I thought I’d share some of the woes of string recording and its difficulties. We have started the string recording process and I always need to remind myself that what we’re trying to do is no easy task. As a cellist and a person who has recorded dozens of records of my lifetime I knew how difficult string recording is. It’s often frustrating for me when an inexperienced engineer doesn’t realize the intricacy of recording strings. They assume the player is insufficient compared to the guitar player who’s strumming away “flawlessly.” The reality is, in contrast to every other instrument that I can think of, recording strings is one of the most difficult, frustrating instruments to record.
You may ask the question, why is recording strings so difficult. The first answer is the violin or cello is one of the most demanding instruments. There is no other instrument where there is so much precision needed. A guitar you have frets and as long as you put your finger in between the frets you’re going to get the correct note. Just the fact that most guitar players teach themselves how to play this instrument demonstrates its simplicity. A piano you just push down on the right keys and the notes going to sound in tune with a good tone. Putting it even in more contrasting way, I could grab some stranger who has never seen or heard a piano and after a few seconds he could play one note just as well as a concert pianist touring around the world playing with major orchestras. I could never in a million years ask a stranger to produce a professional sound with one note on a cello without a few years of training.
I’m not saying that the piano, guitar, or any other instrument is easy in any way. Anybody who’s heard Rachmaninoff piano concertos know the immense technical difficulty that goes into performing this instrument at a high level. Similar to guitar, playing basic chords and strumming patterns are quite elementary, but anybody whose heard Tim Reynolds, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, ect. knows that to master the guitar is no easy task. What I’m describing is the initial beginning phases of even beginning to learn a string instrument. It takes years before you can even start to produce a sound the closely resembles the likes of Yo-Yo Ma or Josh Bell. There aren’t many people that I know who has practiced as hard as I have in my lifetime. You’d think that I could easily play just about anything with just a few minutes of practice. I have immense confidence in my playing, but perfection that is required in recording takes practice and many, many takes.
Let’s remember that a cello and violin has no frets and are basing all our intonation from years of ear training and mentally knowing what perfectly in tune means. If I were to play a note in tune and then move my finger 1 millimeter would create an out of tune note, which is unusable in a recording. To put this in more perspective, the white keys on the piano are 23.5 millimeter’s a part and have a much larger margin for error if I were to accidently not put my finger precisely on the key.
Even if we record a perfectly in tune note we still have to worry about tone. Tone has about the same amount of precision as does the overall intonation of each note. If my bow is too close to the bridge I will get squeaky sounds, if it’s too far away from the bridge it will sound too muffled. Also depending on where my left hand is in relationship to the fingerboard also determines where my bow should be for ultimate tone production. Also if my bow is crooked as I bow across the string will also create sounds that are unwanted. Perfection in bowing technique takes years to train the muscles how to move.
After all of this we have to then think about the musicality of each note and how to connect from one note to the other. In contrast, a singer almost instinctually sings with correct phrasing and musicality. A string player has to think about how they would sing it and somehow figure out how that can be accomplished on their instrument. This has again to do with bow weight, bow placement, the speed of the bow, vibrato, shifting, and in a performance, the acting out of the emotion.
Again, I am not saying that other instruments are easy. I’m simply saying the difficulty in a string instruments makes it one of the most difficult instruments to record. I would compare the difficulty to that of golf. Golf by many is considered to be one of the most difficult sports in the world. It requires a ton a precision, concentration, and mental prowess. The difficulty is for some the reason they love the sport. I love cello because of the difficulty. I know there aren’t many people in the world that can do what I can do. Most guitar players can’t say the same thing. I just wanted to remind myself I play an amazing instrument, but a frustrating one at that. Keep that in mind when you listen to our recording that I took more takes than any other instrument would ever take. You should appreciate the perfection that I attempted to in the recordings with my tone, intonation, musicality, ect. Rant Over.