Childish Gambino - Sober Synths
In 2014, Childish Gambino released the EP Kauai. Named after the Hawaiian island, Kauai joins the mixtape STN MTN as part of a dual concept album intended to be a follow-up to 2013's because the internet. The EP sees Gambino, stage-name of Donald Glover, reunited with long-term collaborator Ludwig Göransson, a multi-instrumentalist as well as a producer. Göransson plays guitar as well as keyboards, and owns an enviable collection of music equipment. Kauai produced one single, Sober, that contains all my favourite instrumental elements; smooth Fender Rhodes, growling synth bass, chorused Roland Juno chords and a great drum beat to underpin it all.
An important element of the Gambino/Göransson sound is the human element, Göransson is a fantastic musician and all the individual parts are all played rather than programmed. The songs groove because of the way that each individual part interlocks, with some notes placed behind the beat to create a lazy feel. The opening Rhodes riff in Sober is illustrative of this; the parts drag behind the beat, and the space between the notes creates a rhythmic 'pocket' that sounds funky and oozes with groove.
The centrepiece of Göransson's studio is his Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage 73, a warm sounding vintage electric piano. There are plenty of Rhodes plugins to create Rhodes tracks in your own DAW, and personally I find modelling plugins to allow more control over sound than sampled Rhodes instruments. Two great options are Arturia Stage-73 and AAS Lounge Lizard; the sound we're after is bright and noisy, so let's dive into both plugins. In Arturia Stage-73, open the back panel by clicking the top of the interface, and change the Harmonic profile to Noisy Bright, and move Hammer hardness to 44%. This brightens up the sound and adds some gritty noise to the patch.
Alternatively, if Lounge Lizard is your jam, open up the plugin and browse to the preset 26 - Slightly Distorted 2 and dial back both the distortion and reverb, then turn the compressor on. Turn the Character dial to Crystal to add some nice high-end character to the sound. Check it out:
The Rhodes track on Sober has also been doubled, the part was recorded twice and the recordings have been panned left and right, which adds subtle chorusing, stereo spacing, and creates an interesting effect in places where the two recordings don't quite match up rhythmically. To do this in your DAW, duplicate the MIDI track and rerecord the part, the notes will naturally fall in slightly different places, just avoid the temptation to over-quantize it afterwards! Here's my attempt at doubling two tracks of Arturia Stage-73.
The Dave Smith Pro 2 synth provides the tight, growling bassline in Sober, and I'll show you how to recreate it in Arturia Prophet V, a software emulation of a much older Dave Smith synth. Start with the template patch Pro5 2 Osc and switch Oscillator B from a sawtooth to a square wave. Set the filter cutoff to the 10 o'clock mark and envelope amount to 2 o'clock. Move down to the filter ADSR and set sustain to 0 with decay and release at around 9 and 12 o'clock, respectively. Lastly we'll tighten things up and adjust the note length in the amplifier envelope, set the ADSR knobs to 0, 1 o'clock, 0 and 9 o'clock. Process the track with subtle saturation to add some grit and the patch is finished. The patch's tight envelope is what makes it groove so much, so if you want to use the patch in other tracks, be sure to adjust the envelope time to match the track's tempo.
The last synth track is the sparkling synth chord part that comes in midway through the intro chorus, courtesy of Göransson's Roland Juno-106. The part is trebly, chorused and has a noisy, analog flavour that only the hardware Juno's can really create, which comes from the inbuilt chorus effect, which is notoriously noisy. In TAL U-NO-LX, a software emulation of the Juno synths, switch off the sawtooth and sub oscillators and turn on the square oscillator with the PW fader set to halfway. Raise the HPF to 8 to filter out the low-end, then switch both the VCF cutoff frequency and resonance to 2, with the envelope amount all the way up to 9, creating a super-bright sound. Switch the VCA mode from gate to env, and set the ADSR envelope with decay and release at 6 and 5, respectively. Lastly, turn on the Chorus II effect and enjoy playing the patch, which is great for layering with other tracks.
There is a lead synth part that plays midway through the verse, which is also a Juno synth. To create it, I copied my TAL U-NO-LX track from the previous patch and made a few adjustments: I switched the waveform from square to sawtooth, I closed the filter a little and added some resonance, and I also opened up the decay time a little. Check out my exact settings below, and listen to the part, which is really subtle but really helps add some melody in the verse.
Finally, check out the full track with a simple drum beat. The parts don't take much EQing to mix together as they all naturally compliment each other: the Prophet track occupies the low frequencies, the Rhodes sits in the midrange, and the Juno fills out the high-end. Use reverb and compression to make the patches gel and experiment with new ideas, just like Sober does in the bridge, where things get pretty trippy.
Check the download link below to download the patches, and have fun experimenting with some of these sounds and concepts in your own music. If you're a Gambino fan then be sure to subscribe to my newsletter below as I'll be covering Fire Fly from 2011's Camp in a future article.