Allegedly influenced by John Lennon's experimentation with LSD, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was originally released on the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It features two distinct musical parts: dreamlike verses in 3/4, and a straightahead rock chorus in 4/4. The song opens with an immediately recognisably arpeggio melody that sound somewhere between a harpsichord and a plucked guitar; I'll show you how create this sound using plugins and effects.
The original part was recorded by Paul McCartney on a Lowrey DSO Heritage electronic organ. Like most electric organ's of its type, the Lowrey organ's sound is controlled by pressing stops to select certain instrument timbres; the Lucy in the Sky sound is likely a combination of the harpsichord, vibraharp, guitar and music box stops. Musically the part consists of an A Major arpeggio over a moving chromatic bass with notes E - G - F# -F, this is a classic John Lennon writing technique reminiscent of Dear Prudence.
Unfortunately I don't own a Lowrey Organ, nor do I have the space to buy one. Somewhat close is my Yamaha PS-20 electronic organ that has a nice lo-fi sounding Harpsichord preset, a lot of preset-based keyboards will have a harpsichord or plucked guitar sound that has a Lucy in the Sky vibe; the cheaper the keyboard the better. Listen to the Yamaha PS-20 sound, it has a similar vibe.
Arturia Prophet V
To get even closer to the sound I decided to explore Arturia Prophet V, in particular for the emulation of the Sequential Prophet VS, a powerful digital synth that features a joystick for sound control and Vector Synthesis as an at-the-time new sound creation technique. A similar Vector Synthesis synth is the Korg Wavestation. The Prophet VS uses wavetable oscillators as it's sound sources, and these can be used to produce complex string sounds like the Lucy in the Sky arpeggios.
Make sure you're using Arturia Prophet V in the VS mode, it's always easy to start programming from an initialized patch and the preset "Templates - ProVS 4 Osc" is a suitable starting point. Start by setting the wavetable sound sources to some complex sounds, I found the pictured 4 wavetables to be a good combination. Once these are set you can move the joystick on the left of the control panel to produce different mixes of the 4 sound sources, this is a cool way to come up with some interesting, complex sounds.
We also need to adjust the amp envelope to produce a plucked sound similar to a guitar or harpsichord. The Prophet VS has a really powerful envelope section, however we only need a simple envelope with a quick decay, low sustain and a small amount of both attack and release; the envelope settings below create a good timed pluck. It's a really bright sound so we don't need to adjust the filter section at all.
We can optionally shape the sound further to make it sound more authentic, we want to make it sound less digital and give it more analogue flavour. To do this we can add some tape-style vibrato, lower the frequency range, and then run it through some vintage plate reverb.
There is some strong vibrato on the Lucy in the Sky recording, this was either a characteristic of the Lowrey keyboard, or it was imparted when it was recorded to tape. I'm just going to use EchoBoy set to the 'Cheap Tape' style and edit the Wobble settings under Style Edit. If you wish to explore this technique further then I covered tape vibrato plugins more extensively in my first Mac DeMarco tutorial. For the vibrato settings you'll want a fast, shallow vibrato, so set the LFO to a sine wave, Depth to 12 o'clock and Rate to 3 o'clock. EchoBoy is primarily a delay effect plugin, so to make it act as a tape emulator set the Mix to 100% wet and Time and Feedback to 0.
To make it sound even more like it was recorded to tape we can lower the bandwidth by cutting some of the bass and treble frequencies. There's a few ways we can do this with a dedicated tape simulator or using simple EQ cuts. A great tape emulation plugin is Nomad Factory Magnetic II, it's easy to use and sounds great. The Reel Speed knob controls the speed of the virtual tape machine; higher speeds give you more studio-quality fidelity whereas lower speeds sound more lo-fi. For the Lucy sound I got great results lowering the Tape Speed setting to 3/¾ and cutting the bass whilst boosting the treble knob. To get a similar effect using just EQ, simply use low-pass and high-pass filters to subtly narrow the bandwidth.
For reverb all we need is a nice subtle plate reverb or spring reverb sound, the song was recorded in 1967 so avoid huge digital hall reverbs, unless that's the effect you're after. I chosen the apt Waves Abbey Road Plate Reverbs plugin; I used the preset Acoustic Guitar 1 and set the Mix to a subtle 22%.
Thanks for reading, if you manage to create the patch in another synth then let me know in the comments below! You can find a download link with the Arturia Prophet V patch and the Ableton Project file with the MIDI file and recordings. Try using the patch in your own songs to create a 60s psychedelic vibe in your own music and have fun with it!