Making James Blake’s “Retrograde” Synth Lead


James Blake’s “Retrograde” is renowned for its haunting and ethereal synth lead. This article will guide you through the process of recreating this iconic sound, providing a step-by-step approach to achieve that mesmerizing effect.

Understanding the Sound

Before diving into the creation process, it’s essential to understand what makes the “Retrograde” synth lead unique. It involves an extreme and slow bending of multiple pitches at once to create an intentionally out-of-tune sound that eventually resolves into one still-kind-of-out-of-tune sound. This intentional dissonance creates an intense tension that adds to the song’s emotional depth.

Required Synth

To recreate this sound, you’ll need a synthesizer with three oscillators, and the ability to route an envelope to those oscillators’ pitch. The envelope will also need to allow for both positive and negative modulation. Vital is a great choice. Additionally, a basic understanding of synthesis is beneficial.

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Creating the Patch
  1. Oscillator Settings: Enable three oscillators, all with saw waves.
  2. Filter: 24 dB Low Pass Filter. Bring the Cutoff down a little, just enough to take a bit of bright edge off the top.
  3. Pitch Envelope: Modulate the first Oscillator’s pitch with an envelope. Set the Envelope’s Sustain to 0 so that the pitch jumps up and decays back down to the pitch you played. Adjust the modulation amount so that it jumps just the right amount. Make the Decay very slow, around 5 seconds. And if your synth allows it, give the Decay a pretty steep curve so that its descent moves faster at first and then really slows down as it approaches the Sustain.
    • Repeat the same thing for Oscillator 2 and 3 with one difference: use negative modulation so that the pitch jumps down and decays upward. For Oscillator 2 use just a small level of modulation amount. And for Oscillator 3, use more.
  4. Smear and Pulsate: Tune Oscillator 1 up 10 cents, and Oscillator 3 down 10 cents. This will create a smearing, kind-of detuned sound as the pitches approach the Envelope’s sustain level.
  5. Filter Envelope: Modulate the Filter Cutoff using the same pitch-routed envelope above (or an additional envelope with the same ADSR settings) and give it a healthy amount of negative modulation. This will start the sound dark and get brighter over time.
  6. Amp Envelope: Lastly, swell in the sound by adding about 1 second’s worth of Attack.

Recreating the synth lead from James Blake’s “Retrograde” is a rewarding exercise for any synth enthusiast. It’s not just about replicating a sound but also about understanding the elements that make a sonic signature unique. With patience and experimentation, you can not only recreate this iconic sound but also apply these techniques to develop your unique patches.