As an emerging composer, you may find that your music is lacking some ‘convincing’ virtual instruments. You will also probably know that those instruments don’t usually come cheap. In this post I will try to teach you how to make the most of free or cheap string samples. All the points I mention will be from my experience and information I have been taught along the way. I hope you find them useful!
The first point I feel I need to bring up is ‘humanising’. By this I mean making the MIDI tracks feel more ‘human’ by making notes very slightly out of time and changing velocities. This sounds illogical but the point here is to make the strings sound real and no performer would be able to hit notes perfectly on time and at the same velocity. There will always be minute imperfections to a performance that will usually go unnoticed, however can make all the difference when using virtual instruments. When I say very slightly I mean VERY slightly. You shouldn’t be able to hear the changes that you make.
The key to this is to imagine you are the performer. Where would you naturally play softer or louder? Use this thought to edit the velocities of each individual note so that they mimic the way you can hear it. If you aren’t sure, go to YouTube and listen to as much solo violin (or whichever string part) as you can. Listen carefully and write down key areas in a piece of music where the velocities change. Obviously every piece will be different, but this could give you a good idea.
Expression is another key element to fully utilising your string samples. In your DAW whilst editing the MIDI notes, you will be able to edit the expression. This follows rules similar to the velocity editing in that you really need to put yourself in the shoes of the performer. This is the time to really put some feeling and emotion into the notes you have written.
The point is, when a performer plays a single note, the velocity isn’t constant throughout the note. It may be played with a slow attack, short sustain and short release and you would then draw in the expression to fit the ADSR curve. If anything, it’s more important here to pay close attention to how a performer would play the notes.
This is a point I picked up while shadowing a producer in a studio. It doesn’t apply in all cases, however if you are using strings with a slow attack or if a slow attack is a desired effect you are trying to achieve, this could come in handy. This point refers to offsetting the notes to play too early so that the notes reach the ‘peak’ on the beat.
To explain further, if the attack on your strings is too slow and you have layered other instruments in the track, the strings will sound out of time due to the peak of the note being delayed in comparison. So to counter that, literally move the notes so that the attack ends closer to the beat. This way you can get that ‘romantic’ feel of the strings but keep them sounding in time. Win-win!
This one is fairly self-explanatory. Use a blend of different string sample packs to create your compositions. You can do this by splitting the different individual string parts between different sample packs, or by duplicating the tracks and using the same MIDI notes with different samples. This method is really great for blending different subtle tones and timbral variances together to create a more unique sound to your strings. A good way of looking at it is that each player will play with subtle differences in their play style. Using different strings accommodates for this and in turn makes the section sound more realistic because every string part isn’t playing identically.
As for the strings themselves, there are many options to choose from. For free strings, I would recommend the Big Cat Instruments samples. With some work they can become perfectly fine for a demo track. In my experience, they sound better as short staccato notes rather than longer, more legato notes.
If you have the Kontakt 5 or Kontakt 5 player software, the Session Strings samples are a really great pack. At £89, they are an average price however they are brilliant value for money. There is a good amount of control over the sound with performance controls along with some basic envelope controls.
This one I have not personally used, however I have heard good things about the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra. It’s a free pack and great for beginners or as the web page says, great for more advanced composers and producers who are looking for something more portable. Like most samples, string samples take up a lot of storage space so having a free, smaller sized pack is great to have on your laptop for writing on-the-go.
So give these tips a go and I assure you that your strings sections will be sounding more professional in no time. The main point to take away is that you have to put yourself in the shoes of the performer. Any other tips? I’d love to hear them. Let me know what you do when composing for strings.
New to songwriting and composing? Be sure to check out my other post on just that!