How to Create Your Own String Arrangements

“Strings can give you a range of textures and colors, everything from harsh and nasty and raucous to a very beautiful washy kind of pad,” says the British producer Rob Ellis. “You can fake strings with technology, of course, or you can do it for real. I prefer real strings wherever the inclination and the budget allows—there’s always a choice, but to me there’s nothing else that really does that job and provides those sounds and those colours.” 

For Rob, the potential for orchestral string instruments first arrived in the shape of a solo cello part he wrote for “Plants And Rags” on PJ Harvey’s first album, Dry, back in 1992, when he was the drummer in Polly’s band. Today, while he says he’s a musician first—and he still occasionally gets to play drums—his main day job is as a producer. 

Experience is a wonderful thing, but what if you’re making your first records and want to create some string arrangements? It’s all very well having the idea, but where to begin? “The first thing to do is to listen to pieces of music that have string arrangements, to get a feel for what’s possible,” Rob reckons. He tends to produce artists with a penchant for what he calls melancholy, left-field, independent music, and the obvious string-part reference in that field is Nick Drake. “He’s a constant reference in my world anyway,” Rob says, “let alone the string arrangement on ‘River Man.’ And Scott Walker, he would be another reference that often comes up.”

The next move, he suggests, assuming you’re familiar with the basics of bass, middle, and treble, is to think about the ranges of the instruments involved. “You need to understand that each of the traditional orchestral string instruments—from smallest to largest, violin, viola, cello, and double bass—is designed to cope with a certain area of the pitch range,” he explains. Imagine you’re playing a three-note chord on a keyboard. At it simplest, a string arrangement of that would have the big double bass playing the low note, the violin and viola playing the high note, and the cello playing the middle note. Add rhythm, expand a little, and there you are.

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