James Blake is a British musician, whose distinct style incorporates Electronica, R&B, Soul and Dubstep, whilst combining acoustic and electronic elements to accompany his soulful voice. He has released three albums and collaborated with Beyoncé, Bon Iver, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Jay-Z. His sound palette relies on intimate pianos, glitchy vocals and thick synthesizers, mostly from his Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08. Blake has used the Prophet 08 as the main synth for his entire career, and its recognizable sound appears on all of his albums too. In this tutorial I'll dive into songs from each of his albums, deconstruct the synth patches and put them back together in the software synth Arturia Prophet V, a software emulation of an older Prophet synth. I'll also look at some of James Blake's go-to music production techniques.
I'm using a Prophet 08, which is one of the best synths in the world. I'm a keyboard player, and just being able to play live in front of people and exercise that love of doing it in a way that I've never been able to do is great. -James Blake
The patch in Radio Silence is a classic electronica pad patch, utilising all of the oscillators with a slow attack to create a rich, swelling sound. Start with the template patch Pro5 2 Osc and set both oscillators to square waves, with each of the PW knobs to 3 and 9 o'clock, then add a small amount of noise in the mixer section. Set the amplifier envelope with the attack knob around 3 o'clock (2600ms). Check out the synth patch on its own, and with the simple electronica beat:
Love Me In Whatever Way
Love Me In Whatever Way is a mostly piano-led song, that utilises some incredible use of samples. The song closes out with some thick sounding synth lines, where we hear the Prophet 08 do what it does best. Start with the same 2 Oscillator template patch and leave both Oscillators on sawtooth waveforms, however, detune the frequency of Oscillator B by an octave (12 semitones). Set the amplifier ADSR with the decay just below 9 o'clock, and sustain and release both at 12 o'clock. In the filter section, reduce the keyboard tracking knob (KBD) all the way down, and adjust the frequency to wherever the song requires. In the recording and live performances, the filter starts closed and gradually opens up, increasing in intensity as it does. When playing live I believe they use an expression pedal plugged into the Prophet 08's Pedal/CV input. You can listen to the patch below, where I slowly opened up the filter over 8 bars.
The Wilhelm Scream
The synth patch in Wilhelm Scream is a simple patch that takes advantage of oscillator pulsewidth to create a really thin sound. The song is very minimal, and the thin synth gives up a lot of space for Blake's vocal. In Arturia Prophet V, start with the template patch Pro5 1 Osc and change Oscillator A's waveform from sawtooth to square, then move to PW knob all the way anti-clockwise to thin out the oscillator sound. Set both the cutoff frequency and envelope amount to the 10 o'clock mark, then set the ADSR envelope with decay at 1 o'clock, sustain at 10 o'clock, and release at 11 o'clock. This filter envelope gives the notes a short but sharp plucking effect at the beginning of each note. Process the track with compression and minimal reverb.
Life Round Here
Life Round Here opens with a really complex sounding synth, that goes through abrupt changes in sound between phrases. Start with the 2 oscillator template and switch Oscillator A's waveform from sawtooth to square, with the pulsewidth set to 8 o'clock, creating a colourful oscillator blend. Set the cutoff to 2 o'clock and add a small amount of envelope modulation to the filter, with a medium decay and no sustain for a subtle plucking effect. Lastly, reduce the keyboard tracking (KBD) to 2 o'clock, which will change the way the filter affects high and low frequencies; reducing it will open up bass notes more compared to the higher frequency notes. Lastly, turn on the unison mode and turn voice detune up to 21%. This will set all of Prophet-V's voices to double the same note, and you may need to turn down the output volume to prevent the synth from clipping! After programming the patch, I duplicated the track and altered some of the settings in the duplicate, such as turning off unison mode, adjusting the filter cutoff, and lessening the reverb effect.
I initially struggled to replicate the synth in Retrograde, but the solution ended up being an obvious one. The patch consists of both oscillators detuned, one square and one sawtooth, with the filter left wide open. To clean the sound up a little I turned down the volume of the square wave oscillator a little. Why does this simple patch sound so good on Retrograde? It's to do with how good the oscillators on the Prophet 08 sound, the voicings of the chords, and the way it sits in the mix on the recording. I suspected there were some effects applied to the Retrograde synth to make it sit so well in the mix, so I experimented with Ableton's Flanger effect and came up with some pretty cool results. I ended up using the Techsys preset and dialling back the feedback to make it sound more natural. Check out the synth with, and without, the flanger effect.
Thanks for reading! If you like the sound of the synths in James Blakes music, then be sure to check out some of the Dave Smith Instruments hardware synths, the Prophet 08 was my first synth, and as great as Arturia Prophet V is, the Prophet 08 definitely has a character that can't be replicated by software. If you want to go bigger than the Prophet 08, you can check out the Prophet 12, and the Pro 2 and Mopho synths are also worth checking out. It's also worth noting that James Blake songs don't involve a lot of complex layering, instead relying on the bare minimum tracks to convey the song. Additionally, this minimalism allows him to create intimate space in his music, as well as allowing his voice room to breathe.
"He [James Blake] takes a lot of stuff out and ends up with very skeletal pieces." - Brian Eno