How To Build an All Analog Track

A synth masterclass from the April 2013 issue of KEYBOARD
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The modern age of computerization has brought a great deal of pre-made goodness to our immediate disposal. From keyboards and modules with thousands of presets to seemingly endless virtual instruments, we can find just about every sound imaginable at the click of a mouse. But often, the sonic impact of a track created solely with analog synths can impart a flavor and ferocity rarely found in the digital domain. Manufacturers have picked up on this: Moog and Dave Smith are back with a vengeance, Korg has reissued the MS-20, Tom Oberheim is making new SEMs, and companies like Serge never stopped making insane modular gear. Even “digital” developers are going analog: Arturia’s MiniBrute has received raves in the year and a half it has been on the market. It’s very clear that analog is here to stay. So let’s explore a recent all-analog track from the ground up.

Note: The drum groove for this lesson is “Rock ’n’ Roll Groove 13” from XLN Audio Addictive Drums, at 170 bpm. Scroll past the video for step by step instructions on how to re-create David's track. 

Part 1. SEM Bass

Our track starts with an analog bass riff in the key of C minor. I program my Oberheim SEM to accept velocity changes to the filter cutoff. I play the riff paying close attention to where I put my accents. After my performance, I edit the MIDI data to get it even closer to what I want to hear. The SEM’s unique sound is partially due to the gentler slope of its 12dB-per-octave filter, as contrasted with the more 24dB-per-octave type commonly associated with Moog synthesizers. I wind up the resonance to about 75 percent so you can really hear the filter sweeps, but without losing too much low end. The filter opening and closing is almost as important as the note selection itself. I record the part in my DAW’s loop mode, and I encourage you to twist knobs while recording. The element of chance makes things exciting, and you can always edit your performances later. My bass part ultimately used four bars where I didn’t touch anything and four bars where I “played” the filter cutoff. I also used the Pro Tools plug-in VariFi to pitch down the final note, then add a bit of a SoundToys EchoBoy using the “Fat Boy” preset.

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Part 2. Serge Modular Rhythm Break

Next, I use my Serge modular synthesizer to create a rhythmic break. You could use any sort of subtractive synth to make this type of sound as well. Here, I build a short, unpitched sound similar to finger snaps. The modular patch is basically an oscillator to a lowpass filter with a lot of resonance to a VCA. The envelope has a fast attack, short decay, and a very quick release. I often equalize the percussion sound to get more midrange “knock.” Removing some lower-mid frequencies and adding a bit of midrange can make a percussive sound harder.

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Part 3. MS-20 Lead

This is a colorful lead part that combines a glissando and a resonant filter. The Korg MS-20 is a natural choice for leads, given its solid sound and wide range of timbres. The main musical part is based on a repeating high G. I use only one sawtooth oscillator, so the sound is clear and somewhat buzzy. I hand play this part into Pro Tools. Then I apply a bit of VariFi to pitch down a few notes. I apply the plugin Le Masque Delay from XILS Labs, using a preset called “IMS Lounge Sitar 2 LtZ.” I bounce the MS20 track through the delay while playing the modulation wheel and the feedback amount of the delay plug-in on the fly.

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