So, you have this chord progression that you are quite happy with. What’s next? In this article, I’ll show you one of my processes to transpose 4 piano chords to a string ensemble.
This is what we are going to start with: Am / F / C / G. Nothing complicated. Just 4 triads with the root doubled one octave down. This is how the MIDI looks like:
…and this is how it sounds:
The first thing I like to do is to move the MIDI clip to a string ensemble patch. Here, I’ll use Cinematic Studio Strings full ensemble patch. Then, I will apply a MIDI effect known as an arpeggiator. If you are not familiar with what an arpeggiator does, it takes the MIDI input and will output a pattern based on the settings you select. Most DAWs come with an arpeggiator effect built-in and if that is not the case for your particular DAW or if you find it too limited, you can always get one as there are tons and tons of arpeggiator plugins out there. From free to quite expensive ones. Let’s look at an example using Cubase.
In the left pane, expand MIDI Inserts (1) and in the first slot, insert Arpache SX (2) which is one of Cubase own arpeggiator plugins:
In the plugin window that opens, I chose to use an Up/Down pattern (1) with triplets in 1/8th (2):
If you are not familiar with the settings of an arpeggiator, experiment with it until you get a result that sounds good to your ears.
Then, using Expression Map, I set the string ensemble articulation to Staccatissimo. Again, if you are not familiar with Expression Maps or any other kind of articulation switching mechanism, have a look at one of my other article here or use keyswitches:
This is how it sounds so far:
Not stellar but this is a good start. There are some problems that we will fix. First of all, we don’t have access to each note individually. What we see in our piano roll are just chords. It’s the arpeggiator plugin that outputs the pattern. We can’t control the dynamic for each note. We will need to render the output of the arpeggiator first.
To do that, solo the track and set cycle markers on the event:
Then, in the MIDI menu, select Merge MIDI in Loop…:
In the dialog, select Include Inserts and Erase Destination. The first option tells Cubase to render the output of the MIDI inserts we added (in this case the Arpache SX arpeggiator). The second option will have Cubase first erase the chords and replace them with the output of the arpeggiator:
Click ok and presto, you now have each note in your piano roll instead of the chords:
That looks better but it still sounds the same as before. Important: do not forget to remove the arpeggiator from the MIDI Inserts or it will try to re-arpeggiate the notes on playback:
We are not finished here, so let’s continue…
Make it interesting
What you do from here is up to you but I will continue to show you what I’d do with this MIDI line. First, I will mute the ensemble and copy only the lowest notes to the Basses patch and select a sforzando articulation, increasing the velocity to 92 for the first note of each bar and setting the 2nd to 80:
This is how it sounds:
I will copy that to the cellos so they play the same pattern one octave above. Because Cinematic Studio Strings already transposes the basses one octave lower, I don’t need to do anything else. But to make it a bit more interesting, I chose to double the notes in the pattern and alternate between staccato and staccatissimo which is really easy when you have a good articulation switching mechanism such as Expression Maps:
This is how it sounds now:
We continue all the way with the rest of the pattern that was generated by the arpeggiator, distributing the remaining notes to the violas and the violins. For example, here I could choose to use a spiccato articulation and this is how it would sound:
But I prefer to alternate between 3 different articulations for the violas (sforzando, staccatissimo and spiccato):
You will agree that is sounds much more interesting:
I have also slightly altered the second violins by using two articulations and by duplicating some notes to give it a bit more movement:
This is what the whole pattern sounds like now with a bit of reverb added on top:
That’s changing a lot from the arpeggiator initial output and yet it took less than two minutes to build!
Just to finish my example, I copied the initial chord blocks to a string ensemble patch from Albion II Loegria to create a background texture:
And this is the completed result:
As I don’t really play keys, I often use the arpeggiator trick to get me started on a cue, experimenting with different patterns and speeds. Don’t hesitate to use the comments below if you have any question or if you want to share your tips!
If you are interested to learn more about building an orchestral template that will boost your productivity and creativity by turning your computer into a ready to play instrument, rather than a tool you have to configure endlessly each time inspiration strikes, have a look at my course Building & Balancing a Modern Orchestral Template at www.pragsound.com.