Lyrics by Greg Long
Using Ableton’s analog instrument device, MIDI arpeggiator, and auto-filter devices to craft an accurate cue
Out of nowhere, Stranger Things burst onto our screens in 2016. Inspired by classic 80s cinema like The Goonies, Stand By Me and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the series resonated with a wide audience. . The oldest, eager to relive the nostalgia of their youth and the youngest, thirsty for eternal kitsch, for the innocence of a decade that they only know through pop culture. The vibe of the series is very much indebted to Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s incredible synth wave soundtrack.
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In this tutorial, we’ll be looking to recreate the iconic arpeggiated bassline from the intro theme that was created using the Roland SH-2. First released in 1979, the SH-2 is a monophonic synth featuring two VCOs (Voltage Controlled Oscillators) and a sub-oscillator, providing users with three oscillators to create stunning bass lines. This design philosophy is very present in Ableton’s criminally underrated Analog Instrument. With Ableton’s Analog, MIDI Arpeggiator and Auto-Filter devices, we can design a very playable and accurate replica of the original.
In a new project, set the project tempo to 84 bpm and use CMD/CTRL + F to enter Ableton’s browser search box and type in “analog”. From the results, double-click the analog instrument to add it to a new track. Clear the search field and add Arpeggiator and Auto-Filter devices, using the same process. Double-click one of the clip slots on the track where the analog device is installed to add a blank MIDI clip. Add the notes below to create the C major 7 chord for the bass line. Don’t worry about changing the length of the note in the clip, instead we’ll use the Arpeggiator device to do this.
Using the Arpeggiator device, we’ll turn the chord into a continuous bassline by changing the style to DownUp by clicking the Hold parameter, to sustain the notes, and setting the Offset to 2. The parameter Offset starts the bassline on a G, rather than a C, which yields notes identical to those of the original theme.
When you click play, you should hear the melodic bass line from the intro. The default preset for Ableton’s analog instrument is more than a little disappointing in terms of sounds, so we have some work to do.
The Roland SH-2’s twin oscillators, and all analog-controlled oscillators for that matter, use an analog clock to create the pitch of the oscillators. This clock is never really stable, so analog oscillators are subject to subtle pitch variations. This creates the warm, rich chorus of an analog synth we know and love. In contrast, Ableton’s Analog Instrument device uses a digital algorithm to generate perfectly tuned oscillators, sounding sterile in comparison. To emulate this, we’ll use the Analog Instrument LFOs to add random pitch variations to the Analog Instrument Oscillators.
In the analog instrument, click the LFO1 button to activate the LFO and set the frequency to 0.5Hz. Select Noise2 from the Wave(form) drop-down menu. This waveform will create continuous random values, rather than the stepped random values produced by Noise1.
Now click on the medium gray area surrounding the Osc1 parameters. This selects the Shell which displays the parameters associated with Osc1. Make sure Osc1 is set to a square wave and gently detune the oscillator by 0.02 cents. This will provide a static pitch offset, to emulate the imprecise tuning of analog VCOs. For added realism, we’ll add continuous pitch variations using LFO1 to modulate the pitch of Osc1. In the Osc1 shell, set the LFO Pitch Mod to -0.02. Experiment with this setting carefully, as it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous quite quickly. If you listen to the original version, you can hear the VCOs going out of tune quite dramatically. This chorus effect is an important part of the 80s sound, so play around to find a setting that works for you.
The Osc2 parameters are similar with a few important changes. Again, activate LFO2, set the frequency to 1.5 Hz and select the Noise2 waveform. For Osc2 we still want the square waveform but this time go down an octave to thicken the sound. Click on the medium gray Shell around Osc2, to display the corresponding parameters. Set the Octave parameter to -1 and the Static Detune parameter to -0.02. We are going to modulate the pitch of Osc2 with LFO2. Depending on your appetite for detuned destruction, set the Pitch Mod LFO2 parameter to 0.05, or thereabouts.
The Roland SH-2 had a third oscillator, which could be tuned down an octave or two. This same functionality, limited to one octave down, exists in the analog instrument. Slightly to the right of the Pitch Mod section are the controls for this third sub-oscillator, expressed as a percentage of the overall level. Play with it until you find the right balance. This lower octave should be at a level to provide depth without overwhelming the tone. For me, 70% is a good balance.
The sound should be closer to the original now but we’re not there yet. Click on the medium gray Shell next to the Volume setting to select the Global Shell. A few changes here. Set the vocals to Mono (phonic) so that only one note is heard at a time, as the bass lord intended. The Error parameter introduces random pitch variations with each note to further our analog emulation journey. As this sound is monophonic, several notes cannot be heard simultaneously, so this parameter can be set quite high, at 88%, before it becomes too wonky. Unison voices are set to 2 and the Uni switch is on. Once activated, the Detune parameter defines the degree of detuning of these 2 voices. Death in chorus, I know!
To fine-tune the envelope, we’ll use the ADSR settings found in the AMP1 shell. Click on the medium gray area near the Amp1 switch to select the shell. Soften the attack a bit with an 11ms setting and turn the Sustain part of the sound all the way down, to get the characteristic “pinch” of the bassline. Copy the Release and Decay parameters and we’ll move on to the final filter setting.
Select the Shell for Fil1 by clicking on the adjacent medium gray area. The filter is an essential part of this sound and is manually modulated throughout the track, an effect that we can easily achieve with a mouse or MIDI controller. Set the filter to LP12, for a softer low pass filter, and drive it a bit by increasing the resonance of the filter by setting the Reso to 25%. Duplicate the ADSR settings for the filter, making sure the Sustain setting is at 0.00. For the Decay value, experiment between 500ms and 1500ms.
Two of my favorite filter settings are nested in this shell. In the Frequency Modulation section, the Key parameter modulates the filter up and down according to the pitch of the incoming MIDI note. Assuming the parameter has a positive value, it will increase the filter frequency as the MIDI notes increase in pitch. The lower the pitch of the MIDI note, the lower the frequency of the filter. The last parameter is interesting. In the Resonance Modulation section, the Key parameter adjusts the resonance of the filter, depending on the pitch of the incoming MIDI note. In this case, I set it to a negative value of -0.48 to increase the resonance of the filter as the pitch of the MIDI note drops. Reduce it further to hear the low notes begin to choke! For me, this helps the sound stay audible when the Fil1 Freq parameter is set to low values, by creating some non-linear saturation in the filter, in conjunction with the Drive parameter, here set to Sym2.
Finally, we’ll use the Auto-Filter device to remove some of the higher frequency content, which can be an unwanted artifact of digital synthesis algorithms, to make the sound a bit warmer or more analog. Select the PRD filter type from the drop-down list, lower the high end a bit by reducing the Freq parameter to 9.5 kHz, slightly increase the Res to 9.3% and add some saturation with the Drive parameter. These are really “season to taste” settings so you can feel free to play until you find something you like.
I hope you now have a good reproduction of the sound and the bass line. To complete the task, manually swipe the Freq parameter in the Analog Instrument’s Fil1 Shell and you’re on your way to a dark, dark place.
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