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Arranging For Strings: Part 3
From a delicate shimmer to an earthquake tremor, harmonics, tremolo and trills can add vibrancy and drama to your string arrangements. Find out how to make the most of them in this SOS masterclass.

elcome to the third part of my string-arranging series — and if you missed the first two, they’re available online at articles/string-theory-pt1.htm and www. string-theory-2.htm. This month, I’m joined by the talented composer, arranger and orchestrator David William Hearn, whose extensive CV includes (deep breath) music for the TV shows Dancing


On Ice, American Idol and The Voice, countless television ads, programming orchestral mock-ups for the movies The Chronicles of Narnia, 2012, Lay The Favourite and Paul, for tours and albums by Katherine Jenkins, George Michael, Westlife, Kylie Minogue and Shirley Bassey, and for producers such as David Foster and Phil Ramone. The inexhaustible Mr Hearn has contributed some great masterclass tips to help spice up your MIDI orchestrations and improve your workflow. Although intended primarily for experienced orchestral samplists, these tips can be

applied by anyone with a modicum of programming skill. In addition to these useful pointers, I’ll continue to share my personal views on the noble art of string arranging, including extracts from arranging jobs that have come my way over the last few years.

Slimming World
When I started out arranging for strings, I soon realised that keyboard and guitar chords rarely work well when transcribed note-for-note for a string section. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: a keyboard patch or strummed


August 2012 / w w w . s o u n d o n s o u n d . c o m

knows his musical onions. These six-note voicings sound fine played on keyboard and guitar. one of the interesting things about writing string arrangements nowadays is that songs usually arrive with a ‘strings demo’ attached. (I realise that to utter the last sentence in a UK music magazine back in 1977 would orchestration. and had used some top-end sample collections in his string demos. w w w . this meant that (unusually) the job was mainly concerned with the details of the Diagram 5: The opening chord of Rob Reed’s song ‘Lily’. One song’s intro was particularly effective. but when performed by a string section literally as written. therefore. Opening the MIDI file revealed the dense voicing you see in diagram 5. from his self-produced album Kompendium. chilled-out climate we now enjoy. possibly have led to death threats. Alternatively. A simple illustration is the pair of chords you see in diagram 1: this classic A-minor to C-major movement sounds perfectly satisfactory played on keyboard or guitar. the top and second-from top notes doubled an octave lower). a genial Welsh keyboardist and TV composer who was in the process of recording his own long-form symphonic-rock concept album. A good starting point is to identify any duplicated notes: as you can see in diagram 2. s o u n d o n s o u n d . since it features different types of instrument. as well as multiple players performing each note of a chord. rather than dreaming up entirely new arrangements from scratch. Although they add warmth and richness when played on keyboard and guitar.) The composer. second violins. The solution was to omit the three Diagram 2-4. played on high violins. For me. I couldn’t exactly identify it by ear. sounded very good. first violins. they don’t add any new harmonic information to the chord — and so can be safely omitted when arranging for strings. we need to think carefully about what notes in a chord should be assigned to the string players. so in order to avoid creating an overly dense sound. and the musical ideas worked so well that I didn’t feel the need to elaborate or rewrite much. enabling you to accurately discern their different flavours. leaving us with the pared-down voicings in diagram 3. The libraries included LA Scoring Strings and Miroslav Vitous’ Symphonic Orchestra String Ensembles. I feared that would sound too full and undermine the attractive. which reinstates the low fifths and omits the second-from-top notes. a string ensemble is far less homogenous. the top notes (A and C respectively) are doubled an octave down (marked in red).Diagram 1: A simple A-minor to C-major chord movement. Orchestrating this dense event for real players required thought: while the sampled demo version sounded fine. it would be an excellent ear-training exercise to alternate them slowly and repeatedly. but thought it might be a major chord with some added intervals. I feel safe to tell you that the music on this album is of an impressively high standard. rather than cheating and using his feet. General Cluster As I remarked in my first article. being a quiet. similarly proportioned intervals. the last version sounds elegant and would work a treat with its notes assigned to (from the top down). thinned-out versions of the two chords omit the duplicated notes. you could try the alternative version in diagram 4. Benefiting from wide. more often than not created by the song’s composer. it sounds too full. dreamy atmosphere. violas and cellos. we need to thin out the voicings. if you miss the comforting presence of a fifth at the base of the chord. the second-from-bottom notes of E and G (shown in blue) are also duplicated an octave higher. more complex and more expressive than a keyboard or guitar could ever be. these mid-range octave doublings have a built-in musical redundancy — that’s to say. c o m / August 2012 71 . In order to let some ‘air’ into the string chords. but in the post-post-punk. sustained chord with an eerie. I wasn’t convinced that we needed the players to perform all nine notes. The resulting sound is therefore richer. A set of demo string arrangements of unusual quality came from a client called Rob Reed. and an alternative voicing which retains the low fifth interval and omits the second-from-top notes. two months ago. transparent quality of the demo. The arrangements. who earns his living working with live players as well as creating MIDI mock-ups round the clock. but sound too full when performed by real string players exactly as written. I’m assuming that Rob played it with two hands. The difference in sound between the diagram 3 and diagram 4 chords is rather subtle. guitar makes a homogenous sound in which all notes blend together into a unified whole. from left: Duplicated notes within the chords are marked in red and blue (respectively.

expressive technique. One example was the song ‘Everwake’. bright. The opening verse leads to an eight-bar instrumental break in A-minor. a very cool piece of software which makes it easy to control multiple Vienna Instruments and VST/AU plug-ins over Ethernet. and a big improvement on using ‘progressive vibrato’ instruments in which the vibrato always kicks in at the same point. while the vibrato flute simultaneously gets louder. firstly. but it can all add an extra dimension to your mock-up. The album is a collection of re-interpretations of earlier recordings. Harmonics If you want an even more delicate effect. Although a certain heaviness remains. and also on string ensembles. Pull back the pedal. emotional and somewhat mystical approach tinged with a wistful. Note-wise. • Click on the second VI’s ‘Perform’ tab. although. and I also felt we could live without the two Eb notes. In the end. This is because. MIDI CC#11 (traditionally used as the Expression controller) is freed up for other functions. secondly. it’s not competing with any other arrangement elements. String family instrument players can do this too. since the Gb was already adding a nice fourth suspension to the lower Db-major triad. its high pitch precludes an excess of warmth or muddiness in the sound and. Using this method. since it’s played unaccompanied at the top of a piece. Celtic melancholy — in other words. while The humble modulation wheel can be pressed into service as a dynamic controller for your strings library. and the reverse happens. As every guitarist knows. pitches marked in red: the top note was so quietly played on the demo as to be practically inaudible. It’s also a very good option for allowing you to use large sample libraries inside DAWs that still aren’t 64-bit. However. played on solo acoustic guitar. quiet chime. a nice. some dating back to the early ’90s when Anathema were a doom metal band. more reflective. s o u n d o n s o u n d . varying the vibrato intensity. clear and pure sustained tone of the violin’s top string. which to me means constantly varying dynamics and vibrato levels in a musically pleasing and realistic way. due to the difficulty of the technique. adding a high fifth based on the home key of the music isn’t going to affect the harmonic make-up of the piece one way or the other. David William Hearn 72 August 2012 / w w w . clearly. being also able to play ‘artificial’ harmonics by pressing the string down and lightly touching a fourth interval above it. in order to help unify the two sections. quietly played violins can add a lovely atmospheric quality to a song. select ‘Map Control’. highlight ‘CC11 Expression’ at the top of the controller list and click on the ‘Invert’ button (see diagram on page 76). c o m . a charming 3/4 ballad featuring guest vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. high-pitched fifth interval of A and E (the lower note pitched an octave and a sixth above Middle C). • Set both instruments to the same MIDI channel. you can also add volume swells and fades with the mod wheel… One additional tip: when working with a multiple computer setup. it’s sensible to keep the part slow and simple! A famous example is the solo violin melody in the introduction of the second part of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. what I was exploiting here was not note content. producing a harmonic two octaves above the stopped note. but sheer sound — the light. this is about as simple as it gets. these are obtained by playing a string while touching it lightly at the octave with the fingertip.TECHNIQUE H O W TO A R R a N G E F O R S t R I N G s : Pa Rt 3 a problem. this unearthly. the concerns about over-density noted earlier were not Masterclass Tip 1: Vibrato Crossfading It’s important to imbue digital mock-ups with as much semblance of human expression as possible. the deathly overtones of yesteryear have been supplanted by a tender. Delicate Sonorities The transparency and fragility of high. Played entirely on harmonics over an eldritch series of eighth-note woodwind chords. It can take many hours of study to learn when and how live instrumentalists vary their vibrato. producing an ethereal. and in fact can go one better. And. I’ve found it’s very effective to use an expression pedal to crossfade between non-vibrato and vibrato versions of instruments: it works very well on solo woodwinds such as the flute. try harmonics. • Load the patch ‘FL1 sus Vib’ into one Vienna Instrument and ‘FL1 sus noVib’ into a second Vienna Instrument. With eight violins playing the high note and six tackling the lower. this simple interval had a subtly electrifying effect on the track. I should point out that although this chord contains a fair number of closely-positioned notes. disembodied tune sounds Diagram 6: The ‘Lily’ opening chord arranged for violins and violas. I recommend using VSL’s Vienna Ensemble Pro host. you can write melodies consisting entirely of harmonics. of course. and perhaps hold the illusion long enough to get a music cue approved by a director! I invariably use the mod wheel (MIDI CC#1) as a dynamic controller. the perfect setting for strings! As several of the songs on Falling Deeper were played on unaccompanied piano. You’ll notice that the top note of the violas is interposed between the second violins’ two pitches. which means that in my orchestral templates. stroked delicately into sensual motion by a horsehair bow. Here’s how to set up a vibrato crossfade using the Vienna Instrument and ‘Flute 1’ from Vienna Symphonic Library’s Woodwinds I collection. I orchestrated the chord as depicted in diagram 6. such as Pro Tools. This means you can start a note without vibrato and introduce it at will via the pedal. Inverting the second instrument’s Expression curve has the effect of making the non-vibrato flute get quieter when you press down your expression pedal. I had a chance to explore this area when I worked with the Liverpool band Anathema on Falling Deeper last year. I orchestrated it with violins playing a sustained. there was plenty of scope for lighter sonorities.

having the symbols show up in the score can save hours of tedious manual inputting later on. As well as providing a great. I often make use of Cubase’s track-specific (or ‘local’) input transformer.vimeo. make them change the track’s MIDI channel. the piano picks out the vocal theme accompanied by the first violins playing quiet. All these little benefits massively speed up the mock-up process. but at least the symbols are in there. allowing a bit more space in there to remember other things. which don’t allow you to alter or create keyswitch patches. Using this system. sustained harmonics (see Diagram 7: Six violins play video/37377379 and read John Walden’s SOS article at www.htm. VST Expression (introduced by Steinberg in Cubase 5) is a very powerful tool. and that you can easily change the key of the music without worrying about affecting the keyswitches. you can remap them to different output notes. to provide consistency between MIDI controllers. can cause headaches when updating. so you’ll always hear the right articulation. Equally cool is the fact that the input keyswitches don’t appear in the sequence or score as actual notes (thereby avoiding tedious clean-up operations). As you can see. Cubase’s VST Expression can be a great help to composers working with libraries and instruments from different articles/cubasetech_0110. These notes don’t have to correspond to the actual keyswitches on your sampler. This is great for my brain. and as musical symbols within the Score Editor. D0 for staccato. provide mock-ups and print out the parts for the players. which. er… it’ll come to me. I was able to feature violin harmonics on another Anathema track. One of the best ways to provide consistency throughout your template and across all your sample libraries (whether reprogrammable or not) is to use VST Expression — a Cubase-only feature I’ve come to rely on heavily to get work done on schedule. There are two drawbacks: the first is that Cubase’s Score Editor’s vertical positioning of the musical symbols leaves a lot to be desired.TECHNIQUE H O W TO A R R a N G E F O R S t R I N G s : Pa Rt 3 as if it’s coming from another universe. This is essential when working with multiple sample libraries that use different controllers to achieve the same thing. such as my girlfriend’s birthday. ethereal harmonics on Anathema’s ‘I Made a Promise’. Additionally. C#0 for tremolo. for example. isn’t always possible and. regardless of where you start playback. via Cubase’s Articulations lane and Key Editor list. I can designate a keyboard note of (say) C0 to access arco (bowed) samples. and without losing my sanity.. technical consistency amongst MIDI controllers. s o u n d o n s o u n d . Another nice touch is that Cubase chases the keyswitches. harmonics are notated by placing a small circle above the note. diagram 7). and so on. at-a-glance overview in both editors. once I’ve imported the Cubase arrangement as a MusicXML file. It takes the concept of keyswitches and presents them in a musically relevant way. This means that I can convert. or even send out CC messages. making it a lot easier and more enjoyable. ethereal sound. and is a perfect complement to consolidating keyswitches via VST Expression. The other issue is that VST Expression is currently only offered by Steinberg/Cubase. After an intro featuring some mournful. This intelligent way of handling MIDI data makes it possible to quickly create large-scale mock-ups and musically coherent scores at the same time. firstly. E0 for marcato. Artificial harmonics are often Masterclass Tip 2: Cubase’s VST Expression Just as a good knowledge of instrument balance. and I can easily and automatically tweak their positions in Sibelius later. but we live in hope that it will be implemented by other developers in due course! David William Hearn For more about working with VST Expression. full-strings chords. this created a delicate. and a great help for composers on tight deadlines who need to compose. This is a godsend when working with samplers such as Play. If you like. God knows what the audience of 100 years ago must have made of it when the piece was premiered. it also avoids the hassle of having to edit your sampler patches.. c o m . section balance and range is essential when setting up a homogenous and realistic-sounding orchestral template. see the video Cinematic Strings & VST Expression at http://player. I remember now — they rioted. oh. CC1 to CC11 on some tracks but not others. and. transposition and crossfade variables are just as important to provide an efficient workflow. keyswitches. D#0 for pizzicato. secondly. 74 August 2012 / w w w . I only have to remember one main set of keyswitches and controllers for all the tracks in my template — regardless of which sample library it’s triggering.soundonsound. Once it’s set up. With each note taken by two players. the piano-based instrumental ‘I Made A Promise’ (originally released in song form as ‘J’ai Fait Une Promesse’).

The basic idea is that. usually played with the bow tip) is commonly used to denote suspense.’ notated with diamond-shaped note heads. and when played by double basses it can produce massive-sounding. There is. this technique constitutes the classic. The music is light and romantic. shuddering vibrations on a seismic scale. a more subtle application of tremolo that avoids such clichés: we in the trade call it ‘div trem’ (short for ‘divisi tremolo’). however. This proved to be the perfect approach for an instrumental piece called ‘Belle de Jour’ on Steven Wilson’s Grace For Drowning 2011 double album. a section divides in two. reminiscent . but in this case I left it to the players to work out how to play them! ‘Belle De Jour’ Canny media composers will be wise to the fact that the strings’ tremolo style (a very fast repetition of a note. scary ‘Behind you!’ film music cue. with half the players doing the tremolo bowing while the others play in the normal arco style.Diagram 8: An extract from the string arrangement of Steven Wilson’s atmospheric ‘Belle de Jour. rather than everyone playing tremolo. When executed by an entire string section playing a diminished chord.

so gave the cellos a melody line that adds a low major seventh to the Ab-major chord in bar three. In the studio. back in the group’s doom period. though. he replied. as it can have the effect of making large ensembles seem much smaller. but I can see how in certain circles a trill the chords. and in my opinion sounds particularly good on strings and woodwinds. I wanted to introduce some additional harmonic movement within executed these expressive gestures as if they had performed them hundreds of times. David William Hearn of ’60s film soundtracks. where the melody line is briefly underpinned by the four adjacent white notes A. Coming from a rock background that recognises only two dynamics — loud. but still retains an ominous quality. but it works for me: when programming string parts. Diagram 8 shows a short extract from the ‘Belle de Jour’ string arrangement. you can subtly fade it in and out to add poignancy to selected phrases. but it sounded good to me! The crescendo and diminuendo dynamic movements in this extract are a very important aspect of string playing. when in fact they had never heard the music before — surely the sign of an ensemble who play a lot together. we tried various ways of implementing the ‘div trem’ approach — and. which added a very nice shimmering effect to the high melody line. see-sawing E-minor bass riff which goes up to F in the second half of every fourth bar. as I recall. and had augmented the sampled strings on his demo with a real violin. The re-interpreted. 21st-century version is more lyrical and romantic. I was also amazed that the players collectively VSL’s Vienna Instrument ‘Map Control’ window can invert incoming MIDI CC data so that pushing your expression controller down makes the instrument volume quieter! might be considered a bit namby-pamby — however. expressive volume swells and fades even though the parts didn’t specify them. or use it more dramatically to emphasise a climactic passage. try adding a solo violin to the ensemble. s o u n d o n s o u n d . B. I noticed when I first worked with the superb London Session Orchestra players that they naturally added subtle. and louder — this was both a pleasant surprise and a valuable lesson. guitar-dominated affair.TECHNIQUE H O W TO A R R a N G E F O R S t R I N G s : Pa Rt 3 Masterclass Tip 3: Add A Solo Instrument This simple technique is as old as the hills. The chords 76 August 2012 / w w w . When I asked why. One of the song’s main themes is a big. Sunset Trills Trills — love’em or hate’em? A vocalist of my acquaintance once asked me not to play any on the backing track of a song we were working on. half-time. played by himself in vigorous tremolo style. and consequently it’s a slow and heavy. the technique can be very effective when used sparingly. Steven had specified the tremolo delivery. The original version had appeared on the 1995 album A Silent Enigma. C and D. I also deliberately introduced some harmonic confusion in bar six. its highly emotive vibrato) introduces an extra expressive dimension.” That certainly wasn’t true in my case. The sound of the solo instrument (in particular. also from Falling Deeper. “because I always think musicians only play trills when they can’t think of anything else to play. Be careful not to overdo this. I used trills on a string arrangement for Anathema’s ‘Sunset of Age’. we ended up with only the first violins doing it. c o m . The basic chord sequence oscillates between A-minor and Abmajor. Using the mod wheel as the volume controller. This breaks all the rules of harmony.

Diagram 9: Anathema’s epic. A-minor. I wanted to hear something different playing over the chord sequence. you’ll find that the new breed of studio string players are very helpful. and will happily advise you on the best way to perform your arrangements. The strings are basically moving in a kind of counter-rhythm between a D-major and E-minor chord. by making the higher strings play half-time off-beats. I suspect that many musicians would like to try their hand at string arranging but are intimidated by what seems like a complicated process. At the outset. histrionic guitar solo (some things never change). I appended a manic-sounding slide down from a high-pitched E-minor triad over the last two beats. I wrote a high trill note in bars 3 and 4. Note the dramatic violins trill and slide down. In Conclusion I hope some of the techniques. ‘Everwake’ and ‘I Made a Promise’ (all composed by Daniel Cavanagh) are from the 2011 album Falling Deeper by Anathema (www. 78 August 2012 / w w w . ‘Sunset of Age’ plays out on a long. musical extracts and technical tips outlined above will be of use to you. giving the strings a great. so wrote the four-bar passage you see in diagram 9. When it came to the instrumental. To add more angst. The hallmark of this particular section is the emphatic staccato rhythm played by violas and cellos. doubled in places by high violins. formerly doom-metal ‘Sunset of Age’ gets the full string orchestra treatment. almost like slowed-down reggae. rather than attempting to play the entire chord on their instrument (theoretically possible. and in the fourth-bar turnaround. c o m . s o u n d o n s o u n d . while the cellos doubled the on-beat bass line. but the notes are almost irrelevant: the significant fact here is that each pitch is played as a loud trill. but usually inadvisable). C-major 7 over E (one bar each). in the second verse. and examine how a string section can hold its own against a rock band in full flight. we now have excellent string sample libraries that you can experiment with before calling in the session musicians. it’s actually an orchestrated version of something I played on keyboard. The three notes in this chord were split between 14 violins in a 6:4:4 ratio. introduced by a dramatic run-up.TECHNIQUE H O W TO A R R a N G E F O R S t R I N G s : Pa Rt 3 played over it are E-minor. The solo peaks on a high sustained note. com).ws). Fortunately. As you’ll recall. using a combined strings-and-woodwinds patch from Project Sam’s excellent Symphobia 2 library (the woodwind element is pretty subdued. to finish the trill with a bang. I introduced more rhythm. two beats each on C-major over E and F-major 7. I’ll feature some of the less subtle aspects of string arrangement. In my next article. Thanks to the composers for permission to use extracts. vibrant energy. I wish you a pleasant and productive month of music-making. Until then. ‘Belle de Jour’ (Steven Wilson) is from the 2011 double album Grace For Drowning by Steven Wilson (www.gracefordrowning.anathema. chordal string trills. at which point I pushed the boat out and wrote the chordal trills you see in diagram 10. the strings play the changes as sustained chord pads. When you do pluck up courage Diagram 10: ‘Sunset of Age’ fades into the sunset with pulsating. but the marcato strings have a ‘Sunset of Age’. to book them. fierce attack). the instruction ‘div’ (short for ‘divisi’) in the score tells the players to divide the notes of the chord between them. ‘Lily’ (music by Rob Reed) is from the 2012 album Kompendium (www. magenta-web.

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