Synth Tutorial: deadmau5 “Phantoms Can’t Hang”


In this synth tutorial, watch Joe Hanley, the creator of Syntorial, as he recreates the synth lead from “Phantoms Can’t Hang”. Video includes valuable info on layering synth patches, and using sound design to build a track. Don’t forget to download the presets and MIDI files. Plugins and software used:


All right, today we’re gonna go over the synth lead from Deadmau5 Phantoms Can’t Hang. And this is an interesting lead, because it goes throughout most of the track, but it changes, it actually goes through four different stages. The notes stay the same, but the sound itself changes in layers, it’s a really interesting thing.

Before we get started, I just want to quickly tell you about Syntorial. Syntorial is a video game-like training software, that teaches you how to program synth patches by ear. I designed this specifically to give you the ability to do what I’m doing in this video. Take a song you hear in your head, or on another track, and recreate it.

It does this by combining video demonstrations with interactive challenges, in which you program over 700 patches on a built-in soft synth. And you can try it for free the first 22 lessons with our free demo, just click the link that’s popping up on the screen now.

Now Phantoms Can’t Hang. So as I mentioned before the lead goes through four different stages. So we’ll start here. Starts with this sound. It repeats this for a while, and it eventually gets replaced by a more aggressive version. This repeats, and then they add a layer an octave higher. And then they bring in the trance lead.

So we’re gonna start with that first lead over here. This guy. Now. We’re gonna use Synth 1 for this. Synth 1 is a free synth, that you can download the link that’s popping up on your screen now. And it’s available as a VST for Mac and PC, and they just released an audio unit version for you logic users. So just click the link on the screen and you can download it there.

And our first step is initializing it. Now I’ve created this initialized patch. And you can download this patch now, with all these other patches and the MIDI files for this from the link that’s popping up in your screen now. It’s gonna take you to a page with this video and the download link. And when you’re there, you can subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll send you to a new page that’s got this tutorial, along with a bunch of other video tutorials, interactive stuff, all sorts of synth goodies there. So sign up for the newsletter while you’re there.

So we’ve got our initialized sound. It’s a little loud, so I’ll turn it down for now. And you probably hear some reverb. I have a reverb set up as a send effect over here. So that way I can take all these leads, and send them to that reverb. I’m gonna turn it off right now. I’ll come back to that reverb in a second. So now here’s our true raw sound.

First things first, we want a different wave form. We do want the pulse wave, but we want it to be full square width. And then, this sound starts bright when you hit a note, and goes dark by the end of the note. So we’re gonna use a filter envelope to do that.

First, we set our cutoff to the darkest point, the end of the note which is. About. There. But, we want it to start bright. So we use our filter envelope amount. That determines the beginning of our sound, the brightest point. And our sustain, if we turn it all the way down, the filter envelope will take us all the way down to our cutoff. Zero sustain is our cutoff.

So now, if we take this to zero, our sound starts at this filter envelope amount and goes down to our cutoff like this. And we want that downward motion to be quicker, because we want it to really be a nice quick pluck sound. So we’re gonna make the decay faster. So now we’ve created that pluck transient. I’m just gonna turn it up, because lowering the cutoff makes it quite quieter. Let’s go to about there. There we go.

Now, one interesting thing about the actual patch on the Deadmau5 track is the higher notes. These up here, are brighter than these lower notes. Now by default, a low pass filter, it does the opposite. It makes lower notes brighter, higher notes darker. And we can use key tracking to reverse that effect. But in this case, not only we’re going to reverse it to even it out, we’re gonna take it even further, and make the higher notes brighter, the lower notes darker. So I’m gonna crank key tracking. And now our highest note, Is gonna be brighter than our lowest note.

Now unfortunately, this brightened everything. It made our higher notes brighter than our lower ones, but it brightened everything including our lower notes. So we need to compensate for that by bringing the frequency down, the cutoff down. Now, we have, What we’re going for. So before, we had this. The bottom notes sound great, but the high notes aren’t bright enough. Turn this up, bring this down. Now. Just those higher notes got brighter.

And then, we’re gonna add a little resonance, to give it a little bit of point. Pull that sound out, kind of push it out a little bit. Adding a little bit of resonance is a great way to sort of un-flatten a sound. Kind of, make it more present, bring it forward in the mix.

And then, we just wanna cut the note off a little shorter, it’s ringing out just a little too much. So we’re gonna bring our amps to stand all the way down. Now, that’s too much. So I’m gonna elongate the decay. There we go. Now, before it was this. Now it’s. Just took a little bit of that end off. This is a mono patch. And then, we want to spread it. So we turn on unison, and we crank the spread.

Now, like in Deadmau5’s track, the sound kind of moves left and right very subtly, and we’ve got that going on with the spread unison. But, it’s happening kinda fast. That’s a little manic-sounding. So we’re gonna slow it down by reducing the detune amount. Perfect.

Now, we want to bring that reverb back in. So I’m gonna increase this send. I’m gonna overdo it, so you can really hear the reverb for a second. Now, the reverb I’m using is something called ambience. It’s another free plugin, and I’m gonna delete it, and then bring in a new one, so I can design it from scratch. And all I did was one little change. Here it is by default. It’s too short. So I just increase the time. And then, we don’t want it so wet. There we go. So it’s a long reverb, but it’s not really, really wet. It’s just kind of in the distance. Our sound should still be nice and dry up front with this sort of long reverb tail in the background.

Next, we have the little bit more aggressive lead. We’ll come back to that. And let’s initialize it. Here’s our raw sound. Turn it up a little bit, for now. And this one, we’re gonna use a pulse wave too, but we’re not gonna go full square. This too, we want to have brighter notes up high, darker notes down low.

So we’re gonna crank the key tracking ahead of time. And we also want this to start bright, using a filter envelope and get darker. But, we want it to get so dark, that we can’t even hear it. So we wanna use the filter envelope, kinda like an amp envelope as well, we’re gonna use it to cut the sound off. So we’re gonna start at about. This brightness. And if you wanna go all the way down to cutoff, we gotta turn off sustain to zero.
There we go. And by the way, we have reverb on this as well, you can hear it in the background. We have reverb on all of these leads. And it’s the same reverb we’re using for all four leads.

And then, we want this to be a little bit longer, give it a little bit more body. It’s subtle. But, it’s there. Make the release the same as the decay. Just gives it a little bit more length. Now, it sounds nothing like it right now. So we’re gonna use filter saturation, which is basically kind of like overdrive. If you push this filter hard enough, it starts to overdrive, distort it in a nice warm way. So listen. That’s where we get our distortion.

Now, he may use an actual distortion plugin overdrive, but when you can overdrive the filter within the synth, it’s nice, it’s usually a nice, warm overdrive effect.

Again we get a mono patch here, just one note at a time. And we’re gonna use unison like we did the last time to spread it. So unison stick with two voices, crank the spread. And then, we’re gonna increase our de-tune just to thicken it a little bit. Usually, the more de-tuned you make a patch, the more thick of an effect you get. We don’t need a lot more.

We don’t wanna overdo it. But, I’m gonna increase it just a little bit. It’s subtle, but it gives it a little bit more action, a little bit of pulsating, a little bit of thickness. And then, I’m gonna bring the volume down. Actually, I’m gonna bring it up. There it is. We’ve already got the reverb on there.

Now, the last difference is the patch in the tracks got a little more oomph, it’s got a little bit more, sort of low mids going on. So I’m gonna bring in an EQ, and you can use any EQ for this. And I’m gonna boost 450. So listen to the difference with and without. With. Without. Just gives it a little bit more of an ooh ooh.

And then, I’m gonna cut off the very bottom. This can sometimes tighten up your sound, and it’s great for mixing. If you get rid of that bottom end that you don’t need, it kind of clears up the mix a little bit. So we’re gonna make it a shelf. Gonna take it all the way down. And there. And then increase this guy so that we just wanna cut, kind of abruptly as you can see. But, we just got to cut this bottom chunk off.

But, we don’t want to affect this bump that we added here. So we give it some oomph and we tighten it up a bit, at the same time. So there’s that sound.

Now, the next sound is actually the same sound, but an octave higher. So all I’m gonna do is, I’m just gonna copy this synth. Move it there. This midi right here, is just the same as this, but it’s an octave higher. So what we get is. That. And then, when you put the two together. Now, there are a couple differences.

For this higher one, we wanna reduce the volume, we don’t want it to be so loud. It’s gotta be the layer, and not the main sound. The lower one’s our main sound. Good. We want it to ring out a little bit longer than the lower one. This is a great trick, if you want a sound that’s quieter, to be more heard, without cranking it up, you just increase its tail. Increase its length, and it’ll ring out just a little bit longer than the other.

So I’m gonna increase the filter decay and release just a little bit. So now, it’s still quieter, but we can hear it much better just by giving it a longer tail. And then, we’re gonna EQ it too. ‘Cause right now, when it comes in, not only do you hear that high end, but it changes the lower patch, listen. It’s harder to hear that lower patch by itself, they’ve kind of blended together.

Now, if that’s what you were going for, this would be perfect. But, we’re not going for that. We want this higher one to be smaller and separate. So I’m gonna cut off a big chunk of the bottom end, using a shelf, turn it down, and let’s go all the way to. About. Here. And fix it. It’s kind of steep. And now, without the high lead. When I bring it in, it’s not gonna change the lower patch. It keeps it more separate. Without EQ. Listen to what happens to the lower patch when I turn the EQ off. Here it is on. See how it changes the character? So in this case, we’re using EQ to separate these two patches, so they sound more distinctly different from each other.

And then lastly, we bring in our trance lead. This one’s gonna have EQ on it too, we’ll delete it for now. Synth one, initialize. Lets bring it up a little bit. This one’s gonna be saw. And then, to get that nice, thick, detuned sound, we use our de-tune right here, and this will double this, oscillator and detune it. Nice, thick and washy.

But, we want the tail, when we let go of the key, to be shorter. We want it to be a little bit more abrupt. So we’re gonna turn our amp release down. And I wanna bring out that top sizzle a little bit more. Since our cutoff’s already at the top resonance, we’ll do that. I wanna bring that sizzle slightly down, so it’s a little less white-noisy, a little more sort of edgy. And then, we’re gonna add some of this saturation, this filter drive, to give it a little bit more aggression. It’s a mono patch. And then, we’re gonna use unison to not only spread it, but to thicken it a little bit. So we’re gonna turn it on, and go for three voices. And add a little bit of thickness by cranking the detune.

This is kind of the background layer, so we’re gonna bring the volume down. Reverbs on it, let’s hear it all together. Now, I’m gonna turn off the high one, so we can just hear the main lead and this trance lead. When the trance lead’s added, we lose some of the body of the main lead, listen. Suddenly, that main lead, you just hear more of the clipping of it, the attacking of it. The sort of, edge of it. But, you don’t hear that ooh, body of it. So that means something from this trance lead’s masking that main lead.

Now, if you remember with this main lead, we boosted 450. So we’re gonna go into the trance, and we’re gonna cut 450. We’re gonna remove that, that chunk of body from this trance lead, and that’ll allow us to hear the main lead’s body much better. So that was 450. And we’re gonna cut it. When you cut, you always want to narrow it a little bit.

So listen to the main lead not the trance lead when I turn this EQ on and off. On. It’s subtle, but that main lead suddenly gets a little bit thinner, a little bit lighter. It loses some of the body when this EQ is off. So again, we’re using EQ to separate the two sounds.

In this case, these three layers need to be distinctly separate. So we use EQ to cut different aspects of them out, so they all play well together. It’s basically a mixing technique that we’re using in the sound design capacity. And that’s it. Thanks for watching.