"The Midi Musician’s Quick Primer
- Using Strings



What is it about an orchestra that gives it such an emotional and powerful impact? Almost nothing can match the sheer excitement of a room full of trained musicians at the top of their profession pouring their souls into a performance.


Orchestral writing stands almost at the opposite end of the improvisational spectrum. Whereas you can easily get away with a quick doodle on a piano or guitar, when it comes to orchestration it is all about planning, preparation and persistence. The old adage about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration stands true. Whilst you still need that small flash of inspiration and creativity, you also need to have an understanding of how an orchestra works and plenty of dedication.


A basic understanding of the modern orchestra and the various sections and instruments behind it will stand you in good stead. There are four major sections in a full orchestra: strings, winds, brass and percussion. Well look at each of these in turn and discover their idiosyncracies. Well also cover such basics as the instruments used, their ranges, tonal characteristics, how they are played and even the various seating arrangements - i.e how they should be panned.


At the end of each section, I will also provide you with some practical advice on how to write for them. By understanding the strengths and limitations of each section, you will end-up writing better parts and your musical vocabulary will also expand. Even if you only want to create a basic pad to provide a song with a strings background, youll benefit from this article. As you understand more of the mechanics behind each section, youll be able to breathe more life into your arrangements. And who knows, you might even find that you have a special aptitude for orchestration and take it much further!


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Of necessity, many technical terms are used in orchestration. It will be impossible to cover them all here as it would take a very large book to do so. Dont worry if it seems a bit daunting at first, the basics are not too difficult to come to grip with.


Before we embark on our journey of discovery, lets get one thing out of the way. You will find that most material is full of strange terms, mainly of Italian origin: vibrato, sul tasto, largo etc. There are two good reasons for this. The first is that Italy was one of the pioneering countries in the development of stringed instruments, which are the backbone of the orchestra. Even today, youll find the names of such distinguished instrument makers as Guarneri, Stradivarius et al still occupying the top position in terms of quality and reputation.


Secondly, because music is such an international medium it makes sense to use a single set of terms which everyone can use and understand. Of course, most of the terms used in orchestration have an equivalent in other languages but by convention the Italian terms, sprinkled with a few French ones, have become the standard when annotating scores. There is no need to worry about it, however, as Ill provide a translation for each new term we come across.



We will start with what is arguably the most important section in a full orchestra: the string section.


A string section is made-up of five smaller groups known respectively as first violins, second violins, violas, cellos and double-basses.


One strange quirk is that in English speaking countries we tend to use a mixture of English and Italian terms for the instruments. Whereas we use cello for a single instrument we use cellos for a group of them instead of the plural form celli as used in Italy. This is mainly due to historic quirks and the result of some bastardisation over the centuries. Dont be surprised if you hear cellos and celli - they are the same and equally correct!


The reason for these five groups is quite simple. You will find that each section of the orchestra with the exception of the percussions is commonly referred to as a choir. Like singing choirs it is organised in terms of pitches and sizes. In a choral group you go from the highest voice to the lowest i.e soprano, alto, tenor down to bass. The strings follow a similar arrangement and most string arrangements until the end of the classical period were made up of four parts, with the cellos and double-basses sharing the same part.



The violin is the smaller member of the family. Im sure you are familiar with its distinctive shape. The reason for that peculiar shape is to emphasise certain harmonics and it is this which gives the violin its distinctive timbre (a French term pronounced tahmbr and meaning colour or tone). Unlike a guitar, a violin has no frets and the player must learn to pitch the instrument accurately through arduous practice.


Also, unlike a guitar, the main way of producing sounds on the violin is by using a bow. This looks like a small inverted bow with a wooden handle and a hair part (traditionally made out of horse hair). Some rosin is used to coat the hair to help provide some friction when running the bow over the actual strings. As I said earlier this is the standard method for producing sound on a violin and is referred to as arco meaning bow. Unless specified otherwise, this is the sound produced by default. Another method of producing sounds is by using the fingers to pluck the strings. This short sound is referred to as pizzicato or pizz. meaning pluck or pinch.


In addition to these two methods of producing sound, there are a number of variations also known as articulations. Some of the most common ones are listed below:


* arco, the standard sound * pizzicato (plucked) * legato (tied or smooth) running each note into the next one for smooth phrasing * marcato (marked) producing a sharp attack * sul ponticello (on the bridge) * sul tasto (on the fingerboard) * col legno (with the wood) i.e hitting the strings with the wood of the bow * detache (French term for detached) i.e with a gap between notes * staccato, martellato, spiccato, saltato (or sautille), ricochet, jete etc. all various terms for short bowings


Dont worry too much about all these terms. The important ones are arco and pizz.. Another articulation youll come across is up and down which simply indicates which way the bow is played. Most of the time this is taken care off by the players themselves, but on occasion the composer (i.e you) may specify which to use. There is hardly any tonal difference between the two, but it offers a visual element: seeing the bows going up and down in harmony is much more pleasing than a free-for-all.


In addition to these articulations there are also dynamic markings i.e


* crescendo (gradually louder) * decrescendo (the opposite) * forte (loud) * fortissimo (VERY loud) * piano (soft or quiet)



These simply indicate how loud a piece should be played.


Last of all there are also some terms for expressions such as:


* vibrato * tremolo * tremelando



Which are basically ways to modulate or articulate a note whilst it is being played and add some expression to it.


Once again, dont be put off by all these terms. Most (except arco and pizz.) can be ignored to begin with and as you gradually become familiar with the others youll absorb all the meanings.



The other instruments in the strings family follow the same construction but get progressively larger and therefore lower in pitch - in the same way a bass guitar or double-bass is larger and lower than a normal guitar.


They are:

* viola * cello * double-bass


Like the violins they all possess four strings. The lowest string of each instrument has the darkest tone and as you go up, the others get progressively brighter. On a violin the lowest string is the G-string and it has a rich and mellow quality. You can exploit this to write dark and warm parts in the lower registers and brighter parts in the higher notes.



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In terms of range the string family covers an enormous range of seven octaves!


They cover the following pitches:


* violin, G below middle C (i.e the middle key on a keyboard MIDI note 60) all the way to high E, i.e beyond the top note on a five octave keyboard. * viola, C below middle C to a high G (slightly lower than a violin) * cello, low C (the lowest note on a five octave keyboard) all the way to a high E (one octave lower than the violin) * double-bass, an octave lower than the cello, and only goes up to a high G.



Now that we have covered the basics of the string section, Ill be sharing some tips and tricks when writing for a string section or when emulating one using a sampler.


If you come from the pop/rock/dance side of music writing, you will need to put aside the idea of strings as a do-it-all patch on your favourite keyboard or soft-sampler. While this type of sound has its place, a string section needs a totally different approach.



Even before you start, you should have some idea of what you want to achieve. What kind of mood, harmonies or chord sequence do you want to express? Will the orchestra carry the main melody or will it act more in a background or supporting role?


In this example well create a basic four part arrangement based on the chords C, G, C, F, G in 4/4 (i.e four beats to a bar). Nothing too extraordinary here.


Each comma represents a bar,


* 1st violins E, D, E, F, D * 2nd violins C, B, C, C, C (2 beats then) B * violas G, G, G, A, G * cellos C, B, A, F, G * double-basses as above but one octave lower


The first violins take the upper-notes. The second violins and violas provide the inner-voices - notice how they remain on the same notes between chord changes to provide a smoother transition. Finally both the cellos and basses provide a bass line, but instead of going for the obvious root-note of each chord, they provide a descending line (C, B, A) that resolves into F then G to provide a sense of conclusion.



Since we are electronic musicians Ill assume you have access to some form of string samples. Ideally you would need a proper string library with each group sampled in a variety of dynamics and articulation. If you only have access to a boring GM string patch you can still go ahead. Although the results wont be as good, it will still be good practice and in the context of a mix it will still provide a bit of that strings magic.


Assign each patch to its own MIDI track and channel. This is very important as it will allow us to record each part in turn and to add dynamics individually to each track.


* 1st Violins MIDI CH 1 * 2nd Violins MIDI CH 2 * Violas MIDI CH 3 * cellos MIDI CH 4 * basses MIDI CH 5



In terms of sound, select a bog-standard arco patch (i.e a bowed sound) for each of the five tracks. One thing to be aware of is that the basses (or double-basses) should sound one octave lower than the cellos. If you are using a GM sound, I would ignore the patches marked violins, viola, cello and bass as they generally sound nothing like their namesakes. Youd be much better off using a string ensemble patch (remember to transpose the bass part down by an octave though).



A modern string section is arranged in a semi-circle around the conductor. The highest instruments i.e violins to the left and the lowest, i.e basses to the right.


A practical arrangement would be as follows (-64 = left, 0 = centre, 64 = right)


* 1st Violins -58 * 2nd Violins -42 * Violas 24 * cellos 42 * basses 57


Ideally, each group should be spread so you end-up with a full coverage. In real life, the stereo width would be much less marked, as the sound of a string section is quite homogeneous and would sound a bit more centred. Some people like to have the basses in the centre of the stereo image, but it is very much a matter of taste. Personally I prefer the separation the arrangement above offers.



This is an invaluable tip. Its an excellent idea to send all your string parts to a single group channel on your mixer/sequencer if at all possible. This will enable you to alter the balance with the rest of the orchestra at will, create swells and also use reverb and EQ much more easily. It will also make it easier to mute / solo the whole section rather than laboriously do it one track at a time.



Generally speaking you should hardly ever need any EQ. If you do, it will be mainly to correct a problem with the samples themselves. To a large degree a string section is self-balancing - it has evolved over three centuries and has been honed to perfection in terms of instruments, numbers, seating etc.


Recently, the trend for a big sound film tracks has given rise to a very in-your-face sound which might benefit from some EQ, however unless you have top-quality samples Id avoid it. You might find that your string section sounds a bit muddy or clouded, in which case some very narrow cut (4dB or so) at around 1.3Khz and 3Khz might benefit your sound.



This is a difficult area to get right. The temptation is to smother the strings in a long reverb but this will probably only result in a muddied sound field. In a real hall, strings will not sound nearly as ambient as you might think. Listen to a few recordings and youll probably realize that they are drier than you expected and retain their definition.


The main reasons for adding any reverb are:


* to give a sense of acoustic space (the feeling you are in a real space) * to provide back-to-front perspective (the more reverb, the further away the source will appear) * to add cohesion to the sound (so it sounds like a string section not five unconnected groups) * to smooth the stereo image so it wont sound artificially wide * to provide that bloom that a nice hall gives to strings, making them warmer and richer


In terms of reverb choice, I would go for a hall setting with a reverb tail of between 1.2 to 3.3 seconds, depending on the size of the hall you are trying to emulate. Pre-delay would be very, very short unless you want your string section to sound as if it is twenty feet in front of a hard stone wall. Depending on your reverb, some EQing away of high-frequency and very low rumble would probably be advisable. Personally I find cutting anything above 4Kz quite beneficial. The balance between dry and wet signal very much depends on taste, but what I tend to to is to bring-up the wet signal until the sound blooms and then lower it by a few dBs.


By far the best reverbs are so-called convolution reverbs which recreate a real space from a sampled noise burst or sweep. If you are on a PC there is a freeware one called SIR. On the Mac the current champion is a commercial product called Altiverb but Emagic are also coming-up with a new one. I wont cover convolution reverbs any further in this article.


In the context of a mix, youll probably be surprised at how far your ordinary reverb will take you as long as you follow the guidelines given earlier on.


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The best course of action is to avoid chorus, phasing and other modulation effects. Likewise time-based delays. In fact, ANY type of effect is best avoided.



It is best to rely on sampled vibrato. LFO based vibrato as found on keyboards is best avoided as it is too artificial sounding. I have experimented with pitch-bend ribbons to create vibrato and although better it still didnt sound as good as a sampled vibrato. Pitch-bend is also best avoided unless you are after special effects. It CAN be useful to produce a glissando (slide) effect and also small amounts of tiny pitch bend can be used to add a human feeling to a part. Ive used the graphic editor in SX to good effect to add very, very subtle pitch variations to the attack of cello, basses and occasionally violins and violas.



In a single word: NO. You should never use quantized parts unless you want to create a specific effect. The soul of a string section, what makes it breathe and live is small (we are talking top professionals here) variations in timing, attack and pitch. The moment you quantize your parts, your section will sound smaller. If your timing is too loose use a bit of iterative quantize or else go into graphic edit mode and pull wayward notes slightly back into position.



You should record each part individually AND in real-time. Try to aim for expressive and flowing play with some dynamics. I find it a great help to visualize a violin being played (a bit like humming to yourself when playing a part). It may be difficult at first but perseverance will pay-off in the long run. You might also find it useful to play a guide part on a simple sound like a piano to help you keep the parts together.



This depends entirely on the piece. Strings sections can play at virtually any speed and are supremely agile. Pick a tempo that will suit the mood of the arrangement. Generally, slower pieces tend to have less movement than fast ones. Its also a good idea to avoid rubato (slowing up or down) playing at this stage. Modern orchestras are fiercely sharp when it comes to timing and changes of tempi (multiple tempos). This is a whole topic of its own and is beyond the scope of this article.



In many ways this is one of the secret weapons of good string emulation. Unlike dance or pop and rock music which strive for a constant, narrow dynamic range, string sections strive on having a huge dynamic range from the softest of ppp to the loudest fff. You can add some enormous emotional impact by starting on a fairly quiet level and rapidly switch to a loud passage. String sections can do this in the course of note. What I tend to do is to use the volume drawing tools in SX to emulate the change in dynamics by drawing ramps up and down. The best way, I have found to do this, is to play back the piece and use the Group channel to adjust levels on the fly. Once that first run is finished, I go back and smooth out the rough dynamics and add better transitions.



So there you have it: a potted introduction to the wonderful world of orchestration, looking at the string section. Of necessity we were only able to touch on a small selection of techniques and tips, but you should now have a better appreciation for one of the greatest components of the orchestra, the string section.


If you want to learn more about it, the best way is to listen to pieces you like, and try to get hold of the scores if you can read music. There are also some good books on orchestration by Adler, Piston and Rimsky-Korsakov. By far the best way is to start simply and gradually hone your skills, or if you find the whole subject too complex, find an arranger to do it for you!


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