Men I Trust have recently released Untourable Album, named so because it was written and recorded during lockdown without the intention of being played live. The album is the Montreal-based trio’s follow-up to 2019’s Oncle Jazz, an eclectic 24-track indie-pop album full of jazz-inspired flavours and dreamy, chill beats. In this article I’ll take a look at some Men I Trust synth and keyboard sounds used in three of my favourite Oncle Jazz songs: Numb, Tailwhip and Norton Commander (All We Need).
In live performances, Men I Trust’s keys player Dragos Chiriac has used a Yamaha MX49, a Yamaha DX7, a Waldorf Blofeld and a Dave Smith Prophet Rev2. They’re also users of the Arturia V Collection, having used the Mellotron V plugin in their song Pierre and presumably Pine as well.
I recreated some of Men I Trust’s synth sounds in my Juno Jazz pack for TAL U-NO-LX released in October last year. I’ve included these presets, as well as some brand new ones created for this article, in a free download link at the end of this article. As well as sound design, I’ll also look at how Men I Trust used jazz-standard inspired chord sequences in their songwriting and analyse the music theory behind these sequences.
Numb is a slow but funky track with a classic jazz standard-influenced chord sequence. One of the main building blocks in jazz songwriting is the IIm-V-I chord progression, often modulated through different keys. The song starts with a Bmaj7 chord followed by a IIm-V-I to G#m, which is A#m7b5 | D#7 | G#m.
This is followed by another IIm-V-I a step down, to F# minor, which is G#m7b5 | C#7 | F#m. Note that IIm-V-I’s that resolve to a minor chord usually start with a m7b5 chord. The D#dim7 chord in bar 11 is a substitute chord for a B7b9. Both chords share the same notes (D#, F#, A, C) but with a different bass note. The D#dim7 chord works as the V chord in a IIm-V-I to the Emaj7 chord in bar 12, with the D# bass note leading smoothly up a semitone to E.
The IIm-V-I is a great tool to write with because it creates a natural movement of tension and release. For a simple jazz standard built around IIm-V-Is, check out Autumn Leaves. For something more advanced, check out Blues for Alice.
The Emaj7 | Amaj7 | Dmaj7 | Gmaj7 sequence in bars 12-15 works because the chords are ascending through the circle of 5ths. The final F# chord works because it helps bring the chord progression back to the Bmaj7 chord at the beginning of the sequence via a V-I cadence.
There are two main synth sounds used in Numb: the sound that plays the chords and the lead sound that plays the melody, which is doubled with a guitar played through a wah pedal. In an interview with Billboard, the band say the Yamaha DX7 was used on Numb as well as All Night and Found Me. The band said “We found the Men I Trust sound with this synthesizer”.
For my remake, I used the Rom2B 09-SYNBRASS 1 preset in Arturia DX7 V, which sounded the closest out of the factory presets to the brassy sound in Numb. I adjusted the pitch bend range to 1 in the DX7 V global settings to let me make semitone bends in the melody using the pitch-wheel, and also made sure to pay attention to the velocities as the patch is velocity-sensitive.
- Numb Lead Synth 00:00
- Numb Lead + Guitar 00:00
To recreate the chord sound for my remake I’ve used the MT Numb preset from my Juno Jazz pack. The patch uses a single sawtooth wave, brassy filter modulation with a medium attack time and TAL U-NO-LX’s Chorus II effect.
- Numb Chords 00:00
The four-note melody that plays at the end of the hook sections also sounds like it’s from the DX7. I used the default Rom1A 11-E.PIANO 1 DX7 V preset for my remake played at low velocities and added chorus and widening effects to place it in the mix.
- Numb DX7 Epiano 00:00
The bass sound mainly comes from playing flatwound strings – I used D’Addario Chromes for my remake – played very hard with a pick. For mixing/processing I used the UAD/Brainworx Ampeg SVT-VR plugin with lots of treble dialled in. A big part of this bass sound is lots of compression to even out the sound completely, helping it stand out in the mix. There’s also a small amount of plate reverb on the bass sound in my remake.
- Numb Bass Dry 00:00
- Numb Bass Processed 00:00
There are a lot of layered guitars in Numb, with nine different guitar tracks in my remake. The lead track and some of the chord tracks were recorded with a wah pedal for the funky, filtered sound. In the outro section, you can hear hard-panned harmonised guitars, one of their favourite tricks which they also used in Tailwhip and Norton Commander. The guitar effect at 0:55 and 2:14 is created by reversing a sustained guitar chord. The drums in my remake are from Circles Drum Samples Dead kits with additional hi-hats from Superior Drummer 3.
Tailwhip is an uptempo track combining nostalgic synths with layered guitars. Musically there are some interesting chord choices – the key is C major and the verse chords are Am | Cmaj7 | F. Each chord is voiced with an additional D note on top, which makes the chords sound more colourful, and could be pretty as Amadd4 | Cmaj9 | F6.
In the chorus section the chords are F | G | Asus4 A | F. Our ears would expect the A chord to be minor, as this would fit in the key of C major. Instead, it’s swapped with a major chord, which is unexpected and draws our ears in. Rather than going straight to A major, the chord progression first goes to Asus4, which is suspended and neither major nor minor. The sus4 chord creates suspense (thus the name) and leads smoothly from the previous G chord as the top note, D, stays the same.
The keyboard sound that plays these chords is a dark sounding electric organ that stays in the background of the mix, making way for the harmonised guitars, funky bass and vocals. I used the MT Tailwhip Organ patch from my Juno Jazz pack, but to recreate it in another synth you need to use two square waves an octave apart, pull the filter back and soften the amp envelope with a quick attack time.
- Tailwhip Organ 00:00
The lead synth in the chorus of Tailwhip is a relatively simple patch using a single sawtooth wave run through a chorus effect. The real trick is finding a sweet spot for the filter to fit with the song. In TAL U-NO-LX I’ve set the cutoff frequency to 3.96 and resonance to 4.23 with full filter keyboard tracking.
There is portamento glide on this sound, which in TAL U-NO-LX is set up by setting Max Poly at the bottom of the interface to 1, setting Portamento mode to II and raising the Time fader to 3.3 for a fast glide. The patch has the Chorus I effect as well as a small amount of delay and medium amount of reverb.
- Tailwhip Lead 00:00
The bass sound is the same setup as used in Numb and the drums are a mix of Circles Drum Samples Dead kits for the kick and snare and Superior Drummer 3 for the hi-hats and cymbals.
Norton Commander (All We Need)
Norton Commander (All We Need) combines a hypnotic, lo-fi synth sound with unusual chord choices. The main synth uses slow pitch LFO vibrato to create a woozy, old tape-style effect. The sound is reminiscent of Blood Orange’s Dagenham Dream which I covered in my Blood Orange Synth Sounds article.
Below are the chords for Norton Commander as I played them for my remake. They’re pretty ‘out there’, with lots of jazzy extensions and unresolved cadences. The main ear-bending trick is the G♭m7 | B7 | D♭maj7 that you see a few times. The Gbm7-B7 is a IIm-V that would ordinally resolve to an E major chord. The E major chord is instead swapped with a Db major chord. This works because the relative minor chord of E is C#m/Dbm. Swapping the Db minor chord with a Db major chord produces the sound of Norton Commander. Also, notice how the A chord is sometimes played as a dominant chord but other times a major chord.
I recreated the Norton Commander synth in TAL U-NO-LX using a sawtooth wave with a slow (2.42 Hz) LFO vibrato with a depth of 1.59. The high-pass filter is pushed all the way up to 7.3 which cuts the low end and stops the patch ending up too muddy. The low-pass filter frequency is set to 3.83 with no keyboard tracking; this helps darken the sound by not letting the high notes cut through.
For effects, I used the onboard TAL U-NO-LX chorus followed by heavy compression, heavy delay (42% wet), XLN RC-20 Retro Color for more pitch wobble, Ozone Imager 2 for to reduce the stereo width and lastly, reverb (23% wet). Below you can listen to how the synth track sounds without any effects, with the EQ and compression and then with the lo-fi, delay and reverb effects added.
- Norton Commander Dry 00:00
- Norton Commander EQ & Comp 00:00
- Norton Commander All FX 00:00
The bass sound has an auto-wah effect to create a funky sound. I recreated this using Soundtoy FilterFreak1’s SlapBoyFunk preset as a starting point. The drums in my Norton Commander remake were created entirely with Superior Drummer 3.