Beach House are a Baltimore-based dream pop duo consisting of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally. One of the quintessential dream pop bands, Beach House are instantly recognisable for their unique blend of dreamy synth sounds, emotional songwriting, washed-out productions and Legrand’s characteristic voice.
Their latest album is 2018’s 7 but for this article, I went back to 2011’s Bloom and 2015’s Depression Cherry to look at the sounds used during that era. I recreated some of their signature synth sounds using soft synths from the Arturia V Collection, and these presets can be downloaded for free at the end of the article.
This article is an overhauled version of my previous Beach House Keyboard Sounds article; one of the first articles I wrote as Reverb Machine. In this new article, I’ve put together complete remakes of the tracks Space Song, Lazuli and Wishes. If you enjoy this article then keep an eye out for Beach House Synth Sounds, Part Two coming next month, where I’ll take a look at tracks from 7.
Beach House Gear
Beach House tend to favour inexpensive keyboards, saying in interviews that they have a collection of cheap ‘toy’ keyboards such as those by Yamaha and Casio. Three sounds that make up the Beach House signature sound are thin pulse-wave arpeggio lines, bright strings and warm organs. String Machine keyboards and organs have a lot in common – they’re derived from the same technology. A lot of string machines and organs from the 80s are now available for cheap second hand. This Nashville Scene interview with Alex Scally mentions the bands collection of thrift store keyboards:
NC: I read that you guys have a practice space, do you store a lot of vintage gear there?
AS: I wouldn’t call it vintage, it’s just kind of crap gear. All of our stuff combined, if it was burned for insurance money or something, would probably be enough to buy one Fender Rhodes. It literally is just crap we got from thrift stores. All of those old keyboards are mostly from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and there is always one amazing thing on each of them. That’s this personal opinion I have. Every keyboard has one thing on it that is really amazing and completely unique. Even if about 95 percent of the sounds and presets are completely unusable or uncreative, there’s at least one amazing thing.
The Yamaha PS-20 is also an important part of the Beach House sound. They used to use the PS-20 as their main live keyboard up until around 2015, when they replaced it with a much more powerful Yamaha Motif XF8, likely filled with samples from their keyboard collection. The PS-20 has 10 different sounds and a sustain button that gives each note a long release time, perfect for flowing arpeggios. It can be heard on the tracks Saltwater, Master of None, Gila, Silver Soul and Walk in the Park and tons of others. I sampled my own PS-20 and used it as the basis of my own RM-20 pack. A now deleted Washington Post interview reveals how the band first discovered the Yamaha PS-20:
“This was incredibly fortuitous. [Legrand] found this at a thrift store in south Baltimore and it’s become one of the most important organs for our sound. When she found it, it was just a transformative experience for us. It’s hard to explain. We love every single sound on it. It’s from 1981, right between when everything sounded really cheesy and when things sound really analog. So it’s like this mixture of the two sounds that we’ve really come to fall in love with.” – Alex Scally
I’ll start by looking at Space Song, from 2015’s Depression Cherry. The song is heavily layered with organ and string machine sounds, a quirky ascending arpeggio sound and washed-out guitar melodies. For my remake I used Arturia Solina V for the high layer and Arturia B3 V for the lower layer.
Solina V emulates arguably the most iconic string machine synthesizer of all time. For this sound I started with the default patch and turned on the ensemble chorus effect. For the effects controls I set FX1 to 22%, FX2 to 6% and reverb to 44%. Beach House tend to use lots of reverb on their tracks, resulting in a washed sound.
This Solina V string sound also doubles the lead melody played by the guitar.
- Space Song Strings 00:00
The lower organ sound can be most clearly heard at the start of the 2nd verse when the strings drop out. It’s a rich-sounding organ with a rotating-speaker effect. To recreate it I used B3 V’s Gimme Some Lovin preset as a starting point, disabled the onboard distortion and reverb effects (open the FX tab, top-right), lowered the preamp drive all the way and tweaked the drawbars on the left-hand side to create a darker tone. Here’s what that sounds like:
- Space Song Organ 00:00
The ascending arp patch is my favourite sound in Space Song, it has a quirky sound that contrasts Beach House’s sometimes dark tone. To create the arps I used Ableton’s Arpeggiator device with the rate set to 1/16 and steps set to 3, which will add 3 octaves to the played chord. The retrigger beat setting is set to 1/2, which will reset the arpeggiator every half a bar, resulting in a nice pattern of 8 ascending notes, even when you play chords with 3 notes.
For the actual synth sound, I used Arturia Prophet V. The oscillator setting is a triangle wave at full volume with a square wave mixed in at half volume to fill out the sound. There’s fast pitch vibrato which gives it the quirky character, so raise the mod wheel to 0.09, set the mod destination to Freq A & B and set the LFO rate to 3.87 Hz. Set the amp envelope sustain to 0 and decay/release to 500-700ms for a plucky effect. There’s also some very light chorus happening in the mix, so set Prophet V’s onboard chorus mix to 16%.
- Space Song Arps 00:00
For the chord stabs at 0:52 I’m using Arturia Prophet V with a mix of sawtooth and square waves. Oscillator B is pitched down an octave (12 semitones) with its volume in the mixer set to halfway. This gives the patch more low-end without overwhelming Oscillator A. Keyboard tracking is off in the filter section and the high-end has been rolled off with the cutoff set to 4 kHz. Turning keyboard tracking off can help synth patches sound more like Yamaha/Casio electric keyboards which usually didn’t have keyboard tracking filters. I also turned up the attack time to soften the sound’s transient. The chorus is heavy on this patch, so set the onboard chorus to 50% wet on the type 3 effect.
- Space Song Stabs 00:00
The outro arps at 3:55 are super simple and likely came from a toy keyboard or electric organ from the band’s collection. To recreate it, use a medium-width pulse wave, or a square wave with PW set to 0.75 in Prophet V. Set the filter cutoff to 1500 Hz with no keyboard tracking and run it through plenty of delay and reverb.
- Space Song Outro Arps 00:00
The bass sound in my Space Song remake is a heavily filter sawtooth patch in Arturia Mini V playing long notes. This is then doubled with me playing playing a 1/16th notes Fender Precision Bass. For the effects on the bass guitar I used UAD’s Ampeg emulation plugin, and tried to strike a good balance between the synth bass and bass guitar’s volume.
The main guitar melody in Space Song is played by a slide guitar and is doubled in octaves. I used my Duesenberg lap steel guitar to record the parts, and recorded each separate octave-up/octave-down tracks The original sound could have used an octave pedal such as the Electro-Harmonix POG2; I just recorded the layers individually to give me more control during the mixdown. Here’s the full remake:
Lazuli, from the 2012 album Bloom, is based around the combination of a playful-sounding ascending/descending arpeggio patch with rich string machine chords. The arp sound uses a single pulse wave oscillator with a medium decay/no sustain envelopes to create the acoustic-sounding pluck. I created the patch in Prophet V, with Oscillator A set to a square wave with PW at 0.75. The filter cutoff is set to 710 Hz with no resonance, a small amount of envelope modulation and keyboard tracking slightly reduced to tame the high-end notes. The decay times are set to 730-840ms and I’m also using Prophet V’s onboard chorus with 35% mix to add some movement.
- Lazuli Arps 00:00
The chords are a rich string machine sound which I’ve recreated using Solina V again. The Lazuli strings have some extra high shimmer, so add the violin voice, which is an octave up version of the viola voice to the default sound.
- Lazuli Strings 00:00
The bass patch has a thin sound which comes from using narrow pulse wave oscillators. I recreated the sound in Mini V using two narrow-rectangular waves with slightly detuned (3%) and low mixed sawtooth wave an octave below to add some sub. For the outro the bass synth is doubled with bass guitar playing 1/8th notes. The guitar is a Gibson Les Paul into a Roland JC-120 amp emulation with chorus coming from Ableton’s chorus and a Roland Dimension-D. Here’s the full remake:
Lastly, I’ll look at Wishes, also from Bloom. The song is built around a 4 note descending arpeggio pattern that outlines each chord, and the sound likely came from the Yamaha PS-20, specifically the piano patch. For my remake I used my sampled RM-20 piano patch with EQ to cut the noisy low-end frequencies. I also EQed in some high frequencies and added some chorus effect to thicken up the sound.
- Wishes Piano 00:00
For the strings I once again used Arturia Solina V, this time with a custom patch made from scratch. I used the Violin and Humana voices and spent some time tweaking the Upper Resonator section in the extended panel to create a string sound that matched the one in Wishes. The resonator section works like a set of multi-band filters that can be used to boost and accentuate certain frequencies. Here’s what my patch sounds like:
- Wishes Strings 00:00
The bass sound is a standard filter sawtooth patch using three saw oscillators, two tuned to 32’ and one tuned to 16’. I used two drum tracks on my Wishes remake, a ‘drum machine’ kit using simple lo-fi drum samples for the initial beat and Superior Drummer for the real drums that come in for the second verse. For the post-rock style guitar during the breakdown I used tons of delay from EchoBoy with the digital delay model and Ableton’s Grain Delay for the octave-up shimmer sound. I also layered this lead guitar part with the Solina string patch that I created.
Here’s the full remake of Beach House’s Wishes: