This is the first part of Stranger Synths, a series on the synthesizers used in Stranger Things.
I'm going to start the series off by looking at the song that plays during fake Will's funeral, Elegia by New Order. A dark instrumental featuring eerie sounding synths and guitars, the song was written in memory of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the band's former incarnation, Joy Division. The song was originally recorded in 1985 for the album Low-Life, and a 17 minute version was also released in 2002. Although not part of the original soundtrack composed by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon from Survive, the lush and eerie synths of Elegia sound right at home in Stranger Things. Many people will also know the song from the Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain trailer; here's my remake using some of the synths I'll cover:
Both the harpsichord and eerie voice-synth on Elegia are from the E-mu Emulator, a range of digital sampling keyboards from the early 80s. They used floppy disks to store samples and boasted analogue filters and output stages to warm up the lo-fi samples. The Emulator was used by a lot of 80s synth artists, you can hear it all over Tears for Fears Songs From The Big Chair, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's Junk Culture, several John Carpenter soundtracks, and was even used by Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller's Day Off to play samples of himself coughing and sneezing to feign illness on the phone. The Emulator was functionally similar to the Fairlight CMI and both synths share several of the same sounds.
As the Emu Emulator was a sampling keyboard that used floppy disk-based samples, using samplers is a great way to get some classic 80s Emulator sounds in our own productions. There are a few sample libraries available, such as those by UVI and Rhythmic Robot. Listen to the parts played on Rhythmic Robot's Universe of Sounds Vol 2 using the patches Harpsichord Grand and Vox Oo Ooh.
The Emulator featured a full control panel to shape the sound beyond the basic samples, it was these controls coupled with the analogue filter and output section that made the original unit so popular for it's sound. We can process our own Emulator samples further to improve on the initial sound, most beneficial I found was using compression as well as Native Instruments Transient Master to increase the sustain and fatten the sound. I used aggressive EQing to boost the treble frequencies and brighten the sound and then delay & reverb to create a big spacious sound.
If you're worried that the sampled Emulator instruments lack the analogue magic of the original Emulator, or if you just don't want to pay for the sample libraries, then you can create sounds with a similar vibe to the Emulator patches in other synthesizers. I'll show you how to create the Harpsichord in TAL U-NO-LX, a Roland Juno plugin and the vocal sound in Arturia Prophet V, a Sequential Prophet VS plugin.
Harpsichord synth sounds are relatively simple to create, the most important element is setting the amp envelope with a short decay and no sustain to create a plucked timbre. A Juno-style synth is great for this as the onboard chorus really makes the patch sound sparkle. From the default patch lower the Sub Oscillator to halfway and set both the HPF and LPF filters to halfway, then set the Resonance in the Filter section to around 6. Set the ADSR Envelope with no Sustain and the Decay/Release both around 5, then turn on Chorus effect and that's it! Process with some nice delay and reverb and if you want to explore this sound further then experiment with using the Pulse wave instead of the Saw wave.
To create the vocal sound I'll use a wavetable synth with a vocal wavetable as the main oscillator. Arturia Prophet V is perfect for this as it has vocal wavetables, and the vector synthesis aspect can be used to easily blend this with other wavetables to create some interesting sounds. Start with the template ProVS 1 Osc Structure and change Oscillator A to 076: vocal2. If you want to make the sound interesting you can change Oscillator B to different wavetable and blend it in a little to make it more interesting, 124: piano2 works well for this. After this lower the ENV AMT and CUTOFF to make the sound a little darker and more analogue-esque. Adjust the amp envelope so that the notes don't bleed into each other too much by decreasing stage 3's level.
The other prominent synth on Elegia is of course the growling bass that grows and recedes throughout the track. There's plenty of synths that can pull off this sound but the real champions of this sound are Moogs; it's possible that the Elegia bass is the Moog Source that the band owned and had already used on Blue Monday. Although it looks radically different, the Moog Source's sound is similar to a Minimoog so we can use most Moog synths or plugins to get a close sound. I'm going to use Arturia Mini V, but there are plenty of free Minimoog emulations too.
The aim of this sound is to get a huge rich sound with the filter wide open, and then automate the cutoff frequency knob throughout the song to control the strength of the bass sound. I've gone for over the top-huge with all 3 oscillators on and set to Sawtooth with volumes up to full, and the External Input Volume switched on and turned up to 6. This feeds the sound back into the synth, effectively acting as an overdrive. I've set the Filter Emphasis (resonance) to 9 0'clock and after that adjust the Cutoff Frequency manually throughout the song. After the Moog I've ran the sound through Soundtoys Decapitator to add even more drive and then some really light plate reverb to make it sound just a little less dry.
Thanks for reading and be sure to check back soon for more Stranger Things synths! Click the link below to download the patches for Arturia Mini, Prophet and TAL U-NO-LX.