Welcome back to another episode of Tame Impala Synth Sounds; Part 1 was mainly about the Roland Juno-106 patches on 'Currents' and how to recreate them using the original hardware or using software. In this article I'm going to look at some of the different sounds used and how to recreate them. As I go through I'll mention the original hardware, the software alternative I use, and then any free software alternatives.
The Less I Know the Better
This song isn't actually as synth-heavy as it sounds, although it gets wonderfully layered during the last chorus and outro. In the verses a lot of the instrumentation is in fact a MIDI-pickup equipped guitar run through a Roland GR-55, a guitar-specific synthesizer / effect unit. I don't own one of these (yet...) so I'm not sure how these sounds were created, but here's Kevin Parker explanation:
"Could you point out specific instances of camouflaged guitars?"
"Well, for example, the instrumentation in the verses of 'The Less I Know the Better' is all guitar synth. There are organs, pads—even the bass is going through the guitar synth. Other than the drums and vocals, everything you hear there is guitar synth, and it has this sort of ’80s synth disco thing."
Also a little known fact is that the catchy bass-line is actually a guitar as well:
"The way that I know I’ve done a new riff that is cool, is if my hands don’t want to do it. If you let your hands do the thinking, it will just be the same old shit. But yeah, that bass riff – it’s actually a guitar with an octave pedal – but that very take is the one that’s used in the whole song."
However there are still some tasty sounds in this song that we can learn from. First up is the electric piano that fills out the chorus; a marked change from the 80's style Roland Juno peppered throughout the rest of the album. This is a Fender Rhodes electric piano, which is a great choice of instrument to fill out your own productions. I got really close using Lounge Lizard EP-4 by Applied Acoustics Systems.
I really prefer using this plugin over sampled Electric Pianos because I find I have much more control over the treble/bass balance, which in my opinion is the most important part of getting an Electric Piano to really sit in a mix. There are plenty of great free alternatives for Rhodes plugins, so many in fact that there's a list of the best ones here.
At the end of 'The Less I Know the Better' (2:37) we can hear some strings, this is a Mellotron, a really iconic string sound that Tame Impala use a lot live but very rarely in studio recordings. The Mellotron string sound is a staple of The Flaming Lips sound, who are a big influence on Tame Impala. Being built in the 60s, actual hardware Mellotron's are hard to come by and even harder to maintain, so it's almost certain that like The Flaming Lips, Kevin is using a software sampler of a Mellotron. Because the Mellotron is basically a sampler anyway (a sampler that used tape!) using a software sampler will get you very close to the sound of an actual Mellotron.
Lastly we have the cheesy 80's synth line that punctuates the final chorus. This is a brass lead patch and I'm guessing it came from the Sequential Circuits Pro One. Here's a similar sound that I very quickly put together in Arturia Prophet V, an emulation of another Sequential Circuits synthesizer. The key to dialling a brass patch into your synth is to use the Filter Envelope with a medium attack, decay and sustain with a low cutoff and high ENV amount. Here's the final track with our lead line:
Yes I'm Changing
I previously looked at the airy pad that we hear throughout the song 'Yes I'm Changing'. This sound doesn't change too drastically throughout the tune and follows the same chords throughout. The song is full of other cool sounds that drive the song through it's narrative and keep it interesting and fresh throughout. At 0:45 this pad sound is joined by a cool keyboard sound that at firsts sounds like an electric piano, but listen close and you can tell it has a cold, metallic sound that can only be the product of FM synthesis.
This particular patch could've been originally created with a Yamaha DX7 or the Roland JV1080; I tried using Native Instruments FM8 to get the sound, and although it has a lot of great Electric Piano presets, I couldn't get any of them to sound quite as bright and sweet as those in the song so I ended up using the brilliant Korg Volca FM 'E Piano' patch to get an even closer sound. Listen to both the FM8 and Volca FM sounds below:
Some free alternatives are Ableton Live's built in Operator and Dexed.
Next up is the quasi-harpsichord synth sound heard at 4:30. I love Harpsichord-synth sounds (check out New Order - Elegia) and there's a couple of ways of going about programming them. Here's how I do it:
- Use square pulse waves / square waves with high PWM
- Have octave-up oscillators with lower volume
- Amp envelope: 0 sustain and really short delay/release
- Set a filter envelope slightly shorter than the amp envelope
You can pull this patch off with most synths but my go-to for these has always been a Moog because they're easy to program and sound great. Here's what I came up with in Arturia Mini V:
For extra authenticity add finger clicks and traffic jam noises over the top.
I had a couple of people ask me about this one after the last Tame Impala article I wrote so here we go, the 'Beverly Laurel' synths. Something of an enigma as sonically it sits right between 'Lonerism' and 'Currents', 'Beverly Laurel' is written around some organ chords and a chilled-out sound lead synth line and there's a pumping effect applied that gives it a dancy sound.
The organ chords sounded to me like a Farfisa organ, which I found unusual as Tame Impala songs don't usually feature heavy organ use. I did try to use my Juno-106 but although I got quite close I couldn't get it to sound similar enough to convince me that it was a Juno used on the recording. I did get super close with Arturia Farfisa V though. I hear two different-organ sounds in 'Beverly Laurel', there's the one that comes in first which is higher pitched, low-pass filtered and has no vibrato, then 4 bars later it's followed by a lower pitched, fuller sounding organ with the 'All Boost' button and vibrato both on. Here's both of them:
The lead sound is really simple, it sounds so mellow because the waveform being used is a triangle waveform. This sound could've been recorded from Kevin's Moog Sub Phatty or his Sequential Circuits Pro One; I used Arturia Prophet V but any synth that has triangle oscillators will do. Listen to the lead on the song and you can hear a little bit of distortion and some nice analog echo, I used Soundtoys Decapitator and Echoboy with a SpaceEcho patch to recreate this. Here's what I came up with:
Lastly we have the growling bass sound that we hear at 2:37 in the song. This is indubitably the Moog Sub Phatty doing what it does best. The sound involves a fair bit of distortion and this can actually be created by overloading the Sub Phatty's Mixer section, moving the oscillators over the 12 o'clock mark makes them start to break up. On the Moog Sub 37 there's even an extra knob called 'Multidrive' to overdrive the sound even more. If you're using another synth then use an overdrive plugin for a similar effect. Here's the final product:
I'm gonna talk about the wonderful synth riff that we hear at 2:23 in the song, the one that sounds super trippy. This is a pretty coarse sounding patch that you won't really get straight from your synth's outputs. To my ears it sounds like a synth that's been processed with a guitar amp or guitar amp simulator, possibly the onboard guitar sim on Kevin's Boss BR-600 that you can hear all over 'InnerSpeaker'. A guitar amp sim can work to distort and break up and an otherwise pretty clean sound synth part. Here's my attempt at the Mind Mischief synth riff.
I'm running TAL U-NO-LX into Amplitube 4 into an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone. I've got a square wave with about 50% PWM and the chorus off in U-NO-LX, a Roland JC-120 sim in Amplitube with treble right down to remove any harshness and the chorus effect on, and the Small Stone was with low colour and a slow speed. I sweetened the sound up a bit using Soundtoys Decapitator to brighten up the sound, Echoboy for a tape emulation effect and Live's Glue Compressor to thicken the sound up a bit.
There are plenty of guitar amp simulators to choose from, including Guitar Rig 5 and Positive Grid BIAS. For Ableton Live Suite users there's the fantastic built-in Amp and Cabinet audio effects and for Logic Pro X users there's Amp Designer. Of course if you have own a guitar amp you can run your synths through that to dirty up the sound, it doesn't matter how small or cheap the amp is, experiment with the settings to see what works.
Some things to learn from this and apply to your own music:
- Try running synth lines through guitar amps or amp simulators to dirty up the sound.
- Don't be afraid to use a variety of sounds, and if you're working on an LP or EP don't rigidly use the same patches on every song.
- Try layering multiple similar patches to get a more complex sounding patch.
- Experiment using triangle waves to get mellow sounding lead synths.
I hope you learned something from the article. I already have a couple of ideas for Part 3 but I'll also take requests for which Tame Impala sounds to look at next time.