Confidently add strings, brass or full orchestra to any hip hop track and have them stick together like glue.
MAY 9TH, 2021
History of orchestra in hip hop
Hip hop’s roots lie largely in 70s soul and R&B, which were very orchestra-heavy. A lot of hip hop tracks directly sample the classic, as with J. Cole’s Middle Child (2019) sampling a horn line from Wake Up To Me (1973) by First Choice. Sampling is deeply rooted in hip hop culture, and there’s often an intricate story behind why a specific sample gets chosen for a modern track. If you listen to a lot of music in these genres, you’re in a great position to find the perfect samples to add to your own hip hop tracks (make sure you get the necessary legal clearances first!). If you want to dive deeper into how to get the most from sampling classic songs, check out our article on How to Flip Samples.
Some hip hop grew into a more aggressive style, which made it necessary to make adjustments in order to match the orchestra to the changes. Orchestral sample libraries grew in popularity, and producers were no longer limited to existing recordings — together, these changes led to new combinations that continue to shape hip hop music today.
Strings are the backbone of a ton of hip hop tracks. One of the genre’s staples is creating or sampling a 1-4 measure repeating phrase and looping it in the background — what better way to do so than with strings? This might be a slow staccato effect, a sustained chord progression, a romantic melody line, or any number of other methods. The two most important parts are: 1) it sounds good when looped and 2) it fits the track like a glove.
First, focus on getting a pattern down; it doesn’t have to sound great, just get something going — it’s far easier to tweak than it is to create something from scratch, so get through that initial hurdle as quickly as possible. STRIIIINGS is the perfect tool for getting these string phrases down quickly, using samples from Hans Zimmer’s private, previously unreleased string orchestra recordings with all the settings you need to drop in phrases with zero time spent messing with unneeded settings (plus, this way is far more flexible than working with pre-recorded loops). Another benefit of STRIIIINGS is the ability to add in the chords you want and then choose the patterns you want to play — allowing you to start with the basics before getting into the weeds.
Once you have the right chords down, play with different melodic or ostinato patterns until you find a match you’re happy with. Here are a few that will almost always work:
- Full octave bow strokes — these is perfect for creating a sense of power or strength, particularly in the chorus (but are typically a bit too dramatic for a verse); reference STRIIIINGS’s Wake Up Neutral preset for quick use
- Full chords — sometimes the simplest, most straightforward approach works best, so don’t be afraid to use standard major and minor chords
- Syncopated staccato — same as either of the above patterns, using dotted note timing
- Ostinatos and melodic patterns — straying away from chords and octaves to use other notes in the scale; while not necessary, this is often the approach that sounds best, and can add just the right amount of complexity
Ultimately, feel free to approach hip hop strings however you like! As long as it sounds good and fits the song, the end result is what matters.
Brass is used quite commonly in different genres of hip hop, especially trap music. It can be used for punchy low brass stabs, grandiose fanfares, and a wide variety of purposes in between. Brass stabs are particularly fun if you want to create something aggressive; plus, with just one type of articulation you can really fill out the track and add a type of dimension you won’t get anywhere else. Add some heavy upward and downward multiband compression — Ableton Live’s ‘OTT’ multiband dynamics preset is perfect for this, along with Xfer Records’ plugin by the same name. This will give your brass stabs a bright, explosive sound that fits neatly into modern trap songs.
Ekali & Gravez’s remix of Threatz by Denzel Curry features bright, ultra punchy brass stabs, and is a great reference track if you want to add this to your own music:
If you want to create your own full orchestra brass lines, look into plugins like Cinebrass, which offers a plethora of options for melodic lines, brass stabs and everything in between. There are great tools for small horn ensembles as well, such as Session Horns, which will help you to mimic the ensembles on vintage records. Play around until you find a chord progression you can listen to on repeat and enjoy it every time, then test it against your beat. If it holds up and you feel things lock in, you know you’ve found your horn line!
If you want to go the sampling route, consider dipping into soul, R&B and funk for material — you’ll find a ton of great horn lines there which often translate very well to hip hop beats. Amongst many others, P-Funk, Earth, Wind & Fire and even Daft Punk provide a never-ending source of incredible samples for both horns and strings (for more on Daft Punk, check out our article How to Sound Like Daft Punk). Find a couple measures you like, the loop point you’re happiest with, and tuck it behind the beat. Take your time in the sample selection process, because the chord progression and / or horn line you choose will become an integral part of your track!
The mixing process
This is where things get a bit trickier. Hip hop usually involves electronic percussion and, of course, vocals, but orchestral recordings have very different mixing requirements. Orchestral mixes aren’t as bright, have a very different approach to reverb, and don’t use anywhere near the same amount of compression. Let’s take a look at how to glue them together!
The most important step is to mix the orchestral elements last, and you want the sound of the track to be determined by the most ‘modern’ elements. Otherwise, you’ll have a harder time as you compare your track to reference tracks (which are typically centered around the core beat.
Since hip hop commonly samples older songs, it’s quite common for everything but the orchestral parts to sound heavily produced and contemporary; in some cases, you can get away with simply squeezing it via compression and not touching the frequency spectrum. Another option is to cut the lows with a high pass filter and boost the high end to have it more closely fit the frequency balance of the mix as a whole. Both can work very well, so it’s mostly about style and personal taste (leaving the frequency balance alone often retains a more vintage sound, while EQing it heavily will make it sound heavily processed and modern).
Now it’s time to give the beat, bass, vocals and chords plenty of room to breathe. Love the sample you chose but don’t have any room for it in the track? Strip out everything except the beat and bass, then drop it in. Bring back in all the elements one by one until you get a sense for what’s causing the conflicts. In time, you’ll find the perfect balance — accept it as part of the process and stick to it until then!
Adding orchestral instruments to your hip hop tracks can give them depth impossible to achieve with electronic components alone. These can be sampled from old soul, R&B and funk songs, or you can create your own string and brass / horn lines with orchestral sample libraries like STRIIIINGS, Cinebrass and Session Horns. By pulling or emulating vintage horn and string sounds, you can infuse your music with a timeless feel — after all, you’re blending multiple eras into one!
No matter what approach you choose, make sure the orchestra always supports the beat. If you’re writing hip hop, nothing matters more than getting the groove right and sticking to it; when you find the right orchestral chords or ostinatos to use, at some point everything will suddenly ‘click’ together and you’ll have the perfect combo of beat plus orchestra. Be patient and approach the entire process with a playful attitude. In time, you’ll develop a better ear for incorporating these new elements into your hip hop tracks, and you’ll listen back to gold standard songs and even start layering beats over them in your head! The more you immerse yourself in this style, the more ideas will pop into your head spontaneously — so keep at it, try as many ideas as you can, and start brushing up on your classic soul, R&B and funk!