LCD Soundsystem are an electronic dance-punk group hailing from New York, and their use of synthesizers is unique. Frontman James Murphy is the band’s driving force, playing every instrument on their single Daft Punk Is Playing at My House, and the band’s synth duties are handled by Murphy and longtime member Nancy Whang.
LCD Soundsystem have a huge list of gear, and the footnotes for their 2017 album American Dream listed a Yamaha CS60, Roland SH-101 and System 100m, an EMS Synthi AKS, Korg MS-20 and Trident, and the ARP Odyssey and Omni III as synths used on the album. Quite a collection! Frontman James Murphy has also scored two movies, Greenberg and While We’re Young, both for director Noah Baumbach, and these are worth checking out as they feature plenty of nostalgic synth sounds.
The band are particularly fond of loud, driven bass sounds, usually played in a percussive way with long release times to help notes flow, like plucking a guitar. Most of these are likely from the Roland System 100m, a modular synth with the ability to pick-and-choose modules to craft custom sounds. Although the particular synths that LCD Soundsystem use on their records has a big influence on the sound, the principles behind the sounds can be applied to any synth.
I’ll look at their sounds song-by-song and use the software plugin Arturia Mini V, which is a software emulation of the Minimoog. Despite its familiar-looking interface, Mini V has lots of advanced capabilities hidden under the hood, allowing it to create a huge range of sounds.
The synth bass in Oh Baby is emblematic of LCD Soundsystem’s synth sound – fuzzy, driven, and somewhat hollow-sounding. To create the sound in Arturia Mini V, set the first two oscillators to 16’ square waves, and turn their volume in the mixer panel up to 10. Mini V has a great function that mimics the Minimoog, in that when the mixer panel is cranked, the signal starts to slightly overdrive.
To set the long-release note length, make sure that the decay switch at the bottom-left is on, and set the decay knob under Loudness Contour to the 1 mark (it’s about 2500ms). The last thing to set is the filter, which we’ll control using its own envelope. Bring the filter knob all the way down and the contour amount knob up to the 9 mark, then set the decay and sustain knobs below it to the 600 mark and 0, respectively.
For the strings, I used Arturia Solina V, a fantastic sounding software emulation of the lush sounding Solina String Ensemble. Start with the preset Diamond Strings and increase the decay time to 1700ms to get the long release time that helps the notes flow into each other. Check out the patches in action in the video below. For the percussive piano loop, I used two instances of Arturia Piano V, one set to a standard piano sound and the other to Piano V’s Plucked Grand patch.
Daft Punk is Playing in My House
Sadly, Daft Punk never actually played at James Murphy’s house. The song is really about tying together indie and dance music, something the music supporting it also does. To create the funky patch, use two wide-rectangular waveforms, one along from the square wave, and tune one to 8’ and the other to 16’.
Keep the filter wide open and the release time short, then add some wild vibrato to the patch, which in Mini V is done by using Oscillator 3 as an LFO, or modulation source, and the mod wheel to control the amount of vibrato. Set Oscillator 3’s tuning knob to LO MONO and the frequency to the 3 mark. Make sure the oscillator modulation switch is on and raise the mod wheel about a third of the way up. Now play short, staccato notes on your MIDI keyboard to get the right feel for the riff.
How Do You Sleep
The synth in How Do You Sleep is similar to the one in Oh Baby, but with narrow-rectangular waveforms. In Mini V you can set custom pulse widths by right-clicking the waveform knobs. These patches were likely created on a Roland System 100m, a modular synth allowing deep control. You can also run the patch through some subtle reverb to make it a little less dry sounding. Keep the reverb settings subtle, I used a reverb time of 0.35 seconds and a mix level of 12%.
I Can Change
I Can Change has a strong Gary Numan vibe, and the main synth patch uses two differently tuned oscillators to give the impression of two parts, melody and bass. Set oscillator 1 to a 4’ triangle wave, for the melody line, and oscillator 2 to a 32’ wide rectangular wave, for the bass part. The triangle wave is the most mellow-sounding waveform, so is ideal for the melody line.
In the mixer section, set oscillator 1’s volume to 10 and oscillator 2’s volume to 2 to set a balanced mix of the two, where the lower oscillator doesn’t overwhelm the higher one. Set up the vibrato for this patch exactly as you did for the Daft Punk is Playing in My House patch. The second patch utilises narrow rectangular waves to create a thin-sounding patch that nicely contrasts the first patch.
Someone Great display’s LCD Soundsystem’s roots in dance music, with its synth drone and 4-to-the-floor drum pattern. For the bass, again use two 16’ narrow-rectangular waves with a long release and filter envelope decay. Here you can also add a sub-bass oscillator by turning on oscillator 3 and setting its tuning to 32’, an octave below the others. Keep oscillator 3’s mix knob low, so it doesn’t muddy up the sound. For the bouncing drone effect, use sidechain compression to duck the signal in time with the kick drum.
Dance Yrself Clean
Lastly, let’s look at the ultra-thick sounding bass in the epic Dance Yrself Clean. We want the patch to sound as huge as the one on the record, so we’ll use a mixture of all three rectangular waveforms, setting one of them down an octave as a sub-bass. Turn the other two oscillators volumes to 10 in the mixer section and bring the filter cutoff down to the 4 mark, raising resonance to 2 to sweeten the sound. Make sure the decay switch is one and raise the loudness decay to 200 ms for a nice short release.
The mellow arpeggio pattern can also be programmed in Mini V, using two saw-triangular waveforms (second from the left!) tuned to 2’ and 4’. Leave the filter open and raise resonance to 1. You can also add some noise from the noise oscillator and run the patch through some reverb. Download both patches in the link at the end of the article.
LCD Soundsystem have an easily identifiable synth sound, and as you can see, they gravitate towards similar sounds throughout their work. They use an array of synths but mostly use them for square-wave basses with long release times, allow them to play percussive riffs that groove nicely. Experiment with other waveforms and envelope times to find settings that you like, and use them to craft your own sound. Download all the patches for Arturia Mini V below, and have fun coming up with some new songs with these patches!
“Is it going to be hard to move from studio to stage with this record?
No, not at all. We’re a cover band when it’s time to go live. And we’re the best LCD cover band on the planet. So we’re just gonna go and try and figure out what that other band did in the studio, and see how it can be translated live without being too obsessive about it.” – Alex Murphy
If you want to dig deeper into the LCD Soundsystem remakes featured in this article, check out my Patreon page to get access to the MIDI files, multitrack stems, and Ableton Projects from the recreations in the article.