Kate Bush Synth Sounds

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Kate Bush has had an enormous impact on modern music, as a musician her adoption of the Yamaha CS-80 synth and CMI Fairlight sampler empowered her to be more creative. Bush released four albums before finally building her own studio in 1985, and subsequently released her fifth album, Hounds of Love. The album was an art-rock masterpiece with heavy synthpop overtones; it topped charts and is regarded as her finest album. On many of Kate Bush’s early albums, she used the Yamaha CS-80 as her main composition instrument. She seemed to favour it particularly for its touch-sensitivity, and it was one of the few synths that offered the feature at the time. Bush mainly relied on the synths presets, and utilising its touch-sensitivity allowed her to create more organic-sounding tracks, which worked for her as she would often layer the CS-80 with real acoustic instruments, such as cellos and the balalaika. The Fairlight CMI was released in 1979, and Kate Bush was an early user, utilising it on several tracks from her 1980 album Never For Ever. The Fairlight soon replaced the CS-80 as her main instrument and ended up being used heavily on Hounds of Love, providing many of the album's signature sounds. Arturia has created software emulations of both the Yamaha CS-80 and the Fairlight CMI, and I’ll use these throughout the article. 

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Running Up That Hill

Arguably Kate Bush’s most well-known song, Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) is full of strange tones, with a dreamy background that transcends the usual synthpop palette of the era. When asked about some of the production techniques in a 1986 interview with Island Ear, Bush was very tight-lipped, preferring to keep her production secrets to herself so they wouldn’t be imitated. However, she did confirm that the songs scooped parts came from the Fairlight.

Regarding the types of sounds you get, how did you get that little part on "Running Up That Hill" that comes in first at the start of the song, after the drums and before the vocals? That's the Fairlight and that was actually what I wrote the song with. That was what the song was written around.

The Fairlight sound that Kate used is the CELLO2 patch; here’s what it sounds like:

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One of the biggest drawbacks of sampling with the Fairlight was that it could only handle short samples, around one second long, due to memory limitations. This means that long-sustained sounds are only possible by looping short sections of the sample, and this produces artefacts and clicking effects. Instead, it sounds like Kate has run the sound through a long reverb effect and fed a portion of the reverb tail back into the sampler. An interview with Musician magazine notes Kate’s new studio (the one built for Hounds of Love) as containing AMS, Quantec and Lexicon 224 reverb &  delays, so the Fairlight could have been fed through one of those, or even a combination of them. Here I’ve used Valhalla VintageVerb on the Homestar Blade Runner preset, a huge ten-second long reverb, that is also dark and noisy - perfect for our drone sound.

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I’ve then dropped the audio from the reverbed Cello back into the sampler, looped a portion of the tail, and ran the track through more reverb to help mask the loop. I also added some EQ, boosting 1.24k Hz and 2 kHz and creating low cut at 700 Hz to brighten the sound.

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The lead synth and chords use the same Fairlight Cello 2 sound, only with a pitchbend scoop at the start of the sound. For this, I think Kate programmed the pitchbend, then resampled the cello note with pitchbend back into the Fairlight, which is why the scoop-time is shorter for higher notes and longer for lower notes. Here are the chords played with the pitchbend sample:

The same sample has been used for the main hook. An interesting technique used here is that the delay effect on the track is louder for the higher notes but quieter and less noticeable for the lower notes. You can achieve this effect by automating either the mix level or the input level for the delay effect. I also EQed in some brightness to the track to make it sound less muddy, adding 5db at 2.84Hz. 

The drums are classic eighties synthpop, and came from the Linndrum, a drum machine that uses samples of real drum hits. Producer Paul Hardiman heard one of the early versions of the song and said “The first time I heard 'Running Up That Hill' it wasn't a demo, it was a working start. We carried on working on Kate and Del's original. Del had programmed the Linndrum part, the basis of which we kept. I know we spent time working on the Fairlight melody hook but the idea was there plus guide vocals.”

Linndrum samples are plentiful online, and Ableton Live comes with a basic Linndrum kit called Core-LD. ELPHNT also has a free Ableton drum kit called LM-1 which offers better control over individual drum tuning, and I’ve used that for the example below. Some special things about the song's drum track are the timing and the effects, the drums are off-grid with most of the hits coming before the beat, and everything has been run through reverb, including the kick. I used Valhalla VintageVerb again, with 1.4s / 12% mix on the kick and 2.9s / 30% on the snare, then a short but thick reverb with 0.39s / 25% on the whole drum channel. In isolation, this sounds like way too much reverb, but the rest of the tracks help soak up some of the reverb tails, and the end effect is that the drums are pushed into the back of the mix.

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Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love, the second track of the album, shows the analog CS-80 side to Kate Bush. It’s a playful song and the synth chords are bright and warm. Her synth player even brought the CS-80 for the Top of the Pops performance of the song, you get a good look at it at the 1:40 mark. The CS-80 is capable of some complex patches, as it offers two independently programmable layers with full controls for each. In this patch, we’ll use one of the first voice line’s presets to create a simple but great sounding patch. Press the 2 switch on the first row of the tone selector panel to set voice I to the Strings 3 preset. Set the mix fader all the way up to I, lower Brilliance all the way down to open up the filter and then bring down the attack fader in the VCA to get rid of the long attack. Lastly, bring some life to the sound by using the CS-80’s onboard chorus and delay effects. The drum track uses Fairlight samples, using the repitching of the sample across the keyboard to create the illusion of different drum hits.

Army Dreamers

Army Dreamers from Bush’s 1980 album Never For Ever uses the Fairlight for its cello sound, this time the SOLOSTR2 sample from the HISTRING bank. The folk instrument that plays the melody in the intro sounds suspiciously like the KICHAPEE sample, although it can’t be the Fairlight as the sounds last longer than its sampler would allow. The song may have been demo'd with the Kichapee sound and then recorded with a real instrument for the final version. For my example, I used the Kichapee sound with some repitching to extend the sample length.

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All We Ever Look For

In the track All We Ever Look For, the intro's whistling hook comes from the Fairlight, specifically the WHISTLE sample from the WIND bank. Again, the patch is played without manipulation, although it is layered with a piano and synth to strengthen the overall sound of the sample. The synth is the Yamaha CS-80, which was Bush’s favourite at the time. The lead patch is a simple square wave patch that uses pulse-width modulation to get a wind-like hollow sound. Again, I only used one of the voice layers, and I used the preset 4 (Flute) as a starting point.

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Babooshka

The lead plucked sound in Babooshka is the CS-80, possibly layered with a Balalaika or another folk instrument. In Arturia CS-80 V, I used the Voice I preset 9 (Guitar 1) and made use of the touch sensitivity to add a human element to the part. The touch-sensitivity is the feature that Kate has mentioned being her favourite of the CS-80, which isn't surprising as she is also a pianist. I also ran the track through an analog-style delay effect and plenty of reverb.

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The song also features some Fairlight samples, for the glass shattering effects played during the drum breaks towards the end of the song. The Fairlight had only been out for a year when Babooshka was released, so these effects were one of the first famous uses of the sampler. The sample can be found in the EFFECTS4 bank and is called GLASMASH, here's what it sounds like.

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An interesting thing I read is that the string-based song Cloudbusting started as a Fairlight composition, but as Kate Bush explained in an interview, most of the Fairlight elements were replaced with the real strings: “Cloudbusting'' I wrote on the Fairlight and I just felt it would be much more interesting with real strings, so we transcribed the Fairlight arrangement for string players to read. And then they redid it.” This is a great example of using technology only if it serves the song, and not being afraid to change methods if the song calls for it. Thanks for reading and be sure to download all the free Arturia CS-80 synth patches below.

Header artwork by Makarxart