Christmas time is soon coming, and with it all the holiday music. For this article, I’ll look at three classic Christmas songs that use synths as their main instrumental, and explore the patches behind these festive tracks. I’ll look at Wham!’s Last Christmas, Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, and Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas, and the synth patches for all these songs can be freely downloaded at the end of the article.
Wham!’s Last Christmas is one of the most enduring and successful Christmas songs of all time, but did you know it was recorded using only a LinnDrum, a Roland Juno-60, bass guitar, and sleigh bells? All parts were recorded by George Michael, and according to Michael’s engineer Chris Porter, recording was “laborious” due to George’s limited musicianship, but the sessions were ultimately successful.
The main strings sounds of Last Christmas came from the Juno-60, and can be created in TAL U-NO-LX. From the default patch, turn off the sub oscillator, turn on the square wave oscillator, and set the PW fader to 5 with the LFO mode (we’re modulating the pulsewidth with the LFO). In the LFO section, set trigger mode to key and LFO speed to 4.69 Hz.
For the filter, lower the cutoff to 7.55, change the VCA mode to ENV, and set the ADSR envelope with an attack, decay and release of around 3-3.5, and no sustain. You can play with these values a little, but you want a patch with a soft attack that releases quickly, so you can play staccato chords. Lastly turn on the Chorus II effect to get that classic ensemble sounds. There are actually two tracks of this patch in the song, the first is panned slightly right and plays from the beginning, and the second is panned slightly left and comes in with the vocals at 0:18.
- Last Christmas Strings 00:00
The organ patch that comes in at 0:36 is a classic Juno organ patch, and the Juno-60 preset Organ 3 was likely used for the track. I used the Organ preset as a starting point, and increased the filter envelope amount, decay and sustain slightly, to make it slightly richer and closer to the organ sound on the track.
- Last Christmas Organ 00:00
The bells that play the melody sounds like it could come from a digital synth, such as the Yamaha DX7, however bell sounds like this are possible on the Juno synths, and with close listening can hear the Juno ensemble effect. The Juno-60 mellow piano preset may have been used as the basis of the track, but the sound is easy enough to recreate from scratch using a pulse-wave, a mostly closed filter, some subtle envelope pluck, and the chorus effect.
- Last Christmas Bell 00:00
In the video below I’m using SamplePhonics LinnDrum sample pack for drums and Brian Funk’s Sleigh Bell pack for percussion, with bass coming from my Fender P-Bass.
Wonderful Christmastime is one of those Paul McCartney tracks you either love or hate. It was recorded in 1979 for his second solo album, and the track was recorded entirely by McCartney. The track is built around a distinctive synth with what sounds like a delay effect, and this synth sound comes from the legendary Yamaha CS-80.
Paul’s CS-80 patch is a fun one to play, he likely started from the Bass preset, tweaked the envelopes and then added some reverse-sawtooth LFO modulation to the filter to create the delay-style effect. There was no way to sync the CS-80’s LFO to a clock, so Paul likely recorded the CS-80 track first, and then played the other instruments around it, timing them to fit with the rhythm created by the CS-80’s LFO.
In Arturia CS-80 V, start with the bass preset by pressing the 5 tone selector for the II layer, and make sure the mix lever is set all the way to the II position, so we only hear the lower layer. Next to the mix lever, set the red reso lever to to 0.4440 to raise the resonance of all the filters at once. To add the filter modulation, go to the sub oscillator section and set speed to around 3.16 Hz and VCF to 1.000. Make sure the waveform is set to the reverse-sawtooth shape, and fine-tune the speed depending on the tempo. Lastly, turn on the CS-80’s onboard chorus effect and raise the depth.
The strings in Wonderful Christmastime may have come from the Sequential Prophet-5 that Paul plays in the music video for the track, and for the recreation I used Arturia Prophet-5. You can download both the CS-80 and the string patches at the end of the article.
I Believe in Father Christmas
I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake was written by Greg Lake with lyrics by frequent collaborator Peter Sinfield, and synths by fellow ELP bandmate Keith Emerson. The songs instrumental melody famously references Prokofiev, and while the most famous version of the song has a big orchestral outro, an earlier version of the song has Emerson playing the entire outro on his synth.
The synth Keith Emerson is mostly associated with is the Moog Modular system, although he also used the Yamaha GX-1 around this time. That said, the patches aren’t too complex, and can be recreated on most synths. For the lead sound, use a single sawtooth oscillator with an envelope controlled filter to create a classic synth horn sound. In Arturia Mini V, set the filter cutoff all the way down and the amount of contour just above 5. Set the filter’s envelope with an attack of 20ms, decay of 2.5s, and a sustain around 6.
- I Believe Lead 00:00
The bass sound of I Believe in Father Christmas is a thick monobass created with three sawtooth waves; two tuned to 32’ and one tuned to 16’. Set the filter cutoff to the -2 mark (around 300Hz), emphasis to 2 and contour amount to 3. Use a filter decay time of 500ms with a sustain of 2-3 to finish the sound.
- I Believe Bass 00:00
Thanks for reading and happy holidays! The TAL U-NO-LX and Arturia presets for all three tracks covered in the article can be downloaded below.