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About the orchestral strings layout

This article aims to question the orchestral string instruments layout in order to improve the the recording session practices. In this spirit, your theoretical and experimental feedback are welcome!

First of all, I would like to thank the composers and technicians who point me this subject out and think about it with me: Loris Bernot, Valentin Couineau, Jules Dussap, Mathieu Lamboley, Stéphane Reichart, Romain Trouillet and Jérémy Weibel.

Special thanks to the composers Julien Auclair and Javier Navarrete for their trust in my first experiments with  layouts and the use of their creations to illustrate this article. Without them, there would have been nothing more than an ideal concept and I could not have written anything.


This article deals with the string instruments layout improvement for multichannel recording and broadcasting, from stereophony. The monophonic and concert cases will be mentioned from time to time, but quickly dismissed.

We will always talk about the layout seen from the conductor.

The illustration scores and recordings were made in false 1-2 symmetry for simple butterfly . This layout is described in its dedicated paragraphs.



  • Vl1 : first violons

  • Vl2 : second violins

  • Vla : violas

  • Vlc : violoncellos

  • Ctb : contrabasses

  • L / C / R : left (L), center (C) and right (R) microphones of the main part of the tree. This is the most common film music recording technique.

Descriptions are made on a 50 strings staff: 26 violins (divided into 14/12 or 13/13 according to needs), 10 Vla, 8 Vlc and 6 Ctb. To be adapted of course according to the necessary or available workforce.



The gradient layout problem


We name gradient layout the one which present, from left to right, the Vl1, Vl2, Vla, Vlc and back on the right, the Ctb, as in the following illustration.

Disposition d'orchestre en dégradé


This layout is the most common and has obvious balance issues:

  • a lot of treble on the left, not enough on the right

  • musics with a lot of Vlc are completely off-center on the right

  • Ctb create a low energy feeling too far on the right

These problems, by disturbing the listening, bring the audience out of the immersion the medium is working to put them in, consciously or not. It is annoying in movie theater, for all the parameters, and it even becomes critical when listening with headphones, especially for the Vl1 high frequencies, and to a lesser extent for the Vlc on the right.

Even before meeting the audience, this layout, due to its spectral imbalance, complicates the integration of the music with the other sounds of the media while mixing.

So why does this layout exist?

If this layout does not work well for listeners, it allows the instrumentalists to be close to the parts that are directly complementary to theirs: it facilitates a precise playing and consistency.

In concert situations, where the audience is rarely well placed, where the acoustics of the room have a huge impact and where the social phenomenon is at least as important as the music, we can give the the acoustic layout of an orchestra up in in comparison with the comfort of the instrumentalists who have only one chance to convince.

If we go back to the monophonic sound recording days, the orchestra panoramic layout had almost no impact… but if the recording and broadcasting techniques evolved a lot, the orchestra layout did not move an inch.

When recording music for a medium where the music must fit in and find its place without upsetting every other sounds, this comfort must now be put aside in favor of the quality of the overall work.

Pourquoi Degrade


Why moving the 2nd violins to the right is not an acceptable answer

We name 1-2 symmetry layout the one placing the Vl2 on the far right of the orchestra, facing the Vl1.

Disposition d'orchestre en symétrique 1-2

This is the second most common layout. It slightly sacrifices the playing comfort of the gradient layout to temper some balance problems, but it also creates other at least as important issues:

  • we now have a little less treble on the left and more on the right

    • but the extreme trebles still remain only on the left

  • the too far to the right Vlc problem is greatly reduced

However, some major imbalance problems appear:

  • if the Vl1 play a theme an octave higher than the Vl2, the left ear mainly hears an octave above the right ear, which is not acceptable

  • even worse, if the melodic elements are on the left in unison or octave and the harmonic complement is on the right, the music no longer makes sense from stereophony

  • the Vl2 now produce the sound in the opposite direction to the conductor. There will therefore be a little less energy, especially with the high frequencies which are more directive. This again accentuates the spectrum disparity in addition to having the Vl1 playing higher pitched lines than the Vl2.

  • the off-centred bass energy problem persists


Two points to note:

Yes, we can play left-right ping-pong games, it may be fun in concert (if at all…), but in music for the media, it breaks immersion, so except for special effect, let's forget about it.

In 1-2 symmetry, make sure you have as many Vl2 as Vl1: as the Vl2 produce sound in the wrong direction, if they are understaffed compared to the Vl1 as is often the case in gradient layout, the imbalance of energy between the voices will be too big.


Proposal: the butterfly layout

We name butterfly the family of layouts whose divide and distribute the high voices at both ends of the orchestra.


Disposition d'orchestre en papillon

This illustration presents the butterfly layout basics, we will study the variants later:

  • Vl1 are split into Vl1A on the far left and Vl1B on the far right

  • Vl2 are split into Vl2A inside the Vl1A and Vl1B inside the Vl1B

  • Vla and Vlc are around the center as for the 1-2 symmetry. We will see more interesting layouts for these two desks later

  • Ctb are centered


Violins 1 & 2



Let's start from the simple case where the Vl1 play one voice and the Vl2 a second voice: the symmetry seems perfect… but we must not forget that, as in the 1-2 symmetry, the violins located on the right produce sound in the wrong direction.

With a 26 violins staff, we can create various distributions (Vl1A/Vl2A - Vl2B-Vl1B):

6/6 - 7/7 to be more balanced

7/6 - 6/7 if more Vl1 are needed than Vl2

7/6 - 7/6 if there is a solo Vl1 to place on the left in order to keep the balance for gli altri (1+6/6 - 7/6)

We will talk more about the soloists positioning later.

Note that for phase reasons, the butterfly layout will only work well from 12 violins.

In practice: the false 1-2 symmetry for simple butterfly layout

In the case of a regular orchestra with union rules that do not allow the spatial division of the violin desks, it is possible to consider the butterfly arrangement as a 1-2 symmetry where:

  • both Vl1 and Vl2 are systematically divided into A and B

  • the A are outside the orchestra and the B are inside

  • Vl1 and Vl2 have exactly the same music to play, everything is handled with divisi

Disposition d'orchestre en fausse symétrique 1-2 pour papillon simple

Making a butterfly layout in this way is the only solution if the orchestra cannot separate the Vl1 into two groups and the Vl2 into two groups... and it is simply very useful to avoid any questions during installation in any cases!

Indications papillon en début de partition

First page indications of the Paris Police 1905 score composed by Javier Navarrete

This convention has been followed for the recordings illustrating this article.

Note: in this configuration, the Vl2 find themselves playing more treble and melodic lines than they usually do.


A control of the spectral balance, and also of the width

Thanks to the butterfly layout, the treble frequencies are now balanced between left and right, and also sound much wider:

  • to make the most of this width, write the highest or thematic elements at Vl1 in the traditional way

  • it is possible to attenuate this width by giving the highest or thematic elements to Vl2

  • and it is of course possible to vary the width of the elements by going from Vl1 to Vl2 and vice versa...

  • … and why not, naturally widen a sequence opening hold note or chord by starting with the Vla, then the Vl2 and ending with the Vl1!

First bars of the strings of the main theme of Paris Police 1905 composed by Javier Navarrete illustrating both stereophonic spectral balance and widening.

Technical difficulties

The violins, more distant from each other than they are used be, do not ear themself as well. The technical sections requiring great precision may be anticipated, and you should plan to consider the violins 1A-2A as a phalanx and the 1B-2B as a second phalanx. The question is about choosing when to sacrifice spatialization to the comfort of the musicians to obtain the best result.

If most of Javier Navarrete's music for Paris Police 1905 is orchestrated in butterfly layout, we must not refrain from returning to a layout favoring the comfort of the instrumentalists over acoustics when necessary.

It is also possible to center the more rhythmic parts on the inner voices which heard themselves better. If there is a more legato voice in parallel, it will take better advantage of the width, so it is better on all counts.


In these few bars of De Profundis score composed by Julien Auclair, the inner voices of the Vln play the rhythmic parts: they are at the same time closer to each other, closer to the Vla who play the over-divisions, and the high tremolos take a better advantage of the width than short notes would.


As we are rearranging the orchestra, this is an opportunity to think about the solo violin positions.

4 possibilités de violon solo en papillon


We focus here only on the most conventional cases with soloists in the front row. The four most interesting points are:

  • S on the left of the Vl1A, the traditional position of the solo violin, on the left and emitting toward the conductor or the L of the tree

  • T on the right of the Vl2A, the source is more central and optimally pointing. The solo violin is no longer the principal Vl1 but sit on a Vl2 row place

  • U on the left of the Vl2B, the source is still rather centered, but its emission direction is less optimal and makes it possible to obtain an acoustically softer sound

  • V on the right of the Vl1B, we are off-center again, but this time on the right, with a sound that is even a little softer because it plays in the direction of the rear


Please note: due to hierarchy and remuneration reasons, a solo cannot be entrusted to just any violinist in the orchestra. If you wish to have a solo played from T, U or V, please ensure the feasibility with the orchestra managers and the concertmasters when planning the session.



If we have 12 violins divided into 3/3 - 3/3, it becomes risky to divide them further, especially for the thematic elements.

The interest of the butterfly layout begins when there are at least 3 Vl1 on each side which play the treble or thematic elements. If the staff is small and the writing has many divisions, it is better to go on a gradient layout.

For harmonic divisions, we prefer to keep compact groups of instrumentalists to a symmetry.


Here are some additional examples to understand the the distribution choice stakes:


In this excerpt from Paris Police 1905 composed by Javier Navarrete, the Vln are divided into 4 for 3 parts in order to widen the theme and maintain a balance. The harmony is split between the inner left and right parts without a symmetry that would unnecessarily overdivide. The lower octava doubling of the theme at the Vla is more centered.


As in this excerpt from De Profundis composed by Julien Auclair, it is extremely important to distribute the octaves equitably in the stereophonic space. Here in a classic way with the highest voices outside to get more width.

Violoncellos and violas

As with the 1-2 symmetry layout, it is better to keep the Vla in the center left and the Vlc in the center right: inverting them misaligns the Vla without bringing any other advantages.

However, to go further, there are two options:

If the Vlc are very important in the soundtrack

  • place them in the center with the Vla on either side...

  • … or even better: for more width, place them in a line or in 2 rows at the front or at the back depending on the type of tone you need, the Vla will occupy the remaining space at the back or front

    • in this case where the Vlc are at the front and the Vla at the back, it is preferable in many cases of orchestration to still have a few Vlc close to the Ctb as in the example below

Disposition d'orchestre en papillon avec violoncelles à l'avant


If the Vlc spacing is not primordial

  • simply Vla on the left and Vlc on the right

  • or cross the Vla and the Vlc if you fear of a lack of balance

    • Vla left in front and right in back

    • Vlc right in front and left in back

Disposition d'orchestre en papillon croisé

This part was written for Vlc because this is the most often encountered case, but it is transposable for Vla for composers who have the good taste to take advantage of this under-used desk.

The contrabasses and the low energy imbalance

As we did naturally on the previous diagrams, placing the Ctb in the center avoids  low energy imbalance feeling on the right.


For further:

  • keep one Vlc to double the Ctb, possibly one octave higher, when you precision. Write “a1 con Ctb.” and not “solo” as the cello at the back, closest to the Ctb, must play this part and not the solo at the front.

La base
En pratique
Spectre et largeur
Dif tech
Vla Vlc


To remember

Gradient layout:

Favor the instrumentalists playing comfort over the acoustic quality. Very good for concert, but not suitable for recording, except in the case of an understaffed orchestra.

1-2 symmetry layout:

Bad idea to correct the problems of the gradient layout because it brings more problems than it solves. Never use it.

Butterfly layout:

Acoustically the best, but not the most confortable for the instrumentalists. Ideal for recording, but to be avoided in concert if the orchestra is not used to it.

It is also easier to integrate with the other sounds into a media mix.

The main variants of the butterfly layout are:

  • the simple butterfly layout (with cellos on the right)

  • the butterfly layout with cellos at the front (or at the back)

  • the cross butterfly layout for optimal balance

These variants can be adapted in false 1-2 symmetry for butterfly.

In any case, talk to your orchestrator and sound engineer about the layout ahead of their work, as they will have to adjust their plans to get the most out of it.



Orchestration mixes physics, psychoacoustics, psychology of the instrumentalist and culture. After the so many masterpieces we inherited, it is common to see the culture parameter take on a disproportionate weight and put a stop to the progress of this technical profession.

Let us no longer indulge in mediocre orchestral layouts and on this point as on all the others, let us try, us technicians, to systematically question what seems fundamental and to bring our reflection in order to highlight the creations of our artists and improve the audience experience!

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