Synthesize the Star Trek Lead

How to re-create the lead from the Star Trek TV theme using either Ableton Operator or Roland AIRA System-1
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Few leads are as iconic as the soprano vocal that defined the sound of the original Star Trek theme. While the original was sung by soprano Loulie Jean Norman, her timbre and delivery had a theremin-like quality that makes it ideal for synthesizing via both modern and vintage techniques. This month, I’ll reconstruct the sound using both analog-style subtractive synthesis using Roland’s System-1, and FM synthesis using Ableton Live’s Operator soft synth.

Ableton Operator

Step 1. Beginning with the default preset, leave oscillator A and B at their original tuning ratios, with both set to 1. Next, increase oscillator B’s modulation amount to around -20 dB. This will deliver a close approximation of the essential operatic lead.

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Step 2. Soften the attack on oscillator A’s envelope so there’s a very slight fade in, around 50 milliseconds.

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Step 3. Next, add portamento. Begin by setting the number of voices to 1, so that Operator behaves monophonically. Then, in the pitch editor, activate glide and set its value to a little over 100 milliseconds. This will create the crucial portamento.

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Step 4. From there, add the operatic vibrato by setting the LFO to a sine wave, with a rate of 102 and a depth of 9 percent. By this point, you should be very close to the Star Trek lead.

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Step 5. Finally, add a reverb device after Operator, with a decay time just over 2 seconds and a 50/50 wet dry mix. Now play the lead and make any additional tweaks to taste. Live long and prosper!

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Roland AIRA System-1

Step 1. On other analog synths, I’d start with a narrow pulse or sawtooth wave, but since the System 1 includes wave-shaping on its triangle wave, we’ll use that since the harmonic character serves as an ideal starting point. You can dial in the exact timbre by setting the color knob to around 75 percent. To get the best interaction with the filter’s keyboard tracking, you’ll need to set the octave range to 32’—counterintuitive for a high lead, but in this case it’s essential.

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Step 2. Next, we’ll dial in the filter settings, which are the key to obtaining that classic operatic character for this sound. To improve the resonance characteristics, we’ll use the System-1’s four-pole mode, then lower the cutoff to around 30 to 35 percent. From there, we’ll crank the resonance knob to around 70 percent—below self-oscillation but with a pronounced boost at the cutoff frequency. Finally, we adjust the keyboard tracking to around 70 to 80 percent.

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Step 3. At this point, the timbral characteristics should be approaching a soprano vocal sound, but the key to making it convincing is the addition of portamento and a bit of vibrato. Set the portamento knob to 25 to 30 percent and turn legato mode off, so the glide is always active. For the LFO, select the sine wave with a fairly fast rate, around 60 to 70 percent. Then adjust the pitch depth until you hear a soft, theremin-like quiver. Finally, set the fade time between 30 and 40 percent, so the vibrato quickly fades in with each note.

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Step 4. At this point, your lead should sound quite like the original Star Trek theme, so now add the finishing touches. Soften the attack on the amp envelope, confirm that the sustain value is at maximum, soften the release, then turn the System -1’s reverb to maximum. This will give the operatic lead its essential otherworldly quality.

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