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Synth Techniques

Article from One Two Testing, July 1984

improve your keyboard chords


Ever wondered how to get that fantastic string sound without lashing out for the LSO? Try thinking about synth voicing, suggests Andy Honeybone.


Fable has it that a novice journalist was sent to cover the launch of a new ship. He returned to admit, bashfully, that he couldn't get a story because the ship had sunk on meeting the water.

The brief for this article was to show the good readers of OTT how to play synthesisers in the style of orchestral strings — not just recreating the sound, but copying the way chords and arrangements are formed. In other words, where do the fingers go?

Rather than report back that it isn't actually possible to imitate a 70 piece orchestra with one string ensemble unit, the aim of this piece is to make you more aware of the problems involved and let the facts lurk in your subconscious where they are bound to influence your playing.

Style is imperative for realistic synthesis because the ear can be better deceived if it is receiving "context" information associated with a sound. For example, select accordion on your Casio and play a snatch from the Moonlight Sonata — sounds naff doesn't it? Now play the theme from Captain Pugwash and friends will swear they can see the bellows sawing in and out.

The string family consists of the violin, viola, 'cello and doublebass. The bass has the same tuning as a bass guitar (or should that be the other way round?) and is the odd one out being a descendant of the fretted viol family.

The strings of the 'cello are tuned in intervals of a fifth (guitars are tuned in fourths): the viola has the same tuning but an octave higher. Finally the strings of a violin are tuned a fifth higher than those of a viola. This results in the string section having a range of six octaves and considerable overlap between members.

You haven't four hands as needed for the full orchestral string range shown above, so economise. Much of its flavour can be distilled into this octave-and-third shape.


The main problem for a keyboard player is that he/she has only two hands (nothing to be ashamed about), each capable of a mere one octave span. Interestingly, a guitar synthesiser is much better equipped to cover the range of a string section than is a keyboard.

Another source of trouble is the wide range of playing styles possible on a stringed instrument. The bow allows fine control over dynamics as well as the spooky tremolo effect much used in horror movies, and if the bow is lifted from the string between notes (detached bowing) a coarse scrubbing effect can be obtained.

Use of a wooden mute attached to the bridge gives a softer tone, and it is even possible to use the back of the bow to clout the string (listen to the bass riff on "Mars" from Holst's Planets Suite).

The plucked pizzicato sound is very distinctive (Eurythmics' "Here Comes The Rain Again") and harmonics are also possible for really high notes. A screaming effect similar to sweeping a sync'd oscillator is produced on a stringed instrument by lightly touching a string and sliding the finger backwards and forwards while bowing (listen to the introduction of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite").

The rapidity with which these effects can be brought into play and the endless possibilities of articulation are a source of great upset to someone armed with a four-octave keyboard and pitchbend control.

Rarely in the realm of rock music is a full string orchestra featured unaccompanied — the major exception being the Overture on ABC's "Lexicon of Love". Other formats such as the string quartet (1st and 2nd violin, viola and 'cello) have only found their way into rock for their novelty value. By and large, the main use in rock is for "long notes" and unison or octave doubled counterpoint or melody lines. This we can cope with.

The power of strings comes from the sheer number of players each with their own idea of pitch and vibrato speed. A chorus unit can only go so far in duplicating this effect, and "realism" can only be approached by lengthy overdubbing.

As a basis for synthesis, the sawtooth is a useful waveform and the addition of delay vibrato will give the ear a further clue. If possible the sound needs to be brightened by high-pass filtering for low notes and dulled by low-pass filtering for the highs.

All these recommendations may have to go to the wall if pulse width modulation is needed to give the chorus effect. Mantovani was the first to capitalise on the addition of reverb/echo to the string sound, and the public's idea of what violins actually sound like is now, forgivably, larger than life. To this end a slight release time can be incorporated in the envelope to give the echo something to work on.



Octave-doubling, moving inner parts, and suspensions shown in notation

And so to the notes. If a four part chord was to be distributed among the strings, the most common way would be to give the top two notes to the first and second violins, the next lower note to the violas and the bottom note to the 'cellos and (optionally) the basses. This is no different to sounding the same notes on a keyboard.

Further permutations are possible by doubling some notes at various octaves and dividing each principal section — "You play the top note and I'll play the bottom one". Chords are arranged so that the intervals between lower notes are larger than the intervals between notes in the upper register. This avoids a muddy bass and approximates the natural harmonic series.

When imitating string parts lower notes have to be left out because of the limitations of the keyboard. It is quite effective if the right hand plays an octave doubled melody note and also puts in a third to help the harmony along, for example D, F, D'.

Octave-doubling, moving inner parts, and suspensions shown in corresponding shapes


Assuming someone or something else is taking care of the bass, the left hand can play a simple triad ie (D, F, A) to fill out the sound and clinch the harmony. Although present in this example, the fifth of most chords is not missed if left out and this can free a finger to double a more useful note.

Another characteristic of string writing is that each line should be a melody in its own right and this often means that lines will overlap. Suspensions and resolutions of inner voices are very effective as are holding long notes over barlines and changing notes on the weak beats (syncopation).

Unfortunately there is no distillation of string style that can be described in a few paragraphs — arrangers spend many years learning the art. For those of us still on the nursery slopes, listening is the easiest way to assimilate the overall effect so try to get some Elgar and the other pieces mentioned in the main text, and give them an ear.

The presence of strings is felt by many to make their music legitimate. But history is full not only of vocalists but also instrumentalists (Charlie Parker for one) who, in achieving their lifetime ambition of recording with strings, lost their following. Be careful, that's all.


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Secondhand Synths

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Ibanez Roadstar Guitars


Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Jul 1984

Donated & scanned by: Simon Dell
(www.encyclopaediaelectronica.com)

Feature by Andy Honeybone

Previous article in this issue:

> Secondhand Synths

Next article in this issue:

> Ibanez Roadstar Guitars


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