As the cyclical nature of dance fashion marches on, the
current trends of house music are co-opting classic ’80s funk and ’90s
R&B sounds. In the next two columns, I’ll be deconstructing a pair
of definitive sounds from that era. This month, we’ll take a closer look
at filter swells. One of the classic synth turnarounds in funk is to
play a chord (often a major or minor seventh) that swells harmonically
then stops abruptly on beat 1 of the next measure. Think of old Cameo or
Prince tracks and you get the picture.
This sound is quite easy to do using any analog polysynth—virtual or otherwise—so we’ll use Reason’s Subtractor here.
Reset Subtractor to its default settings and turn off
velocity modulation to the filter envelope. From there, turn on both
oscillators, set them to sawtooth, and detune them five cents in
The secret to the swelling sound is a combination of
envelope modulation of the filter cutoff, combined with a “gate” amp
envelope with full sustain and immediate release. First set the cutoff
and resonance to minimum. Then zero out all of the filter envelope
parameters and set the envelope amount to maximum. This way, the attack
segment of the filter envelope will control the duration of the swell.
For the finishing touch, add a tiny bit of slow triangle
wave LFO to the pitch of both oscillators. That will give it the classic
’80s funk vibrato wobble. For realness bonus points, assign the LFO
depth to your mod wheel and add the vibrato manually, as the chord