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Tips and Tricks

Arranging Strings with the Creator of Tableau Chamber Strings

With inspiring instrument collections like Tableau Chamber Strings—the newest addition to the Organic Samples series—finding the sounds you need is easy, but it can be handy to have a certain blueprint in mind when composing a string arrangement. That’s why we’ve asked Maxime Luft to take us through his own approach to the process, working within PreSonus’ Studio One. Maxime is the creator of both the Tableau Solo Strings collection and its predecessor, Tableau Solo Strings; and as a composer himself, he has a unique insight into the functionality and expressive potential of sampled strings.

Working with chord progressions

If you’re arranging strings for a piece of music you’ll probably already have a chord template in mind, and a specific key signature to work within. For the purpose of this tutorial, Maxime is creating a string arrangement in isolation, so the first part of his process is about finding inspiration. Using another collection from the Organic Samples series, ‘Vivid Keys’—a versatile grand piano sound captured dry at T-REX Classics in Berlin—Maxime plays around with some chords over a metronome. Once he lands on something that feels right he records it, quantizes it, and loops the phrase.

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To stay on top of the musical structure of your arrangement in this early stage, it’s a good idea to label the chords in your DAW. Maxime uses Studio One’s Arranger Track to keep things as clear as possible for himself when it comes to adding in melodies later, saying: “I tend to forget things pretty quickly, so I write in the chords, and as the arrangement progresses I’ll also make notes on what I think it needs.”

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Creating a foundation

Basses
Maxime decides that the next step is to write a melodic line in the bass, which will be the emotive bedrock of the arrangement. He lays down a simple melody that underpins the chords, using the Sustains soft articulation patch from the Basses instrument group in Tableau Chamber Strings. The root notes of the chords are a guide, but the idea here is to try and create a sense of direction; Maxime’s bass line starts very low and ends high, for example.

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Now that he has a bass melody Maxime lowers the piano volume level slightly, as it was only ever intended to be a sketching tool. He’s still building up string textures at this point, so it’s time to browse through the main instrument patches and lay down some chords that mirror the piano chord progression. Maxime opts for violas, using the Sustains soft articulation to match the slow, consistent character of the bass part.

Note entries and exits
It’s important to pay attention to the attack and decay times of the patches you’re using in your arrangement, and try to synchronize the entries and exits of the separate instrument parts. The violas have a slow attack time, so they need a little bit of a headstart—Maxime subtly adjusts the MIDI notes so that they start 50 milliseconds before the first note of the first bar hits. If you’re using Studio One too you can use the Track Delay feature to input a negative or positive time value, depending on what the instrument needs. Maxime explains that he’s looking to create unison between the instruments, so he spends a short time soloing his tracks and referencing them with the metronome.

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Thickening up the arrangement

To create a denser arrangement, Maxime adds in a cello ensemble on another Sustains soft patch, copies the bass MIDI clip into the track, and then sets it one octave higher. The celli can’t reach the very first C0 note of the phrase, so changing the octave was a necessary adjustment, but it also serves to solidify and add texture to the bass melody line. Again, maintaining this subdued yet sustained articulation across all three instrument groups creates a solid core for the arrangement, which will allow the lead instruments to come to the fore in the next stage.

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Adding expression

Second violins
The second violins are the next instrument group to be added to the arrangement, and this time Maxime chooses the Crescendo long articulation patch, explaining that this is a good opportunity to “bring the higher notes up front, and add expression and lyricism on top of the foundation that the bass is supplying”. The vibrato of this patch will push the second violins through the mix, so Maxime decides to rein them in slightly by clicking into the Mixer tab on the SINE Player and reducing the level of the spot mic position to -5dB. The spot mics are the closest microphones to the players during recording, so by emphasizing the roomier mics instead Maxime is giving the second violins a dreamier and more atmospheric sound.

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With the second violins set to Crescendo long, it makes sense that you might try to build a crescendo of sorts in the actual notes of the chords as well. Maxime starts off with two-note chords, and progresses into more complex chords as the phrase progresses. At this point, Maxime copies and pastes the loop into the next eight bars, but from the start of the ninth bar the second violins phrase goes up an octave. The gradual addition of notes in the chords, carried out across a steady ascent up the register, creates a swelling effect that enhances the sense that he’s building towards something.

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Celli
Each part that’s added is more mobile and melodic than the last, and the next track in the arrangement is Celli Legatos. There’s a balance to be struck here between coming up with interesting melody lines and overplaying, so after recording a part, Maxime goes back into the MIDI clip and extracts anything that’s not obviously contributing to the arrangement. In this way he rearranges the melody until it feels like a complete sentence, allowing for moments where the notes can breathe and always aiming towards a sense of completion at the end.

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First violins
The final flourish comes in the form of the first violins, set to the Sustained accented + LEG articulation. As the cello part is quite busy and pronounced, Maxime copies the clip into the first violins track and mutes the notes so that he can play off the cello melodies. What he’s aiming for here are “differences in rhythm, and melodies that go back and forth with each other, and sometimes play the same thing.” At certain moments, Maxime’s first violins part descends where the cellis ascend, and at others it stays parallel, ”not quite octaving but showing similar movement”.

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There’s no one way to do things when it comes to composition, but Maxime’s arranging process demonstrates a method of working upwardly from a firm foundation. The solid bass part underpins more extroverted instrument sections like the first violins, and is strengthened by the addition of the cellis. When the lead string sections arrive in the piece, they do so with a flourish, exhibiting plenty of character and definition and operating at a slight angle to the more dependable elements underneath. This means plenty of counter melodies and movement, but an overall sense that everything in the arrangement is striving towards a common goal.

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