Tegan and Sara Go All In for Synths


The Quin sisters have gone from underground buzz to mainstream success over the last decade. After their breakthrough album So Jealous (2004), their evolution is most evident in the arc of The Con (2007), Sainthood (2009), and their newest creation, Heartthrob. From their early cassette releases onward, Tegan and Sara have defined themselves with smart lyrics, hooky songs, and on this most recent record, a whole lot of synths—a decidedly new direction for which the Quins credit principal producer Greg Kurstin as well as Justin Meldal-Johnsen and Mike Elizondo. Tegan and Kurstin spoke to Keyboard about the songs and synths behind this reinvention.

How has your writing process evolved since your last records?

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Tegan Quin:Heartthrob is our seventh full-length record and I just think our experience is showing through. We take more time to make records and I think we’ve become less precious and instead more particular about what songs we choose to record, who we choose to record with, and the aesthetic we go with on each record, which is all about confidence and which is part of our evolution too. The writing benefits from all of this.

Heartthrob has more of an electronic sound, with keyboards more at the forefront. Was there a conscious decision to change your sound?

TQ: Our foray into dance, hip-hop, and pop collaborations over the last six years has influenced us. We were always interested in pop production and pop music, but I think we felt like we were the “indie rock twins” and had to hold ourselves back when it came to the sonic smoothing out of vocals and instrumentation. With So Jealous and The Con, we really embraced our keyboard-loving selves, and after our dip back into “rock” with Sainthood, we were ready to lose the guitars for a bit. We have a gigantic back catalogue of “guitar rock” songs and it would be boring if we just did another record that sounded like that. I also think that the fan response to the collaborations and to our own songs like “Alligator” showed us that we had some room to be creative.

How did the initial collaboration process work between band and producer?

TQ: The first hour of the first day we recorded with Greg, we saw that he was going to take what we had created and effortlessly transform it into what we had imagined but might not have had the gear or ability to create ourselves. We were able to sit back and have perspective, share ideas, and make suggestions without feeling the usual cloudiness of being too close to the recording. It was as if he were two people: the producer and the session musician hero who you beg to play on your record!

Greg Kurstin: They had great demos and great songs to begin with, and many great synth ideas on the demos. I felt a lot of support from them to go crazy and add anything I wanted. They would chill on the couch and I’d turn around every now and then and say, “Do you like that?” The freedom made me want to push myself sonically. It was such a great experience.

Did many synth sounds make it from the demo to the final versions? And did you have MIDI tracks to help replace the demo sounds?

GK: Sometimes I would take the MIDI and change the sound, or use a real analog synth, but in every song there’s something from the demo. On “Closer,” the synth pads were in the demo but I replaced them with a Roland Juno-60. The pre-chorus of “Closer” has some ascending synth parts that are from the demo. I replaced a couple of the sounds but used the MIDI.

TQ: A few songs still have some of our original keyboards on them [“Goodbye, Goodbye,” “Couldn’t Be Your Friend,” “Shock To Your System”], and there are two songs that still have Sara’s demo vocals [“Shock To Your System,” “How Come You Don’t Want Me”], but that’s it. We wrote half of the songs on keyboard and piano [“Closer,” “All Messed Up,” “Shock To Your System,” “Couldn’t Be Your Friend,” “Goodbye, Goodbye”], and so as soon as we got into the studio, Greg replaced our piano and keyboard sounds with better sounds and performances. The remaining tracks were a mixture of us playing keyboards and guitars, and Justin [Meldal-Johnsen] and Greg playing the remaining instruments. 

Considering all the keyboards on the album, were you able to use your bandmates in the studio?

TQ: Making Heartthrob was like going to summer camp. On Mars. And there were only two seats in the space shuttle. Sara and I went into this record alone. We didn’t bring any past collaborators into the fold with us. But [longtime bandmate] Ted Gowans is definitely doing an incredible job on the live versions of the songs.

What are the main keyboards on the record?

GK: My main soft synths are Logic ES2 and Lennar Digital Sylenth. I like ReFX Nexus but didn’t use it on this album. As to new synths, I used the Access Virus TI2. Old synths? Mainly the Roland Juno-60 and Jupiter-4, Korg Polysix and MiniKorg, Casio CZ-1000 and SK-5, Arp String Ensemble, Mellotron M400, and Wurly. 

Was there any programming of keys or drums?

GK: There’s a lot of drum programming. Joey Waronker played real drums and I’d lock them up with the programmed stuff. I had completely programmed the songs at first and then Joey played on top of that to make it sound bigger. For keyboard programming, I have a lot of my analog stuff sampled into EXS24 in Logic, so sometimes I might program it, or play the real thing depending on my mood.

What is your current stage configuration and how has it evolved from your last tour?

TQ: We have a six-piece band now, one more than in the past. We have Jason McGerr on drums and triggering stuff. Ted Gowans is mainly playing guitar but also plays a bit of keyboard. Jasper Leak is on bass and keyboard bass. And we are about to hire a dedicated musician to play keyboard and piano exclusively. It frees up Ted to play more guitar. And although I love to write on keyboards, I find that I have to use too much of my brain power to play and sing live and the singing ends up suffering. So it’s a relief to have a sixth player devoted to keys!

How do you see yourself fitting into the great legacy of independent Canadian music?

TQ: Ha! You might be asking too much of a Canadian! [Laughs.] But I can say that I think Canadian music is fantastic. With so much great history, young Canadian bands often start up with very clear and lofty goals of becoming great bands like those before. We also have an incredibly supportive grant program in Canada that helps young bands make records, tour, and promote their work. We benefited greatly from those grants early in our career. We also have rules about playing a certain amount of Canadian music on the airwaves and television and I think that fosters growth and encourages the up-and-coming bands.

Sound Hound

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Producer Greg Kurstin gave us some hard data on the keyboards he used on Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob


  • Roland Jupiter-4: arpeggios at the end of each chorus and bridge.

• Logic ES2: some high square wave bleeps through Logic’s tape delay and guitar amp plug-ins.

• Roland Juno-60: throughout.

• EXS24 in Logic: most drums and sound effects.

“Goodbye, Goodbye”

•. Korg MiniKorg: high vibrato lead on the chorus.

• Access Virus TI2: main synth stabs, such as the plucky sounds.

• Roland Juno-60: main synth stabs

“I Was a Fool”

• ARP String Ensemble: high strings.

• Bechstein concert grand: piano.

• Korg Polysix and Casio CZ-1000: plucky sounds.

“Love They Say”

• Elka Panther organ through delay, Wurlitzer through Space Echo, and EXS24 percussion through CamelPhat: feedback swells.

• Logic ES2: some of the high gated synth, and the high sawtooth leads at the end.

• Mellotron M400: guitar pluck sample.

• Farfisa Soundmaker: some of the low saw wave drones.

“Now I’m All Messed Up”

• Mellotron M400: high strings in bridge.

• Wurlitzer through Space Echo: high bleeps.

• Access Virus TI2: high plucks and arpeggio bass.

• Bechstein through CamelPhat plug-in: piano parts.