On Sunday we were hired to play for a recording session for Jim Perkins (of Bigo & Twigetti) at The Premises Studios in Hackney. It was the second time that String Section have recorded for Jim and it involved laying down strings for three tracks. Two were compositions written by him (one, an atmospheric piece for a film soundtrack) and the third consisting of strings he had arranged for a pop song written and produced by Tony Holland. The only two musicians present were myself (on violins and violas) and Tony Woollard on cellos.
The first piece was written for double string quartet (so, 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos). This is a particularly exposed combination as any discrepancies in tuning or timing become very obvious. Also, the tone quality on each of the two unison parts needs to be well matched. When overdubbing strings in this type of scenario it’s always best to keep the vibrato fairly narrow on the first layer in order that the second layer has something very clear to play with.
The second track required a larger sound and had about six layers on each part. Some sections were written with pizzicato and here the challenge when overlayering is to remain scrupulously accurate to the click. This can be achieved by internally subdividing (this is where the musician counts in his or her head in a smaller note value than the beat, so instead of counting four crotchet beats in every bar, the player counts say, eight quaver beats). Mental focus is important to avoid wasting any valuable studio time. The track also contained very high notes on the first violin part: some which were two octaves above the top ‘E’ string. Stratospheric stuff indeed, but this is a region of the violin that can be highly effective when writing for a string section (particularly in film music).
The third track was the pop track and here the strings added a fullness and warmth which hopefully will complement the track well. As a guide we had a piano and vocal in our headphones and as the strings built up we asked Ollie the engineer to change the balance in the headphones so that we increasingly listened to more strings and less of the track (this is good practice as once the foundations of the string parts have been laid, it’s good to be able to blend with the string sound as session musicians record each subsequent layer).
It was great recording at The Premises as many of the recording rooms are the perfect size for studio strings: large enough for up to eight players to record simultaneously but not quite large enough for a whole string orchestra.