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Arranging For Strings, Part 3


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In this article:
Slimming World
Arranging For Strings, Part 3
General Cluster Tips & Techniques Buy PDF

Delicate Sonorities Published in SOS August 2012

Technique : Theory + Technical
Harmonics Printer-friendly version
'Belle De Jour' From a delicate shimmer to an earthquake tremor,
Sunset Trills harmonics, tremolo and trills can add vibrancy and drama
In Conclusion to your string arrangements. Find out how to make the
Masterclass Tip 1:
Vibrato Crossfading
most of them in this SOS masterclass.
Masterclass Tip 2: Dave Stewart
Cubase's VST

Expression elcome to the third part of my string-arranging series
Masterclass Tip 3: and if you missed the first two, they're available online
Add A Solo Instrument at /sos/jun12/articles/string-theory-pt1.htm and
/sos/jul12/articles/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 guitar makes
a homogenous sound in which all notes blend together into
a unified whole; a string ensemble is far less homogenous, since
it features different types of instrument, as well as multiple
players performing each note of a chord. The resulting sound is
therefore richer, more complex and more expressive than
a keyboard or guitar could ever be, so in order to avoid creating
an overly dense sound, we need to think carefully about what
notes in a chord should be assigned to the string players.

A simple illustration is the pair of chords you see in diagram 1:

this classic A-minor to C-major movement sounds perfectly Diagram 1: A simple A-minor to C-major chord movement.
These six-note voicings sound fine played on keyboard and
satisfactory played on keyboard or guitar, but when performed by guitar, but sound too full when performed by real string players
a string section literally as written, it sounds too full. In order to let exactly as written.
some 'air' into the string chords, we need to thin out the voicings.
A good starting point is to identify any duplicated notes: as you can see in diagram 2, the top notes (A and C respectively) are
doubled an octave down (marked in red); the second-from-bottom notes of E and G (shown in blue) are also duplicated an
octave higher.

Although they add warmth and richness when played on

keyboard and guitar, these mid-range octave doublings have
a built-in musical redundancy that's to say, they don't add any
new harmonic information to the chord and so can be safely
omitted when arranging for strings, leaving us with the
pared-down voicings in diagram 3. Alternatively, if you miss the
comforting presence of a fifth at the base of the chord, you could Diagram 2-4, from left: Duplicated notes within the chords are
try the alternative version in diagram 4, which reinstates the low marked in red and blue (respectively, the top and second-from
top notes doubled an octave lower); thinned-out versions of
fifths and omits the second-from-top notes. the two chords omit the duplicated notes; and an alternative
voicing which retains the low fifth interval and omits the
Benefiting from wide, similarly proportioned intervals, the last second-from-top notes.
version sounds elegant and would work a treat with its notes
assigned to (from the top down), first violins, second violins, violas and cellos. The difference in sound between the diagram 3
and diagram 4 chords is rather subtle; it would be an excellent ear-training exercise to alternate them slowly and repeatedly,
enabling you to accurately discern their different flavours.

General Cluster
As I remarked in my first article, two months ago, one of the interesting things about
writing string arrangements nowadays is that songs usually arrive with a 'strings demo'
attached, more often than not created by the song's composer. A set of demo string
arrangements of unusual quality came from a client called Rob Reed, a genial Welsh
keyboardist and TV composer who was in the process of recording his own long-form DAW Tips from SOS
symphonic-rock concept album. (I realise that to utter the last sentence in a UK music
100s of great articles!
magazine back in 1977 would possibly have led to death threats, but in the Cubase
Diagram 5: The opening chord of
post-post-punk, chilled-out climate we now enjoy, I feel safe to tell you that the music on Rob Reed's song 'Lily', from his Digital Performer

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Arranging For Strings, Part 3

this album is of an impressively high standard.) self-produced album Kompendium. Live

The composer, who earns his living working with live players as well as creating MIDI mock-ups round the clock, knows his Pro Tools
musical onions, and had used some top-end sample collections in his string demos. The libraries included LA Scoring Strings Reaper
and Miroslav Vitous' Symphonic Orchestra String Ensembles. The arrangements, therefore, sounded very good, and the Reason
musical ideas worked so well that I didn't feel the need to elaborate or rewrite much. For me, this meant that (unusually) the Sonar
job was mainly concerned with the details of the orchestration, rather than dreaming up entirely new arrangements from

One song's intro was particularly effective, being a quiet, sustained chord with an eerie, dreamy atmosphere, played on high
violins. I couldn't exactly identify it by ear, but thought it might be a major chord with some added intervals. Opening the MIDI
file revealed the dense voicing you see in diagram 5. I'm assuming that Rob played it with two hands, rather than cheating and
using his feet.

Orchestrating this dense event for real players required thought: while the sampled
demo version sounded fine, I wasn't convinced that we needed the players to perform
all nine notes. I feared that would sound too full and undermine the attractive,
transparent quality of the demo. The solution was to omit the three pitches marked in
red: the top note was so quietly played on the demo as to be practically inaudible, and
I also felt we could live without the two Eb notes, since the Gb was already adding
a nice fourth suspension to the lower Db-major triad. In the end, I orchestrated the
chord as depicted in diagram 6. You'll notice that the top note of the violas is interposed
between the second violins' two pitches, in order to help unify the two sections.

I should point out that although this chord contains a fair number of closely-positioned
notes, the concerns about over-density noted earlier were not a problem. This is
because, firstly, its high pitch precludes an excess of warmth or muddiness in the sound
and, secondly, since it's played unaccompanied at the top of a piece, it's not competing
with any other arrangement elements.

Delicate Sonorities Diagram 6: The 'Lily' opening chord

arranged for violins and violas.
The transparency and fragility of high, quietly played violins can
add a lovely atmospheric quality to a song. I had a chance to
explore this area when I worked with the Liverpool band
Anathema on Falling Deeper last year. The album is a collection
of re-interpretations of earlier recordings, some dating back to Diagram 7: Six violins play delicate, ethereal harmonics on
the early '90s when Anathema were a doom metal band. Anathema's 'I Made a Promise'.
Although a certain heaviness remains, the deathly overtones of
yesteryear have been supplanted by a tender, more reflective, emotional and somewhat mystical approach tinged with
a wistful, Celtic melancholy in other words, the perfect setting for strings!

As several of the songs on Falling Deeper were played on unaccompanied piano, there was plenty of scope for lighter
sonorities. One example was the song 'Everwake', a charming 3/4 ballad featuring guest vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen.
The opening verse leads to an eight-bar instrumental break in A-minor, played on solo acoustic guitar; I orchestrated it with
violins playing a sustained, high-pitched fifth interval of A and E (the lower note pitched an octave and a sixth above Middle

Note-wise, this is about as simple as it gets; clearly, 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. However, what I was exploiting here was not note content, but
sheer sound the light, bright, clear and pure sustained tone of the violin's top string, stroked delicately into sensual motion
by a horsehair bow. With eight violins playing the high note and six tackling the lower, this simple interval had a subtly
electrifying effect on the track.

If you want an even more delicate effect, try harmonics. As every
guitarist knows, these are obtained by playing a string while
touching it lightly at the octave with the fingertip, producing an
ethereal, quiet chime. String family instrument players can do this
too, and in fact can go one better, being also able to play
'artificial' harmonics by pressing the string down and lightly
touching a fourth interval above it, producing a harmonic two
octaves above the stopped note. Using this method, you can
write melodies consisting entirely of harmonics, although, due to
the difficulty of the technique, it's sensible to keep the part slow
Diagram 8: An extract from the string arrangement of Steven
and simple! Wilson's atmospheric 'Belle de Jour.'

A famous example is the solo violin melody in the introduction

of the second part of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Played entirely on harmonics over an eldritch series of eighth-note woodwind
chords, this unearthly, disembodied tune sounds as if it's coming from another universe. God knows what the audience of 100
years ago must have made of it when the piece was premiered... oh, I remember now they rioted.

I was able to feature violin harmonics on another Anathema track, the piano-based instrumental 'I Made A Promise'
(originally released in song form as 'J'ai Fait Une Promesse'). After an intro featuring some mournful, full-strings chords, the
piano picks out the vocal theme accompanied by the first violins playing quiet, sustained harmonics (see diagram 7). With
each note taken by two players, this created a delicate, ethereal sound. As you can see, harmonics are notated by placing
a small circle above the note. Artificial harmonics are often notated with diamond-shaped note heads, 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, usually played with
the bow tip) is commonly used to denote suspense. When
executed by an entire string section playing a diminished chord,
this technique constitutes the classic, scary 'Behind you!' film
music cue, and when played by double basses it can produce
massive-sounding, shuddering vibrations on a seismic scale.
There is, however, a more subtle application of tremolo that Diagram 9: Anathema's epic, formerly doom-metal 'Sunset of
avoids such clichs: we in the trade call it 'div trem' (short for Age' gets the full string orchestra treatment. Note the dramatic
'divisi tremolo'). violins trill and slide down.

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The basic idea is that, rather than everyone playing tremolo, a section divides in two, with half the players doing the tremolo
bowing while the others play in the normal arco style.

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. The music is light and romantic, reminiscent of '60s film soundtracks; Steven had specified the
tremolo delivery, and had augmented the sampled strings on his demo with a real violin, played by himself in vigorous tremolo

Diagram 8 shows a short extract from the 'Belle de Jour' string arrangement. In the studio, we tried various ways of
implementing the 'div trem' approach and, as I recall, we ended up with only the first violins doing it, which added a very
nice shimmering effect to the high melody line. The basic chord sequence oscillates between A-minor and Ab-major; I wanted
to introduce some additional harmonic movement within the chords, so gave the cellos a melody line that adds a low major
seventh to the Ab-major chord in bar three. I also deliberately introduced some harmonic confusion in bar six, where the
melody line is briefly underpinned by the four adjacent white notes A, B, C and D. This breaks all the rules of harmony, but it
sounded good to me!

The crescendo and diminuendo dynamic movements in this extract are a very important aspect of string playing. I noticed
when I first worked with the superb London Session Orchestra players that they naturally added subtle, expressive volume
swells and fades even though the parts didn't specify them. Coming from a rock background that recognises only two
dynamics loud, and louder this was both a pleasant surprise and a valuable lesson. I was also amazed that the players
collectively executed these expressive gestures as if they had performed them hundreds of times, when in fact they had never
heard the music before surely the sign of an ensemble who play a lot together.

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. When I asked why, he replied, "because I always
think musicians only play trills when they can't think of anything
else to play. That certainly wasn't true in my case, but I can see
how in certain circles a trill might be considered a bit
namby-pamby however, the technique can be very effective
when used sparingly, and in my opinion sounds particularly good
on strings and woodwinds.
Diagram 10: 'Sunset of Age' fades into the sunset with
I used trills on a string arrangement for Anathema's 'Sunset of pulsating, chordal string trills.
Age', also from Falling Deeper. The original version had
appeared on the 1995 album A Silent Enigma, back in the group's doom period, and consequently it's a slow and heavy,
guitar-dominated affair. The re-interpreted, 21st-century version is more lyrical and romantic, but still retains an ominous

One of the song's main themes is a big, half-time, see-sawing E-minor bass riff which goes up to F in the second half of
every fourth bar. The chords played over it are E-minor, A-minor, C-major 7 over E (one bar each), and in the fourth-bar
turnaround, two beats each on C-major over E and F-major 7. At the outset, the strings play the changes as sustained chord
pads; in the second verse, I introduced more rhythm, by making the higher strings play half-time off-beats, almost like
slowed-down reggae, while the cellos doubled the on-beat bass line. When it came to the instrumental, I wanted to hear
something different playing over the chord sequence, so wrote the four-bar passage you see in diagram 9.

The hallmark of this particular section is the emphatic staccato rhythm played by violas and cellos; it's actually an
orchestrated version of something I played on keyboard, using a combined strings-and-woodwinds patch from Project Sam's
excellent Symphobia 2 library (the woodwind element is pretty subdued, but the marcato strings have a good, fierce attack).

To add more angst, I wrote a high trill note in bars 3 and 4, introduced by a dramatic run-up; to finish the trill with a bang,
I appended a manic-sounding slide down from a high-pitched E-minor triad over the last two beats. The three notes in this
chord were split between 14 violins in a 6:4:4 ratio. As you'll recall, the instruction 'div' (short for 'divisi') in the score tells the
players to divide the notes of the chord between them, rather than attempting to play the entire chord on their instrument
(theoretically possible, but usually inadvisable).

'Sunset of Age' plays out on a long, histrionic guitar solo (some things never change), doubled in places by high violins. The
solo peaks on a high sustained note, at which point I pushed the boat out and wrote the chordal trills you see in diagram 10.
The strings are basically moving in a kind of counter-rhythm between a D-major and E-minor chord, but the notes are almost
irrelevant: the significant fact here is that each pitch is played as a loud trill, giving the strings a great, vibrant energy.

In Conclusion
I hope some of the techniques, musical extracts and technical
tips outlined above will be of use to you. I suspect that many
musicians would like to try their hand at string arranging but are
intimidated by what seems like a complicated process.
Fortunately, we now have excellent string sample libraries that
you can experiment with before calling in the session musicians.
When you do pluck up courage to book them, you'll find that the
new breed of studio string players are very helpful, and will
VSL's Vienna Instrument 'Map Control' window can invert
happily advise you on the best way to perform your incoming MIDI CC data so that pushing your expression
arrangements. controller down makes the instrument volume quieter!

In my next article, I'll feature some of the less subtle aspects of

string arrangement, and examine how a string section can hold its own against a rock band in full flight. Until then, I wish you
a pleasant and productive month of music-making.

'Lily' (music by Rob Reed) is from the 2012 album Kompendium ( 'Sunset of Age', 'Everwake' and 'I
Made a Promise' (all composed by Daniel Cavanagh) are from the 2011 album Falling Deeper by Anathema
( 'Belle de Jour' (Steven Wilson) is from the 2011 double album Grace For Drowning by Steven Wilson
( Thanks to the composers for permission to use extracts. .

Masterclass Tip 1: Vibrato Crossfading

It's important to imbue digital mock-ups with as much semblance of human expression as possible, which to me means
constantly varying dynamics and vibrato levels in a musically pleasing and realistic way. It can take many hours of study to
learn when and how live instrumentalists vary their vibrato, but it can all add an extra dimension to your mock-up, 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, which means that in my orchestral templates, MIDI

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CC#11 (traditionally used as the Expression controller) is

freed up for other functions. 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, and also on string ensembles.
Here's how to set up a vibrato crossfade using the Vienna
Instrument and 'Flute 1' from Vienna Symphonic Library's
Woodwinds I collection.
Load the patch 'FL1 sus Vib' into one Vienna Instrument
and 'FL1 sus noVib' into a second Vienna Instrument.
Set both instruments to the same MIDI channel.
Click on the second VI's 'Perform' tab, select 'Map
Control', highlight 'CC11 Expression' at the top of the
The humble modulation wheel can be pressed into service as
controller list and click on the 'Invert' button (see diagram a dynamic controller for your strings library.
on page 76).
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, while the vibrato flute simultaneously gets louder. Pull back the pedal, and the reverse
happens. This means you can start a note without vibrato and introduce it at will via the pedal; a nice, expressive
technique, and a big improvement on using 'progressive vibrato' instruments in which the vibrato always kicks in at the
same point. And, of course, while varying the vibrato intensity, you can also add volume swells and fades with the mod
One additional tip: when working with a multiple computer setup, I recommend using VSL's Vienna Ensemble Pro host,
a very cool piece of software which makes it easy to control multiple Vienna Instruments and VST/AU plug-ins over
Ethernet. It's also a very good option for allowing you to use large sample libraries inside DAWs that still aren't 64-bit, such
as Pro Tools. David William Hearn

Masterclass Tip 2: Cubase's VST Expression

Just as a good knowledge of instrument balance, section
balance and range is essential when setting up
a homogenous and realistic-sounding orchestral template,
technical consistency amongst MIDI controllers, keyswitches,
transposition and crossfade variables are just as important to
provide an efficient workflow. 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, and without losing
my sanity.
VST Expression (introduced by Steinberg in Cubase 5) is
a very powerful tool, and a great help for composers on tight
deadlines who need to compose, provide mock-ups and print
out the parts for the players. It takes the concept of
Cubase's VST Expression can be a great help to composers
keyswitches and presents them in a musically relevant way,
working with libraries and instruments from different
via Cubase's Articulations lane and Key Editor list, and as manufacturers.
musical symbols within the Score Editor. As well as providing
a great, at-a-glance overview in both editors, having the symbols show up in the score can save hours of tedious manual
inputting later on.
Using this system, I can designate a keyboard note of (say) C0 to access arco (bowed) samples, C#0 for tremolo, D0 for
staccato, D#0 for pizzicato, E0 for marcato, and so on. These notes don't have to correspond to the actual keyswitches on
your sampler. If you like, you can remap them to different output notes, make them change the track's MIDI channel, or
even send out CC messages. This is a godsend when working with samplers such as Play, which don't allow you to alter
or create keyswitch patches; it also avoids the hassle of having to edit your sampler patches, which, firstly, isn't always
possible and, secondly, can cause headaches when updating.
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), and that you can easily change the key of the music without worrying about
affecting the keyswitches. Another nice touch is that Cubase chases the keyswitches, so you'll always hear the right
articulation, regardless of where you start playback. All these little benefits massively speed up the mock-up process,
making it a lot easier and more enjoyable.
Additionally, to provide consistency between MIDI controllers, I often make use of Cubase's track-specific (or 'local')
input transformer. This means that I can convert, for example, CC1 to CC11 on some tracks but not others. This is
essential when working with multiple sample libraries that use different controllers to achieve the same thing, and is
a perfect complement to consolidating keyswitches via VST Expression. Once it's set up, 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. This is great for my brain, allowing a bit more space in there to remember other things, such as my girlfriend's
birthday, and, er it'll come to me.
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. 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, but at least the symbols are in there, and I can easily and automatically
tweak their positions in Sibelius later, once I've imported the Cubase arrangement as a MusicXML file. The other issue is
that VST Expression is currently only offered by Steinberg/Cubase, 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, see the video Cinematic Strings & VST Expression at and read John Walden's SOS article at /sos/jan10/articles/cubasetech_0110.htm.

Masterclass Tip 3: Add A Solo Instrument

This simple technique is as old as the hills, but it works for me: when programming string parts, try adding a solo violin to
the ensemble. The sound of the solo instrument (in particular, its highly emotive vibrato) introduces an extra expressive
dimension. Using the mod wheel as the volume controller, you can subtly fade it in and out to add poignancy to selected
phrases, or use it more dramatically to emphasise a climactic passage. Be careful not to overdo this, though, as it can
have the effect of making large ensembles seem much smaller. David William Hearn

Published in SOS August 2012

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Arranging For Strings, Part 3

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