This past Friday, Netflix released the much awaited second season of its hit series Stranger Things, and season 1 composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the Austin-based synthwave band S U R V I V E returned for the second season with another excellent offering of 80's influenced synth music. The duo tend to favour vintage hardware synths and gravitate towards warm, lush analog sounds and emotional arrangements. Episode One of the new season, 'MADMAX', ends with a scene of Hopper and Eleven eating dinner accompanied by an uplifting synth piece called Eight Fifteen, which I'll break apart in this article.
Rather than trying to guess exactly which hardware synth was used for each track, I'll instead keep things simple and use the software plugins Arturia Prophet-V and TAL U-NO-LX. The former is a software emulation of the legendary Sequentials Circuits Prophet 5, which is the main synth in the opening theme, and the latter is an emulation of the Roland Juno series of synths, which are known for their chorused 80s sound. Other synths the duo like to use include the Sequential Circuits Pro One, Korg Mono/Poly, Roland SH-2 and Moog Minimoog.
As with most good soundtrack music, the fundamental thing that makes this piece work is the arrangement of musical ideas; a good arrangement with bad sounds will always sound better than a bad arrangement with incredible sounds. Eight Fifteen is relatively sparse and each track serves a specific purpose, there is no superfluous layering and each part complements the others through the way they sit in different registers. This has a dual benefit of making songs like this easy to mix as there are no conflicting parts that require heavy EQ and mix work to sit together within the frequency spectrum.
The bright sequence that serves as the main melody of Eight Fifteen was possibly recorded on a Roland Juno-6, a vintage synth with a highly recognisable lush chorus effect. It is this chorusing that creates the signature brightness that can be hard to recreate on other synthesizers. In TAL U-NO-LX lower the sub oscillator volume to just below 2 to make the sound bright and not as bass-y. Set the filter with the cutoff frequency at 2 and the envelope amount to 5, which will make the envelope trigger the filter. Set the ADSR envelope with a long delay and release, around 8 and 7 respectively, which gives each note a trailing effect and makes the sequence notes bleed into each other. Lastly, activate the Chorus effect to finish off the sound.
The song's production is drenched with delay and reverb to create a dense, lush atmosphere, and the reverb/delay sounds themselves are long, dark sounding effects. Set up two return channels in your DAW with your favourite reverb and delay patches and send all the tracks apart from the bass track to these. Usually, it's best not to send too much signal to Return channels but for this piece the effects levels are really high. My favourite delay and reverb are SoundToys EchoBoy and ValhallaDSP VintageVerb which I've used for the audio tracks below, but use whichever reverb plugins are your own favourites, just remember that darker sounds work best as they'll fit into the mix better.
For the huge sawtooth synth bass sound we're going to move onto Arturia Prophet-V, a software emulation of the legendary Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 hardware synth. Start with the template patch Pro5 2 Osc, which will give you two sawtooth oscillators as a starting point, and from there lower the filter to around the 1 o'clock mark and set the resonance to 10 o'clock to get the basic saw bass right. To get the note bending effect that happens each time the bass note changes you want to put Arturia Prophet-V in legato mode by changing polyphony (at the very bottom) to 1 and switching the legato button to Legato On. From here adjust the glide knob all the way up to the 4 0'clock mark to create a long gliding effect between each note. Check out my exact settings in the screenshot below.
The keys sound that plays the countermelody is a really mellow patch that's super easy to set up. Start once again with the template patch Pro5 2 Osc, and this time raise Oscillator A's frequency an octave (+12) and lower the volume of Osc A in the Mixer section to 3 o'clock. Lower the cutoff to 12 o'clock and leave resonance at 0, then adjust the envelope with a low sustain and long decay to give a piano-esque fading effect.
For the ascending sequence, first set up an arpeggiator to rapidly repeated the played note, if your synth of choice has a built in arpeggiator then use that, if not use a sequencer or arpeggiator plugin to trigger the note. In Ableton's Arpeggiator MIDI effect set the rate to 32nd notes and raise the gate to 99% so the notes don't get cut off in length at all.
For the synth patch we'll control the cutoff frequency using the filter envelope knobs below the cutoff knob. Start with Pro5 2 Osc again but from here raise the pitch of Oscillator A an octave (+12) and lower it's volume slightly to get the sound both bright but with low-end. Lower the cutoff knob to 9 0'clock and raise the env amt knob to the maximum setting the create a bright plucking effect. This creates the basic sound and you can adjust the cutoff setting shift between a mellow and intense sound. You can also experiment with adjusting the envelope decay time, which at lower settings can create a metallic, almost robotic sound.
The last synth sound to program is the choir chords that pad out the piece, this could've been a preset on one of Dixon and Stein's vintage synths, but can also be programmed in any synth with wavetable oscillators. Wavetables are like tiny samples that a synth can use as the basis of a patch. To program this sound in Arturia Prophet-V switch the synth over to VS mode (vector synthesis) at the top right of the interface and select 106: fn8 as the wavetable for Oscillator A. You can get some really interesting effects by selecting other wavetables and using the joystick on the left to blend them, but for now we'll stick with the one wavetable. Add a little vibrato to the sound by raising LFO 1's Rate to 1 o'clock, activating the Lfo1 - Freq A node in the modulation section and raising the amount to 0.060.
Once you have a basic loop you can start arranging it in an interesting way. For short soundtrack pieces of this type, this can mean just setting up a filter to open up over time to add intensity to the piece as it progresses. The original piece does this perfectly; it sounds like some of the original tracks have their own filters opening up over time, most likely done in a hands-on way during the recording process, and then there's another filter affecting all the tracks at once. You can place a filter effect on the master channel where it'll affect the reverb and delay tracks in addition to the main track, and adjust the cutoff frequency using automation.
Make sure to mix the your tracks by using EQ to gel together, cut unwanted frequencies such as low end and boost mid/high frequencies to help individual tracks poke through the mix. I've also added Ableton Saturator to some of the tracks to add a little drive and dirt to the mix. Check out my final track: