MGMT are an indie-rock duo consisting of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser. Their most recent album, Little Dark Age, was released in 2018 and as the title suggests, has a darker sound than their previous work. Little Dark Age is the most collaborative MGMT album to date, featuring the efforts of producer Patrick Wimberly (Solange, Beyonce, Blood Orange), Ariel Pink and touring member James Richardson. The album was also co-produced by Dave Fridmann, known for his work on earlier MGMT albums such as Oracular Spectacular as well as production for The Flaming Lips and Tame Impala.
The band use a large array of synths and favour a mixture of complex sounds with bright, quirky sounds, In a recent Twitter listening party they mention having rented a Jupiter-8 and a Korg DW-8000 for She Works Out Too Much, using several obscure Russian Soviet synth and drum machines throughout the album and using randomized Synplant presets on James.
In this article I’ve recreated the synth sounds of Little Dark Age and She Works Out Too Much in Xfer Serum as well as some old analog-style favourites from the Arturia V Collection. I’ve also previously covered earlier MGMT synths from Oracular Spectacular in a guest article for Reverb.com, called Recreating MGMT’s “Oracular Spectacular” Synths with Software Instruments.
Little Dark Age
Little Dark Age opens with an ominous chord sequence played on a complex synth patch. It’s likely that this sound was heavily processed with effects and some step-sequenced filter movement can be heard. I wanted to recreate as many of the sound design elements as possible in one patch so I turned to Serum as it is flexible and powerful. My recreated patch uses a single sawtooth oscillator with a small amount of unison/detune and fast (6.7Hz) LFO modulation applied to the oscillator’s fine-tune parameter for vibrato.
The step sequenced filter effect can be created by setting Serum’s filter mode to Low 12 and modulating it using one of the LFOs with a drawn sequence as shown in the screenshot below. The filter resonance is set to 32% which helps accentuate the filter movement and the filter’s mix is lowered to 82% which brings in the unfiltered signal and with it some high-end frequencies.
The effects used in Serum are an additional filter to roll of the very high-end (above 8kHz), a 40% wet phaser to create even more movement, 1/16th note delay, reverb and an EQ to cut the low-end. We’re left with a mid-ranged focused patch with lots of interesting modulation.
- Main Synth 00:00
The synth bass in the Little Dark Age verse sections is a powerful-sounding bass pluck. I initially thought that this sound came from the Korg Polysix plugins Fat Line Bass preset which sounds identical to the Little Dark Age bass. The Polysix plugin doesn’t have a legato mode which lets you play multiple notes without retriggering the filter envelope, so although they sound alike, you can’t use the Polysix plugin to correctly play the LDA bassline.
- Bass Pluck // No Legato 00:00
- Bass Pluck // Legato 00:00
For my Little Dark Age remake, I recreated the Fat Line Bass patch in Serum but with legato enabled (in the bottom-right voicing section). The bass sound itself is created with a sawtooth wave and octave-down square wave. Both oscillators are set to 6 unison voices with medium detune, and the filter is the Moog-style MG Low 24 filter. Cutoff is set to almost all the way down at 50 Hz with resonance at 26%. The filter pluck comes from ENV 2 which has a decay time of 825ms and sustain of 50%.
- Bass Pluck Full 00:00
There is a gated rhythmic synth part that plays on the last repeat of the verse sections as well as the post-chorus breakdowns. This gated sound uses two sawtooth waves, one pitched an octave up and the other pitched an octave down. The lower-pitched oscillator is also lower in volume, so set it’s level knob accordingly.
For the gated effect, set Env1’s decay time to a short 105ms with no sustain to create a short, gated sound. The filter cutoff is modulated by a softer envelope shape with a 60ms attack time as well as LFO 1 to create automatic opening-and-closing filter movement.
- Gated Synth 00:00
The darker instrumentation in the verse is replaced with brighter sounds for the chorus sections. The keys patch that plays the chorus chords can be created in a synth like Arturia Prophet V by setting Osc A set to a square wave with PW set to 0.75. Turn up the volume of Osc B with it’s default sawtooth shape in the mixer section and set fine-tuning to only 2%, resulting in a thinner sound.
The filter cutoff is set to 1.2 kHz with envelope modulation amount set to 70% and both envelope’s decay times are set to 1200ms which results in a medium-length fade-out used to create the decay of piano-like sounds. Lastly, I’ve used Prophet V’s onboard chorus effect with dry/wet amount set to 35%.
- Chorus Keys 00:00
The Little Dark Age chorus bass sounds is another pluck sound, this time playing straight 1/16th notes. I recreated the sound in Arturia Mini V using a mix of square and rectangular waves. The filter pluck is created by setting the cutoff to 340 Hz, amount of contour to 46%, decay time of 118ms and sustain to 0.
In the first chorus only this bass sound plays, however in the later choruses this plays alongside a pattern from the verse bass patch. The two bass patches layer well together because the verse bass is wide in the stereo spectrum (Serum’s oscillator unison adds voice panning) and the Mini V pluck sound is mono.
- Chorus Bass // Mini V 00:00
- Chorus Bass // Serum 00:00
- Chorus Bass // Layered 00:00
The later choruses also feature a percussive mallet-like sound. The sound has an FM quality so set both of Serum’s oscillators to sine waves and set Osc A’s warp mode to FM (From B). This simple two-operator setup makes Osc A the main voice and Osc B the modulating voice. Set Osc B’s pitch an octave higher and level to 0, then use a short plucky envelope to modulate the FM modulation depth. For the percussive quality set Env1’s decay time to 250ms with no decay. There’s also a chorus effect and delay on the sound.
- Mallets 00:00
The baroque-style bridge lead uses a relatively straightforward sawtooth poly lead sound. It uses a fast, wide vibrato to create the playful sound, this is done using an LFO with rate set around 6 Hz to modulate the oscillators fine-tuning.
- Bridge Lead 00:00
Here’s the full remake of Little Dark Age. All the synths have been sidechained to a 1/4 note trigger kick drum to create some pumping and make the drum beat sound even punchier. The main synths have been grouped and high-pass EQed around 150 Hz to help the bass cut through. There’s also a fair bit of Ozone Imager 2 on lots of the synth tracks to create big stereo width similar to the original track.
She Works Out Too Much
For the second half of this article I’ll look at the album opener She Works Out Too Much. The song is complex, with jazzy chord sequences, intense programmed slap-bass part full of fast fills and two different drum parts panned hard-left and right. The band mentioned on Twitter that they hired a Roland Jupiter-8 and a Korg DW-8000 for the recording, the latter getting more use on She Works Out Too Much.
The chords in She Works Out Too Much are played by a chorused synth-string patch with vibrato, which I’ve recreated using Arturia Prophet V. Leave oscillator A on the default setting, tune oscillator B down an octave and setting its volume in the mixer section to halfway. Lower the filter cutoff to the 1 o’clock mark and set envelope to the 10 o’clock mark with a long decay and low sustain.
For the vibrato, set the LFO rate to 6.58 Hz and raise the mod wheel to 0.07 for a wide vibrato depth. For chorus I used Prophet V’s onboard effect on type 3 (which is the widest type), and a mix of 40%. For effects I widened the sound even more with iZotope Ozone Imager 2 with width set to 50%.
- Strings 00:00
I recreated the lead synth that plays the hook melody using Arturia Mini V’s saw-triangle waveforms. Set both oscillator 1 and 2 to the saw-tri waveforms, and set one of the oscillators an octave higher than the other. Set the filter cutoff to 2.5 kHz and add a subtle pluck by setting amount of contour to 30%, decay time to the 600 mark and sustain to 0. The patch has fast vibrato which is done in Mini V’s advanced panel and I also brightened the patch using an EQ boost.
- Lead 00:00
The saxophone-sounding lead at 1:19 can be recreated using Prophet V’s unison mode, plenty of detune between oscillators and some subtle pitch modulation. You can apply envelope modulation to the pitch in Prophet V use the Poly-Mod section’s Filter Env knob (the modulation source) and the Freq A button (the modulation destination). I’ve only raised the filter envelope setting to 1% to keep it subtle but the slight pitch bend on each note helps add a saxophone-like quality. There’s also plenty of crunch on this sound, which can be added with a saturation effect.
- Sax Lead 00:00
The descending synth-bass line that plays during the choruses was played by Ariel Pink and here I’ve recreated it using Arturia Mini V. The patches uses two octave-apart detuned sawtooth waves with an aggressive filter pluck. Mini V’s resonance is set to 3.5 which creates the squelchy part of this characteristic sound.
- Ariel Pink Bass 00:00
The bridge keys are played on a Clavinet, an electric/mechanical keyboard used heavily in the 70s by funk, soul and fusion musicians. MGMT rented a real Clavinet for the album recording, saying on their Twitter listening party:
I used Arturia Clavinet V to recreate the part with effects from Ableton Live. The main effects that I can make out are saturation, which I recreated using Soundtoys Decapitator and Ableton’s Amp device, and a light phaser effect to add movement. For EQ I cut the low frequencies below 200Hz and the high frequencies above 2.30Hz to leave a mid-ranged focused and lightly distorted sound similar to the original track. It sounds a little harsh in isolation but the distortion helps it stand out when it’s placed with the busy bass and drum tracks. Here’s the recreated Clavinet part with and without the external effects:
- Clavinet Dry 00:00
- Clavinet Processed 00:00
The slap bass in the remake is the Slap – Studio Bass from Spectrasonics Trilian. It’s not what was used in the original but sounds the closest from the Trilian bass guitar patches. She Works Out Too Much has two drum tracks, panned separately hard-left and right. I used a simple electronic kit for the left-panned drum track and a crunchy sound kit in Superior Drummer 3 for the right-panned drum track, which is the one that features the wild drum fills. Here’s the full remake: