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Bow & Tell: Working With a Cellist


The cello is one of our favorite live instruments to work with as it presents such a diverse range of sounds and moods. You can hear it in many of our projects and each to very different effect. 

In this tutorial we’d like to share our experiences of creating and recording music that includes a cello in the composition. To do this we’re going to use our projects for Tine Milk, H5NX and Coffee Company. We’d like to focus on the challenges and learning’s of working with a cellist on each of these pieces with a view to aiding your own creative process. 

It’s the Way You Play It

Tine Milk is one of Norway’s most prominent dairy producers and this beautiful advertisement—inspired by the countries folklore—was created to support its Winter Olympics campaign.

We wanted to recreate the dramatic, icy landscape depicted in the animation, therefore we employed a broad range of cello sounds: pizzicato—plucked strings; staccato]—bouncing, short strokes of the bow; glissando—pitch bend effect; and legato—fluid, long strokes. These highlight the falling snow, the mountains and the rise and fall of the skier. 

As with all instruments, the way the cello is played has as much impact on the piece as choosing to introduce it into your composition in the first place. So it’s worth exploring a range of playing methods to find what works best for you and the story you are telling. What’s more, remain mindful of the individual elements that comprise your subject or theme, as this will aid your composition overall.

Live and Shine 

The live cello tracks in Tine Milk were overlaid with a violin and viola taken from an instrumental suite called ‘Hollywood Strings’ in the East West Orchestra library. The combination gives a full and dynamic orchestral range befitting of the cinematic brief. 

We like to introduce live instruments into our work wherever appropriate due to the sense of authenticity, individuality and depth they bring. However, a fully live score is very costly to create and record. Equally a naturalistic sound can also be expensive and is very hard to emulate in software alone, so we find a mixture of the two offers the best of both worlds—for us and our clients. 

Try introducing a mix of live and high quality recordings to create a well-rounded natural sound, whilst helping to keep your projects on budget and on time too. There are a lot of premium orchestral suites out there so it’s worth spending some time researching them and finding out which best suits your budget and project needs. 

Perfect Partners

As touched on above, combining the cello with different instruments can have very different effects. For example, with the score for the breathtaking H5NX ident – H5NX are a TV format and production company—the client wanted an elegant, unique and inspiring composition, in keeping with the ident itself.

Once again the cello felt like a befitting choice, but we wanted a very simple, clear sound so here we partnered it with a piano. This is a classic combination due to the complimentary harmonic range of the instruments, and in many respects this is why it has such impact—a classic case of less is more. 

We used the piano to highlight the step-by-step illumination of the letters within the logo. Meanwhile the cello gently swells, building to crescendo as the full logo is revealed. 

The piano was a Kontakt instrument by Imperfect Samples—another extremely high quality sound suite of live recordings—and here we opted for the Ebony Concert Grande. 

We played our brilliant cellist, Lucy Simmonds, a section of the piano track, which she then responded too to with an improvised musical expression. Lucy is always our first choice for a cello player. This is because she has a great ear for melody and demonstrates such sophistication—especially in her improvisations. We have found that some session musicians are not comfortable with improvisation so it’s always worth checking first. Otherwise it can cost you a great deal of time if you’ve anticipated a skill your musician does not have. And when you’re paying by the hour, session fees will eat out of your overall fee so time is money!

The music and sound design of Dutch coffeehouse chain Coffee Company, bought about yet more musical partnerships and again to very different effect. The studio making the ad - the brilliant From Form whom we also worked with on the H5NX ident - planned to employ a tracking technique. This single camera shot takes the viewer the entire length of a custom-built 15m long wooden table, upon which Coffee Company’s history unfolds before the viewers’ eyes. So here we suggested using a variety of live musicians to support the handcrafted presentation of both From Form’s film and Coffee Company’s wider brand.

Offset by live marimba, guitar and ukulele—each individually recorded live—the deep tones of the cello worked fantastically with the film and brief. And Lucy’s light bouncy riff struck just the right balance between playful and elegant. 

It’s really important to experiment with different combinations of instrument, as each pairing will offer something unique. Find the combination that best strikes a chord—excuse the pun! 

Absorbing Recordings

Our approach to recording H5NX was very different to that of our work with Tine Milk due to the bass-heavy composition and the overall complexity of the piece. 

We chose to use pizzicato—plucking of the strings—but it’s very difficult for the cellist to maintain an even volume with this form of playing. So, mindful of the frequency of the cello, we manually adjusted the volume of each note after recording to help maintain consistency. You may want to try this to establish an even volume without muddling the overall mix. 

We like to have a choice of live takes so we’ll record as many as timescales and budget will allow. Digital music presents the composer with more opportunities —and a far simpler means—to editing or changing. Furnish yourself with as many live takes as possible and you’ll be less dependent on post-production. 

We always record very naturally in a well-treated space. For Coffee Company test recordings we compared a stereo pair of Rode NTG-3 and AKG C 414-XII mics. We opted for the Rode NTG-3 as it offered a brighter sound with more clarity and definition. 

It’s always worth trialing different microphones before the session so you know that when your musician turns up, you’re prepared and ready to record great results.

With Coffee Company, the brightness and clarity of the recording was also especially important, as we wanted to record the cello being played at a lower volume. If you’re not doing so already, you may wish to try this method too as it’s much easier to capture the rich timbre of the instrument—especially string instruments—when they are played more softly. Many composers use this trick.

On this note, we would always recommend monitoring the timbre of your recording very carefully. As, whilst it may have been absent to the ear during the session, misplaying even one string can later come through. We are always very vigilant on this matter as, while you can edit in or out, it’s time consuming and can again eat out of your fees.

Once you are happy with the recordings and have selected the best takes, you may discover that the odd timing adjustment needs to be made. Ableton Live’s warp mode is fantastic for this and allows you to make really detailed and precise adjustments. 

Once this has been done, the EQ can be used to remove un-wanted frequencies as well as boosting any areas where you feel you could get the recordings working better in the mix. A small amount of reverb on a send can also help blend your live recordings with your other instrument gelling the arrangement together.

Bow and Tell Tips

  1. Consider the style of cello playing, and ensure it’s appropriate to your story.
  2. Combine live cello and other instruments with and high quality recording to offer a well-rounded yet on-budget sound.
  3. Choose partners wisely—instruments and musicians— - both need to be suitable for the job…
  4. …and make sure all your session musicians are speaking the same language. A cello and piano for example, are written in different keys.
  5. Furnish yourself with a wide choice of takes for greater creative freedom, as well as to reduce the impact of any human error.
  6. Record instruments being played softly for a more even sound.
  7. Always test record as even the most well treated space will be subject to change and your mics may pick up something your ear does not!
  8. In postproduction be prepared to make slight timing tweaks with Ableton Live.
  9. Use EQ and reverb to get the live cello sitting in the mix nicely with your other instruments.
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