How to write for StringsHello Composers, Mike here! =)

Today we will talk about “how to write for strings” with David Michael Tardy, who is an amazing composer.

I invited him for this interview, because I love the way he makes his string parts so expressive, emotional and beautiful.

In this interview, David shares his background, experience and story of how he got started as a composer, as well as tips & insights on writing expressive strings for your music compositions. Let’s dive right in! =)

But First: Listen to this beautiful composition he made.

1. Hello David, please tell us your story of how you became a music composer.

Strange & funny I guess, when I was 6 years old, I used to walk and sit around the house with a portable record player listening to the sounds of humpback whales on a record, for hours on end. The sounds just fascinated me. It drove my parents nuts of course. There was just something about the sound that resonated with me deeply, as if I could understand what they were saying.

As a young boy, my father, a psychoanalyst was a music lover and had a very extensive and diverse vinyl collection and when he would return home from a long day, he would always unwind by listening to several albums, anything ranging from classical, Motown, Edith Piaf, The Beatles etc.

So, many times I would just sit and listen with him, closing my eyes and letting the music take me on a journey. My father seeing that I had a strong interest in music, decided to enroll me in Suzuki Method violin lessons in the 3rd grade, which only lasted until 5th grade.

My instructors discovered during our recitals, that I would either be closing my eyes while playing or making eye contact with the audience and smiling, while everyone else was looking at the sheet music. I couldn’t read the sheet music (and still cannot), but I could remember how to play the pieces.

I then remember listening to, “In the Hall of the Mountain King (Peer Gynt)” by Edvard Grieg Johann’s for the very first time and the music absolutely terrified me and even gave me nightmares, but I could not stop listening to it. I started to realize at a very young age, the impact that sound and music can have on a person’s emotions and I was was very intrigued.

When I was 11 years old, my parents purchased an out of tune baby grand piano in for the living room and I found my self playing it and fiddling around every single day after school for hours on end.

The very first classical piece I feel in love with was Johann Pachelbel’s Canon. The composition effected me to the very core of my heart and soul in such a lovely way that I would play the record and sit at the piano just listening and teaching myself how to play it on the piano, but I truly fell in love with the sound of the strings.

From that time, I started to hear melodies and completed orchestral pieces in my head, but I started to yearn to hear them for real. But how? The 8th grade was a pinnacle moment in my life that started my wonderful musical journey.

My school was having a special guest performance. I had no idea what, but I walked into the auditorium and there were three gentlemen standing on stage with what looked like electronic pianos on stage, so I was immediately interested.

They began to play the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, on the “pianos”, but the sounds were not pianos. Its sounded like an orchestra. I literally jumped out of my seat and ran up to the front row to have a closer look and to watch everything they were doing.

I was mesmerized and kept saying to myself, “That’s it! That’s how I am going to create the music I am listening to in my head!” I spoke with the performers after the show and asked, what kind of pianos are those?

The pianos were Casio FZ-1, 16-bit sampling keyboards. So began my obsession and research on various samplers and synthesizers. I ended up mowing lawns and doing additional chores for a year to be able to afford my first sampling keyboard, which was an Emulator Emax HD and mowing lawns and doing additional chores to be able to afford Miroslav Vitous’ Symphonic Orchestra Sample Library, which back then was on CD-ROM discs and cost a whopping $3,500, a Casio CZ-1000 analog synthesizer and Opcode’s Studio Vision Recording Software.

That is how it all began. All throughout my teenage years, I was always in my music room, door shut, creating whatever I would hear in my head and experimenting.

When I was 22 years old, I was visiting my cousin and her husband in Maryland and had some of my compositions on CD which I gave to them. My cousin’s husband was already an R&B producer and it just so happened that his brother, Wendell Hanes was visiting at the same time and had just recently been hired as the only composer for Vito DeSario Editing, a film and television commercial editing house in New York City.

My cousin’s husband Eugene gave one of my CD’s to Wendell, who contacted me when I returned to my home in New Jersey, stating that he was getting too many projects to compose and would I like to come to the studio and see if I would be interested in composing for television commercials.

I jumped on the opportunity of course. At that time, the studio was using Pro Tools 4.1 TDM and Tascam DA-88’s. Literally that same day I started working on a national tv spot for Kodak, which I completed that same day.

I returned the Thursday of that week and composed a national tv spot for AT&T Sponsorship of the Olympics, which I finished that same day. Wendell began to realize the speed of my musical output and gave me more and more projects, some solo and some I worked on with him.

Together we were awarded A Gold World Medal for “BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC”, at the New York Festival, for Showtime’s All Out Summer Campaign. Wendell was then hired at New York’s Bang Music and I followed.

During that time however, we were just composers and not sound engineers, so we would always have to send out the compositions to be mixed by someone else. It was then, that I decided to attend The Institute of Audio Research, also located in New York City, to learn how to mix for television and films, so that I could mix the projects, instead of having to pay someone else to do it.

I graduated with honors and was asked if I would like to become an instructor. I ended up teaching digital music production, audio post-production and was the Assistant Director of Placement for 8 years, while continuing to compose for television commercials.

Composing for national television spots started to become very tedious and boring to me and I realized that I just wanted to create “my music”. I had said to myself, “if there ever comes a time, that I do not enjoy this anymore, that is the time to leave” and I reached that point, but discovered that I loved teaching. Wendell Hanes is now the owner and CEO of his own company, Volition Sound. (www.volitionsound.com)

Now, I am 47 years old and last October/November 2018, I purchased my entire music setup ie. Mac Pro 12-Core and all of my virtual instruments (thank goodness for big holiday sales).

Up until then, I had been composing on a 11 year old MacBook Pro laptop with only 2GB RAM, Logic 9 and basically stock sounds, except for Tina Guo’s Cello Library and Shevannai Voice of the Elves and just began doing orchestral compositions last November.

My laptop simply could not handle anything else. I just realized today that I have completed and uploaded 393 compositions to date, all inspired by lucid dreams, memories and experiences and I have never spent more than 6 hours on a composition, from beginning to mastering. Good grief. LOL We are so extremely blessed to live in a day and age where such amazing creative tools are available.

2. You have a way of writing string parts that really is felt into the very soul. What is your process when writing and arranging for strings?

If the piece is not already completed in my head, I always hear a chord progression or arrangement in my head. For strings in particular, I always start out playing and recording the chords, usually with Strezov Samplings Afflatus Chapter One Strings and the Ensemble Minimalist patch, which I love.

That gives me something to build upon. I absolutely hate MIDI editing and programming, so I rarely, if ever, do it. I find for myself, to achieve the sound, mood and emotion I desire, I must play each part on the MIDI keyboard, while using the mod-wheel to control the dynamics during recording.

I also find that playing each instrument, as if playing the real instrument is extremely helpful in capturing the emotion, like giving a performance. For string leads, I turn off the quantization 100%, as I find that moments of being ever so slightly off time, adds humanization to the compositions.

The only time I will edit MIDI is merely to slide notes as a group slightly forward, particularly when using the Cinematic Studio Strings & Solo Strings, as they usually are never on time unless you can get completely used to the delay that occur, when recording them, which more often than not, I can nail, as I get used to using CSS and CSSS more and more.

When I complete a composition or section, I always ask myself when listening back, how does that make me feel?

First and foremost, I always begin a composition listening to my heart, not my mind. I always let my heart be the master and my mind, the servant, in all things.

It is my intention to connect with the heart and emotion of each listener, even if there is only one. I also like to keep it simple.

3. Can you share some practical tips on getting your string section to sound full, expressive and emotional?

For me personally, I find that playing each instrument on the keyboard, is what gives my compositions the expressiveness and emotion I desire, as well as choice of sounds. Honestly, programming the parts and editing loads of MIDI data would take away all of the enjoyment for me.

For a full sound, having a good reverb is essential in my opinion and I use the Valhalla Reverb on everything, especially to achieve a big orchestral sound. Layering some string sections also help.

For example, I will play and record a section of chords using Strezov’s Afflatus Strings, create another track using Cinematic Studio Solo Strings Full Ensemble patch and copy the midi data from the Afflatus track.

This adds more detail to the strings. I do the same for lead strings as well. On big sections, I will also use Logic’s Sub Bass and place slightly into the mix, to give the low frequencies more depth.

I would also say, get to know your virtual instruments. Connect with them. Play them and see how they make you feel. I find that in doing that, my choices are really narrowed down.

Listen to your final mix through different references. Listen to your mix at a low level. Can you hear everything clearly? Does it still have the same impact?

4. Which are you go-to string libraries as a composer, and why?

I constantly use Strezov Sampling’s Afflatus Chapter One Strings, Cinematic Studio Strings, Cinematic Solo Strings, Cinematic Strings 2, Tina Guo Cello, Tina Guo Vol 2, Virharmonic’s Bohemian Violin and Cello, Spitfire Audio’s Chamber Strings Pro.

I absolutely love the Afflatus Strings. The samples are recorded with such expressiveness and emotion that is like no other library. For string leads, Cinematic Studio Strings and Cinematic Solo Strings. If Afflatus had portamento patches, I am sure I would be using them.

I love Virharmonic’s Bohemian Violin. I really feel like I am playing a violin when recording and to me it sounds the most convincingly real, but that is just my opinion. Ironically, I have LA Scoring Strings and their Sordino Strings, I love the way their demos sound, but I never use them. I would spend too much time tweaking the sounds.

5. Let’s say you decide to start a new orchestral composition. What is your process from the very start?

That’s a good question. When I begin, I always ask myself: Why am I creating this? What are my intentions with this composition? How do I want the listener to feel after listening to this? How can I effectively achieve the emotion(s)?

6. What are your goals and dreams for your journey in music?

Honestly, I just want to connect, touch and even heal people through music. I believe that music and sound is the universal language. If I am able to support myself through music, fantastic.

I never pray for money, only abundance, however that may come. I always feel the universe provides me with exactly what I need, nothing more, nothing less.

The journey has been extraordinary thus far. When I was composing for tv spots, the money was fantastic and I was living what I was taught was the definition of success, however, I soon discovered that I need much less than I thought that I wanted.

“Things” certainly do not equal happiness. As long, as I can create music, I am happy. Aho Mitakuye Oyasin.

7. What’s your website, social media etc?


My name is Mikael “Mike” Baggström, and I am a composer, sound designer, artist, video creator, coffee lover, and true nerd…

PS. Level up your Music Skills & Production Quality.