Stuck for a good string sound or one you haven't used a hundred times before? Tom McLaughlin explains how an old guitar, a violin bow and a little ingenuity can work wonders.
If you find synth strings cliched, commercial samples too identifiable and a violin impossible to play, the answer may be no further away than your old acoustic guitar and a little ingenuity.
GOT PROBLEMS WITH your string samples? Well, instead of taking a crash course in learning to play the violin, you may find the solution lies in your acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitars and most electric guitars and basses are so constructed as to permit their lowest and highest strings to be played with a conventional double bass, cello, viola or violin bow. This should open up a whole new world of tone colours to you and your sampler. You may even sleep easier at night knowing that you're not putting string players out of work.
Unlike members of the violin family, with their curved bridges, the flat bridge on most guitars prevents their innermost strings from being bowed individually. As we're dealing with sampling and not a live performance situation, changing strings or re-tuning for different patches should pose little problem for anyone interested in acquiring a set of samples representative of the guitar's range.
It's surprising how musical the sound of a bowed guitar or bass can be. As would be expected, the nylon strung classical guitar produces a mellower tone than its steel strung acoustic counterpart. Both instruments have a sonority somewhere between a viola and a cello. As a matter of fact, a sampled, bowed acoustic guitar should blend very well with any existing bowed strings in your sample collection, and don't forget, with overdubbing onto multitrack tape or digital sample mixing, entire bowed guitar sections can be constructed.
Compared to the acoustic guitar, the electric guitar and bass offer a plethora of sonic possibilities. Electric guitars offer you the choice of feeding their signals straight into your sampler or miking them up through a combo amp, as well as the wealth of tone colours available using the onboard tone control and pick-up switching circuitry (not to mention the use of standard electric guitar effects such as chorus, phaser/flanger, overdrive/fuzz and sustain pedals. For the time being, we'll leave the possibilities of the electric guitar up to your creativity and imagination.
Getting hold of a bow shouldn't prove very difficult. The chances are that you know someone (or someone who knows someone) who plays or is learning to play, a bowed instrument, and who is willing to loan you their bow and a bit of rosin for a weekend. Failing that, local music stores, string instrument repair shops and sometimes music schools or tutors will hire you a bow for a small fee. The same goes for a guitar if you don't happen to have access to one.
YOU'LL NEED TO either remove or tape up the innermost strings so they don't resonate when you bow the outer strings. For a serious set of multi-samples, I prefer to remove all the inner strings so as to prevent even the slightest sympathetic vibration colouring an otherwise perfect sample.
After removing or taping up the redundant strings, make sure there is enough rosin on the bow, and no excess finger-oil on the strings that are left. This will ensure that the strings will sound clearly when bowed.
To remove finger-oil, grease and grime from the strings, sprinkle a little isopropyl alcohol or tape-head cleaner on a piece of cotton wool or fabric and rub it up and down the string in question, being sure to keep the solvent well away from the instrument's finish to avoid any accidental damage.
Rosining up a bow is easy: simply rub the block of rosin (you did remember the rosin when you borrowed the bow, didn't you?) up and down the length of the bow hairs until they are evenly coated with the now finely powdered rosin, then gently tap the bow to dislodge any excess.
FINDING A COMFORTABLE position to bow a guitar in is not the easiest of tasks. Guitars are designed to be played with a plectrum or the fingers, not a violin bow (despite what Jimmy Page would have you believe), while suspended from the shoulder by a strap or rested upon the knee. Attempting to bow a guitar while it's resting on your knee may result in untold damage to your nether regions, and since gripping a 5" deep guitar under your chin is nigh on impossible, there are certain compromises open to you. The positions I've had most success with are:
1. Resting the guitar, upright, upon your knees while seated.
2. Resting it, again upright, on the floor or, preferably on a table top with a soft cloth or towel underneath to prevent any buzzing or rattling between the guitar and the surface it's resting on.
BEFORE YOU EVEN consider sampling your bowed guitar, you really should experiment with how you're going to bow the darn thing. Not that I'm an expert on the subject, but the main objective seems to be to draw the bow across the string in as smooth a motion as possible and with a consistent pressure; the consistency of pressure being directly proportional to the evenness of the tone produced.
Consequently, you'll find that a certain amount of pressure is needed before you can coax anything resembling an acceptable tone from the instrument. (After experimenting with bowing guitars my respect for string players has increased many-fold). Once you find the minimum amount of pressure required to get the string to "speak", you'll hear that firm pressure produces a brighter tone colour than a more gentle pressure.
As when plucking a guitar, the position at which the string is bowed has a lot to do with the resulting timbre. Bowing close to the bridge produces a harsh, almost brittle sound, while bowing the centre of the string produces a very rounded tone, reminiscent of a square wave. For what sounds to my ears to be the optimum position, try bowing the strings where you would normally pluck them: 3-6 inches from the bridge.
Take time experimenting with the bow to find out why The Strings are universally considered to be the backbone of the orchestra. Play around with different bowing pressures. Practise starting a note off with a soft bowing pressure fading up to full, and vice versa. This is easier said than done.
Try some "spiccato" playing - short staccato notes in the best Beatles/George Martin style. Or bow fingered harmonic notes for a hollow, almost glassy tone colour. Tapping the string with the back of your bow (con legno) yields a hollow, woody, almost ethnic percussive sound and is one of my favourites. (How long did you say you borrowed that bow for?)
THE POSITION OF the microphone for recording bowed acoustic guitar is more akin to that for other bowed strings than to the position you would use for a standard plucked or strummed acoustic guitar. Unless you purposely want to exaggerate the sound of the bow being drawn across the strings, the mic should be positioned no closer than 18 inches away from, and pointing towards, the sound hole at a slight angle to prevent any boominess. Miking distances of 3-10 feet will give a more natural bowed string sound, allowing the entire instrument's tone colour to develop and interact with the room.
THE ROOM YOU choose to do your sampling in will add much character to the finished sound. As a matter of fact, the larger and more complex the room you record your guitar in, the more interesting your sample will probably end up.
Alternatively, if you have a concert hall setting on your digital reverb, try using it when sampling. Large room and plate settings can also be used to good effect. Experiment with reverb decay times between 1.5 and 4.5 seconds with brightness up almost full. Care needs to be taken with long reverb decay times as the initial reflections may cause a repeating echo effect if you loop too early on in a sample.
If you can manage it, try taking samples in a local school gymnasium, church, meeting hall or whatever. But remember, properly recorded, a real room is preferable to using all but the most expensive reverberation devices for adding ambience. Remember, you can exaggerate the size of a room by mixing in one or more microphones facing distant walls in addition to the one aimed at the instrument.
OF COURSE THE higher the sample rate, the greater the fidelity your samples will have. This should go without saying. With most samples a comprehensive multi-sample will limit you to fairly short samples at your highest available sample rate and will often mean having to settle for shortish loops. Rare is the instance where I've heard a convincing short loop on strings. You'll most likely need to trade off a bit of top end with a low or mid sampling rate to enable working with longer, more natural-sounding loops.
As with other things in the order of the universe, there is a time and a place for everything, including sampling rates. I've been in on recording sessions where I'd presented the clients with some of my best string samples (the ones sampled at the highest rate where the string players sound like they're just on the other side of the speaker and you can almost smell the rosin on the bow) which were too realistic for the project at hand. Instead, clients preferred samples from the bottom of my barrel that were "mellower and rounder" to "pad things out a bit". Unbeknown to the clients, they had chosen sounds that had been recorded at mid sampling rates (so much for hi-fi). After getting over the "all that work for nothing" bit, I started to think in terms of where the strings would be placed within an arrangement. Between assorted library samples, and some of my own, I divided my samples into two sets: Solo strings/Foreground sections (high sampling rates) and Background solo strings and Sections (mid sampling rates). They stayed that way for a week.
CONSIDER TWO DIFFERENT string multi-samples layered on top of one another for a Mega String Section Multi-sample... one with fewer samples recorded at a high sampling rate (foreground set), and a second one using samples recorded at mid sampling rates (background set). This can be executed either as one enormous multi-sample, if your sampler has enough memory and layering facilities, or as two different overdubs onto tape.
Constructing layered string ensemble keyboard maps with staggered sample cross-over points not only offers the lushness and depth of two different sampling rates and looping cycles occurring simultaneously, it also demonstrates a psycho-acoustic illusion useful to the sampling fraternity: two loops of differing length when played together are much less noticeable than individual loops, to the human brain. Loops with slight imperfections can often prove quite usable with this mapping technique.
IF YOU LIKE what you've been hearing, don't just stop at sampling standard guitars. The dobro guitar, pedal steel guitar, acoustic bass guitar, banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, harp, zither, autoharp, ukelele, piano, yang t'ching and so on, are all sources of virtually unexplored bowed string tone colours.
Without having to worry about the inherent difficulties of bowing these instruments in a live situation, sounds and musical passages previously undreamed of can now be played with ease - thanks to the magic of digital sampling. So let's start hearing some new sounds, OK?
Feature by Tom McLaughlin
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