Francis and the Lights - See Her Out
Francis and the Lights is the musical project of Francis Farewell Starlite (that's actually his legal name). Debut album Farewell, Starlite! was released in 2016 and features guest appearances by Kanye West and Bon Iver. The album opener See Her Out (That's Just Life) is built around a crunchy synth-line, layered vocals and a minimalist arrangement. If you haven't heard it then check out the music video:
Francis seems to rely on a Dave Smith Instruments OB-6 for live performance, and it's likely that he uses it in the studio too, See Her Out synth certainly sounds like a DSI. The OB-6 itself is a collaboration between Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 creator Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim, designer of the Oberheim SEM; the OB-6 is based on the latter and also features modern onboard effects. No matter what synth you use, the main elements of this sound are a plucked saw/square sound, detuned oscillators and lots of reverb with compression.
See Her Out
The first thing to note about the synth line is the octave jumps between every note, which works really well with the synth sound which I'll look at later. Rather than placing all of the melody notes within one octave, they've instead been spread out over 3 octaves. The part was likely written on a keyboard, and in the music notation below you can see the left hand/right hand interplay at work. The left hand plays the bass notes as octaves and the right hand picks out melody notes that compliment the harmony.
The spreading of notes is even more pronounced when you see it on the piano roll! If you're not a keyboard player then try to incorporate bigger note-ranges while you compose. Pick out melody notes to sit in the higher octave and move some bass notes down an octave to emphasise them.
(That's Just Life)
I initially wanted to use Arturia SEM Vto recreate the synth track, however, SEM V doesn't quite have the detuning abilities that the modern OB-6 does. Instead, I used Arturia Prophet V, based on the Prophet synths created by Dave Smith, and I found it to sound similar to the OB-6 for this type of sound.
In Prophet V start with the basic template patch Pro5 2 Osc, which will give you two detuned oscillators. Turn square wave on for both oscillators and lower the PW (pulse width) knob for Oscillator A down to 9 o'clock. Move to the filter section and low the cutoff knob to halfway and raise Env Amt to maximum, this will modulate the filter using the ADSR envelope knobs underneath. Also lower KBD to 0, this is the keyboard tracking for the filter that makes higher notes brighter and lower notes darker, however, we want to the lower notes to be really crunchy so turn it all the way down. Set up both the filter envelope and the amplifier envelope with no attack or sustain and a decay around the 1 o'clock mark, set the amplifier decay to be slightly longer than the filter decay.
Finally, add some chorus from the onboard Chorus effect module above the synth. Make sure the chorus is activated (with the red light on), set rate to 2 o'clock, mix to 11 o'clock and chorus type to 2.
Next you want to use reverb to add a washed out effect; you can any reverb plugin but plate reverbs will give the best results. Either use a plate reverb plugin, or setup your DAW's reverb with no early reflections and full bodied reverb and tails signals. I used the super-simple and fantastic sounding Soundtoys Little Plate with the mix level at almost halfway and the decay at the default 3 seconds. I applied some heavy compression after the reverb to squash both the main signal and reverb tails, making the reverb effect even more pronounced.
Thanks for reading, be sure to check out the download link below to download the Arturia Prophet patch and the Ableton Live project!