The Art of Synth Soloing: The Funky Beatle, Billy Preston

Learn to play synth solos like the "fifth Beatle."
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Joining in on our Beatles theme this month, I’m taking a look at the fifth Beatle , Billy Preston and his ’70s synth classic “Space Race.” Released in ’73 as a follow-up to “Outta Space,” it topped the charts for a short time (Number 4 on the Hot 100 and Number One R&B single), a powerful achievement for an instrumental funk jam. Those were the days, my friend…

"Space Race" Billy Preston solo PDF

The Sound

Fig. 1: A classic ARP ad promoting Billy Preston and the tune Billy used the ARP Pro Soloist for the track, which is in keeping with the comments he made in his first interview in our pages back in February 1977, when he stated. “… I prefer pre-patched synthesizers, because they’re quicker and easier to use onstage.” He was an ARP endorsee and was featured in an ad for the Pro Soloist, touting his use of it specifically for the song (see Figure 1). The ad even tells us he used the Trumpet preset with the Wow function! The Pro Soloist was a single-oscillator analog synth with unique features like fixed-bank filter resonators per preset and a primitive yet effective form of aftertouch for sound modulation. It’s not easy to re-create its sounds, but we can come close enough to enjoy covering the tune.

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I used Apple Logic’s ES2 synth (also available in MainStage), but any subtractive synth (real, modeled, or otherwise) can get there. The Pro Soloist’s single oscillator outputs a blend of sawtooth and pulse waves, so we can achieve that using two oscillators with a bit more of the narrow pulse wave audible in the mix. If you’re using a rompler synth, check if it has sampled waveforms from an ARP. No detuning please, if you want to be accurate (or very little if you are inclined to thicken up your waveform). Use a 24dB lowpass filter, as you are imitating the Pro Soloist’s imitation of a Moog ladder filter. Crank up the Resonance to between 60 and 75 percent; trust your ears. To get the Wow function, use an envelope to modulate the filter cutoff as seen in Figure 2. A medium slow attack with a fairly slow decay to a bright sustain is needed. Then you need to play with the levels of the envelope modulation versus the filter cutoff until it sounds right to you.

Fig. 2: A re-creation of the ARP Pro Soloist lead using Apple Logic’s ES2 softsynth The Amp envelope should be fully open, but you might back off the attack a few steps to avoid clicks. The sound must be in Mono mode with legato triggering so the filter only opens when you play detached notes. Your legato playing can’t have any of the “wow” effect and should be smooth and bright. Set your pitch modulation LFO to around 7.3 Hz.

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The final step is to create a super-fast LFOto-filter-cutoff modulation routing to imitate the Growl function of the Pro Soloist. This second LFO will have to be as fast as your synth can generate, which may not be fast enough, unless you’re using a true analog. The Pro Soloist generated a 32Hz modulation rate! I have it set to 20Hz, which is the best the ES-2 can do, and it’s close but not as fast as the original. If your synth has Aftertouch you can use that to bring in the filter modulation and leave the Mod Wheel for vibrato, or vice versa. No Aftertouch? Use any controller you wish; a foot pedal is nice since it leaves your hands free for playing and vibrato, but a ribbon or a slider will do.

Playing the Solo

An important part of keeping things interesting is how Billy interacted with the sound, changing small but important elements throughout the tune. You’ll want to set up some tasteful portamento to do glides like we hear at the 0:50 mark, but make sure you can easily switch it on and off. To emphasize the “wow” you’ll want to lower the filter cutoff at times and play all detached notes, and then open it up again and play more legato. Vary your use of vibrato vs. the fast filter modulation. Most of all, have fun!

I don’t believe in playing the solo exactly as on the record for this type of tune, but you want to learn some of the main elements (such as the melody!) and a few cool licks. I’ve shown the main melodic figure in Ex. 1 and the refrain melody in Ex. 2. Ex. 3 shows the opening lines of his solo, which start off in A mixolydian mode and quickly move into some basic A major blues scale licks. Nothing difficult, but it’s highly melodic, which surely helped the song to catch on with so many listeners. I’ve put the whole first solo up on our website for you to play through. Enjoy!
"Space Race" Billy Preston solo PDF

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