One of the biggest issues for a lot of new composers is creating realistic and great sounding mockups of their compositions. Strings in particular seems to be an area where a lot people have a hard time achieving a realistic result. In this article, I will show you 5 steps with techniques that you can use to create more realistic and organic sounding harmonic content, using string libraries. For this tutorial, I will use a slow, emotional string theme as an example.
This is the beginning and final result, only background chords without melody:
Now, let’s add my melody and hear how the final theme will sound in the end:
One of the first things I look at when wanting to achieve a more realistic sound is chord voicing. Lack of proper chord voicing is something I see in a lot of beginner compositions and string mockups. The harmony might be jumping all over the place with all chords played in root position, for example. This is usually because the composer might simply take a string ensemble patch, write in the chords they have in mind, and leave it like that.
However, let’s take a look at the effects of paying attention to the voicing. We won’t be adhering to all the traditional rules of 4 part arranging to every detail, just following some of the main guidelines to achieve a better and more realistic end result. This is nice when you have a limited theoretical background, but simply want something that just works.
Listen to this example, where all chords are played in root position:
This doesn’t sound too good, and one way to fix it is to use better chord voicing.
Let’s look at some very basic principles for arranging harmonic content. Again, there are tons of rules to follow if you want to stick to traditional choral 4 part arranging, but in this article I’ll be giving quick and easy-to-follow tips that you can apply right away.
Make your chords go the shortest way to the next chord, and avoid leaps if possible.
Look at these two examples:
In the first two chords, you can see that only two notes are moving as we transition between the two chords. Also worth noting is that they are only moving a single step up. However, in the next two there is the exact same chord change, but the entire chord is leaping. Not a single one of the notes is repeated, and every note jumps 3 steps up to the next one.
Sometimes such a leap might be desirable, but for now, try to find the shortest way possible when you’re changing from chord to chord. This can be done by using chord inversions. Take a look at my example, and notice how it sounds after I’ve improved the chord voicing:
Notice how each chord is moving as close as possible to the next one, and not jumping all over the place. Now, let’s listen to how it sounds with the melody added. I’ve used a clarinet here so that you can hear the background strings clearly.
Sounds a bit better, right? But we’re not there yet. It still sounds extremely static and flat, and it’s time to give it some more life and motion.
Modulation is a fantastic way to make your samples sound more realistic. The mod wheel usually controls the dynamics of your string samples, so by altering it you can give them more dynamic range. Here I have used modulation to make the strings swell and breathe slightly during the phrases, to avoid an overly static sound. Listen to the result:
We’re getting somewhere! The chord progression feels a lot more alive now. Let’s listen to it with the previous clarinet melody on top.
Up until now, I’ve only worked with a single sustained ensemble patch. But a real string section is not a keyboard sample patch. It can consist of up to 60 individual players spread across 5 different instrument sections: violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello, and contrabasses.
These sections are all playing individual lines with different nuances that when combined together make up the harmony. So now, our next step is to spread out our voices to individual legato patches. The first step here is to add a legato track for the violins, the violas, the cellos and the basses. I have left violin 1 reserved for the melody, that will replace the clarinet.
Since we’ve already voiced our harmonic content pretty well, we can simply give each note in our chords to each instrument group. The root notes to the basses, the next ones to the cellos, and so on. More advanced orchestrators might want to alter the voicing a bit during this step, but after the changes we made in step #1, this can be a good starting point for beginners, with a pleasant result. I prefer to re-record completely with the new legato tracks to be sure that the transitions between the notes are smoothly done. Here is my result so far, after giving each line to legato instruments:
Now, let’s try to add the melody, now played by the 1st violins, and listen to the result:
Now each line is played by a different instrument section, making it sound a bit more like a real ensemble. However, as I mentioned – these are 5 different groups of instruments. This means that they don’t all have to play just boring, long sustained notes for every single chord. Therefore, let’s create some slight individual movement across the different instruments.
This is where you really start giving life to your strings. To create a sense of 5 individual sections playing, it’s nice to create some subtle individual movements between them. This doesn’t have to be too advanced. If your violins are moving 2 steps (C-E for example) between two chords, make them go stepwise up instead of jumping. Experiment with creating these small and subtle movements in each of the sections.
The key here, however, is not to have too much going on, or it’s going to sound very messy (especially for beginners with little counterpoint knowledge). However, you can try to keep one element moving slightly while the others are resting, and change the movements around between the sections. This can emulate the sound of individually moving instrument groups like in a real ensemble, and not just a sustained patch played with one hand. Bear in mind that sometimes less is more, although I have created quite a bit of movement in this audio example to accentuate the effect of this technique.
Listen to the result:
Now we’re really getting somewhere! It’s starting to sound more like something a real string section would play rather than a MIDI sustain patch. Let’s run through how it sounds with the melody.
At this point, we’re actually pretty much done! However, there is one little detail I would like to add.
Live strings are usually not perfectly played against a strict click track tempo. They might flow a bit more, follow the pace of the conductor, giving it a more pretty and flowing tempo. Sometimes it might slow down slightly, and sometimes it might speed up slightly during each phrase. That said, this is more relevant for slower, emotional string passages rather than very rhythmic action cues.
A nice way to avoid the mechanic feeling of a strict click track tempo is to add some subtle tempo automation. This can give the sense of the ensemble organically speeding up/slowing down during and between the phrases. Here you can see how I have made the tempo increase and decrease slightly between and during the lines.
Listen to how it sounds:
And with the melody added to it:
Quick recap… We started with our chord progression in root position, improved the chord voicing, applied some modulation, spread it out to legato tracks, created some individual movement, and applied some tempo automation.
Bear in mind that this is not an “ultimate guide” on the only way to improve your string mockups. That said, following these 5 steps should have taken you somewhere in the right direction, especially if you have a somewhat limited theory and orchestration knowledge.
From here you can start fine-tuning a bit, alter your modulation, improve your chord voicing, and experiment with individual movement between the sections a bit more. Tweak until you get a result you’re happy with!
Let’s have a final listen to the difference between our first and the final result.
I hope this tutorial was helpful to you!
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Composer, producer, entrepreneur and digital nomad from Norway, and the co-founder of Evenant. Has a strong passion for traveling, exploring new cultures, learning new skills and creating new things.