Chromatics are a synthpop band from Portland; their signature sound combines nostalgic songwriting with their own take on Italian disco. The band’s producer, Johnny Jewel, uses mostly analog synthesizers, and is also a member of the projects Glass Candy, Symmetry and Desire, whose track Under Your Spell I covered in the Drive Synth Sounds article.
In this article I’ll look at the synth patches and mixing style that makes up Chromatics signature sound, with recreated versions of Shadow, the new single Toy, and Faded Now, which is a reworked version of Closer to Grey. The synth patches have been recreated in Arturia Mini V and Xfer Serum, and it’s also worth picking up iZotope’s free Ozone Imager 2, as Chromatics tend to use wide stereo sounds in their mixes.
There isn’t much information on exactly which synths Chromatics use on their recordings. The band seem to have a large collection of vintage synthesizers and likely use a variety of different synths on their tracks. They typically use a pair of Korg MiniKorg 700s for live shows and they also tend to showcase some of their keyboard collection in music videos, including:
Roland SH-2000 (Famous Monsters and You’re No Good)
Roland Jupiter-8 (Black Walls)
Roland RS-505 (Blue Girl)
Thomas Organ 2001 (Move a Mountain)
Maxikorg 800DV (used in The Taste of Blood)
Yamaha CS-15 (cover of The Taste of Blood)
Shadow is one of the tracks from the still-unreleased Dear Tommy and was performed by the band in Twin Peaks: The Return. The track is dark and haunting, with a few layers of synths that leave plenty of space in the mix for the vocals. An interesting listen is the early 8-track demo of Shadow that Jewel shared on his SoundCloud page.
The synth strings in Shadow are very bright with lots of high-end. There are two layers, with both playing the melody in octaves at 1:11 and only the high layer playing the melody at 1:30. I recreated both layers using Arturia Mini V, a great sounding and relatively versatile monophonic synth. The lower layer isn’t too clear in the mix but could be an electric guitar with reverb and distortion effects. Another great synth for Chromatics style strings is Arturia Solina V, which doesn’t have a traditional synth filter, but can always be paired with a filter from the DAW.
To create the main high string layer in Arturia Mini V, use three detuned sawtooth waves all pitched to the same octave (4’ in Mini V). Set the filter cutoff to 640Hz with resonance set to 1.9, and turn off keyboard tracking. Turn on unison mode and set the voice detune knob to 0.15 to thicken up the sound considerably. The sound also has some stereo widening, and I used the free plugin iZotope Ozone Imager 2 with width set to 65% to widen the sound. The track is then run through a moderate amount of reverb from Valhalla VintageVerb and Shimmer.
- Shadow Strings 00:00
The chord pads in Shadow have an interesting pitch-dip that reminds me of My Bloody Valentine style guitars. This is easy enough to do manually with the pitch-bend wheel, dipping it down slightly at the appropriate time, but I decided to use envelope modulation within the synth to create the pitch dip instead. The patch has been recreated in Xfer Serum, with the basic sound being a sawtooth wave with unison/detune. I used the MG Low 24 filter set to 2150 Hz with medium resonance setting, and also added some white noise via the noise oscillator.
For the pitch modulation, I used one of Serum’s LFO’s in envelope mode, which will trigger the LFO only once, but allows you to assign a delay time to the modulation, so the patch waits a few seconds before triggering the envelope. I used a delay time of 1.3s with the LFO rate set to 1.1 Hz, which modulates oscillator A’s pitch fine-tuning. To ensure the patch starts and ends in tune, go to the mod matrix tab and change the modulation type from bidirectional to unidirectional with the small arrow next to the pitch modulation entry.
- Shadow Pad 00:00
At the 1:27 mark, you can hear some bright synth keys that sound like the Roland D-50’s Fantasia patch. This is a famous preset that was also recreated on most digital synths that followed the D-50. For the recreation, I used the Roland Cloud D-50 plugin with the 1-1 Fantasia patch.
- Shadow D50 Fantasia 00:00
There’s an electric piano sound that doubles the vocal melody throughout the track, and I used the AAS Lounge Lizard preset Tine at 9 to recreate it. The bass track is created by Arturia Mini V with a dark 1/8th pluck patch processed through reverb to push it into the back of the mix, and this preset is available in the free download at the end of the article. There’s also another bass sound layered with the pluck patch that can be heard clearly at 2:06, and my recreation I used samples of a double bass to create the layered effect.
Toy is a recently released single by Chromatics and is in the modern synthwave style with a driving bassline and the signature Chromatics strings. The bass sound is a classic unison pluck bass and sounds similar to the Korg Polysix’s Fat Line Bass preset. For the Toy remake, I used the Korg Legacy Polysix VST with the Fat Line Bass preset, which is the default sound that loads with the synth. From there I made it sound even fatter by running it through Soundtoys Decapitator for saturation and Little Plate for the reverb that can be heard in the original track. I also used Ozone Imager 2 on the bass track, because although the Fat Line Bass sound is wide, it needed a little extra stereo width to sound as wide as Toys. Remember not to push the width on the bass sound too hard that it gets lost in mono!
- Toy Fat Line Bass 00:00
I recreated both lead sounds in Arturia Mini V, and the trick to patching them lies in finding the sweet spot of the filter to get the patch to shine. The first patch is a three sawtooth oscillator patch, with all three oscillators all tuned to 8’. The filter cutoff is set to 1040Hz with resonance set to 3 and keyboard tracking turned off. I also added a tiny bit of envelope modulation with a 10ms attack to soften the sound. This is a unison sound, so activate the unison switch in Mini V and turn the voice detune knob up to 5. For mixing, I used compression, reverb, and Imager again, this time with width set to 100% to push the sound right into the sides of the mix.
- Toy Lead 1 00:00
The bright lead line at 1:07 is similar to Lead 1, so I used the same patch as a template. I opened the filter up to 4600Hz and added vibrato via the modulation wheel set to 0.88 and the LFO rate set to 3.10 Hz. The effects chain used is exactly the same as that in Lead 1 (compression, reverb and stereo widening).
- Toy Lead 2 00:00
Faded Now was included on the deluxe edition of Closer to Grey, and is essentially a completely reworked version of the title track Closer to Grey. Faded Now swaps Chromatics usual palette of synthwave inspired beats with a trap drum beat and layers of lush synth strings.
The main synth in Faded Now is an electric organ sound, likely recorded on an electric organ in Johnny Jewel’s collection. I was able to recreate the sound by using the Organ 2 preset from my RM-20 pack. I added a very aggressive EQ curve to shape the sound, adding a lot of high-end to the tone and cutting below 120Hz, cutting 285Hz and adding around 10dB above 1.6kHz. I additionally used the RM-20 Vibraphone patch for one of the bass layers of the song that can be in the intro. Alternatives to the RM-20 organ are the Arturia organ plugins such as Vox Continental V.
- Faded Now RM-20 Dry 00:00
- Faded Now RM-20 EQ 00:00
The main synth melody in the chorus uses portamento/glide to smoothly glide between notes. I used Arturia Mini V to recreate the patch, with all three oscillators set to sawtooth waves with one pitched an octave above the other two. Close the filter slightly to roll of the harsh top-end and raise the glide knob to 6 to add some portamento glide.
- Faded Now Flute Lead 00:00
There are two additional synth layers in the chorus. The first plays a single-note line with glide, and I used a Serum patch with two unison/detuned sawtooth waves pitched an octave apart. I also added white noise from the noise oscillator and set the filter to 2800 Hz with keyboard tracking enabled. Remember to put Serum in monophonic mode and legato mode, with the porta knob set to halfway for a nice, long glide between notes.
- Faded Now Glide 1 00:00
- Faded Now Glide 2 00:00
- Faded Now Glides Layered 00:00