Frank Ocean – Pyramids Breakdown

Pyramids is regarded by many as one of the standout tracks of Frank Ocean’s 2012 debut album, channel ORANGE. Clocking in at almost 10 minutes, Pyramids features a wide range of sounds, including epic Mellotron choirs, funky synthbass lines and warm pads over trap beats. The song is structured around two distinct sections which I’ll refer to as Side A and Side B, as well as a transition section that joins the two. To top it all off, the outro of Pyramids features an extended guitar solo performed by an uncredited John Mayer.

Pyramids was written by Frank Ocean and Malay, with production credits shared by the two in addition to Om’Mas Keith. In a Gearslutz forum post Malay wrote that the main synths and keyboards used on channel Orange were a Roland Juno-106, a Wurlitzer, a B3 organ and a Rhodes. Software plugins used on channel Orange include the Arturia Collection, Native Instruments Battery and GForce M-Tron. He also says he sends his tracks from his audio interface through a stereo pair of Neve 1073’s, because “any software based stuff has to leave the computer and hit some kind of circuit board”, ostensibly to add analog warmth.

On the production of Pyramids, Malay wrote:

“I use all of the Arturia analog remakes… On that particular song the lead synth was actually from Omnisphere (played live [through] the chain I described previously). I created the main chop with some analog bell type sound off an original Juno-106 and some choir sounds from the Mtron. Bass was live, [the] high pad sounding thing during the transition from side 1 to side 2 was [an] ebow on my Strat. The pad on side 2 is an Oberheim OB-8… Hmm, oh yeah, the arpeggiator thing is done on the Arturia CS-80“

In this article I’ll look at each of the individual sounds that makes up Pyramids and either look at where the sound originally came from or how to emulate the original hardware synth sounds using software plugins. All the presets made for this Pyramids remake are available as a free download at the end of the article.

The remake is also a collaboration with guitarist/producer Seán Murray, who recorded and mixed the outro guitar solo originally played by John Mayer, as well the the guitar swells in the bridge. He’s done his own breakdown of the guitars in Pyramids, which you can watch here as well as featured in the article below.

Before I start breaking down each sound, here’s the final remake:

Update: it looks like the remake video got taken down due to copyright restriction. I haven’t had this happen before despite uploading 100+ covers/remakes and not monetising any of them. I will try to get the video live again, but in the meantime I’ve added an audio-only version of my remake below. You can also still see parts of the remake video on my Instagram channel.

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  • Pyramids Full Remake 00:00

Side A: Sample

The first sound you hear in Pyramids is a chopped up Mellotron sample layered with synth bells. In the Gearslutz post linked previously, Malay says the Mellotron parts came from GForce’s M-Tron plugin and the bells came from an original Roland Juno-106. For my remake I used Arturia’s Mellotron V plugin with the M400 FemaleChoir as the main sound with some additional Violin and Cello layers used to fill out the sound. Here’s the isolated chord progression as it would have sounded before being chopped:

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  • Mellotron Strings 00:00
  • Mellotron Choir 00:00
  • Mellotron Layered 00:00

The Mellotron sample was then chopped up to be trigger rhythmically. I did this in Ableton by bouncing the Mellotron tracks to audio and using the Slice to New MIDI Track function. Here’s what the chopped Mellotron sounds like:

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  • Mellotron Chopped 00:00

The bell sound layered over the Mellotron originally comes from a Roland Juno-106. I recreated this part using TAL U-NO-LX, a faithful software emulation of the Roland Juno synths. The patch is bright, thin and chorused, and I used the default sawtooth oscillator with the sub oscillator’s volume fader set to 8. I set the HPF nice and high to filter out any low end (making it layer better) and set the filter cutoff frequency along with some envelope and LFO modulation to create some movement. Lastly, TAL U-NO-LX’s chorus effect adds the sparkle required to make the patch shine.

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  • Juno Bells 00:00

Side A: Synths

The EDM-style lead sound that plays during the breakdown at 1:11 comes from Omnisphere, and is the factory preset FM Danceline Lead. Malay stated that, as with many of his synth tracks, the audio from Omnisphere was sent through his analog hardware signal chain, likely including preamps, compressors and EQs. I used Arturia’s Pre 1973 preamp emulation plugin to emulate the sound of Malay’s stereo Neve 1073s.

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  • Omnisphere FM Danceline Lead 00:00

The rapid synth arpeggiator sounds in Pyramids were originally created with the Arturia CS-80 V plugin, which I also used for the remake. The ascending arp patch in Side A is a single sawtooth waveform with a free-running arpeggiator set to a speed of 92ms and an octave range of 4 octaves. I used CS-80 V’s built-in arpeggiator to create the arp pattern, simply hold a chord and the arpeggiator will do the rest.

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  • CS-80 V Arps 00:00

The funky bass part that plays when the main drum beat starts was likely on a modern Moog synth such as a Voyager or Phatty. The basic ingredients for the patch are detuned sawtooth oscillators tuned across three octaves (32’, 16’ and 8’ on a Moog style synth) with the cutoff frequency set to 360 Hz and some filter pluck/contour to open the filter on each note. I used Arturia Mini V for the remake with the filter decay time set to 450ms and processed the track with saturation and some EQ to boost the high end, helping it cut through the mix.

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  • Moog Funky Bass 00:00

Transition

At the 4:26 mark, the song smoothly transitions from Side A to Side B. Both the tempo and pitch start to fall, with the tempo moving from roughly 149BPM to 132BPM, which is the tempo of Side B. The pitch also gradually drops 2 semitones, creating a detuned sound like a reel-to-reel tape slowing down. I’m not sure how this was achieved in the original recording, but if I had to guess I’d say a tape-style slow down effect was used, affecting both the tempo and pitch together. To recreate the effect in Ableton Live I simply bounced the tracks to audio files and use the Transposition clip envelope to gradually shift the pitch of the audio, whilst also automating the tempo separately.

Side B

The synth pad that plays throughout the second side of Pyramids was originally recorded using an Oberheim OB-8, a vintage polyphonic synth from the early 80s. I recreated the patch using Arturia’s brand new OB-Xa V plugin, which is an emulation of the OB-8’s predecessor, the OB-Xa. The patch is a single sawtooth wave with the filter set to 700 Hz with keyboard tracking on and resonance set to approx. 0.72. A big part of the pad sound is the Oberheim’s signature SEM filter, which is a gentle 12 dB/Oct with a warm sound. The OB-8 hardware synth had a stereo spread function that would stereoize the sound by panning the individual voices, and this an be recreated in OB-Xa V to add some stereo width to the pad.

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  • Oberheim Pad 00:00

The gliding lead sound at 5:23 likely came from Omnisphere, and could be another factory preset. I wasn’t able to find the original preset so I recreated it in Omnisphere using a single sawtooth wave with unison/detune. I used a low pass filter to roll off only the very high-end frequencies and set a glide time of 16ms in the main panel. For effects I added saturation and stereo widening to bring the sound to life.

The arps that play throughout most of the second half of Pyramids are similar to the arp patch on Side A, and I used another instance of Arturia CS-80 V to recreate it. For the Side B arp patch I used both layers of CS-80 V with a similar patch and created some oscillator detuned with the Detune Ch II fader (next to the ring modulator section on the left). There is also a low pass filter with no keyboard tracking that filters out the highest arpeggio notes. The arp pattern itself is an up/down pattern that goes over 4 octaves synced to 1/16th notes.

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  • CS-80 V Arps B 00:00

Guitar Solo

The outro guitar solo in Pyramids were recorded by an uncredited John Mayer, who also performed the song live with Frank Ocean on his SNL appearance. For my remake I reached out to guitarist/producer Seán Murray, who recorded and mixed all the guitars for the remake. He’s done a breakdown of all the guitar layers and tones featured in the solo over at his YouTube channel. Check out the full guitar breakdown here:

Further Reading

My writing process with most artists (including Frank) is very artist specific i.e. I don’t make tracks on my own time. Id rather go into the studio with the artist and/or writers and create from scratch. I used to do the track thing when I was younger, but it never really worked out for me. I find creating ideas from scratch with the artist is much more rewarding and allows for the song and the sound to be catered to the specific project. A typical session for me starts with me laying down some musical ideas (guitars, keys, drums) and we’ll start laying down some lyric/melody concepts… Keep growing it into vibe.. A concept.. Hopefully a song. If it veers off path, I’d rather ditch it and try again another time. Through the years, I’ve realized music should never be forced. – Malay

If you made it this far – thanks for reading! For some further exploration of Malay’s writing and production style, I can highly recommend the following links:

As well as my other Frank Ocean synth breakdown articles:

Presets Download

Below you can download all the custom presets used in the recreation of Frank Ocean’s Pyramids, which will work in the Arturia Collection, Omnisphere and TAL U-NO-LX.

If you want to explore my remake of Pyramids even further, I’ve uploaded the MIDI files, multitrack audio stems and full Ableton Live Project on my Patreon page, which also helps support the site and keep it running without ads!

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