MGMT released their album Oracular Spectacular in 2007, and its final single was Kids, a naive, heart-on-its-sleeve pop song complete with a childlike melody played on an instantly recognizable synthesizer sound. Kids was one of the first songs that the duo put together, and an early version was included on their demo EP in 2004, back when they were still called “The Management”. The music was written by Benjamin Goldwasser as a self-described ‘stereotypical pop song’, with Andrew VanWyngarden later writing lyrics before the first live performance. The song was nominated for a Grammy and has been used in countless TV shows and video games.
“For instance, ‘Kids.’ Ben wrote the music for that one on his own, and he told me he was out at a party at college and came back to his dorm room and was a little drunk and wrote that song and the music as a joke to himself, like ‘What’s the stupidest pop progression I can think of?’ And then he played it for me, and I wrote lyrics really quickly, and we performed it on my birthday when I turned 20. And the first time we played it, we put a section in the middle that was an extended instrumental section that sounded a lot like ‘Jump’ by Van Halen or something like that.” – Andrew VanWyngarden
There is no information about which synths were used on Kids, but a SongExploder episode breaking down Time to Pretend mentions that they used the stock synths in Reason for their early demos. These may or may not have been replaced with analog synths when putting together the final versions with producer Dave Fridmann. It is known that they used a Korg MonoPoly on Electric Feel, and Dave Fridmann’s signature use of compression and saturation also occupies a big part of the Oracular Spectacular sound.
For this article, I recreated all of the original synth patches in Kids using Arturia Prophet-5 V. Before we get into the breakdown, here’s my full remake, which doesn’t use any samples from the original song.
Crafting a Hit
There are two earlier versions of Kids that were released before the one that most people are familiar with, which was included on Oracular Spectacular in 2007. The earliest version of the song was included on their demo EP We Don’t Care in 2004, and the final version is very faithful to this early demo.
This early version is in the key of B♭ major, a semitone higher than the Oracular Spectacular version, which is in the key of A major. The song structure and arrangements are exactly the same, with the main difference being the recording and mix quality. The demo also features an extra high synth track around the 2:30 mark that was omitted in the Oracular Spectacular version.
Another version was recorded for the Time to Pretend EP in 2005. This version is also in B♭ major and is of much better quality than the original demo but not quite as bombastic as the Oracular Spectacular version. The Time to Pretend version also includes a completely different bridge that starts at 3:15, which features the Van Halen/Jump-style bridge mentioned in the previous interview excerpt. Thankfully this was dropped from the final version.
Kids starts with an instantly recognisable hook played on a playful lead synth sound. The main sound design elements are a single square wave oscillator with a wide pitch vibrato and a fixed filter with high resonance, which results in a fun, mid-range-focused sound great for playing simple, catchy melodies.
I recreated the lead patch using Arturia Prophet-5 V, a versatile analog-style softsynth. Leave Oscillator 1 set to the default sawtooth wave and move to the filter section, where you need to set the cutoff to 1687 Hz and the resonance to 5.72, which is about as high as you’ll be able to set it before you get a self-oscillating whistle. The high resonance will emphasize the upper mid-range frequencies, resulting in that signature ‘honky’ sound.
I added the vibrato using LFO 2, which is found in the advanced panel and, unlike LFO 1, isn’t controlled by the mod wheel. The LFO rate is around 4.24 Hz, which is a medium speed for vibrato. Finally, I added a triangle waveform pitched to +19 semitones from Oscillator 2 to help emphasize the 2nd harmonic in the final sound. This likely wasn’t in the original synth patch and instead comes from the amount of harmonic saturation on the track (more on that later), but adding it here helps give the patch a boost, especially if you want to use it without saturation.
- Lead 00:00
The Kids chord progression is based on the famous I–V–vi–IV progression, which is the most commonly used chord progression in pop music. However, Kids makes it sound more interesting by starting on the vi chord (so it’s vi-IV-I-V) and by using some colourful chord voicings and bass movements. The basic chord sequence is F♯m | D | A | E, however, the E chord is played with the G♯ as the bass note, which makes it an E/G♯ slash chord. This is done to give the bassline a smoother sequence from the A chord to the F♯m chord at the beginning of the sequence. By using the G♯ as the bass note, you get a smooth, step-wise sequence of A → G♯ → F♯ in the bass.
Additionally, the F♯m chord is played as an F♯m7 chord, featuring an additional ‘E’ note, and the D chord is played as a Dsus2 chord, featuring an ‘E’ instead of the ‘F#’. This gives both chords a more sophisticated flavour than if they were simple triad chords. Having a common ‘E’ note in each chord makes these smooth voicings possible:
The chords are played on a synth organ sound created by combining a square wave and a sawtooth wave with deep, fast vibrato. I recreated the patch in Arturia Prophet-5 V and added the vibrato using the LFO 2 with rate set to 5.65 Hz. I added a small amount of white noise in the mixer section and pulled the filter down to 357 Hz (with keyboard track off) to roll off the high-end.
For effects, I added an EQ cut at 570Hz and a phaser effect from Ableton’s Phaser-Flanger device set to 30% wet. The pitch-bend effect is created with the pitch-bend wheel; if you’re using another synth then make sure the wheel’s range is set to 2 semitones.
- Organ Dry 00:00
- Organ w/Phaser 00:00
There’s a second lead that always plays behind the main lead, and it also plays on its own in the 2nd half of the first verse. It differs from the main lead by using thin pulse waves with no vibrato. My recreated Arturia Prophet-5 V patch uses both oscillators set to square waves, with oscillator 2 pitched up an octave. The pulse-widths are set to 25% and 75%, and you also need to make sure VCO 2’s fine-tuning is set to 0 so that there isn’t any detune. The filter cutoff is set to 97 Hz with keyboard tracking on, and there’s also a small amount of decaying envelope modulation on the filter.
- Clavi Lead 00:00
The synth bass plays disco-style octave jumps throughout most of the track, and if you listen to the synth patch closely, you can hear the filter opening up more for the high notes, which means it uses keyboard tracking for the filter. There’s also a heavy amount of distortion on the track. To create the bass patch in Arturia Prophet-5 V, turn on Unison mode and set the detune knob to 1.3. Set the filter to 512 Hz and make sure that the keyboard tracking switch is on. I raised resonance to 0.920 to add some brightness and then a very small amount of decay envelope modulation, with env amount set to 0.820.
Finally, I used two instances of Soundtoys Decapitator to add distortion, one before EQ and compression and another after. Both instances use the ‘A’ distortion model, and the first instance has gain set to 6 while the second has gain set to 3. Here’s a comparison with and without distortion.
- Bass Dry 00:00
- Bass Decapitator 1 00:00
- Bass Decapitator 2 00:00
The bridge kicks off with a synth lead solo that follows some mock baroque-style harmonies. MGMT are a fan of this device; Little Dark Age also features a short synth solo. In Kids, the solo is made up almost entirely of straight 1/16th notes playing scalar and arpeggio runs that follow the underlying chord changes.
The synth patch is a relatively simple single-sawtooth patch with a resonant filter set to a bright 2800Hz. There’s a nice delay on the sound which gives it tons of lush ambience, which I recreated using Arturia Prophet-5 V’s onboard effects. I also added some chorus in Ableton Live with mix set to 30%. To recreate the fanfare horn stabs at the end of the solo section, I used the Roland Cloud JV-1080 patch PR-B: 127 Tpt Section.
- Solo (Dry) 00:00
- Solo (Wet) 00:00
- Fanfare 00:00
Bringing It All Together
Kids was produced by Dave Fridmann, who was previously known for his work with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, and who later mixed Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker and Lonerism. The sound of Kids is characterised by heavy saturation on every track, as well as liberal use of stereo widening across the entire mix. To recreate these, I used Soundtoys Decapitator and iZotope Ozone Imager 2 on almost every single track, with Decapitator set anywhere between 1 and 6 to try to match the amount of saturation on the original track, which mostly seems to be pushed to just below the point of distortion.
With Imager 2, I mostly used the “Stereoize” feature to push the otherwise mono synth sounds into the side of the mix without having to use chorus or unison. Here are some comparison mixes where you can hear the difference the saturation makes:
- Dry Mix 00:00
- Widening 00:00
- Saturation 00:00