Synth Tutorial: David Guetta’s “I Can Only Imagine”


In this synth tutorial, watch Joe Hanley, creator of Syntorial, remake David Guetta’s “I Can Only Imagine” from the ground up. You can also download the synth presets, midi files, audio and Ableton session. Plugins used in this video are:


Welcome, today we’re going to be remaking David Guetta’s “I Can Only Imagine.” I’m using free plugins for all these synths, so anyone can download these plugins as well as presets and MIDI files and recreate the track in whatever software you use.

To download all these things, just click the link at the top of this page. It’ll take you to Syntorial’s Kickstarter page. If you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll see a few tutorial videos including this one and a few others, each with a download link above it, that will give you the presets in… Well let me show you actually. You will get this. You’ll get the audio file for the whole track. For you Ableton users here’s the session just ready to go. But if you don’t have Ableton, just open this tracks folder and you’ll see you got the MIDI file and the preset for VST included in there, so you can create it in whatever software you use.

While you’re at the Syntorial Kickstarter page, check out Syntorial. It is the ultimate synthesizer tutorial. A fully interactive training software that will turn you into a synth programing guru. So if you want to be able to do what I’m doing here, just recreating stuff by ear, this software will give you that ability. Let’s get started.

So starting with the drums, we got… The kick. Snare. Clap. Hi-hat And then, every once in a while, there’s this kind of very washy crash. And then you have this roll of snaps leading up to each snare. You could also use like really sort of muted claps, just as long as you use like a roll of them in a row. And that’s the drums.

Next, is the Bendy Synth. This is probably the most identifiable synth in the track. We’re going to use Synth 1 for this, a nice free VST synth. First, I’m going to initialize the sound, this is a preset that I made, it’s just a very basic, basic setting. It’s a good starting point for designing a sound.

Solo it. Now you hear like a ‘gon, gon gon,’ you hear like two notes overlapping. Set that up so that when you switch to Legato mode, they kind of push into each other, that way when we turn Portamento on, those overlapping notes that sounded really messy before, now create a nice bending effect.

And we’ll turn auto on, so that it only occurs when we actually play Legato. When we connect the notes the Portamento kicks in, if we don’t connect the notes, Portamento won’t kick in. Now we want a little bit more tail on this sound. Gives it a little length. Fills more space. First oscillator should be a Saw. Sub-oscillator, also a Saw we’re going to crank this, so the low end really kind of takes over the sound of this.

The second oscillator, I’m going to mix it 100% so you can hear it. Sorry, the third oscillator. We’re gonna pitch this one up an octave And mix it back in so that it’s… One of the more noticeable aspects, you want the high end to kind of stick out a bit.

Next, is the Filter, low-pass 24, we’re going to bring the cut off down. That’s the darkest point we want the sound to reach, this has a filter envelope on it though, you can hear it start bright and get lower, so we’re going to use the filter envelope. Bring the amount up, that sets where it starts, the bright attack but we want it to decay down to the cut off, so we’re going to make sure the sustain’s all the way to zero, ’cause the zero sustain equals your cut off. And we want the actual sweep down, to be a little faster, we want the decay to be faster, or sorry, slower. So bring that to 76.

And the release, set that way too, just in case we release a note early, that the filter will still sweep down at the same rate. Lastly, give it some resonance.

If you notice, I’m keeping Key Tracking off, that’s because if I bend the pitch up, and then hit a new note, like Portamento does, it would have a weird effect on the cut off, I’ll show you. Watch as it bends up. After the bend up, the note after, super bright! Sounds kind of unnatural and strange. Without it, it’s a little smoother, so no key tracking for this.

Next, we want this big, wide and smeared. Turn on some Unison, add a third voice, and really de-tune it, that Unison. This is where you get that kind of cool instability, intensity is from the unison de-tune. And then spread it. Then to make it even more kind of smeared and swirly, add some chorus and turn up.

There’s your basic sound, we want to give it some more attack though, we want to have a sharper attack transient. So, we already have a nice short decay to give us this, but the amplifier envelope sustains all the way up, so that means the decay is doing nothing, we’re going to bring this decay pretty farther out.

So you hear the attack transient, the front of this sound’s really jumping out. Now because of what we just did, the perceived volume of the sound has gone much lower, so we’re going to fix that by bringing this up. Bring in the other drums. And that’s your Bendy Synth.

Next, we have the Bass Synth. For this, we’re going to use TAL-Noisemaker. This is maybe one of the simplest synth patches ever created. Now it only one waveform, so we’re not going to use a sub-oscillator. And this also uses a portamento, kind of the way the Bendy Synth did, so, we want to, turn the portamento time up, to.. here. And turn on auto so it happens when you play Legato.

So, when you go up it’s a Legato note. There’s our Portamento, it’s already set to Saw. Now all you got to do, is bring the 24dB filter cut-off down. And that’s it. Let’s hear it with… The drums. It’s kind of in between the kicks of drum. And then the Bendy Synth. And that’s the bass.

Last, we have little Blippy Synths on the side, of the mix. For this we are also going to use TAL-Noisemaker. So, no sub-oscillator. And we want to make this sound very short, so bring the amp sustain all the way to zero, and bring the decay up, just a little, release the same, just in case. So, now no matter how you play this sound, it’s just going to be this tiny little short note.

We’re going to switch to a 12dB low pass. This gives you, tends to be a brighter sound. Honestly, with leads, basses I tend to go 24dB low pass, and then with pads and other stuff, I do 12dB, sounds like this, you know, I just kind of experiment between the two, but in general, you get kind of a thinner, not thinner but like a brighter, sort of, brighter sound with 12dB, 24 you get more of a shaped sound. So, when you want somebody to really cut through and have some serious shape and body to it, I use 24. Things that are a little bit lighter, want to be more natural sounding, little brighter sounding, 12dB, but really, you just experiment, switch between the two until you get the right sound.

In this case, we’re using 12dB, we’re going to bring the cut off down, to the darkest point we want the sound to be, and then we’re going to use the envelope to shape it, so we’re going to crank the contour. So the start of the sound, is its brightest, we want it to go down to this dark point we said, with the contour. So we set our sustain all the way to zero, so that it equals the cut off. And then, bring up. There you go. Set release to equal decay.

So now, it very quickly moves the filter down, from brightest to very dark. Gives it just a little bit of shape. Now that’s your basic synth sound. The only difference is that it’s on the left and right side of the mix, it’s a very wide sound, so we’re going to bring in a delay, and use it to make this wide sound, now in order to do this, we’re going to crank it 100% wide, so all we’re hearing is the delay sound. We don’t want any damping or resonance, so that the natural sound comes all the way through the delay.

Next, we are going to bring the feedback down, I’ll show you why in a second. Let’s see, all the way down to about here. Come back to that. Now, we’re going to set these delay times to manual, the left one, zero, so this sound is just going through with nothing happening to the left side, and the right side, you want to bring it down until it sounds like one sound. Now, going back to the feedback. That’s what happens if feedback’s too high. So, you wanna bring it down enough, too much and you lose the sound so, just the right amount. Now, it’s stereo!

Bring everything else back in. Here’s the bass. And then, the centerpiece. And then, we add a little bus compression, a little Mix Gel, as Ableton calls it. This started as a preset, that I selected: Mix Gel, but then you’ve gotta tweak the attack release threshold, really get it to start to kind of glue together and pulse a little bit. And then, to make this thing loud, just Brick Wall. And it makes it pump even more. Think I got a pretty severe amount of compression. Sounds good, so…

And that’s it! Once again, to download all of the MIDI files and presets, click the link at the top of this video, it’ll take you to Syntorial kick-starter page, scroll down to the bottom here, where you will see a bunch of tutorial videos, including this one, and click link above each video to download all of the goodies that come with it. And while you’re there, check out Syntorial, again, if you want to be able to do what I’m doing, programming all these sounds by ear, then this program will give you that ability, will train you to become just a great Synth Programmer. Thanks for watching!