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How to Run a Flawless Recording Session with Strings

Ian Davis Composition Course

In order to create all the videos, resources and course assets for our popular Mainstage course, Orchestration for Strings, we worked closely with the incredible young composer, Ian Davis, who writes and arranges in the band, Landlady as well as his solo project Relatives, and has composed for such notable acts as My Brightest Diamond.

Specifically for the course, Davis composed and arranged an entire score for a string ensemble, in order to enliven the lessons with music that reflects each and every concept being taught. And not only does this music actually do that, but it’s also just really, really great music to listen to! So, our task of having to record this music pristinely and accurately as it’s written on the page, was huge.

Thankfully, we have one of the best audio-visual production teams at our fingertips. And since I was lucky enough to sit in and watch as Davis conducted five string players, while three A/V engineers recorded and filmed the session, I learned a lot! 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 I’ve ever been a part of, and I was blown away by how smoothly everything went.

The whole team nailed it. Here’s an introduction to the course featuring a couple variations on the theme music of the course, and Davis’ quirky personality in full bloom!

I’ve never seen a recording session of string music go so seamlessly, so I sat down with Soundfly’s unparalleled Production Team after to find out how they’d done it. Here’s some of their sage 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. Davis 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 Fowler, who is one of our stalwart Soundfly Mentors, 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 Davis 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 Davis 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 Hull, another Mentor 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 noise 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 fruits of all this labor! Join Orchestration for Strings today to learn how to better harness the elegant might of a quartet or the entire string section of a symphonic orchestra! Or if you’re more interested in the recording and mixing aspects of this tutorial, go ahead and take a free preview of our new course, Faders Up: Advanced Mix Techniques, instructed by four top engineers and broken up by genre-specific techniques and tricks.

In case you’re new to Soundfly, all of our Mainstage courses come with six weeks of 1-on-1 professional mentorship, guidance and feedback on your work. It’s like having a personal trainer, but for music! Whether you’re interested to dive deep into a topic covered by one of our courses, or just to work with a Mentor directly to achieve a specific goal, we can help you get there.

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Ian Temple

Ian is a pianist, entrepreneur and professional musician. He started Soundfly to help people really find what gets them most excited musically and pursue it. He's toured all over the world with his experimental trio Sontag Shogun. Check out his most recent course Building Blocks of Piano or follow him on Twitter at @ianrtemple.