Working With Strings In Ableton Live

A typical string section in an orchestra can consist of five different sections (violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). To make things even more complicated, there are three ways to play them (plucked, bowed and struck).

Let’s go over some of these terms and how they can affect your string productions.

String Theory

As mentioned before strings come in all shapes in sizes. A list of stringed musical instruments could fill up plenty of pages, so we’re going to stick to the five most orchestral stringed instruments.


Violin – A mid range instrument that has a low note of G3. Consists of four strings with a tuning of G, D, A, E (tuned to perfect 5ths). Commonly bowed (arco) and plucked (pizzicato).

Violin sections in an orchestra are made up of first violins and second violins. The first sections play melody, while the second section plays harmony.

An “A Scale” being bowed (arco).


Viola – The Viola is very similar to a violin with a few notable exceptions. A viola is in a similar pitch range as the violin, except it is a perfect fifth below the violin (tuned C, G, D, A).

The biggest difference is the viola’s natural timbre. Usually consisting of a darker and more full bodied tone than the violin. The viola can also be bowed, as well as plucked.

Cello Suite 5 performed on a Viola. Note the darker, fuller tone of the Viola.


Cello – The lowest pitched instrument in the viola family, the cello’s lowest note is a C2 (two octaves below a middle C). Like the violin and viola, a cello is also tuned to perfect fifths (C, G, D, A).

A sample of Bach’s Cello Suite #1. Notice the range from low to high the cello has.


Double Bass – The double bass rounds out the bottom end of the strings section. Tuned in 4ths (E-A-D-G) with the lowest note being an E1.

Double basses are usually bowed in orchestral environments, but are known to be plucked in Jazz.

A double bass being bowed with harmonics.


Now that we have the basics of the various stringed instruments used in an orchestral setting, lets go over some of the different terms used for playing these instruments.


Vibrato – The sound of vibrato is achieved by quickly bending the string to oscillate the pitch of it. This can be achieved in Ableton Live by using the pitch wheel on the sampler, or by using the LFO to control the pitch.

A sample of a violin playing an A#4 with vibrato.


Glissando – A simple slide of pitch which causes notes to rise and fall smoothly without separate steps.

To emulate glissando in Ableton Live, simply use pitch automation for a smooth note transitions.

Here is a sample of a violin playing a glissando from D4 to A4.


Pizzicato – With pizzicato, the strings are plucked directly with the fingers created a sharper, quicker attack. Most string sample packs come with version of notes played pizzicato.

An “A Scale” being plucked (pizzicato).


The Poor Man’s Orchestra

Here is a technique to getting a full orchestra inside of Ableton Live, for free. Granted, this takes a lot of time and patience (if you would like a quality string orchestra, buy Ableton’s Orchestral Strings).

Step 1. Go to http://theremin.music.uiowa.edu/MIS.html.

Step 2. In this example we’ll use the Violin, so click “Violin” on the site.

Step 3. Right Click and Save As the first audio sample on that page (Violin.arco.pp.sulG.G3B3.aiff (4.1mb)).

Step 4. Drop the aiff file into your favorite audio editor (Sound Forge, Wavelab, Audacity, even exporting these out in Ableton Live would work.)

Step 5. Take the 5 notes (G3 – B3) and edit each note to be exported individually. I use the naming convention (note-name)-(instrument name)-Arco.wav. For example, the G3 is saved as G3-Violin-Arco.wav.

Each of our notes to be sampled and exported individually. The pink area represents the best place for trimming.

Step 6. Once you have saved the five notes, open Ableton Live and drop Sampler on an empty Midi track.

Step 7. In Sampler, click on the zone tab.

Step 8. In the Sample Layer List (gray area in Zone window), drop the G3-Violin-Arco.wav sample we’ve saved.

Step 9. Repeat step 8 for G3#, A3, A#3 and B3. Your zone window should now look like this:

Step 10. Trim each of the green sample zones, until they are only underneath their note. For example G3 – Violin – Arco.wav should have a small sliver of the green bar underneath the G3 key.

Step 11. Finally, right click on the Zone Editor window and select “Distribute Ranges Equally”.

You can now play the sequence of notes on your keyboard, and they will correspond perfectly. These steps can be repeated across the entire range of the violin, or any other instrument.

Better Sequencing Through Strings

Knowing the various stringed instruments can help a great deal when it comes to sequencing them. We’ve already discussed the ranges of strings, as well as the different ways they can be played, so lets talk about how this translate into MIDI sequencing.

Expression is everything when it comes to strings. Even the players taking a breath during a certain note can change the tone. These subtle nuances are key to programming realistic string Sequences.

Velocity

Try and set a realistic velocity when programming String parts. On the bottom section of the piano roll editor are your velocity settings, raising and lowering the velocity of a note (from 0 – 127) can offer a wide range of dynamics within a performance.

Different Playing Styles

It’s a good idea to have a set of samples that have the different playing styles mentioned earlier. Playing styles to look for: legato, pizzicato, arco, and staccato.
Program Realistically

For an authentic string section sound, it helps to not program in chords. For example, instead of using one violin and programming a chord with it, use two violin tracks each playing one note. Set the notes slightly off time from each other to get even more realistic results.

Use High String Drones For Texture

This works when you’re using the strings as a supplement in a track. Find the key of the song, and program the string drone to the tonic (first step in a musical scale) of that key. Reverb, chorus, and other effects may help to add more texture to the sound.

The String Of Things To Come

I hope this gives the reader some insight into how getting realistic string sounds can be achieved. Stay tuned for another tutorial that will discuss programming string sounds for Ableton’s Synthesizers.

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