Synth Tutorial: James Blake “Retrograde”


In this synth tutorial, watch Joe Hanley, the creator of Syntorial, as he recreates the chorus track from James Blake’s “Retrograde”. You can download the presets and MIDI files from the video. Joe will be working in Logic using the Z3TA+ 2 synth. Among other things, the video will show you how to use pitch envelopes to create a “swarming bees” effect.


Today I’m gonna show you how to recreate the synth patches from James Blake’s “Retrograde.” We’re gonna Z3TA+ 2 to do it. Before we get started, I just wanna quickly mention a piece of software that I made called Syntorial.

Now, Syntorial is video game-like training software that’ll teach you how to program synth patches by ear. I’ve designed it to give you the ability to do what I’m doing in this video, which is take the patches you hear in your head or in other songs, and recreate them, just know how to make them.

We do this by combining video demonstrations with interactive challenges in which you actually program a built-in soft synth, and there’s over 700 patches throughout the whole thing, almost 200 lessons. And we recently just added a special Z3TA+ 2 lesson pack that has 37 videos that go over every inch of Z3TA+ 2. So if you’d like to try it out, there’s a free demo, 22 lessons, just click the link that’s popping up on the video right now, and there’s a special Z3TA+ 2 version of the demo as well, and that’s the link popping up now. And of course, both these links are in the description below the video.

Anyway, let’s get started. So, here’s the beat. So before we get into the synths, the drums are real simple, it’s just an 808 kick clap. I’ll start right here. I used battery, but anything that’s got 808 samples will work. I tweaked it a little bit, I pitched the kick up a bit and I pitched the clap down a bit, but that was just to match his track.

Now let’s get right to the lead, ’cause I’m sure that’s what you’re watching this video for. Now, I’ve had a lot of people write in and request a tutorial on this lead, and a lot of them describe it as polyphonic because they hear multiple notes. But it’s not, it’s monophonic, it’s one voice, he’s only hitting one key and holding it, but it’s got multiple oscillators, and each of those oscillators is having their pitch manipulated from a different amount, which makes it sound like three voices turning into one. So let me show you how it works.

Go up into here, initialize Z3TA+ 2, so now I get no sound. And it’s a saw wave, so we go to oscillator one, we do a saw. Now, they’ve got four saws here, four Vintage saws, I always go with One, it’s got the fullest sound, I like it the most. Now, like I said, it’s three oscillators, so we’re gonna make oscillator two also a saw, oscillator three also a saw. Before I play a note, it’s gonna be kinda loud, so let me turn it down over here. And back up a little bit, let’s go over to about there.

Now, it still sounds just like one oscillator. But I’m gonna de-tune the first one up a bit, and you’re gonna hear it start to thicken and start to kinda move a little bit. And then I’m gonna take the third oscillator and pitch that down about the same amount. This is a very, very, very old trick, when you take the same exact waveforms and de-tune them from each other you get a nice thick, moving sound.

So we’ve got our three oscillators, three saws, slightly de-tuned to give us this nice, moving, thick sound. Now we wanna take an envelope and apply it to each oscillator, and we’re gonna use that to bend its pitch. So I’m gonna take oscillator two and disable it, as well as three, so we can just hear one for now. It’s gonna be easier to understand how these envelopes work when we’re just looking at one.

Mod matrix, here’s where we set up all of our modulation routings. So we want envelope one, we’re gonna route it to oscillator one’s pitch. Now, almost always when I am modulating pitch in Z3TA, I always go into curve and select one of these pitch curves. This simply just allows us to set amounts according to pitch amounts, so octaves, whole tones, semitones, it helps us pick out specific notes in our modulation a little bit easier.

I’m gonna set it to one octave, and I’m gonna max out the range. So now we can use the envelope to go to as much as one octave now. So I’m gonna go over to envelope one. And right now, we’re not gonna hear anything. No pitch movement. This envelope amount is at zero, that’s why nothing’s happening. I’m gonna hold down a note, and as I raise it, you’re gonna hear the note go up, and we wanna raise until we get to where we want that note to start. ‘Cause when he first hits that key, you hear one of the oscillators start higher and then move its way down.

So I’m gonna hold down until we get to that pitch. There we go. Now, our envelope is currently at the top, it just holds the note up here. That’s ’cause our sustain level is maxed out. I’m gonna take it all the way down, and now our note’s gonna start here and make its way down.

That’s a little fast, so we’re gonna increase our sustain time. This is a little confusing, most of you would think of this as decay, which is pretty much what it is, but Z3TA calls it sustain time, but you can think of this as decay, and this is sustain. Now that’s a better length, but if you notice, at the very end it shoots down really fast. But in “Retrograde” it really slows down near the end and it kinda almost sounds out of tune for a bit, it’s what creates all that tension.

So we wanna slow it down at the end by changing the curve right here. See, now you see it goes down kinda fast, but then it slows here, so now we get this. You hear how it hangs out at the end for a while? Now, overall it’s a little too fast, so we’re gonna bump it up to about here. And there you go, that’s oscillator one. I’ll turn that one off.

Oscillator two, we want it to do the same thing, but we want it to come from below and bend up. So we’re gonna give it its own envelope, envelope two, with similar settings here, one octave, but this one’s going to oscillator two’s pitch. And we want the envelopes to be almost the same, and what you can do with Z3TA is right-click, copy, then right-click, paste, and now two and one are the same.

But we wanna set a negative envelope amount, ’cause what this’ll do is, instead of shooting the pitch up and then gradually coming down, it’s gonna shoot the pitch down and gradually come up. Even though it looks visually like it’s going up and then back down, when we set it to a negative amount it does the opposite of what you see. So now we get this. If I went above: But I am going below.

Now, the third oscillator’s also gonna come from below, just it’s not gonna start as low as the second oscillator. So, envelope three, maxed, pitch one octave, and oscillator three pitch. And we’re gonna copy and paste the envelope, and we want a negative amount, just not quite as much, so let’s bring it up to about here. And our third one is like this. Bringing the second in. Bring the first back in. And that’s how you get that swarming bees, bending pitch effect.

Now, we’re not done yet, it’s way too bright right now, we’re gonna need to filter it. So we’re gonna route all three oscillators to filter one, just like that. And we’re gonna do a low-pass filter. Now, that’s way too dark. What the sound actually does is it starts kinda dark, and as those pitches are bending in, it brightens up a little bit. So we’re gonna set our cutoff to the darkest point, how it starts, which is about here.

And then we’re gonna use another envelope to brighten the cutoff, to raise it up, in that beginning part of the note, so envelope four, max this out, route it to filter one cutoff. And then, just like we raised this amount to find the highest pitch with the oscillators, we’re gonna raise this amount to find the brightest cutoff that we want. And it’s not much. It’s about there. And now we use the attack to take us from cutoff to envelope amount. About 1.6 seconds. There.

Now, the sound is a little flat, it’s not cutting forward as much as I’d like, so we’re gonna use a heavy amount of resonance, and listen to what it does. About there. It makes it a little more aggressive, makes it push forward and kinda cut. This is great for leads and basses. Or for anything really, resonance can really make a patch go from flat, and it can make it come alive just by pushing it out a little bit.

And then if you listen carefully, the sound kinda fades in a little bit, it doesn’t come in strong. So we’ll go over to our amp envelope, and just increase our amp attack. And that’ll kinda ease in right there.

Now one last thing. Every once in a while, you hear one of the oscillators bend down a whole step and come back up, it’s like , it does that every once in a while. So he triggers it whenever he wants, and so you’d wanna use some kind of mod control with your hands, so maybe the pitch wheel or the mod wheel. But for this, I particularly like to use aftertouch.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, aftertouch pretty much comes standard on most synths and MIDI controllers now, and usually when you play a note you just hold the key down. But when a keyboard has aftertouch, you can push it even further, you have to give it a little more strength, and that further push, going deeper into the key, can trigger a modulation. You’ll find it in this control column, channel aftertouch. And we want to modulate oscillator two’s pitch. Now, with Z3TA+2, when you wanna use one of these controllers, you have to set source to On to enable this row. And this is gonna determine just how far down that pitch is gonna go, I’ll come back to this amount in a second.

Now, right now by default, when I push this key down further, it would raise the pitch. But we don’t wanna do that, we want it to lower it. So to reverse this sort of natural, positive modulation, we go into linear, and we go to unipolar linear minus. Sounds fancy, but really it just reverses the direction. Now if I press the key further down, it’s gonna bend oscillator two’s pitch down, listen. And let me disable these for a second, okay. That’s normal press, now if I press further in: That’s what it did. And I can press slowly in and then slowly out to do kind of slow bend.

I particularly like it for this track because it sounds like it’s struggling, and if you have to physically push into your keyboard, you kinda get that struggle feel into the sound. And by the way, the range will just determine how far down that pitch will bend when I push in the aftertouch. I just set it by ear, just tweaked it until it sounded about right. So now we’ve got that set up, let’s bring these guys in, and now we’ve got our patch.

Now here comes the aftertouch, right here. So I pushed in, then I slowly eased off the key. And here comes some more right here. I pushed in to bend it down, and then slowly let it up. Next we’ll do the bass and the sorta organ synth.

By the way, you can download these patches for Z3TA+2 and the MIDI file, so you can see what notes I’m playing just by clicking the link that’s popping up on your screen now. It’ll take you to a special page with this video on Syntorial’s site, and there’s a link underneath that you can click and download. And by the way, we’ve got a lot more of these tutorials and articles, free stuff on Syntorial’s site. When you go to that page, you’ll see a newsletter signup on the right side, just give us your email and we’ll send you a link to a page full of this stuff.

So let’s do the bass next. Solo it for a second. So just a super round, subby bass that’s kind of moving and swirling. Let’s open her up. Fairly simple patch. Also let’s initialize. And this is a saw, and at first I thought it was just a simple sub-bass, that’s what I programmed first. It’s kinda loud down in this range, so let me bring our master volume down a little bit. So there’s our saw.

Now obviously, to get that round, subby sound, we use a low pass filter. So we’re gonna route this to filter one, and 24 dB, low pass, and we’re gonna turn it pretty far down, in this case it’s gonna go all the way down to 175, right there. Now, if you really wanna make these… Just give these sub-basses some oomph, you can use resonance, and I’m gonna turn it up fairly high. Yeah.

Resonance will just push out part of your sound. If you have the cutoff set right, it’ll push out just the right part, and it really made this sub-bass still sound nice and round and heavy, but it kinda pulled it out and pushed it, stopped it from being flat, just like it sorta unflattened the lead as well. Just makes it step forward in the mix a little bit.

So this is what I originally programmed, but if you listen to the track, you hear the volume kinda fluctuate, and you hear the bass sort of moving around. So I did a doubling and de-tuning. I’m gonna copy, paste this, and we’re gonna de-tune them. We’re gonna do 16 up, 16 down, let’s actually listen to it as I do it. There we go. Yeah.

Now, keep in mind, these are synced right now, and that’s really important. When you double and de-tune sounds… Sorry, when you double and detune oscillators, you’ll get a little point on the beginning of each sound, it gives it a natural attack transient.

Now, some synths, if you’re doing this on a different synth, particularly analog synths or analog-modeled synths, they don’t have that. But with these digital synths, you can sync them, and that’ll give you a point on double and de-tuned sounds. That’s what gives this bass a on the beginning of each note. That is important.

For example, if I switch to free, it unsyncs them, and listen to it. The beginning of each note. Some have a point, some don’t, it’s very inconsistent. So this sync is very important. If you have this sort of option on whatever synth you’re using, make sure it’s on for this bass. So there’s our bass. Let’s bring other things back in. It’s a huge sound.

Lastly, we have this organ-like synth really filling out the middle. And that sounds like this. So initialize. This is gonna use a combination of saw and medium pulse wave. But since we’re playing a bunch of notes, I need to compensate by turning our volume down here, otherwise it’s very loud. So saw, oscillator one. Oscillator two, we’re gonna go to a square wave, and we’re gonna use this control right here to narrow the pulse width.

Now here’s our combined sound. Now, we wanna add some movement, thicken it up a little bit, ’cause an organ-like tone has that. So we’ll double and de-tune them. Not a lot, but a little bit. Now, there’s this attack on the sound that’s kinda crisp, like every time we hit a note. In this case, we don’t really want that, this is meant to just fill out the middle of our track, we don’t want that point sticking out.

So, like I mentioned with the bass, when it’s synced, when you’ve got double and de-tuned oscillators and you sync them, you get that point. So we’re gonna take that off, and let’s see if that helps. It helped a little bit, but we’re playing a bunch of notes of a very, very bright patch, so we’re still gonna get that crisp attack.

So we’re gonna use an amp attack and just cut off the very beginning of the sound with a very, very quick amp attack, 0.04 seconds. So you won’t actually even hear a swelling up of volume, it’ll just cut off that front end. There we go. Lastly, we wanna throw on a flanger. So I’m gonna go down to, let’s see, mono flanger, and here’s what we have by default. So it’s not moving, the default speed’s very slow, so we’re gonna increase the speed so you start to hear the flanging move up and down.

And then feedback we can use to really accentuate the flanger sound. Next we want this flanger to go deeper down. If we increase our delay, it’ll kinda reach a deeper point, listen. Very nice, and then lastly, our depth we can use to bring that high end down. Depth also can kinda bring the low end up a bit, it’s kinda like LFO amount if you’re familiar with LFOs.

And to be honest with you, depth and delay I had to experiment a lot with, it’s not always obvious what they’re doing. But you can just think of them as a way of controlling the highest and lowest point of that flanger, and that’ll help you kinda figure out how to set them.

Now, this is way too wet, there’s way too much flanging on this, so we’re gonna bring our level down. It’s a subtle flanger. Interesting thing about this patch, if you listen, it sounds like there’s two layers, it sounds like there’s almost a round body and a bright, sizzly top. So much so that I actually spent most of my time trying to make this patch with two patches, one for the bottom, one for the top. And I succeeded, and then as I was making this video, I realized this might just be a wide open patch with no filter. And it was, much simpler than I thought it was. So one thing to keep in mind is always try the simplest solution first, or you can waste a lot of time trying to do something unnecessarily complex.

So, altogether, we got… Oh, let’s take that loop off. Before we play the whole thing, I copied this first one, pasted it, so this is the exact same bending lead, and then I have it come in later. ‘Cause if you hear, when the chorus starts over, ’cause he repeats it a few times in a row, you hear that bend lead come in again, but the first one’s still being held, so that’s what happens right here, take a listen.

And that’s it. Again, you can download the patches for Z3TA+ 2 and the MIDI file so you can figure out what notes are playing. Check out Syntorial, 22 lessons free with the demo, all the links are in the description, and thanks for watching.