Getting string samples to sound good is often considered the 'holy grail' for composers and developers alike. Many attempts have been made, and new libraries are produced every year it seems. However, even after decades of R&D, there is still nothing that comes really close to capturing the feel of a live string section.
This tutorial will deal with enhancements you can make to your string writing no matter what library you use. It is possible to make good libraries sound bad, and bad libraries sound good. Obviously here at Tuts+, it's better to focus on the latter.
We will address each topic of improvement by starting with a simple, short piece of string music, and going through it stage by stage to make it sound better than it was originally.
Here is the first rendition:
This track currently has:
- No round-robin sampling
- No velocity changes in either the short strings
- No layering
- No rever
- No EQ
- No real performance of the piece (a lack of expression and phrasing).
This is not something you ever want to have in your music if you are trying to replicate a live orchestra, but there are some sample libraries which limit your choices in how things sound (no round-robin). The first thing you can do though, is add velocity changes.
Tip 1. Velocities
This is one of the most common problems when hearing tracks that are produced with samples, especially in 'epic' tracks. A lot of composers who are starting out like to hammer the keys at the highest velocity to make it 'epic'. Unfortunately, music doesn't work so well like this.
What makes things feel 'epic' are builds and sells in the music, and to do that requires a degree of performance. Even the cheapest libraries have articulations recorded at multiple velocities, so it’s best to make use of them.
If the softer velocities are not loud enough than use the volume controls to compensate. If you're triggering the hard velocities for short notes the whole time, it just sounds static and repetitive. This is the opposite of what a string section is.
Here's what that sounds like.
And here's what it sounds like with velocity changes.
It's an improvement, but still a long way to go.
To illustrate how important velocities are, here is a different short piece just using an ascending scale. The first version is without velocity changing (everything playing at the highest velocity) and the second version is with velocity changing.
Without velocity changing (warning, loud!):
With velocity changing:
The bottom part shows red bars on a scale of 0-127. In the 'without velocity' version, I set all of these to 127, and it does not sound good. Obviously, this is an exaggeration to illustrate a point, but it goes without saying that there should always be variation in velocity in your string parts (and other orchestral parts), as this is more natural.
This little scale utilized round-robin sampling. Next, I'll explain why this is important.
Tip 2. Round-Robin Sampling
What is round-robin sampling? Simply put, it's a method that sample developers use so that when you hit the same note on your keyboard—e.g. a 'D'—and then play it again, a different recording of that same note plays.
So instead of your playback being:
'D Sample 1 - D Sample 1 - D Sample 1', it becomes
'D Sample 1 - D Sample 2 - D Sample 3 - D Sample 1 - D Sample 2 - D Sample 3'
In this day and age, almost every string library utilizes round-robin sampling, and by default is turned on. Here are the short strings from that opening piece with and without round-robin sampling (but with velocity changes).
Without round-robin sampling:
With round-robin sampling:
The round-robin adds subtle variation on the samples that gives them more life.
I Don't Have Round-Robin Samples!
If you don't have round-robin samples for some reason (you will be able to tell this because you'll get the machine-gun effect as heard in 'Without round-robin sampling' above), then there are twp things you can do to help yourself.
First, write parts that avoid repetition. It's repetition that is causing your samples to sound machine-gun like. Add space into your parts. You still have the velocity changes so that's what's going to help you add variety to your parts. Here's what that might sound like.
Secondly, if you're still missing the 'busyness' of the original, then you can do some layering with additional instruments to fill out the parts. Use other instruments that have a staccato feel, such as pizzicato strings, or piano, or harp, even percussion will help. Here are a couple of ideas.
With additional pizzicato strings following the harmony:
With pizzicato strings, piano, and timpani following the harmony:
Both of these still use the original strings with no round-robin, but the round-robin has been disguised now by the other instruments. It might not sound exactly the same as the original in terms of the notes on the page, however, it has a better 'feel'.
The key to writing convincing orchestral sample mockups is feel. It doesn't matter how good your library is if it can't convey a certain emotion, so you need to do whatever you can to improve the feel. In the vast majority of cases, composers are not going to be able to utilize a live orchestra for their track (or even a single live player) so you need to write for the samples and work within their limitations.
The above two tracks featured a technique called layering, which we will cover later in the guide. But now we will proceed to cover the 'long' string sound that plays over these short notes, and how we can improve the sound of them.
Tip 3. Expression Controls
In the original version of the track we had a sustained string line over the top of the short strings. Now that we've added round-robin and velocity to the short strings let's see what it sounds like.
It's not bad, but it could be a lot better. The problem is that it is played statically, with no expression. String players do not play like this in real life, which is something you'll have to try to emulate.
Many sample libraries come with a dynamic controller that crossfade between dynamics. The library I am using for this track (Symphobia) has such a controller.
It's worth pointing out at this stage, that while Symphobia is still one of the most expensive libraries on the market, it is still possible—as demonstrated so far—to make it sound pretty bad. I hope this reinforces one of my overall points that is it's not what sample library you have, it's how you use it.
If your sample library does not have a patch that dynamically crossfades, you can still use volume control in Kontakt or your sampler of choice to add more of a performance to it. In Kontakt, you can right click on the volume control and do a 'Learn Midi CC'. Then twiddle any knob/fader/controller on your keyboard, and Kontakt will respond to it when you play.
Now let's hear that string part with some Modwheel control added to it. The Modwheel in Symphobia will crossfade between different dynamic samples. This will add a degree of performance to the track, and should bring it to life. Here's what that sounds like:
And here's what that looks like:
You can see the bottom the data for CC1 (Modwheel). It is constantly moving, and particularly on the longer notes is where the line benefits. Long notes are not static when they are performed, and thus your sampled strings should not be static either.
Your sequences for orchestral work should be covered with all kinds of expression data, either via the modwheel, or volume control, or both. It will add a lot to your track, especially for long sustained lines. Here are a couple more examples.
Without expression data:
With expression data:
If you start doing this with your string lines, you are adding a performance quality to your work, and this is what creates feeling in music. No matter how brilliant the notes on the page, if they are not performed well, they will not shine.
Tip 4. Layering
Layering is a huge topic that is probably worthy of its own tutorial, as it not only deals with how to work with samples, but also arrangement and orchestration. However, I will try to introduce it here and show how in many ways you can use layering to improve your existing sound.
A very common problem in mockups is where the samples themselves are exposed. That is, one sample library—that might not be of the best quality—playing alone with no other instruments to support it. In the real world, a string section playing by itself would work fine, but in the sampled world, if your samples are not of the highest quality, the performance and feel falls apart. There are numerous layering methods that can fix this:
- Combining different string sample libraries to play the notes.
- Using different mic positions in your existing string libraries (if available).
- Accentuating with a different string sample library certain notes that the original sample library is playing.
- Accentuating with a different string articulation certain notes that the original sample library is playing.
- Using orchestration techniques to add different instruments to the track that support the original string samples (as heard earlier in the I Don't Have Round-Robin section).
- As per George Strezov's excellent Tuts+ tutorial, add one live player to your existing track.
1. Combining Different String Sample Libraries
A common technique used by numerous composers, is to blend certain sample libraries together. Something I like to do is take a smaller section, either a solo string sound or a smaller string sound (a divisi recording) to add some bite. However, most sample libraries are recorded in different venues, so whatever you choose will add something different.
With additional spiccato strings:
With additional spiccato strings + sustains:
With additional spiccato strings + sustains + violin solo:
When used carefully, layering and blending different sample libraries together can create a powerful effect. It's a personal recommendation that whatever you do add, the string section should be smaller in size. This will give you a level of intimacy that your 'bigger' string sound can't provide. In the manuals of most sample libraries you can find out the size of the string section that was recorded and this will help inform your decision.
2. Trying Different Microphone Positions
If you do not have the funds for acquiring many different sample libraries, then look within your own. Many libraries nowadays come with multiple mic positions, and they can often give you a quite different sound. A couple of very short examples:
The above are taken from the same sample library, but one uses only the close microphone samples, and the other uses the room microphone samples.
Close microphone samples generally add bite, detail and presence. Room microphones (depending on where the library was recorded) are what give you the ambience and 'feel'. In the big Hollywood soundtracks, the biggest component that gives them that feel is the room they were recorded in.
Ideally, you want a balance between close and stage mics, depending on your project and your taste. Generally a good starting point is a ratio of 66% stage, 33% close, but you can always dial in the close mic further for more intimacy or something that's more up front or in your face.
3. Accentuating Certain Notes with a Different Sample Library
A common trick I like to do, particularly for bass and to accentuate harmonic movement, is to accentuate parts that I want to emphasize. When you do this with a different library, you'll add a new tonal quality to your strings. This also makes for a more interesting listening experience.
With the original track, with none of the layering from Part 1 of this section, here's what just adding a very simple bass line does when it accentuates certain notes.
This particular library has real bite, so there is a strong attack on the notes that the original sample library (Symphobia) wasn't providing. Note that they are not playing everything that the Symphobia part was, just certain notes in the bass.
Another quick example with violins. The first one just has a violin section. The second has the same violin section but with a solo violin accentuating certain notes. It gives it a subtle andd ifferent feel, but also adds a touch of sonic interest. Both sound good, but if you have a part that does this ostinato for a long time, you need to look for ways to continue to make it interesting. (This is something that Hans Zimmer does particularly well.)
With Accentuated Layer:
4. Accentuating Certain Notes with a Different Articulation
We already have touched on this back in the I Don't Have Round-Robin section. Using a different articulation from the string section, you can add more sonic interest. A classic combo that has been a staple of orchestration for centuries is to double a staccato cello line with a pizzicato bass.
Cellos With Pizz.:
We can then apply this technique to the original track. It's less noticeable with everything else around it, but if you apply lots of these small techniques, things gradually improve.
5. Using Different Orchestration Techniques To Enhance Existing Harmony
Again, we already touched on this in the I Don't Have Round-Robin section. This technique requires a knowledge of orchestration and knowing what instruments blend will with each other. This is a lifetime's study, and far too much to cover here, but there are things you can do that are common sense when layering.
- Short samples pair well with other short samples.
- Long samples pair well with other long samples.
- A bass instrument from one section will likely (but not always) pair well with a bass instrument from another section. e.g. bassoon and cello/bass.
- A high instrument from one section will likely (but not always) pair well with a high instrument from another section, e.g. violin and flute.
- Percussion, when used sparsely, layers well with everything. The percussion section is a very easy way to add a tiny bit of sonic interest to your parts. You should not overdo it, but if ever you feel something has become too static, a little percussion can go a long way.
- Use your good samples to help out your bad ones!
There are plenty of orchestration books that can help you with good sound combos, but an underrated online resource is the VSL Academy which also has for every instrument, sound combination examples. These apply not just to live orchestra, but also for samples.
Additionally, you can buy film scores from Alexander Publishing and study them. You would be amazed at how much doubling happens in a film score. All of these instrument combinations are used by the pros, and you should use them too. The resources are available for you. Use them!
Here is a simple example, just using two chords of how simple orchestration can enhance an existing piece while retaining the same feel.
2 String Chords + Harp
2 String Chords + Harp + Solo Violin
2 String Chords + Harp + Solo Violin + Choir
2 String Chords + Harp + Solo Violin + Choir + Crotales
All of these examples are just using the notes in the first two chords, A minor (A,C,E) and E minor (E,G,B). Note that the long sounds, choir, solo violin and strings are all using expression as we talked about earlier.
You will find examples like the four above across film music literature everywhere.
There is no limit to what you can do with orchestration, only your imagination. But place limitations on yourself by using common sense, and also use your ears and listen to lots of film scores so you can learn the combinations that work and apply them in your own music.
To finish off the layering section, here is that opening piece, layered in two different ways: one with strings only, and the other with multiple instruments.
Layered Strings + Additional Orchestration
In the second track we have piano, timpani, horns, flutes and trombones. They are all following the same harmony, and the instruments are generally written in the ranges where they sound best. There is nothing particularly elaborate here, but this is a taste of what orchestration can do for your music. However, let's get back to strings.
A Brief Introduction to Production
So, even after velocity changing, round-robin samples, performance and expression and layering, are we there yet? No. There are still three important parts of the production process that are quite important when dealing with samples. The first being EQ, the second being panning, and the third being reverb. We'll address EQ first.
Tip 6. EQ
When dealing with sampled strings, there tend to be a lot of frequency buildups (especially when layering), and additionally you are constrained to the way the samples were recorded. This can often mean you get unwanted or undesirable sounds.
Before mixing and doing post-production on tracks, I like to render my tracks to audio stems and then place them in a new project. This allows me to get away from the composition process and think about mixing only. With my audio stems I sort the tracks into groups such as:
- High Strings Short
- Low Strings Short
- High Strings Long
- Low Strings Long
You can group them however you like, it all depends on your workflow. Once in your sequencer, you should have something that looks like this.
N.B.The waveforms may look distorted but they are not - I prefer to make them bigger in my sequencer so I can see what I'm editing.
High Pass Filter
One of the first things I like to do is remove low-end sound from high-end instruments, for example, the violins. There is nothing really useful in the low end, and with sampled orchestras, when you have a lot of instruments piling up on top of each other, you got low-end frequency buildup, which takes up headroom in your mix and leads to an undesirable sound.
High Shorts - No EQ
You can see in the EQ graph and hear how much low-end information there is. It's not really carrying anything useful. Let's isolate it so we can hear it.
High Shorts - Isolated Low-End (you may need to turn up your sound)
It's mostly rumble. So what we will do, is apply a high pass filter on to the strings. This will block out that low-end stuff which is mostly room tone and rumble. We don't need this because later on we will be putting these strings in a room anyway with reverb. We do this because we want our actual low-end instruments (cello and bass, etc.) to cut through in the mix.
High Shorts - High Pass Filter On/Off
In the above audio track, every two measures I turn the high pass filter (HPF) on and off.
Here is a picture of the HPF applied and a frequency graph response after it is applied. The low-end rumble is gone.
Note that while the difference isn't huge on one track, this is a cumulative effect. The more you do it across your high-end instruments, the more room your low-end instruments (especially percussion) will have to shine.
Cut First, Boost Second
I always prefer to cut at the mixing stage, and with sampled orchestras—because you are layering lots of instruments together, and not dealing with a real orchestra—instead of having 50 strings playing, you actually have 50 strings playing each note of a chord. In a four note chord, that's 200 strings! So, you're better off cutting.
The first problem area occurs in sustains (longs) of many libraries, and many of the violins become harsh on the ear after a while of listening to them. To do this, we soften them at the frequency at which they irritate the ear. The 'irritation' frequencies start at ~3000 Hz. I use this as a starting point and work from there.
I also like to roll off some of the very high-end frequencies, as when you have a lot of instruments playing, these build up too. Not so much that it becomes muffled, but just a touch.
High Long Strings - Pre EQ
High Long Strings - Post EQ
The difference is subtle, but—like the low pass filter (also applied here)—the effect will be cumulative.
The other problem area that builds up is the 'mud' area, where my starting point is at ~300 Hz. This occurs a lot in mid-range parts, which is where the majority of your orchestra is going to be playing. So, you can look to cut here too. This and the high pass filter is where the biggest differences will be made.
Short Strings - No EQ
Short Strings - EQ
You can see the EQ's I've applied on each short string stem based on the advice above. I also increased the high-end on the high shorts as they have a bit of bite that I wanted to accentuate.
Here is the full string track with EQ.
It can still be improved further, though.
Tip 7. Imaging
A simple, but often overlooked, aspect of production is placing things in the stereo field. Every DAW has pan pots, so we should make use of them. For strings, generally speaking, we can either place:
- Violin 1 - Left, Violin 2 - Right, Viola - Left Center, Cello - Right Center, Bass - Center
- Violin 1 - Left, Violin 2 - Left Center, Viola - Center, Cello - Right Center, Bass - Center
The first is a more modern setting, and the second is a more classical setting. Honestly, do whatever you think sounds good. Anything is better than placing everything in the center.
Here is how the track sounds when imaging is applied.
It's a wider, more panoramic / cinematic sound. It also adds clarity to the mix because each instrument has a bit more space to shine.
We've come a long way since the original track, but now for the final step.
Tip 8. Reverb
Reverb is one of those things that often comes down to taste. However, when applied correctly, it can really add an extra layer of shine to your track.
With sampled orchestras especially, you should not skimp on your reverb. It can hide deficiencies in your sample libraries, and also bring to life the good qualities some of them may have.
Here are a few tips concerning reverb:
- Don't apply a reverb to the master track, it will muddy up your mix badly.
- Don't apply long reverbs to short sounds, it will muddy up your mix.
- Do apply long reverbs to long sounds, it will help them shine. If your part falls between long and short sounds, then err on the side of caution.
- Be very careful when applying reverb to sounds that register in the lower frequencies, they will kill the headroom in your mix very quickly if not careful.
- Apply your reverb differently according to groups of instruments. One reverb for strings (or high strings and low strings), one reverb for brass, one for high percussion, one for low percussion, and so on. You can either use totally different reverbs for each, or apply the same reverb in differing amounts. Having seen world class mixing engineers work, they all use a lot of different reverbs to dial in their sound. All that matters is what sounds good.
- For cinematic music, you'll generally want to stick with a chamber, hall, church or scoring stage reverb, depending on the style of your composition. This is always a good starting point.
One of the most common things heard in mockups, especially from composers starting out, is too much reverb, or reverb not judiciously applied. Here's what happens when you place a reverb on the master track.
Strings Only With Master Reverb
You can hear a lack of clarity in the mix now because the reverb is being applied in the same amount to everything. Lack of clarity is not good. To further illustrate this problem, here is the layered piece from earlier with additional orchestration (and EQ and imaging) with a master reverb applied.
Strings + Additional Orchestration With Master Reverb
The mix sounds muddy, and this is undesirable. So, following the basic rules that I laid out above, I'll be more careful about my application of reverb to the lower instruments, and be generous with sustained sounds. This should result in more clarity and a better overall mix.
Strings Only With Reverb Applied on Different Groups
This is much clearer than when just applying a master reverb.
Which Reverb Should I Use?
Generally speaking, you should aim to have at least one convolution reverb and one algorithmic reverb. Examples of a convolution reverb are Altiverb or Quantum Leap Spaces. Examples of an algorithmic reverb are B2 or Lexicon.
However, there are plenty of free reverbs available on the net for you to try out too. A recommended one is the Kjaerhus Reverb, however you can also look at this excellent AudioJungle forum thread to find various free reverbs (and other goodies).
Tip 9. String Library Recommendations
It's difficult to recommend one library over another, and ultimately it's better to use your own ears and use them to make the best decision for you. As stated before it's quite easy to make good sample libraries bad, and vice versa. Success in string programming will depend on how you apply the various techniques to improve your mockups, and not just to expect a brilliant out-of-the-box sound (though that does help considerably).
One thing that's definitely worth considering, though, is having two libraries that each do different things. A good place to start is a library which deals with ensemble playing, and then get a supplemental library for when you need detail.
Ensemble library examples (not an exhaustive list):
Detail library examples (not an exhaustive list):
All libraries have their own strengths and weaknesses. As always, it's how the user handles them.
If you don't want to fork out a ton of money, there are also some free libraries lurking out there:
- Embertone Intimate Strings Lite
- Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra
- Check out this excellent AudioJungle forum thread for free sample libraries.
In this tutorial we started off with a bare bones track.
We then looked at different stages of the string mockup process such as velocity switching, round-robin sampling, performance and expression controls, and layering. We then looked at the post-production process for string mockups, and added EQ, imaging and reverb. The result was a track that sounded like this.
The road to improving string mockups is endless, and developers will keep finding new ways to sample strings. It's up to the user to make their libraries sound as good as possible, but even if you are limited with your choice of libraries, you are less limited with your choice of instruments, and that's where a knowledge of orchestration can come into play.
Sure, if you want to write a string-only piece you might have to spend more time really enhancing your string sound, but if you are writing for orchestra and using only samples, you can mix and match your good samples to cover up the bad ones. With a solid orchestration knowledge base, you can turn a strings-only track into something quite grand, even when the new parts are just playing the same notes as the original strings.
I hope this tutorial was enlightening. Here is the end result with a produced string mockup and additional orchestration.