Sensitivity to the track….

One of the first things to consider when writing string arrangements is how much strings will be needed in a particular track and when it can be potentially overwhelming.

By listening through a song a few times, a string arranger will start to hear places where the addition of string parts will really enhance the piece – and also places where they should fade into something less dominant, or perhaps be left out altogether.

With some songs, it’s definitely a case of ‘less is more’ – so for example if there are passages of beautiful solo piano, or bars where a single voice really stands out, adding orchestral string parts can make the track too busy, drowning out and detracting from what is already there.

Obviously having the power of a full scale string orchestra powering up a big rock number can make a huge impact, whereas a string quartet, or even a solo stringed instrument might be an ideal accompaniment to a soft folk piece or ballad.

Bringing in a wash of strings at key points can be more effective than having them all the way through, adding some harmonies and support to the song. If a client is going to the trouble of hiring session string players they will naturally wish to make the best use of them in the studio, but sometimes ‘less is more’ and a few choice areas where real strings are used can have more impact than an arrangement that uses a string orchestra all the way through.

String parts can also work well as a bridge between verses – or by adding a counter melody, receding low into the mix when other instruments come to the fore.
If there are going to be other orchestral instruments, such as brass or woodwind, it’s probably best to allow one arranger to write all the parts so that they all work in harmony and don’t sound cluttered.

In essence it’s all about having sensitivity to the particular track and following the guidance of the songwriter as closely as possible. On the other hand, when a string arranger is given free reign, there are several ways that string parts can be made more interesting… which I’ll be writing about in the next post.