Strings are one of the most prevalent families of instruments used in modern commercial music, film game and TV production. Be it their unique tone, their capacity to capture almost any mood or the sonic footprint they leave on any arrangement, strings are a key instrument group that every producer should know how to handle.
This article is the first of two, designed as a overview on how to produce a string recording. What this isn’t is an in depth look at every nuance of stringed instruments. For this, I recommend Samuel Adler’s “The Study of Orchestration.” This first article will share an overview of the higher register string instruments: the violin and the viola, and the characteristics that are most pertinent to be aware of for general recording and mixing purposes. The next article will address the cello and the double bass, and talk about dealing with string players on a social and psychological level in the studio, finishing with some useful production techniques.
Arguably the most dynamic member of the string family, the violin is a versatile instrument, capable of being used in a solo capacity or for providing harmonic support to another instrument as part of an accompaniment. The violin has a range of several octaves, the lowest note being G below middle C (on a piano, as a reference) that extends up several octaves. We can consider the violin the soprano of the string section. Its practical range is dependant on the quality of the player and can extend very high depending on their proficiency. If you find yourself making production decisions in studio on whether a violin part works or not, it is important to assess in advance the competency of the player, as it will help you make good alternative arrangement suggestions that solve any performance issues, while still appreciating what the performer wanted to achieve in the first place.
Along with the rest of the immediate orchestral string family, the violin is chromatically playable, with no fret markings on the neck or fingerboard. This has both benefits and drawbacks. As a benefit, the lack of fret markings allow for beautiful unique articulations, such as glissando (sliding between notes) that are integral to some genres that utilise the violin. For example, in Irish music, (where the violin is often called the fiddle), it uses slides like this routinely and is a defining performance characteristic of traditional Irish music. On the other hand, the lack of fretting can lead to issues for players who are inexperienced and have trouble fingering notes accurately straight off. If their ears are not majorly aware of minute tuning issues, then this is something to be constantly aware of.
From a recording perspective, it is important to be aware of the variety in the sonic palette of the violin. A variation in bow positioning and the point of contact on the fingerboard can create vastly different sounds. If you are trying to capture a soft and smooth performance, instruct the player to perform legato, in the most common bow positioning, which is to bow half way between the bridge of the violin and the end of the fingerboard, using the centre of the bow. If you wish for a stronger, rougher sound, instructing the player to perform closer to the bows ‘heel’ or ‘frog’ (where the hand resides) on a string will create a heavier, more emphasised sound.
The viola is essentially the alto equivalent in the string family. In terms of its range, it shares a large portion of the same range as the violin, however there are a few distinct differences. First off, the tone of a viola is slightly darker and ‘woodier’ then that of a violin. Much like an alto, the difference in timbre provides a greater variety of tone in the higher register and a unique coloration that distinguishes between viola and violin parts. The viola can reach a low C (5 notes below that of a violin) but is capable of a higher register performance similar to the violin, depending again on the proficiency of the player.
The viola has a somewhat larger body than the violin, up to 4 inches larger than its colleague. As a result the gaps required to produce note intervals are slightly larger, making the viola slightly harder to play. The tension in the hand required to produce notes is also higher. This is important to be aware of again if you are arranging anything for viola, as the higher registers are tougher to play for inexperienced players. The way you voice your arrangement should be contingent on the players capability, so gauging this in advance of arranging is a great way to save yourself time re-voicing in the long run.
There are a number of choices at your disposal when it comes to recording high register strings. It is important to consider their context, and ultimately whether they will be part of an ensemble or a standalone element in the mix. For close micing, a small diaphragm microphone such as the Neumann KM184 is always a good choice. Small diaphragm microphones tend to pick up the more subtle elements in a recording because the size of the diaphragm allows it to react to detail more effectively. They are better for capturing the natural ‘noise‘ and resonance of the instrument. This is often the tell tale sign of a digital string recording. That said, small diaphragm microphones have a larger amount of self-noise than large diaphragm microphones and this should be taken into account when recording very quiet sections. As a general rule though, small diaphragm mics work great on higher register strings as close microphones.
In terms of placement, this is largely contingent on the room the strings are being recorded in. If you are looking for a drier, “roomless” sound, make sure your microphone is hyper-cardioid, so as to minimise the amount of room that is recorded. If you are in a studio and the area is nicely baffled the way you want it, I would suggest hanging your microphone over the performer. You’ll find that string players perform better when the mic isn’t in their face, so by leaning it over their shoulder at a height and pointing it down at the fingerboard board, we can get a nice compromise between feasibility, and sonic quality.
For quartets, or string sections, remember that room mics are key to a wholesome recording. Spot mics serve one purpose, which is to capture a direct signal at close proximity, but for the authentic sounds, you need to consider the room that the instrument is in. Classical instruments have largely developed with their natural performance space in mind: a reverberated space. Therefore, it is important to consider room microphones and ambient mics when tracking. Utilising an XY stereo pair, a spaced pair, an ORTF or a similar stereo micing technique will garner a fuller more accurate stereo image, and is beneficial when blending your close miced recordings in the mix. It is also important for the player to hear their instrument in the most realistic way possible. If what they hear in headphones is markedly different from what they are used to hearing, they will adjust their performance incorrectly to compensate for what they perceive to be an incorrect sonic reproduction of their instrument.
To reinforce the importance of capturing the room correctly for both the players headphone mix and for actual realism, have a look at this article, explaining the effects of recording without any room sound at all, in an anechoic chamber. It’s all about the right balance between the different sources.
Higher register strings tend to resonate roughly between 200hz and 11khz. This is an important point to be aware of when mixing. My general process is to sweep out about 180hz or so from the low end of a high register string recording. However, the low end filtering has to again take into account the placement of the mics, and the placement of the violin in the overall arrangement. The more instruments you have, the more you can afford to filter quite ruthlessly to make sonic space.
Something that a lot of people overlook is the panning on string instruments in the stereo image. Traditionally, in an orchestral setting, strings are laid out as violins, violas, celli and double bass in a clockwise fashion around the conductor. Therefore for a more accurate and realistic mix, we need to consider where we pan our strings in the stereo image. Not only does panning help with realism, it also frees up the centre image of your mix, leaving more room for drums, vocals or whatever else you have in focus in the track.
Do you have any other tips on recording and producing strings? Leave a comment below and we will see you in part 2.
Denis Kilty is an Irish songwriter, composer, music producer and mixing engineer based in Dublin. – www.deniskilty.com