variants (A, C, E, and so on) are also possible, making this a very adaptable scale indeed!)
Samples are an essential part of an arranger's toolkit. Whether you're writing for real players or creating a MIDI orchestration, you'll need your sampled strings to sound convincing. This applies equally when writing for real players — even if you're capable of imagining the whole arrangement in your head without the aid of any audio back‑up, you'll still need samples to demo it so the band can hear what they're paying for!
The following libraries (listed in order of their Sound On Sound review dates) represent the cream of the crop of stand-alone orchestral string collections recorded within the last 10 years and available in current sampler formats. All contain multisampled, multi‑dynamic, full‑sized violin, viola, cello and double-bass sections. For product demos and details of their contents, visit the company web sites and/or follow the links to read the SOS reviews. Apologies to any libraries we've inadvertently omitted!
(LASS Version 2.0 review elsewhere in this issue)
You will also find professional-quality string ensembles in the following full‑orchestra sample collections that we've reviewed:
String arrangers are expected to be a one‑stop shop for recording strings, and the logistics are complex: the copyist, studio, arranger, session fixer and players all require paying (the biggest single cost usually being the players). Availabilities of all parties need to be checked well in advance, and co‑ordinating dates can be a nightmare: successful musicians are busy; some acts work abroad a lot of the time; and there's usually at least one band member who'd like to attend the session. so you need to plan well ahead. Here's a suggested start‑to‑finish procedure for creating and recording a real string arrangement:
1. Before committing to the work, ask for a demo of the song, including vocals, and imagine the kind of string arrangement you think it needs.
2. Estimate how long it will take you to write and demo the arrangement.
3. Decide how many players are required and how long it will take to record them, bearing in mind that there are restrictions: for example, you can't book musicians for a three‑hour session and expect them to record two and a half hours of material!
4. Check the current session rates, session fixer fees (a fixer will give you this info over the phone), copyist's fees and studio rates, and decide how much you'll charge for the arrangement.
5. Make a spreadsheet budget and send it to the band's management and/or paymaster.
6. Once the budget is approved, ring a fixer and check the players' availability. (It's advisable to plan at least six weeks ahead.)
7. Ask the band's producer to send you stems (submixes of drums, bass, guitars, vocals...) of the song, so you can hear exactly what's being played on the track. The same stems can be used as a backing track for the strings session.
8. Ask the band to send you a demo of any ideas they have for the strings — I usually ask for a MIDI file as well as a strings‑only audio file.
9. Check the availability of copyist, studio, favourite engineer (if you have one) and members of the band or their team (including producer) who would like to attend the session.
10. Book the players, studio and copyist.
11. The important bit: write the arrangement.
12. Send a demo of the arrangement to the band for comments. (I usually send a mix and a strings‑only version.)
13. If necessary, send a second demo incorporating the requested changes.
14. Once the arrangement is approved, send a score, MIDI file and audio demo to the copyist.
15. Check the copyist's work well before the day of the session. Typos often creep in.
16. Make sure the stems and copyist's parts arrive at the studio in good time for the session. Even if everything is technically perfect, it can take almost an hour to put out parts, check backing track balance, sort out click track, etc.
Although a little daunting on the face of it, most of these are merely logistical tasks which can be solved by sensible forward planning. The most important thing is to create a string arrangement that works well for the track. Once you've nailed that, you can proceed with confidence!
Budget versions of some all‑in‑one orchestral libraries offer a more affordable solution to those whose income stream doesn't quite measure up to their professional aspirations. Though the lack of fancy performance styles could be a problem if you want to recreate a full orchestral score, these slimmed‑down volumes (which offer upgrade paths to the full libraries) maintain the high sound quality of the originals and can deliver very good musical results:
This contains a full orchestra of instruments and sections presented in cut‑down form, though still featuring VSL's excellent legatos and portamentos. The supplementary SE Plus volume introduces more of the atmospheric articulations media composers require.
This library focuses on essential instruments and articulations, and contains only one mic position and 16‑bit samples, thus offering a more affordable alternative to the full 24‑bit Platinum version.
For composers who don't require a full‑on, Hollywood‑style sound, I can recommend:
Although not as sumptuous or lush‑sounding as the top-end libraries, the complete instrumentation and flexible sections of this easy‑to‑use, modestly‑priced set are a great educational asset for would‑be orchestrators.