Protest The Hero's "Caravan" is the mighty closing track from their subscription album "Pacific Myth". Clocking in at almost 9 minutes, the track has a number of musical and lyrical elements that scream "This Is The Big Ending". It heavily features the classical string section, which is among the most common of additional instruments added to guitar driven music. Strings are incredibly versatile in that they can be lush, ferocious, delicate, creepy, broad, intimate, and just about any other musical adjective you might desire. In the case of looking at Caravan, we're going to learn how we can use the string section to make our songs seem larger, more majestic, and ultimately 'cinematic'.
Posted — October 26, 2018
In the month's time PTH had to complete and record "Caravan", Luke (who plays guitar in the band) got in contact with me about adding strings to the song. He sent over the demo, and even in that early stage you could tell it was going to be gargantuan. It had ferocious new material, revisited riffs from their entire discography, a heck of a catchy chorus, and a huge build with a couple of vacant spots for the strings.
Here's Luke on his approach to the song:
"In some past reviews, we had been criticized for 'not knowing how to close an album'. While I don't often read reviews of our music, that criticism stuck with me. I have a feeling it was because I agreed. We definitely hadn't ever written a 'closing' to an album on purpose.
Because of the chronological nature of Pacific Myth (an album released in order over a period of 6 months), it seemed like it was the perfect opportunity to openly acknowledge that Caravan would be the final song on the record... before we had even started writing it. The entire song was built toward its final few moments - and we didn't want to miss the opportunity to really go for it! This was the final piece of the song - and the last bit of writing before we put the album to bed. I distinctly remember encouraging Milen to write string sections which were unabashedly 'cinematic' - and he nailed it!"
Our first task was to decide which sections of the song actually needed strings. It took a few conversations to settle on the Placement of each bit of production.
When you decide to use strings, or any other additional instrumentation in your guitar driven music, placement is half the battle. Music, like most things, can suffer from exhaustion. The more frequently you use something, the less effective it can become. To get the full colour and effect afforded by extra instrumentation, be mindful about where you're placing it. By choosing key moments in Caravan, the effect of using strings is much more impactful than if we were to have woven them throughout the entire song. These moments are special. Treat them as such!
With that in mind, we were able to identify three 'special' moments in Caravan.
- Bar 146: "Descending Terds" (5:02)
- Bar 201: "Blatant Hans Rip" (7:11)
- Bar 209: "Optimistic Prime" (7:32)
* If you don't have a copy of the Pacific Myth Guitar Book - not to worry: there are specific tablature figures below, or you can grab a full-version copy at the product links toward the end of the article.*
"Descending Terds" (Fig.1) acts as a build. It features the lead guitar playing Descending Thirds (Terds!) on top of the held chords of A flat Minor and F flat Major in the rhythm guitar. Additionally, the bass guitar also doubles the descending thirds lead in a tapping pattern, filling the in-between space with some murmuring passing notes.
Listen to this section of the song with the guitars and bass isolated...
Okay... so there's a lot going on here! We have melodic movement in the lead, harmonic movement in the rhythm guitar, a tapping shimmer effect happening in the bass, and we still haven't touched drums or vocals. With all the guitars in mid to low range, this was the perfect place to use one of the best traits the strings have to offer: Range.
Violins have one of the most extreme high ranges in all of orchestral music. Because they don't rely on air, they can stay at high ranges for an indefinite amount of time with little to no struggle. Doubling the guitar lead line of descending thirds in the octave above, as well as the octave above that, gives breathing room for the guitars and bass to do their thing while also letting the vocals speak with clarity. Note that the strings here are also doubled with a cello in its mid range, only to help push the attack. This was done to reinforce the higher strings in the mix.
Adding the high range violin sections also gives the song a new ceiling of musical note range. Using the upper register of a string section against the floor of low tuned guitars and bass widens the image of musical space. It might sound a little ear-piercing when high violins are listened to on their own, but as a part of a larger picture, they'll sit in your song comfortably. It's a great trick to make your music sound bigger or more epic. To summarize, if you want to make things sound big, make sure the note range of your music has both a low floor and a high ceiling. That being said, save this trick for special moments. Remember, like we said earlier, music can suffer from exhaustion, so save it for a special moment in your tune.
Here's the section with full instrumentation:
Okay - Let's look at another example - head over to Bar 201 where our next section begins.
When Caravan was first shown to me, the section aptly named "Blatant Hans Rip" (Fig.2) only consisted of this amazing chord progression that deeply tickled my fancy:
It features a compositional technique that can be referred to as Modal Interchange or Non-Functional Progression which are both music theory nerd round-about ways of saying the same thing: Moving between chords that traditionally have nothing to do with each other. These kinds of progressions are a staple of film music, as they really emphasize sweeping movement and drama. Knowing Luke, and his fandom of iconic film composer Hans Zimmer, I wrote a string part to push the cinematic feeling of these climactic chords:
This violin line outlines each chord with an attacking arpeggio in doubled sixteenth rhythm (another Zimmer nod), with a couple of added passing notes for flavour. It's worth noting at this point that the song's vocal lines were subject to change when it came time to record. With that in mind, I knew arpeggios would emphasize the dramatic chord progression into cinematic hugeness, but also wouldn't get in the way of any additional vocal writing that could be done in studio.
This brings us to my final point: Get Out of the Way!
As another general tip, try not to take up too much musical space with extra instrumentation if vocals and/or other featured instruments aren't solidified yet. If you end up with strings that sit within the range of your singer, it can severely limit their note choice. Be very aware of this. Try using a different register (like high strings as mentioned before!), or by limiting your note choice to what is already happening in the song. Alternatively, you can go as far as writing parts after vocals are tracked. Your band's vocalist or lead guitarist will almost always be the centrepiece of the song, so make sure what happens in the spotlight isn't constrained by what's happening behind it.
When vocal recording time rolled around, no vocals were added to Blatant Hans Rip - allowing the string section to shine through without any interference. To spice things up at the last second, we decided to have Luke play the arpeggio section an octave down on his guitar. He was urged to emphasize with an aggressive pick attack, resulting is a ferocious sounding nod to Zimmer. We could only hope it would embody a fraction of the composer's climactical prowess...
Here is the section in full, followed by a tabbed version of those double picked arpeggios on guitar (Fig.3)
I know, it's a lot of ground to cover in one sitting - but I have one more section to show you!
Our final section Optimistic Prime doesn't have much to talk about that we haven't already looked at, but it's worth covering.
Here, we have an anthemic guitar melody played in octaves made to sound lush with strings playing the octave above. The most simple things often sound the best and this final section was no exception! The strings were eventually used to reinforce the guitar line's intentionally stark simplicity.
Here are the guitars on their own, with the corresponding tab beneath them (Fig.4):
...pretty straight forward right? Why mess with that!? We all agreed to go simple for this final section - providing an epic backbone to what was already an ear-grabbing melody.
We did use a production trick here that's worth mentioning: all of the string sections in "Caravan" were made with a combination of East West Hollywood Strings virtual instruments, and a single live violinist (myself) recorded and layered underneath them. You can definitely hear that combination when the strings are isolated:
Strings are a highly emotive instrument group, and while virtual instrument technology is getting more impressive by the year, the nuance of live string playing is still very difficult to replicate. Layering a live musician underneath your virtual string sections will bring life to your string passage which still can't be replicated using technology. Yet.
Here is the full mix of the song's finale.
Thanks for reading and listening along! To Listen to Caravan in its entirety, head to one of the links below: