Tips for Recording Strings
Strings are arguably the most expressive instrument next to the human voice. Knowing how powerful string instruments can be, it’s often intimidating recording them. It’s impossible to give an exact formula for the best string sound – but I have a few key tips that will really help you get that beautiful singing string sound.
A Sense of Space
Figure out where the strings will be in the mix, and the tracking will fall into place. Are the strings up front and bold, or are they providing a back drop? If you are going for a “soul style” string section, you can place the string overheads surprisingly close to the players, because you may want the heavy harmonics and a sense of “in-your-face.” For classical inspired rock, your power is really going to come from the guitars and drums. You’d be surprised how far you can place the string overheads because the strings are meant to create width and depth – and not fight with the power instruments. With an orchestra, you will probably have both a close overhead set and a far room capture – as you want both power and depth from your ensemble. Figuring out the strings role, and spatial relevance is half the battle.
Choose Your Weapons
Many people will swear by ribbon mics for string work, others will go for condensers, and within that there’s the choice of polar patterns. A thorough understanding of what different mics can help do will answer the question.
Ribbons are great for three reasons:
- There’s top end roll off. This will help accentuate a sense of distance, and also ease back any glassy harmonics that might be coming off the violins. Even if it’s too much roll off, you can eq up the high end and accentuate the “air” without too much glass (watch out for ribbon hiss though).
- Second, ribbon are true figure 8 captures. If you want width you can have space ribbons and get more separation, or Blumlein your ribbons for a relatively wide stereo with a concentric mono.
- Lastly, the transient response on most ribbons is a little lethargic, which is great for naturally rounding out any hard staccato string moments – no compression needed in the mix phase! Some ribbons just have a sweet ass tone to them on top of all that (technically speaking).
Condensers have advantages as well:
- You will get a fuller scope – a clear sound – of the ensemble.
- Especially with the harmonics, you’ll also get a nicer all around sound of the room.
Essentially, choosing the mikes is about that which fits the role best. Ribbons and Condensers can both sound fantastic on any string set with the right placement. It’s more about what kind of image you want. Rock with strings in the background, I’m going to reach for a set of ribbons. I want a lot of space, but not necessarily a lot of room, if that makes sense. And that ribbon tone seems connotative of that rock sound. Soul music, I’m going for some condensers, set cardioid, because I want those buzzing harmonics. Classical, I want some omni condensers, pristine capture with the sound of the hall equally involved. Remember, these are just starting points – you may find that you’re getting results that don’t match up with expectations and that means figure out what you want and make adjustments.
Phase is no joke when it comes to strings. With all those harmonics hoping around, it’s almost impossible to get a spaced pair to have perfect phase. Did I say almost? Scratch that. Perfect phase on a string ensemble of any size is impossible. A spaced pair, even from an imaginary center point, will always leave some strings in phase and some strings out – and the harmonics will alternate between in phase and out of phase. But don’t fret (no pun intended) – there’s an advantage to an out of phase capture: Wider stereo image.
So how does one get a wide stereo image and keep a solid mono sound? Two ways. One is to set up an XY or ORTF configuration. The sound all reaches the mics at essentially the same time, so you stay safe. Another technique is to use a third “glue” mic. Your stereo pair might never be in phase with the strings, but they can be in phase with a third, omni directional mic. If you place that mic somewhere that seems to gather the whole ensemble sound evenly it will help the stereo pair feel concentric. And, when you fold to mono you won’t lose the sense of evenness of the entire ensemble. Usually this glue mic sounds like crud in solo. It’s meant to be tucked underneath the stereo pair, which is doing the majority of the work. The more glue mic you can get (or conversely less of the stereo pair) while still keeping an acceptable sense of width and tone, the better your mono fold will be. There’s usually a sweet spot that makes everything happy.
Prepared For Anything
Keep a couple of auxiliary mics ready to go. Occasionally you will get a great capture, but the mix is going to require just a little more of one element. This is especially true in smaller ensembles, quintets, or quartet work. Sometimes a mic placed relatively close to the body of the instrument and aimed at the f-hole tucked into your main capture is just the ticket. The f-hole is where the fundamental tones of the instrument most clearly resonates – it’s not always the best place to capture a solo string instrument because you miss out on the bow sound, finger noise, and bridge harmonics – but for ensemble work you really only want the fundamental tones for an auxiliary boost.
Don’t be afraid to experiment, even when the clock is ticking. It’s worth listening to your instincts. Old Philly-Soul and Motown strings were often cut with rows of stereo pair condensers. The power of the instruments and the clarity of harmonics were more important to the sound than scopic depth. This quintessential stylistic (again, no pun intended) sound was the result of going for something less conventional and more by instinct.
What techniques and microphones have you used to get great string recordings?