Chamber of Reflection really stands out on 'Salad Days' as the only song with none of Mac's signature chorused-guitar playing, instead using layers of dreamy sounding, swirling synths. Interestingly the hook of this song is lifted from a 1975 Shigeo Sekito song called "The Word II". A lot of sites and comments erroneously refer to Mac sampling this song, which is incorrect as the original recording isn't used in Chamber of Reflection, the ending of the melody is different. Instead the main theme has been re-recorded with synths and a live rhythm section. Here's my recreation that this synth tutorial will cover:
This song's sound has two main elements; firstly I'll look at the synths and how to program them, then I'll look at Mac's distinctive use of tape for the vibrato effect, and how to get approximately close with plugins. To get a good idea of Mac's use of tape in his production, check out this short excerpt from 'Pepperoni Playboy' where he demonstrates how he uses a reel-to-reel tape machine to 'glue' his tracks together, and how he uses the tape machines pitch control.
Kids are always asking me "Mac, how do you do it? what's the trick?" It's all pitch control ya dumbasses, get yourself a tape machine and get your fucking head out of that Ableton shit ya moron. Come on, fucking retards.
Although this synth tutorial focuses on Ableton and plugins, if you like Mac's sound and want to pursue that sound in your own productions, consider buying a reel-to-reel tape machine like the Fostex A-8 in the video. Digital plugins have come a long way but if it's warmth you're after then nothing beats the sound of analog tape.
There are 3 synth tracks that I can hear in 'Chamber of Reflection', the lead synth, the organ, and a buried melodic line that sits in with the organ. The lead synth is a Roland Juno-60 that uses all 3 oscillators and a decaying envelope to produce rich, trailing notes. I'll recreate it in TAL-U-NO-LX, a fantastic and cheap software emulation of the legendary Juno synths. Here's the melody with the default sound.
We want a really thick sound so switch on all 3 oscillators, take the sub oscillator down a little and raise the PWM of the square oscillator a little. Set the envelope with no sustain and raise both the delay and release so the notes trail off in good time.
We want to control the filter with the envelope, so take both filters down to halfway and raise the envelope on the filter to get the sound bright without sounding harsh. Add a bit of LFO vibrato to the patch, keep it nice and subtle as we'll be adding some layers of vibrato later, so keep the rate nice and slow, and raise the LFO in the Oscillator section only a little. Lastly turn on the signature Juno chorus effect to get it sounding really thick. Here's the final patch:
The organ sound in 'Chamber of Reflection' was a little harder to recreate, as I think it may have been a slowed down sound, recorded quite bright and then pitched down on tape. This means the original sound was probably a rich sounding organ patch that after being tuned down sounds darker. I don't have a tape machine so I'll try using aggressive overdrive and analogue-style filters to recreate the dark, driven organ sound.
I'll start with a simple organ sound, I'm using Arturia B-3 V, though organ emulations are plentiful and any rich sounding organ patch will work. Here's what it sounds like:
Next, I've used some aggressive EQing and filtering to get the organ to sound really mid-rangey and dark. I'm just using Live's built-in effects and in Auto-Filter I'm using the MS2 mode with the drive boosted a lot. Another great analogue-style filter that you can push really hard is Arturia MiniFilter V.
Next, I've added a really simple lead synth line that can be quietly heard next to the organ chords. I've used a simple one-oscillator Juno patch with a flat envelope and the chorus effect on, through a lot of reverb. Below you can hear this, then all 3 synths played together, and then the synths with a rhythm section backing I recorded with a Fender P-Bass and sampled drums.
The last step is the tape/pitch effect; Mac will have run the recorded tracks through a reel-to-reel tape machine and used the pitch control to create a vibrato effect on the whole track. Although there are a lot of tape emulation plugins, many of them focus on tape-style saturation and don't offer a lot of control over pitch effects. Here are two plugins that do have type-style pitch control:
There are other options but they tend to focus more on tape saturation and don't have decent pitch control parameters. You can also use tape-style delay effects by turning the delay time and feedback to 0 and the mix to 100%. This only really works with specifically tape-style delay units, and again you want to find plugins that let you mess with the pitch control.
Firstly I'll try EchoBoy, which is my personal favourite; it's mainly a delay effect so it's important to turn off the echoes first; set Mix to fully wet, then set Echo Time and Feedback to 0. I've raised the saturation and set the style to 'Cheap Tape'. Open the Style Edit menu and you can find the pitch settings, they're under 'Wobble'. I've set the shape to sine for a nice even vibrato, raised the depth and lowered the rate for a nice slow, deep vibrato. Here's what it sounds like.
Next up is Waves J37, an emulation of Abbey Road's Studer multitrack tape machine. It's got a subtle, clean sound but a pretty fiddly interface. I boosted the input gain a bit to get the track to start overdriving, then adjusted the pitch wobble with the 'Wow' settings at the bottom, again with a slow rate and deep depth.
Lastly is u-He Satin, which has tape emulation, delay and flanger modes, very versatile! To access the pitch controls you have to put it in delay mode and set Distance (as in tape distance) to 0. From there alter Mod Rate and Mod Amt to get a slow, deep vibrato. Make sure Tape mode at the top is set to vintage and push the input a little bit. From there experiment with the other settings to see how they affect your mix. Here are the results:
There is not a huge difference between any of them, J37 stands out for me as being a little cleaner and bassier than the others, but EchoBoy has a great advantage in that there are plenty of other styles as well as 'Cheap Tape', with a variety of different tones.
Thanks for reading! Hopefully this has shed some light on the classic synth lead sound in Chamber of Reflection, as well as how to emulate Mac's use of tape vibrato in the software domain. Make sure to check out my other Mac DeMarco article for more Mac sounds!