For the past few months, we’ve been working on a new course all about orchestration and arranging for string instruments. The course is being created by the incredible Ian Davis, who’s in the popular indie band, Landlady. He’s also arranged for such notables as My Brightest Diamond and plays with his own project, Relatives. We’re really excited about this course.
As part of the course, we’re doing something we’ve never done before. Ian has composed and arranged a string score to provide a soundtrack to the videos. Last Monday, I was lucky enough to sit in and watch as Ian conducted five string players (two violins, a viola, cello, and bass), while three sound people recorded and filmed the session. We all crammed into an apartment living room on the Upper West Side in Manhattan to record 72 pages of music in just five hours. It was one of our most ambitious recording projects so far, and I was blown away by how smoothly everything went. The whole team nailed it.
I’ve never seen a recording of string music go so seemlessly, so I sat down with the team after to find out how they’d done it. Here is some of their advice:
1. Make the score clear and easy to read.
This actually surprised me, but with huge amounts of music and not a lot of time, having the score notated perfectly from the outset is critical. Ian spent days writing out the score, transposing it into the correct clefs for the different instruments, extracting the individual parts for the individual players, and making sure all the details lined up appropriately. That includes making sure that a page doesn’t end in the middle of a phrase and lining up parts in a way that makes sense for the players. It also means zero sloppiness — like measure numbers colliding with dynamics symbols or things like that.
2. Prepare the sheet music appropriately.
This stuff is really easy to forget, but we came with six adjustable music stands for all the players and each individual part taped for easy placement and page turning. It can also be really helpful to bring a writing utensil for each player so they can make their own notes as they go.
3. Prepare your recording session with the music.
Our sound guys spent a day in advance synching the recording session in Logic with the sheet music, including preparing all the click tracks with the various tempo and time signature changes. By accessing the sheet music in advance, Marty on our team was able to know exactly how many sessions he’d need, how many tracks for each session, and exactly what BPM (beats per minute) he’d be recording to.
4. Hire the right players.
I can’t overstate how much of a difference this made. The string players all showed up on time (or early!), reviewed their parts, got right down to business, and even stayed an extra fifteen minutes to finish things up. We only needed one or two takes for each track because they nailed it almost every time. With the right people in the room, everything goes much more smoothly.
5. Bring the appropriate gear.
We had seven microphones — one for each instrument plus a stereo room mic and one backup mic, seven pairs of headphones with ¼” to ⅛” adapters and headphone extenders (one for each player, plus the conductor, plus the sound guy), and chairs for each player. We also brought a couple extra mic cables in case we needed them (which it turned out we did). The recording team also showed up an hour ahead of time to get everything set up before the players even arrived.
6. Check things before starting.
One of the first things Ian did before getting started was double check the individual parts with each player. He asked the bass player whether the notes written were in the correct register. Only when all questions were answered did they actually start recording.
7. Create comfortable headphone mixes for the players.
String players really need to be able to hear their tuning and intonation, so many will wear headphones only on one ear or ask for distinct mixes. If they’re wearing the headphones on one ear, it can create problems with the sound or click track bleeding through into the microphones, so it’s smart if possible to pan the sound entirely to one side or the other.
Also, you definitely want the ability to change individual levels for individual players, if possible. Many will want to only hear themselves, and they’ll likely ask for different click track levels. This is one of the hardest things for players to deal with, so approaching it with flexibility can do wonders for everyone’s sanity. Finally, make sure you run multiple tests, listening intently for any bleed.
8. Be open to your players’ questions and ideas.
With professional players, they will likely have a better sense of what’s possible on their instrument than you will. I was amazed at how Ian listened to all the suggestions of his players and incorporated them into the process. He also did it in such a way that made very clear what was flexible (registers, vibrato, etc.) and what wasn’t (rhythms, pitches, etc.). Finally, the players asked for moments now and then to tune particular notes to each other’s instruments. Tuning is so important for string players that pausing for a moment now and then is critical to make sure each player is fully confident in his or her sound.
9. Put the bass in the middle of the room.
I never would have known this, but John on our team talked about this, saying: “as a culture, we’re used to the bass being in the center of a stereo sound. Physically placing the bass in the middle of the room creates an easy solution for that.”
10. Listen intensely.
When you’re recording with something as complicated as string instruments, there’s always the possibility of extraneous noising bleeding into the recording, whether it’s chair scrapes, squeaks, floor creaks, or other ambient noise. Sometimes you want this, but other times it can create major problems down the line. You can easily save yourself time later by listening intensely during the session and redoing anything that has too much ambient noise in it. You also want to make sure you have a solid take of everything you need before you leave — otherwise, you’ll have to go back and do it all over again.
The final lesson that I would add is that everyone was just so nice, professional, and willing to go with the flow. The general attitude of everyone involved made the whole thing a delight and allowed us to focus on the music above everything else.
I’m excited for you all to hear the final product! Check out a teaser for the course and sign up here. In the meantime, here’s a taste of what we recorded last week…