Iconic Strings: from Bach to Britney – the POPularisation of classic strings

Feeling highly strung about your current project? Fret not! We explore how legendary artists incorporated strings into their work, and show you how similar results can be achieved with Orchestral Tools’ LA Sessions.

Popularisation of classic strings

In partnership with Orchestral Tools

Close your eyes, just for a second. Think of a string section. If you’ve been lucky enough to attend a gig with live string players, you’re probably visualising a semi-circular group of musicians facing towards the middle of the front of the stage, maybe with a conductor waving a baton to keep those players in time and to encourage their strongest, most emotive performances. So, in your mind’s eye, what are those musicians playing? Is it something classical, such as the introduction to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, whose first four notes might be the most iconic ever composed? Perhaps they’re playing the melodies from your favourite film soundtracks, such as John Williams’ heartstring-tugging theme for ET? Maybe you’re imagining the Bollywood-influenced hook that made Britney Spears’ Toxic so beloved back in 2003. In fact, keep your eyes closed a little longer and it might soon dawn on you that, whether you love the musicals of the West End, the baroque genius of Bach, the pop and EDM of Clean Bandit’s career-starting Rather Be or the twisting, angular string melodies that have accompanied almost every James Bond title theme ever recorded, strings are among the most versatile instruments in the world. But while each new generation of A-list songwriters and arrangers seems as seduced by the power of strings as their predecessors, versatility isn’t the only reason why the sound of strings is as relevant now as it ever has been.

If you’re among those making songs and wondering exactly how to go about making the string parts of your dreams become reality, you’re in luck, as we’re going to explore some of the techniques required to write string parts, as well as celebrate some of the most iconic and inspiring string arrangements to have ever graced the airwaves.

Violinist recording in orchestra

Let’s begin with the basics. A string section comprises five instruments: two violins, plus viola, cello and double bass. You’ll hear people refer to ensemble size when talking about strings because, as well as each of these instruments being able to perform solo parts individually, it’s often the case – as in a string section within an orchestra – that multiple instances of each instrument will play together at once. If you’re writing string parts, this presents you with a few early decisions: do you want the lush, huge orchestral sound that comes with multiple players in each section or something smaller and more intimate?

To give you an idea of the numbers involved, a standard session orchestra line-up might include eight first violins, eight second violins, six violas, four cellos and two double basses. As you might imagine, this kind of line-up provides a lot of weight and richness. A string quartet, on the other hand, features one of each player, without a double bass at all. This offers a much more detailed and intimate sound, where the individual qualities of each player are clearer and more exposed. In between these two line-ups is what’s frequently referred to as a chamber-sized string ensemble, where two to three players per section play together. This often offers a best-of-both-worlds sound, where you retain the intimacy of a smaller ensemble but gain the sonic richness of layered parts.

If you’re at the start of your journey as a string arranger, a good place to begin is to imagine each instrument as its own monophonic line. We’re all familiar with the trusty synthesised string pad and, as a means to understand how to voice string parts, it’s a useful texture to imagine. If you hold down a four or five-note pad, imagine that each one of your fingers is playing one note that will appear on a score for each string voice – with the lowest almost always given to the double basses, the next highest to the cellos and so on, until you’ve put the highest note on the score for the first violins. This approach to arranging won’t usually give you a melody or any special interplay between the sections but it will get you used to separating each note of a chord and giving it to each string voice. Once you’ve done that, you can analyse each line individually, introducing melodies by writing passing notes between the ones you’ve converted from your pad or thinking more carefully about whether you want every instrument playing all of the time. Arrangements are often stronger when the density of players ebbs and flows from one section of a song to the next.

So where to turn for classic string-arrangement inspiration? Fortunately, the past 60 years of recording history has plenty to offer and should stir your emotions and inspire you in equal measure. We could start with 1966’s Eleanor Rigby, whose strings aren’t so much an accompaniment to Paul McCartney’s famous Beatles song as the driving force of it. This arrangement features an octet – eight players in total – featuring two first violins, two second violins, two violas and two cellos. Crucially, the urgency in the sound of these strings comes from a close-microphone technique, which almost completely omits the sound of the famous Abbey Road Studios in which they were recorded in favour of a very dry, almost scratchy and strident sound instead. It’s a far cry from the lush sweetness of a full-sized symphony orchestra recorded in a plush hall.

Once you’ve listened to Eleanor Rigby a few times, listen to the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which should demonstrate the difference between smaller and more intimate ensembles and larger ones. You will, however, hear a similar attack in the way the notes are played, as both arrangements require the players to dig in to the strings, producing a deliberately harsh, bold sound. George Martin, who wrote the arrangement for Eleanor Rigby and conducted it, said he was inspired by composer Bernard Herrmann’s score for Fahrenheit 451, so that should be next on your whistle-stop tour of great string arrangements.

Fast forward three years from Eleanor Rigby and you reach 1969’s We Have All The Time In The World, a song written by John Barry and Hal David and recorded by Louis Armstrong for the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Listen for the sinuous string theme and the way it’s wrapped around the lead vocal. The playing here is very different to the rhythmic chugging of Eleanor Rigby. The violin section is bigger but each note melts into the next and this introduces different playing styles; whereas Eleanor Rigby is reliant mostly on short staccato notes, here we have longer legato techniques, some even featuring portamento, where one note slides up to the next, which feels particularly luxurious here.

If Eleanor Rigby celebrates staccato playing and We Have All The Time In The World demonstrates legato and portamento lines, what about a song that features a mixture of both approaches? Step forward Le Freak by Chic, released in 1979, at the height of Studio 54 and the disco movement. This record is famous for all kinds of reasons, including Nile Rodgers’ incredible rhythm guitar playing. The string arrangement is classic disco too, a blend of held notes beneath the vocals and pointed short string runs in between. Unfinished Sympathy by Massive Attack, released in 1991, is a classic example of a string arrangement that started life as a string pad – played originally by co-producer Jonny Dollar – and was then turned into an arrangement, recorded and conducted by Will Malone at Abbey Road. You can tell from the way the live strings billow and slowly attack that their sound started as a string pad. But they benefit enormously from having been recorded with real players to create a more emotive, human connection and form an indelible part of this song.

From the lush richness of Unfinished Sympathy to Britney Spears’ 2003 hit Toxic, which uses a sample from the Hindi song Tere Mere Beech Mein to add a spiky impetus and clever counterpoint to the ultra-western pop/dance production. This offers yet another alternative approach to sprinkling your production with strings; if you’re not yet ready to write your own fully-realised arrangement, you could sample one instead. But what Toxic really teaches us is that string writing can create as memorable a hook as any vocal line or guitar riff.

Let’s summarise where our string arranging listening tour has taken us. We’ve learnt that no genre is exclusive from the desire to add strings. Whether you favour pop, dance, soul, rock, blues or jazz, you’ll find bands from Radiohead and Oasis to Sister Sledge and Take That, all equally drawn to the power of string ensembles, even if the ways in which they use and record them vary. We’ve also learnt that, in most cases, a focused and intimate sound allows artists and string arrangers to form a bond with their audiences; somehow, smaller ensembles help bring the listener closer, as opposed to the bombast and full symphonic nature of a large string ensemble. We’ve learnt too that microphone positions make a difference. Listen again to the exposed, close nature of Eleanor Rigby and contrast it with the hugeness of Unfinished Sympathy. Finally, we’ve been introduced to the concept of different playing techniques (referred to as articulations), whether that’s shorter staccato phrases, smoother lusher ones or a combination of both, alongside many more.

United Recordings Studio B
Orchestral Tools’ LA Sessions was recorded in the revered United Recording Studios.

Now that you have some knowledge and you’ve done your research, you need a toolset to help you realise your own string arrangements. Orchestral Tools’ LA Sessions Studio Strings are optimised for pop, rock and soul, as they’ve been recorded with session musicians used regularly for exactly those kinds of sessions. The strings within the library are single instruments – Studio Violins, Studio Violas, Studio Celli and Upright Bass, each of which is available individually or as part of the collection as a whole. Used together, the ensemble offers an intimate and yet highly expressive four violins, three violas, three celli and one Bass, the latter as at home on jazz and soul tracks as it is with pop. The difference with this range of sounds is in the way they’ve been played and recorded. This isn’t a ‘classical collection of string recordings’ that you will have to work hard to bend into your favoured context. Instead, it’s an inspiring sonic palette that’s been tracked with exactly that musical context in mind. Hosted within Orchestral Tools’ proprietary and intuitive SINE Player, each articulation is mapped by default to a simple-to-use set of keyswitches, though you can effortlessly reassign playing styles to an alternative controller type if you prefer.

If you want lusher sounds, you’ll enjoy exploring the legato patches, which even include user-controllable bow speed, providing a unique way to influence tone. Vibrato speed can be adjusted too, letting you add the tremulous sound of a note’s pitch being quickly modulated to create a richer, lusher sound. You can also choose to work without vibrato for a truer, more pointed tone. With Room, Spot, Close and mixed microphone positions, tailoring the ambience around your sound is straightforward. But it’s the articulation list that perhaps demonstrates the flexibility of these sounds most clearly. Alongside the short and long patches – so often the bread and butter of a string arrangement – you’ll find inspiring harmonics that offer something more mystical and redolent of the more intimate end of Bjork’s haunting canon. The swells make the ebb and flow of string writing so much more clear, whether these are for straight long notes or the rapid-fire scrubbing techniques of tremolo. If you’re looking for something celebratory and ear-catching, the trills, which feature rapid movement from one note to the semitone or tone above, provide a beautiful way to add embellishments.

Orchestral Tools LA Sessions

For those looking for a superb-sounding, flexible and more songwriter-focused array of sounds, the Studio Violins, Studio Violas, Studio Celli and Upright Bass instruments are the perfect creative companion, either sourced as individual titles or as part of the main LA Sessions library. As with all the instruments that form the LA Sessions collection, the strings were recorded at the legendary United Recording Studio on Sunset Boulevard, home to recordings made by Michael Jackson, Madonna, Radiohead, Frank Sinatra and many more. Consider this a professional first-call collection of some of the world’s finest session musicians at your fingertips, ready to work their magic within your productions. Because the studio and the top-end microphones used are common to each collection within LA Sessions, the sound of each one layers seamlessly with the others too. Better yet, each performer was recorded in place, meaning that the sound stage is set for you, which will save you precious time when inspiration strikes.

So go and study your favourite tracks featuring strings and, when you’re ready to add to the rich history of remarkable arrangements, LA Sessions will be ready and waiting for you.

Orchestral Tool’s LA Sessions is available now for €399. Alternatively, you can purchase individual instruments using OT’s SINE player. Find out more at orchestraltools.com.

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