By Errol Michael Henry

Founder of The i2 Music Group

Few things add more instant ‘feel good factor’ to a record than well arranged, performed and recorded strings. Great sounding strings and quality, authentic soul music go hand-in-hand, so getting that part of the production process right is quite essential. There are many variables to solve. Firstly: string players don’t simply turn-up and ‘play it by ear.’ There are good reasons for this. A solo violinist does not an orchestra make, so if anything remotely elaborate is to be attempted: an orchestration must first be written in great detail – so that the many different players (1st violin, 2nd violin, violas, cello and bass) all know what they should be doing at any given moment.

Secondly: even if you have the imagination to write an orchestral score, you might not know how to articulate that to professional string players who are highly conditioned to ‘reading’ what they play – so shouting a lot and waving your arms furiously won’t do you much good. Truly intuitive string arrangers are like gold dust – only much rarer! Finding an arranger who will interpret your core ideas, then add more than you ever bargained for is not easy but I am very fortunate to have formed a highly successful creative partnership with a chap called Stephen Hussey.

String libraries have come a very long way and some of the newer libraries are quite stunning: both in terms of their recorded quality and in terms of what you can do with them from a programming perspective. With that said: I still prefer to have real strings played by real people whenever possible. – Errol Michael Henry

The Urban Soul Orchestra

I recently began recording material for the new Sound Principle album and utilised some of these high-end libraries. One track in particular: ‘Because You Love Me’ (featuring an incredible vocal performance from Atlanta-based singer: Phillippia Williams) was nearing completion when I decided that despite the very presentable job the programmed strings were doing: I needed the real deal to give the track that unmistakable ‘sheen’ and emotion that nicely arranged and played strings deliver in spades. Again: Stephen’s phone rang and I told him I needed him to take my original string ideas and give them the full ‘Hussey’ treatment.

A few days later, Stephen called me on Skype and played me his arrangement. We went through the track note by note: adapting, sculpting, adding, deleting and re-ordering until we were both satisfied that the final arrangement would achieve our stated goal – classy, contemporary, yet timeless strings. The contrast between Stephen’s classical training and my considerably less formal musical education (I declined a scholarship to the Royal School of Music when I was a lad) means that we often see the exact same piece of music from entirely different perspectives. The creative ‘tension’ that we have developed over many years, means that we end-up with orchestrations that are properly structured (from a technical point of view) yet are often a tad unorthodox stylistically.

Once we settled on the final arrangements (in this instance it took several hours, but we have been known to many spend days fiddling and fettling) it was left to Stephen to produce the sheet music from which each section of the orchestra would take their cues. Stephen also chooses the players he likes to work with. Getting the right players is every bit as important as knowing what you want played, and Stephen’s ‘black book’ is second to none. Through his Urban Soul Orchestra organisation, he has access to a vast range of players from hardened veterans to relative newbies – and everyone in-between.

On the day of the recording Stephen took the players (sixteen, plus himself) through painstaking rehearsals: ensuring that they didn’t merely play what they ‘saw’ but also understood what they ought to ‘feel’ too. I mainly stayed in the studio control room to ensure that the overall sound coming from the live room would fit sonically and rhythmically with the drums (yours truly), bass (John Thompson), guitars (Andy Smith), Percussion (Karlos Edwards) and keyboards (yours truly again) that had already been recorded. I also worked closely with Stephen to make sure that the performance from the ensemble properly reflected the ‘essence’ of what we worked on before the parts were committed to paper. Once everyone was comfortable that they knew what was what – we hit the record button and amazing sounding strings emanated from the studio speakers. The final result of the Urban Soul Orchestra recording strings for The Sound Principle can be heard below.

That folks is ‘The Art of Strings.’

‘Because You Love Me’ by The Sound Principle featuring Phillippia is Out Now on Intimate Records

©2017 Errol Michael Henry/EMH Global Media LTD, All Rights Reserved.