Recording strings on a budget – when the cost of hiring a string orchestra is too high

A couple of weeks ago I was approached to add some strings to a track by a talented singer/songwriter who I had recorded for last year. He wanted to record 6 passes of first violins and 6 passes of second violin parts for two songs and the session took place in the Gravity Shack Studio in Tooting. As both tracks were already fairly full in the lower and mid-ranges, he did not require viola or cello parts and had arranged the score solely for violins so that the higher register could be filled out.

As this was an independent project, the client was on a budget and certainly could not have justified paying over a thousand pounds for a small string orchestra to come in, let alone hiring a studio large enough to seat them all. For this reason (and as an alternative to him using synthesized strings which he was unhappy with) I overdubbed all of these violin layers myself and we were all done in a single three-hour session.

So, in a situation where songwriters and producers just can’t live with the slightly unrealistic quality of VST – because they just don’t sound as good, they might imagine that the cost of hiring string players to provide the real thing could be prohibitive. But this particular client ended up with a very high standard of playing overall (in terms of tone, phrasing and tuning) and retained the richness and feel of a full violin section for only £200.

The overdubbing of orchestral instruments has been widely used, especially when recording strings for pop songs since the 1960s and experience has taught us that it only really works with very good players who are 100% accurate with tuning and take a meticulous approach to each take. Even a hint of a mistake or inconsistency could become magnified as further layers are recorded and on several occasions, we have been called in to re-record strings for clients who had initially tried to keep costs down by trying this approach with amateur or less experienced string players. Session musicians who specialise in accurate overdubbing will also develop other studio routines such as staggering the bowing slightly and subtly varying their articulation between takes, to sound more like a string section made up of many players, each with their own style.