Recording Live Strings – Surface Noise

A few months ago I blogged about composers/producers who are inexperienced with working with real stringed instruments and therefore aim and make them sound more like the sampled strings they work with routinely. 

This same issue occurred again recently when a client received files of his music that had been recorded by many solo instruments. Each one had been recorded with a close microphone and sent as a separate stem in a dry and unaltered state, ready for him to re-mix and master on top of some sampled strings at his end. The recorded sound was of a high quality (as was the playing) yet on receiving them he noticed ‘clicks and pops’ and ‘hissing’ on some of the files. The recording engineer sent him some advice on receiving files and also re-checked the files at the studio. They sounded perfect, yet the client still complained of the same problem.

Eventually (after much scratching of heads) it dawned on us that what he was picking up on was the sound of our fingers touching the strings when producing the notes (‘pops’) as well as the sound of our bow hair on strings (‘hissing’). 

The first remedy in production would be to merge all the various stems together to create one integrated string sound. This can take skill and a good ear to achieve a sound like a real orchestra but eventually with everything balanced and panned, the end result would be a rich and powerful sound. Secondly, reverb will help to give the sound some distance. When we listen to an orchestra in a concert hall we don’t sit one foot away from one of the violinists. At this the perspective you would hear every ounce of surface noise (bowing and fingering) that the player would naturally make.

With an audience sitting between ten feet and a hundred feet away, the close details vanish and what is heard is a smooth, clean sound with the 50 or so members of the orchestra merging into one integrated section.  That is what the careful application of discrete reverb will achieve. On top of that, some equalising of various registers (even individual stems) and a touch of compression will  help to make the overall sound even more balanced. So listening to each single stem with the aural equivalent of a microscope achieves very little towards an end result. Certainly listening to live recorded strings and wondering why they have human noises which aren’t present in sampled strings  is of no benefit.

The conclusion to this is that people playing real instruments make real sounds – whether it be the breathing of a saxophonist, the keys on a clarinet or the surface sound of bow hair against string of a cello. Listening closely to any recording of some of the greatest chamber music ensembles reveals all kinds of human sounds which can seem slightly ‘imperfect’ when compared to air brushed, auto-tuned commercial pop tracks and heavily produced synthesised strings. Most classical music producers would leave these noises in because they all subtly add to the ‘live’ feeling of the recorded performance, rather than an overly manicured recording which might be more ‘perfect’ yet leaves the listener cold.  It’s a tricky balance to attain – skilled post production mastering can work wonders and enhance live instrument recording, but excessively doctoring the sound (to bring it into line with the clean samples that the modern ear has become accustomed to) can lead to the blandness and uniformity of samples!