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Arranging For Strings: Part 4
Soaring, anthemic descants and quicksilver runs are the meat and potatoes of old-school string arranging. But they may not be enough to save the day when disaster strikes…

n my last article, I spoke about subtle string sonorities such as harmonics, dreamy cluster chords and ‘div trems’, the latter being string-player-speak for ‘divisi tremolo’ (a technique where half the players in a section play tremolo and the rest use a straight bowing). These delicate timbres can sound beautiful in a quiet musical setting, but when pitted against a rock band cranking out monster riffs, they fail to make any kind of impression. In order to cut through the sonic fog of


distorted guitars, dense keyboard pads, stentorian vocals and thrashing drums, we need something a little less ethereal. The old standby for string arrangers struggling to make their creations audible in a crowded musical environment is the high, soaring violins line, often written as a counterpoint to the vocal melody. This is such an established fixture in arrangements that you might be forgiven for thinking it was obligatory — I hear it all the time in the string demos that bands send me. In choral music, this type of high-pitched, decorative tune is called a ‘descant’, sometimes heard in

church choirs when the sopranos sing a high counter-melody over the last verse of a hymn. It’s a very satisfying musical device, and when applied to strings it can make good use of the violins’ extreme high register.

Grey Skies
The beauty of descant lines is that they can be extremely simple: if a song has a quick, rhythmic vocal line, you can write a high counter-melody that uses few notes and moves quite slowly, thus creating a nice contrast. Such musical motifs can be a hook in their own right —


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

The simple counter-melody also introduces the subtle harmonic colouring of an F note over a Gbsus2 chord. One such example is the song ‘Untouchable’. Coupled with the fast. The three-note chords are played by divisi second violins (marked in blue) and violas. write chord pads for the second violins and violas. bubbling percussion and a half-time drum feel. a nice way of playing a (kind of) major seventh that avoids the sleazy. while the bass line is played by cellos and basses in octaves. c o m / September 2012 137 . As you can see. you could simply assign the high octave to the first violins and the lower octave to the seconds. One of the simplest high string counter-melodies I wrote was for a song of mine called ‘Grey Skies’. shown in diagram 3. and bring in cellos and basses to reinforce the bass line — perhaps the kind of thing I’ve sketched out in diagram 2. against which the high string line moves very slowly. rocky anthem with distorted guitars and a heavy backbeat. Diagram 2: A fleshed-out string arrangement of the ‘Grey Skies’ excerpt designed to support the high violins counter-melody in diagram 1. you need to think melodically and try to compose simple. these different rates of change combine into an agreeably ambiguous rhythmic could divide the first violins to play the upper and lower octaves of the high melody. I added a high strings melody voiced in octaves. while the second is a quiet ballad featuring a touching male/female vocal duet sung by Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas. if you needed some chordal support from the strings. Alternatively. The compositional basis for this song is a simple piano figure played by Danny Cavanagh. lounge-jazz connotations of that particular chord name. The backing track features a lot of programmed 16th-note percussion. a classic orchestral timbre. s o u n d o n s o u n d . To arrange this counter-melody for real players. memorable phrases that enhance the song without stealing the lead vocal’s thunder. In the second chorus. the chords move at the rate of one per bar and the vocal line has a largely quarter-note rhythm. w w w . featuring long notes and minimal melodic movement — it’s almost an exercise in how long you can get away with holding a note through the chord changes before moving to a new pitch! I’ve reproduced the first few bars of the chorus of ‘Grey Skies’ in diagram 1. a harmonic coloration favoured by your author that is often considered de trop in conventional pop/rock arrangements. vocal line and keyboard chords. engaging melody. My string arrangement for ‘Untouchable Part 2’ features the piano motif played in various registers: it starts out low and subdued on violas. Diagram 4 shows how the lead vocal part works in tandem with the Diagram 1: Extract from the arrangement of ‘Grey Skies’ showing (from top down) the high countermelody (voiced in octaves). The top notes of the chords (marked in red) pick out a simple. This is a good example of effective ‘voice leading’. Untouchable The UK band Anathema (for whom I’ve written a fair number of string arrangements) are no strangers to counter-melodies — many of their songs are constructed over repeated melodic motifs which play in counterpoint to the vocal lines. I particularly like the way the final melodic movement from F to Eb transforms the harmonic make-up of the chord from a Gm7 to an ‘Eb over G’ (aka ‘Eb first inversion’). before moving up an octave into the violin register. On the choruses. balladic song. This is split into two parts: the first builds into an intense. Some chords contain tone intervals. it ascends again and is played in octaves by violins. above which floats a lyrical. a vital skill every composer and arranger should strive to master.

when sequencing a run. The power of music. the high strings line is far more rhythmically active than the sparse vocal line. you don’t have to use eight notes in a run. while the vocal is rhythmic and syncopated. For that reason. but nowadays time-stretching can be used Diagram 3: The piano part of Anathema’s ‘Untouchable Part 2’ with its repeated melodic motif marked in red. as we call them in the trade). a player might think he or she should play both notes simultaneously. but this time the roles are reversed: as you can see in diagram 5. the strings play straight.. slow on-beat whole and half notes (or semibreves and minims. I didn’t have this particular number of notes in mind when I composed it. An alternative to fiddling about trying to make these pre-recorded phrases fit your track is to play them yourself. written for an instrumentation of first and second violins. Note the ‘div’ marking in bar 6. s o u n d o n s o u n d . descant string writing is ubiquitous. In the past. After the line ‘bring me my arrows “One of the double bass players said “Er. violas and cellos. The slow movement of the violins counter-melody (marked in red) contrasts with the faster. c o m . However. even specialise in the style. the aforementioned fast ascending violins run is another staple of old-school string arranging.” to force the runs to your song tempo. The idea was to ascend quickly from Middle C to a high C over three beats. string players don’t perform complicated Diagram 4: The four-part string arrangement for the chorus of ‘Untouchable Part 2’. simply being able to write a high counter-melody might just be enough to get you hired as an arranger! Although I don’t buy into the whole flag-waving bit. virtually every strings sample library under the sun contains ascending and descending octave runs. although that naturally requires the ability to perform a scale on a keyboard. a recent string arrangement of mine contained a fast ascending run of 15 notes. an instruction (as discussed previously) to the first violins to divide into two equal sections to handle the upper and lower part respectively. violins’ counter-melody. sample library manufacturers would record these runs in a choice of tempos in the hope that one might fit your track. more rhythmic vocal line. Some. slowing the tempo down to half speed will take the strain out of the performance and ensure all the notes get played in the correct time span! Keep in mind that although a conventional octave run can conveniently be played as eight 16th notes over two beats. you don’t have to play the run at a quick tempo. Notating the note stems in opposite directions (as in the last bar) also confirms the section division. one of my favourite string descants happens in an arrangement of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ I have on a BBC Last Night of the Proms CD. and the maths just worked out that way. Without this instruction. Dave — we haven’t got any parts. eh? Sprint Finish Although it seems to have fallen out of favour in pop circles recently.. and if nothing more adventurous is required. as shown in diagram 6. When confronted with such a run.TECHNIQUE A R R a N G I N G F O R S T R I N G s : Pa RT 4 of desire’ the violins take off in a soaring upward run culminating in a high D — it reduces me to tears every time. Another example of counter-melody occurs in Anathema’s song ‘Kingdom’. such as Peter Siedlaczek’s Smart Violins and the more recent Orchestral Tools Orchestral String Runs. As mentioned earlier. ”These are not the words you want to hear when poised to record. 138 September 2012 / w w w .

If that’s the case. I suppose it’s the musical equivalent of trying to fix a photo by doing tons of Photoshop work — it can actually end up looking worse! I usually think of this kind of layering as a last resort. • If you have a passage that you know will be tricky — for example. Thankfully. I’ve been asked a few times to layer sampled strings over the real thing and it can work pretty well. but it’s more fun to invent your own! I went slightly bonkers with this approach in the Anathema song ‘Sunset of Age’. Dave — we haven’t got any parts. On the day. you’re going to end up with a slightly odd sound. Such phrases tend to be simple and modular in construction: diagram 7 shows some examples. remember to grab a take from the players with that particular part ‘tacet’. it turned out that only one part was missing. Not a great way to start a session. • Layering sampled and real performances is not as straightforward as you might think. I wrote the intense 16th-note passage you see in diagram 8.” These are not the words you want to hear when poised to record the first cue of your film soundtrack. this isn’t how people listen to strings in the real world! I’ve found that adding solo instrument or smaller-section samples to larger real sections works well. hopefully not as a result of my contribution). The Missing Parts Enough of such musical triumphs. expose tuning issues that would tend to go unnoticed in a larger group. rather than doubling the same parts. Smaller ensembles. and were therefore globally flat or sharp of concert pitch. bear in mind that you may encounter tuning issues that go beyond the occasional out-of-tune note from the real players. Diagram 5: The repeated chorus of Anathema’s ‘Kingdom’ — the sparse vocal moves at a slower rate than the insistent quarter-note violins part. fast. In film music. these work best in the real world when there’s a substantial number of players. thereby 140 September 2012 / w w w . Fortunately. tiring ostinati parts played to a tight. If you have a quartet or octet and then add 60 sampled strings behind them. after which we were back on track. one of the double-bass players said “Er. relentless. Depending on the situation. so amused themselves for the next two hours by doing the world’s longest soundcheck and whipping out classical pieces they knew by heart. let alone check the copyist’s parts before the session. though! As disasters go. if you’ve written a piece that calls for a lot of artificial harmonics. Everyone ready? We’re starting with the first cue.TECHNIQUE A R R a N G I N G F O R S T R I N G s : Pa RT 4 Masterclass Tips: Adding Samples To Real Strings • If you’re adding samples to a real string section. and I had horrible visions of having to teach the bass players their parts by whistling them. the string players saved the day by playing his scores absolutely brilliantly on the first take. European orchestras generally tune up to a different reference pitch (A=443Hz is quite normal. As is often the case in the film world. use samples instead — you’re likely to get a better result. although there’s a danger of it ending up sounding too massive and lacking in detail. I’ve also occasionally come across real strings that were recorded without any kind of backing track. Disaster can strike when you’re least expecting it. and in the US). I generally try and get to the point on the live date where the samples and the live recordings complement each other. quick click that need to be bang on the grid — you might want the samples to take over at that point. 16th-note. The players showed up at the studio to find there were no parts. It’s played in unison octaves. the cinematic opus in question remains unreleased. with the last ascending run harmonised by the cellos a sixth down. they simply treat the phrase as a whole and make sure it fits the allotted space in the bar. • Adding big strings to small strings is generally not a great idea. as opposed to the A=440Hz used here in the UK. If you have a smaller section and want a lot of exposed clean harmonics. For example. • Plan your overdubs. David William Hearn mental arithmetic to work out the precise length of each individual note. and no treatise of this type would be complete without a few string-arranging horror stories. as the latter process can noticeably degrade the sound. by their nature. the bassists were able to read their part from my score. If I’m planning a sampled/real hybrid. The result is an exciting ‘whoosh’. It’s quite common in smaller film sessions or recording sessions to save time and expense by working out which bits the samples can handle better. so as to leave a space for the samples in the mix. Having been asked to give the piece an epic feel and further encouraged by its composer to “go apeshit”. as the smaller sound often features more musical detail. s o u n d o n s o u n d . quiet please. it was a rush job — there was barely time to write the cues. I sat chewing my nails in the control room as players began to arrive and tune up. you may find it preferable to retune the samples rather than trying to pitch-shift the real recordings. Then came the fateful moment: “OK guys. this pales into insignificance compared to the story of the arranger who set off for a strings session without realising a train strike was scheduled that day. a bit like a fast harp glissando. two hours late. and have never needed to do it on my own sessions. Pre-titles. small discrepancies within the section help to blur the rhythm and create the flowing quality that’s unique to strings. classical-style string phrases are often employed to create excitement and propel the action. c o m . although I did have a nasty moment when recording strings on a film score (sadly.” After some paper-rustling and muttering. When the poor arranger finally showed up with the parts. and of course Sod’s Law decreed it was for the cue we recorded first. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid the worst of these.

142 September 2012 / w w w . but we’re talking major-league superstar. and we were frantically making notes in the control room about which sections sounded OK and which we still hadn’t covered. helpful attitude. Prior to another attempt at an error-free take. Dave and I needed help fixing the players. A friend of mine was from a classical music background. It certainly didn’t improve anyone’s timing or tuning. we really should have had a tea break by now”. Don’t worry about the maths — the players will figure out how to squeeze all the notes in! cramming three hours’ work into the remaining hour left on the session clock. concerts and TV appearances. They sat down and played my printed sheets with a great. Meanwhile. I-can-have-whatever-I-want mentality here. no recordings exist. I tune my open strings flat and then play them into pitch on the neck. In the late ’80s. when I hooked up with a group of young players fixed by the cellist/vocalist Caroline Lavelle. Where my inexperience as an untrained. “We could hear that the cellist’s low C string was a quarter-tone flat. known as much for his terminal indecision and brutal whimsicality (not to mention his unfeasibly tight trousers) as his vocal prowess. the cellist refused: ‘No — you see. often used in arrangements to stoke up the excitement. I avoided using live strings until 13 years later. nobody has remembered to rewrite all the orchestra charts a semitone higher. A friend of mine recounts an incident involving an internationally famous singer. and some of the tuning just plain unacceptable. and were complimentary about what I’d written. and his father (a respected section leader of one of the UK’s larger orchestras) kindly offered to get together some of his colleagues and create a small section for us. I was asked by my pal Jakko Jakszyk to write a string arrangement for an album track he was producing for a well-known of the 20th century. and we somehow managed to negotiate a degree of goodwill from the majority to finish a final take. the atmosphere of undisguised contempt from a couple of the players hadn’t eased. ‘that this piece lasts six or seven minutes. The whole event is being filmed for DVD at the same time. artiste. What Key Are We In? Some disasters are just plain funny. (Thankfully. in the cramped live area. we don’t tune up like that. The album is finally completed about a year later. The Bad Attitude Although the modern breed of string session player combines musical excellence with a positive outlook. We took one.’ “I resisted the temptation to inform him that had they played the f***ing thing right in the first place they’d all have been on their way home some time ago. how do you tune up?’ Dave asked. and have them sit in the live room wearing headphones. ‘Er — yes. you have a point there. The artiste and journalists can clearly hear the live orchestra playing a semitone lower than the recorded and pitch-shifted orchestra on tape. Jakko takes up the story: “Being new to recording live strings. “I have to admit to being nervous on the day of the session. at his watch at regular intervals. As a result of this experience. trying to tune bits and cover up errors with fake strings. so by the time this take is finished. That’s when he wasn’t scanning his broadsheet newspaper between takes.’ “What made this worse was that one of the older musicians kept looking ‘I’ve just noticed’ he said. “We were just about to launch into yet another take when the same grey-haired player stopped us during the count-in. When Dave asked the players to re-tune their instruments to an A=440 tuning tone. The timing wasn’t great. this guy piped up with “According to union rules.TECHNIQUE A R R a N G I N G F O R S T R I N G s : Pa RT 4 Diagram 6: A fast two-octave violins run played over the fourth. The unfortunate artiste tries to sing along to both. s o u n d o n s o u n d . The artiste has an idea for its launch: invite a handful of important journalists to the studio it was recorded in. it wasn’t always thus. listening to a vocal-less mix of the album while the artiste sings a live vocal in front of the original orchestra (who are effectively miming). Here were half a dozen very experienced players with expensive vintage instruments and a long CV of recordings.’ ‘Then what happens when it comes to the open bottom C in bar 88?’ This stumped him. ‘It would take too long to explain. we’ll be into overtime. tapping his watch. Obviously it would have been better to decide that before recording the orchestra. the artiste tells his long-suffering MD that he actually wants the song a semitone higher.) Moral for would-be arrangers: make sure the singer is comfortable with the key before you finalise a score. People who were used to playing the most demanding music Diagram 7: Some typical examples of 16th-note ‘classical’ phrases. when they come to play the key-changed piece. “We spent the next day or so editing takes. But basically. The MD spends ages pitch-shifting the orchestra to match the newly requested key. fifth and sixth beat of a 6/4 bar. c o m . And here we were — mere rock musicians making pop music. Shortly after an orchestral session. Regrettably. Some hours in.’ ‘Well. It was therefore confusing and somewhat alarming when the first couple of takes appeared to be riddled with mistakes.

whether they be sampled or the real thing! Either way. I hope some of the musical and technical ideas we introduced will spur you on to create your own arrangements. the note number always increments by one when you move up a semitone from B to C! low violins register. you can create a workable facsimile using violins and cellos: if you set the two patches to the same MIDI channel and adjust their key ranges (as explained in the ‘Creating A Split Point’ box) to create a split point at Middle C (see diagram 9). It left me with a changed view. demon. and thanks also to my colleagues for their valuable input. To do this in Kontakt. expressive and moving sound of strings. it’s not absolutely essential to use a large template containing all the separate components of a string section (first violins.anathema. rich. my first string arranging article in SOS June 2012 contained some When the low part moves into the higher register (as in the second half of bar two and the first half of bar four). OK. In fact. bear in mind that they often work best in their traditional role of doubling the cellos part an octave down. Adjusting key ranges is not the same thing as remapping the samples. so if you use your ears and a bit of common sense when it comes to working out your instrumentation.davebarb. Thanks to the composers for permission to use extracts. In EastWest’s Play sample player. Diagram 9: A quick way of faking a full orchestral string section is to use just two patches (violins and cellos). When considering the basses. A more exhaustive study appears in Lesson 1 of Gary Garritan’s ‘Principles of Orchestration by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’ thread at the Northern Sounds forum www. The beauty of the string family is that its instruments are designed to blend together into a unified whole. it’s nice to reflect that in this brash electronic era. The upper line was played by first and second but the up side is that coloured keys on Play’s GUI keyboard will show the new playing zone you’ve created. and so on). novice arranger made itself evident with a wrong note or lack of dynamic marking. unless. If your strings library has no full strings patches. supported an octave down by cellos. The only difficulty I occasionally experience is precisely identifying the crossover point: instrument makers have created confusion by failing to agree on whether Middle C should be called C3 or C4. I’ve often used them to develop string arrangements to the point of near-completion. we’re still enjoying the fabulous. you happen to specialise in creating orchestral other than writing for real strings. they all just took a pencil to their part with a broad smile. that’s it. if you use Kontakt Player) in the top-left corner of the instrument window. c o m / September 2012 143 . s o u n d o n s o u n d . this function is buried under Main Menu/ Current Instrument/Advanced Properties. I’ve found this type of instantly playable patch to be incredibly useful for composing and sketching. click on the small spanner icon (or cog icon. you can use the setup as a virtual full-strings patch and think about violas and double basses later. and adjust the lower and upper notes in the ‘Key Range’ boxes. but whatever the system. but some sample player programs make a bit of a meal of it.northernsounds. in order to squeeze another one in beside it. second violins. of course. Splitting these particular instruments at Middle C often works well. select ‘Instrument Options’. ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Sunset of Age’ (both composed by Daniel Cavanagh) are from the album Falling Deeper by Anathema www. since all you’re doing is limiting the playable keyboard zone of an instrument.Diagram 8: Excerpt from the ‘Sunset of Age’ string arrangement. ‘Grey Skies’ (D. but the Vienna Instrument and Garritan Aria players appear to lack the facility altogether. Stewart) is from the album The Big Idea (Special Edition) by Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin www. Thanks for following my thoughts on the big topic of string arranging over the last four issues of SOS. w w w . violas. set them to the same MIDI channel and create a split point between them. Best Service’s Engine player and the Vienna Ensemble host (free when you purchase a VSL library) both conveniently display key-range settings on the instrument GUI. ‘Untouchable Part 2’ (Daniel Cavanagh) is from the album Weather Systems by Anathema. It sounded fantastic.” In Conclusion Although most pro orchestral sample-users will tell you otherwise. A simpler way to get started is to use the ‘full strings’ patches supplied in many orchestral string libraries: these contain the entire string family mapped across the keyboard according to range. you shouldn’t go too far wrong! If you’re unsure of the numbers of players required to create a balanced ensemble sound. The procedure is simply a matter of adjusting the patches’ key ranges. the violas take over from the cellos. with adjacent instruments blended so there’s no obvious timbral break as you move from (say) the high cellos to the Technical Note: Creating A Split Point It’s actually quite easy to set a split point between two a beautiful timbre that has been with us for over 300 years. a love for the new guard and a desire to do nothing else again.

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