The Glory of Live Strings

The expectation that comes with incorporating a live string orchestra onto a big rock stage is something I usually loathe. Almost everyone in the room expects glorious orchestral beauty to magically emit from these stringed instruments not having any realization that they’re far too close to live drums and cymbals, far too close to speakers systems, and usually have input channels that have been chopped to death. All in the attempt to eek out any type of usable signal. Anyone identify?

In fact, for quite a few years I’ve insisted that some of our visiting string players use electric instruments. Electric you say? Yes, they exist. Watch a Kitaro or Yanni video and you’ll get your fill. But even though they look quite interesting and perhaps even cool, they usually produce terrible tone and require a great deal of processing to shape the sound into something reasonably close to a proper acoustic stringed instrument.

So how in the world did we use live strings on almost every single song for this past Christmas production and have them sit perfectly in the mix in a glorious fashion? You are correct, a small 4-piece string section actually sounded good! Two violins, one viola, one cello, all within 4 feet of a live drum kit, massive amounts of percussion including live chimes, a piercing xylophone, several huge concert bass drums, suspended crash cymbals, and marching drums. I didn’t go crazy on equalization or processing but instead was able to EQ and process each input to enhance the beauty of the actual instrument. You know, sort of how live audio is supposed to be. To defend this bit of audio heresy, here’s some backstory…

Some may know that one of my favorite bands is Rush. I always admired how they made fans of so many people without much (if any) radio airplay and with crazy songs using odd time signatures, lengthy musical passages, and some whacked out yet beautifully done lyrics. So it wasn’t a huge surprise to me when they added a live string section for a tour a few years ago. With crazy notions being the way they had achieved success, why wouldn’t a progressive rock band with a built-in audience add live strings to their stage show? I mean, what else are they going to do at this point in their careers? But I made the assumption that they were added to be more of a visual thing because someone somewhere was bored or something. Big mistake, Stone. BIG.

I heard them live with this new string “gimmick” and couldn’t believe what I was hearing—here were my boys flat dominating the rock and you could still clearly hear an 8-piece string section not six feet away from one of the largest and loudest rock drummers on the planet. I had to accept the conclusion that this was some evil audio magic to which I was not yet privy.

I will now give complete and proper credit to their live audio engineer, Brad Madix, for being a complete wizard. Everything I list below is based on what he did. Although probably not your intent Mr. Madix, thanks for making myself and our church audio product better.

After I recovered from the hurt that someone had gone and done something cool in the world of audio without telling me, I went on the hunt for how I could figure this out too. Here’s what I came up with:

I knew microphones absolutely wouldn’t work for live strings anywhere on our stage—the proximity to live drums is just too much of a problem, hence why I would just try to avoid strings altogether. Without live mics as an option, this kind of dumps you into the unfortunate world of piezoelectric bridge pickups. Ugh. Some of these do have a cool design that works well for both the player and the instrument but they almost always sound harsh and thin and require an unwieldy amount of gain. Definitely not something acceptable for an instrument I wanted to translate into something warm and mellow.

Equipped with some new information after witnessing the whole Rush thing, I realized that Radial Engineering had come up with a way to correct this problem that was all hinged on the impedance of the pickup. The Radial PZ-DI solved this issue. For years, I had been plugging a piezo pickup into a traditional DI and just dealing with it. Without something to create a very high input impedance though, the pickup was never going to do a good job. When I heard about some live strings on my horizon for another event, I added this PZ-DI and immediately had a real honest to goodness input. It sounded more like a microphone but without all the gain and bleed issues. Boom. Done. Let’s all go play Tom Sawyer as a walk-out song this weekend to celebrate! No?

We continued to heed the Rush-induced advice and changed the brands of pickups we had been using as well. Switched to the Fishman V200 pickups for the violins and viola, and the Mighty-Mini #11001 pickup for the cello. These pickups don’t cost much but they just rock. I should note the players we’ve used these with have all seemed to really appreciate the non-invasive style these pieces employ when attaching to their instruments. Anyone who has worked around real string players knows how they feel when we invade their instruments with some crazy contraption or clamp. These devices got a thumbs up all the way around.

Since incorporating the right tools for the job, I’m much more supportive when we bring in live string players. I’m also going to continue to watch and listen to other engineers, bands and artists like never before. You never know where your next great idea is going to come from. I’m going to go listen to Limelight now at a high volume. I suggest you do the same.

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Andrew Stone
Production Manager
Andrew Stone is the Production Manager and Audio Director at Church on the Move in Tulsa, OK. His 27 years of touring experience have brought a unique, and sometimes unorthodox, perspective to his approach towards production in the church. He has been a key part of changing the culture behind COTM's live events and he loves sharing his knowledge with other churches. He's been married for 20 years, rarely wears anything but black, and genuinely loves to rock. You can find him on Twitter (@stone_rocks), Instagram (stone.rocks), and is a blog contributor on Seeds, COTM's free resource site.
@stone_rocks