James Blake - Timeless Synths
This is a follow-up to my James Blake Synth Sounds article, in which I briefly looked at some classic James Blake sounds that he gets from his Prophet 08 synth. In this tutorial, I'll take a deep-dive on another James Blake song, Timeless from his 2016 album The Colour in Anything. After the song's release, Blake shared another version of the song featuring a verse by rapper Vince Staples. Kanye West was originally set to appear on the song, but the collaboration didn’t come together.
"I don’t really know how to describe how that didn’t work out. I wanted Kanye to be on the song ‘Timeless,’ but the verse didn’t materialize. I think a huge swath of things happened in his life, and I just stayed out of it. Eventually, the mood of the album changed, and in the end I don’t think it would have fit. But I didn’t say I was working with Kanye just so people would get interested—I really wanted him to be on it."
Musically, the song opens with a staccato figure before moving into an intense synth-laden bridge section. As with much of Blake's work, the composition is carefully put together and features minimal elements. As in the previous article, I'll rely on Arturia Prophet-V to recreate the synth elements, and I'll also explore Blake's use of sampling in the song.
The song's open figure is based on a triggered sample; it could be one that Blake lifted from a record, programmed himself, or recorded. It uses muted brass and is possibly layered with a synth patch to fill the sound out. I'll try creating the sound from scratch, but if you have another idea of where the sample came from then please let me know! I took the brass from Spitfire's Albion One orchestral Kontakt library, specifically the Brass Low patch. Within Kontakt I raised tightness all the way to get the notes as short as possible, then sharped the pitch slightly (by 11 Hz) and rolled off the high-end with a low-pass filter set to 700 Hz. I then sampled the chord and messed with the timing of the sample to get the hit even shorter, with more pronounced space between the hits.
The sound is still missing something, particularly in the initial attack section, so I created a plucky synth patch to layer with the brass. I used Arturia Prophet-V with both the filter cutoff and envelope amount set to 9 o'clock, with the filter envelope set to a short decay and no sustain. I ran the synth patch through saturation and reverb to make the track sound more natural.
There are some soft synth keys throughout the song that Blake uses to accompany the main elements. The first one is used during parts of the verse to a create a call-and-response effect. You can make this sound by creating a single-oscillator patch utilising a triangle waveform. Pull the cutoff down to halfway to filter out the higher frequencies, and raise the modulation wheel to 0.03 to add some subtle organ-style vibrato. This is a very soft patch is nice for accompaniment, and is reminiscent of an electric piano.
The background keys in the bridge use sawtooth waves, so start with the template patch Pro5 2 Osc, this time with the cutoff frequency all the way down at 10 o'clock and resonance pushed up to halfway. The resonance emphasises the filter's cutoff point and makes the overall sound noticably mid-ranged, which makes it easy to mix.
The lead in the bridge comes from the Prophet 08, and you can see it in action in this live video from Open'er Festival 2017. It's a simple patch that uses slightly detuned sawtooth waveforms. Start with Pro5 2 Osc again and lower the fine-tuning of Oscillator B to 5%, which will thin out the sound. Lower the cutoff amount to 1 o'clock (350 Hz) and raise envelope amount and keyboard tracking to 9 and 12 o'clock respectively. Set the filter envelope with the attack at 11 o'clock (30ms), decay at 2 o'clock and sustain at 9 o'clock to create a subtle plucking effect.
Halfway through the bridge, the synth plays a different line that sounds brighter and brassier; raise the envelope amount and attack time to alter the sound for this.
The drum sounds are electronic and serve the song well. The kick drum is deep and 'thuddy', the hi-hat tight and short, and the snare is a high-pitched rimshot. There is an additional open hi-hat during the latter part of the bridge that sounds as though it was sampled from a Roland TR-808 drum machine. During the bridge the drums alternate between a sparse beat that leaves every other bar empty apart from the hi-hat, and a much more intense pattern with a busy kick drum line.
Samples and Effects
The sharp guitar figure in the bridge is sampled from beginning of 50 Cent's 21 Questions.
The sample is the first two notes triggered right at the beginning of the phrase. It's a fantastic use of sampling that sounds natural and unforced. The sample has been processed with a huge reverb; I used ValhallaVintageVerb with the Huge Synth Hall preset with the mix set to 60%.
There is also some white noise in the bridge, to fill out the sound. White noise is a great way to fill out space in a mix, especially with minimal arrangements, and it also imparts a lo-fi vibe to the mix. I used this white noise sample and ran it through some very heavy saturation, light reverb and an aggressive high pass filter at 1600 Hz.
Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any suggestions for more James Blake songs you'd like to see covered, be sure to check out my original James Blake article if you haven't already. Use the download link below to get the Prophet-V synth patches and samples!