Sound Design: The Rockford Files theme

How to re-create the sound of The Rockford Files TV theme on two different synthesizers
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When this magazine was born in 1975 synthesizers were still very much a novelty in popular music, so in retrospect it’s remarkable that one of the biggest hits of the year featured a synth lead front and center. The track? Mike Post’s absurdly ear-wormy theme for the TV series The Rockford Files, which starred James Garner as a private detective and ran from 1974 to 1980.

It’s even more impressive that a synth-centric television theme remained on the Billboard Top 100 chart for 16 weeks—and earned Mr. Post a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement. It’s no small feat for a track that owes so much of its sound to the Minimoog.

Of course, it would be obvious to use a Voyager or original Minimoog D emulation to recreate this sound for 2015, but with so many modern synths that are also capable of reproducing this patch, we decided to approach it using both modern hardware and software. For hardware, we’ll rely on Roland’s new AIRA System-1 (reviewed Oct. ’14). On the soft side, we’ll use Apple ES2, since it’s in a large number of software rigs thanks to both Logic and MainStage.

Roland AIRA System 1

Step 1. Start by setting all knobs to default positions, with the filter cutoff all the way open and an amp envelope with instant attack, maximum sustain and a touch of release.

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Step 2. Because we’ll need three pitches at 16’, 8’, and 2’, set both oscillators to sawtooth wave with a very small amount of detuning. Since oscillator 1 is linked to the sub-oscillator (which will give us an additional tone, one octave lower), set that to 8’ and use oscillator 2 for the highest pitch in the trio.

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Step 3. In the mixer, set all oscillator levels to approximately the same volume.

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Step 4. Now that you can hear the basic sound from the three oscillators, it’s time to fine-tune the filter settings. If you listen to the original theme from The Rockford Files, you’ll hear that the filter gently decays on the longest notes, so here’s how to recreate that effect. Back off on the cutoff to around 40 to 50 percent, add a touch of resonance— around 30 to 40 percent—and set the filter envelope to maximum. From there, give the filter envelope an instant attack, long decay, zero sustain and a bit of release.

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Step 5. To recreate the lead’s distinctive glide, set your portamento to around 100 to 200 milliseconds by setting the System-1’s portamento to around nine o’clock. Now play the lead from The Rockford Files. If you’ve set it all up correctly, you’ll be back in front of the TV listening to Jim Rockford’s answering machine message and coveting his gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit.

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Apple ES2

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Step 1. The ES2 factory default preset is set up quite well for this patch. To prepare, open the filter cutoff to maximum and set the synth to monophonic mode for the lead.

Step 2. Unlike the System-1, ES2 has three discrete oscillators with coarse tuning based on semitones, not feet. So here, we’ll set the first two oscillators to sawtooth waves with tunings of 0 and +24 semitones. For the third oscillator, we’ll switch to a square wave with a tuning of -12 semitones. The mixer defaults to equal volumes for all three oscillators, so we’ll leave that as-is.

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Step 3: In the ES2, envelope 3 is the amp envelope, while envelope 2 defaults to filter modulation. Here we’ll set envelope 3 to instant attack, maximum sustain, and a touch of release. With envelope 2, we’ll use an instant attack, long decay, zero sustain, and the same release as envelope 3.

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Step 4. For the filter, back off on the cutoff to around 20 to 30 percent and increase the resonance to about 40 to 50 percent (the ES2 is a bit more subtle than the System-1 in this regard). Finally, increase the drive to 50 percent for a bit more aggression.

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Step 5. The filter envelope amount is located in ES2’s modulation matrix. Increase its value to maximum to recreate the long filter decay of the lead.

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Step 6. As with the System- 1 approach, portamento is the finishing touch for this lead, so increase the amount to around 30 percent, making fine adjustments as you play the lead.

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