Tips & Techniques:Recording a String Quartet - Tips and Technique
Reading through past forum threads relating to recording string quartets, I thought it might be useful to offer a perspective from the musician’s point of view. So here are a few suggestions of what we’ve found most helpful when clients have hired us as a string quartet for a recording session.
1. Well arranged parts. Many of the parts we get handed to play either have very long and sustained notes of little melodic variety, or are all written in unison, with no harmonic interplay. This is a very common issue arising when the string arrangement has been written on a keyboard and transcribed by midi. A string quartet will always sound most natural when the individual players can blend the subtly different tonal qualities of their instruments with each other. This is best achieved when the writing allows the different notes of a chord to be divided and distributed amongst the four instruments. Bands and producers who hire the services of a professional string arranger or copyist will usually find this to be well worth paying for as it’s relatively inexpensive but can make a massive difference – most session musicians would probably agree that well orchestrated parts are probably even more important than using the very best studio gear when it comes to achieving a good string sound.
2. Detail in the parts. When paying for the services of a professional string quartet, time is money and if the client hands them a detailed score with dynamic markings, bowings and articulations written in, the quartet will most likely read it through and get it right on the first take (depending on the complexity of the music). Scores with inaccuracies, unplayable notes or anything that isn’t 100% clear can eat up vast amounts of studio time, so even asking one of the string players to spend an hour checking them through and ‘marking them up’ beforehand can prove very money-saving.
3. Start by hiring a good string quartet. I do arranging work for composers/producers who hire a really good studio and professional engineer, then try and cut costs by hiring an amateur group or student string quartet. Never underestimate how bad a stringed instrument can sound when recorded by a mediocre player. Having to resort to autotune or spending days fixing errors in post-production (such as adding great swathes of reverb to hide a multitude of sins) can be avoided by contracting decent players in the first place. In particular, if you’re going to use close mics, then you will require players with exceptionally accurate tuning and good tonal qualities. If the quartet are accomplished they will play in tune, constantly make fine adjustments of intonation to blend with one another, get through takes quickly and make the job of editing together the takes minimal.
4. Familiarise yourself with the sound of real instruments. If you’re about to record a classical group, or even a quartet which will be prominent in the mix of a pop track, it might be useful to go and see a professional string quartet in concert. Sit at the front and then at the back to hear the same balance of instruments and sound that the audience will experience. Appreciate that real strings will not sound as perfectly manicured as samples do, but that the live feel and phrasing is what gives them their character and subtlety. In the past, we’ve recorded perfectly good string parts that clients have then endlessly airbrushed by smoothing out all musical phrasing and bow articulations until they sounded more like samples. String quartet parts which had sounded authentic and soulful in the studio ended up sounding vaguely unreal and we suspect the producer was trying to replicate the VST he was more accustomed to hearing…..
5. Seating arrangement of a string quartet. Traditionally, at least in Europe – a string quartet will sit in a semicircle, in the same formation as the string players in an orchestra, with the first violin on the far left, the second violin left of centre, then the violist right of centre and finally the cellist on the right. In the USA, it is not uncommon for groups to sit slightly differently, with the cellist in the middle (swapping places with the violist). When playing classical music, the quartet will want to see all the subtle, non verbal cues they give each other whilst playing so that their bow strokes will blend and tempo and phrasing can be tight.
6. Deciding on the type of sound. If the recording is of classical music then you’ll want to capture a natural sound, as if from the perspective of an audience in a hall. In this context the acoustics of the room are important. If however it is a rock or pop track, where the strings are to be part of a much larger mix, then it may be worth considering recording each player separately so that you have the maximum amount of control over each instrument’s sound. Either this or record with good separation, so one instrument’s sound doesn’t spill into the others. You can then undertake post production and pan the instruments about to your heart’s content. Some recording engineers gather a string quartet together in order to capture a ‘live’ feel, then ruin it all by placing them in a straight line and close micing each instrument. Sadly, this can lead to the worst of both worlds. In a classical recording, quartets will wish to work within sight of each other and sit in a semicircle so that a blended ensemble sound can be achieved just as it is in a performance, but when working with a click track or recording the strings on top of an existing track using headphones, this won’t be as critical.
6. Awareness of surface noise. The sound of a bow being drawn across the string is natural and unavoidable. With real strings it is particularly hard to avoid when close micing (just as breathing noises are hard to avoid when close micing real people), but sometimes surface noise can become extremely prominent and problematic, particularly when overdubbing strings. There is a more in depth article about it here:
7. Acoustics of the recording room. If you are going to capture a ‘live’ group but only have a very small space, then make sure your room is half soundproofed and half reflective, so that the corners are covered to avoid the frequencies bouncing off more than one surface. If the live room is less than ideal, the post production becomes harder work - so by investing in a good room to start with, a lot of work on the sound becomes unnecessary. Make sure you playback totally ‘dry’ so you can adjust the frequencies of one instrument to blend with another. Then check it with the reverb to make sure it hasn’t brought out one tonal range more than everything else.
8: Recording on location. A few times, we’ve been hired to play for recording sessions held in Churches or large halls in order to capture the natural acoustics of the room. These wonderful, airy spaces can sound absolutely fantastic and a good engineer will come up with clever mic placements that make the most of the opportunity, but it has always been important to set up a separate dry area so that each take can be played back in a neutral acoustic, giving the engineer a true idea of how it sounds. Although we’re big fans of Churches for live concerts and loved the idea of recording in a few of the buildings we’ve played in, when it came to making our own string quartet albums, we concluded that the controlled environment of a recording studio was far less complicated and gave us more freedom in what we did with the sound in post production.
Hope that helps,
Vaughan - String Arranger and Violinist with String Section
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