Layering strings

Some of the work that String section does involves providing strings for composers or bands financing their own projects on a limited budget. People believe in a track enough to invest in live strings (rather than samples), but simply cannot afford to hire a full sized string orchestra without going overseas and potentially compromising on quality.  Occasionally, in order to keep things within budget, or because only a few of us can fit into a smaller studio, we have overlayered the same players in order to create the impression of more musicians.

Although this might sound straightforward and the obvious answer to keeping costs down, it is actually a skillful process that only very good players are able to pull off convincingly. It is vital that the first string parts laid down are rhythmically perfect with 100% accurate tuning, as any slight discrepancies of timing or tuning can become exaggerated with a subsequent overdub. It’s often the case that this first layer takes the longest time to record and get right. If a handful of players are to successfully layer their sound a second or even third time, it can potentially end up sounding weird and slightly artificial – rather like a choir made up of the same few voices, without the variety of sounds produced by a large group. One way to overcome this is for the session musicians to add a little variety to each take, without disturbing the rhythm or intonation. This can be done by varying the speed of vibrato, changing the weight of sound and even playing a passage on different strings (so that some notes on the lower region of the violins ‘E’ string for instance could be played higher up on the ‘A’ string). A good engineer will help enormously and can subtly change the position of the microphones between takes to avoid ‘phasing’. ‘Phasing’ is where the identical frequencies are replicated or fractionally overlap, causing the sound to become sort of ‘fizzy’. When overdubbing, if particular care isn’t taken to avoid this, what started out as a high quality group of session string players can end up sounding  more artificial than samples – which completely defeats the object of hiring live session musicians in the first place.

When overdubbing is done badly, it’s easy to tell straight away what’s gone on, especially in exposed passages. However if over-layering string parts is done with care and attention, the sound can be quite flawless- but success really depends on having excellent players, a sensitive producer and some very precise ears for detail.