How to Improve Your String Writing and Sound

One of the most common things I’m asked by students is how to get their sampled strings to sound more realistic.

It goes without saying but using good quality samples is the first step. Luckily there are great quality sample libraries out there and they are cheaper than ever. If you’re just starting out and looking to get some samples, I would recommend getting the Spitfire Audio BBC SO Discover which is free. This will give you a full orchestra at your fingertips. As you get more advanced, I would recommend investing in the Core version of BBC SO, as this will open up a lot more articulations. Or an equivalent library that gives you a full orchestra with lots of control. 

 For this example, we will use the simple chord progression of C, F, Fm C. Or I, IV, ivm, I.

 Here are those chords played in root position – the most basic way to voice these chords

Figure 1 - block chords played in root position

Arrangement / Voice Leading

String parts won’t sound good if they’re not arranged well. Spread out your chords so that they span a good width across the range. A common giveaway to sampled strings is having arrangements with close voiced chords, played as if on piano. Another common giveaway is having all the chords in root position so that they all move in parallel. Try making each note flow from one to the next using inversions.

Expression / Dynamics

String instruments resonate differently depending on how hard they are played. Watch string players when they play, they lean into some notes and fade away in others. When and where they do this, drastically changes the way the instruments sound. Sampled Strings have a way to mimic this, by using dynamics and expression (usually mapped to CC1 (MOD WHEEL) and CC7. If you ride the fader while you play you can achieve the same sound. If you don’t have some faders to use, you can draw this in afterwards in your DAW. If drawing it in, use smooth curves on your dynamics.

Figure 2 – Added Inversions and dynamics

If you feel confused or overwhelmed regarding how to write your curves, or what to even go for, listen to live orchestras. Notice how the string arrangements ebb and flow, and swell in energy throughout sections and phrases. Try to mimic that in your writing. Usually they begin soft, and swell as the phrase reaches its peak, before it slowly rolls back again.  

Phrasing

Try singing the line you want to play and feel where the strong beats and weak beats are as well as where natural breath points are. Obviously a string instrument doesn’t need to breathe, however writing parts that mimic the way they would be sung is a good way to create musicality. This also helps with achieving the correct dynamic ebb and flow.

Adding movement with arpeggiation can be a great way to add interest. I recommend checking out this article for more info on how to create textural movement in your writing.

Articulations / Legato

Often a problem I hear in a lot of students writing is legato melody lines that don’t use legato patches but just played on the ‘longs’ patch instead. This can be subtle, but listen to the start of each note and how the notes change from one to the next. The overall tone of the strings can sound amazing however those transitions can be a giveaway that the strings are samples. Use a legato patch over the top of your chords, picking out the melody line for much smoother transitions.

Bear in mind that you may need to change your articulation for each individual part. Maybe you need some staccatos or spiccatos for an ostinato pattern for short notes, or maybe you want the inner parts to flow more in their arpeggios so you may write them on legato patches. This is because, legato is when the player connects notes together while playing, much like a singer would which gives you a smooth sound. Staccato or spiccato creates a much more detached sound.

Something to keep in mind that most people forget, is that articulations don’t exist in real life like in sample libraries. They are directions, not limitations. A real string player can switch between long and short articulations in the blink of an eye just by changing the pressure of their hand. Just as you can sing short and long notes interchangeably, so can musicians. Therefore, another giveaway for sampled sections is that the composer just sticks to their one articulation for a long period of time, instead of switching between different ones. If you listen to music from the greats like John Williams, you will hear how the instruments often jump in between many different articulations, utilizing the full scheme of colors the instruments have at their disposal.

Figure 3 – Here is the melody on first a longs patch and then on a legato patch, using the expression and dynamics techniques mentioned earlier

Layering

Layering is a great way of getting more out of your samples. Using different samples layered on-top of each-other can hide the robotic-ness of some samples. A useful trick is duplicating the same sample library, tuning the instrument down 2 semitones within Kontakt and then pitching the MIDI up 2 semitones. This achieves the same note, however it is accessing a different sample and can be a good way to fake round robins in libraries that may not have many. Really effective if you’re on a budget and don’t want to get tonnes of string libraries.

Be careful when layering as it can create an organ like effect where you end up with so many players on each note it becomes unrealistic. This is especially noticeable in brass and woodwinds, but harder to notice in strings.

Laying a smaller section on top of your lines or solo strings can be an effective way of creating more realism. You get the fullness of the full string ensemble but the detail of the close mic in the solo instrument, so you really hear the bow against the string. This can be useful to stop strings from sounding a little too much like synth pads.

Figure 4 – layered solo strings

Effects Articulations

An often great way to improve the sound of your strings is to add a new part using an articulation for effects. An example would be to have a droning tonic note up high on harmonics. Or using sul tasto for some parts instead of the standard longs. Often using these different articulations can add a lot of colour to your music.

Conclusion

As you can see, taking a few steps to make your strings sound realistic is a way to vastly improve the sound of your music. Most of these are quite subtle improvements on their own, however together they make a vast improvement to the sound of your writing. The one main thing to take away, which surprised me when I discovered it is that the biggest improvement comes from arrangement as opposed to some of the production techniques, which often are much more subtle. When we think of string tone, we mostly think about what samples we’re using or how much expression we are adding to them. A little time focussing on the arrangement goes a long way in creating that professional string sound.

Here are the most crucial parts of string arrangement I would most likely look at first: 

1: The chord voicing. Get out of the habit of using root chords, and get familiar with inversions. Learn how to go the closest way to the next chord inversion, so that each note moves the shortest distance possible to get to the next one. Learn how to split up these voices into individual legato patches instead of using ensemble patches, as it will emulate the subtle differences in timing and phrasing between each instrument section that you find in real ensembles.  

2: Learn how real orchestras use dynamics, and listen to soundtracks and orchestral works. Get familiar with how the dynamics ebb and flow, and recreate this with your mod wheel and expression curves. 

3: Emulate real players. Don’t just stick to one articulation, but jump between different articulations where it makes sense, just as a live player would – and make your melody lines come to life. 

These things should get you started on your way to improving your string arrangements and mockups! The essentials of string writing are crucial, and no libraries or production tips can fix arrangements with poor voicing and robotic dynamics. 

And here is the finished piece with added horns on the melody, drums and a little spiccato ostinato as talked about earlier.

Figure 5 – Full arrangement

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