Mild High Club is the psychedelic project of Alex Brettin, based originally from Chicago and now Los Angeles. The latest album, 2016's Skiptracing, oozes with 60's pop influences and spaced-out guitars and keyboards, as well as a confident musicality. In interviews, Brettin has mentioned having formal music tuition, which likely informs his musicality, and he seems to use whatever equipment he has to hand, with many elements of his sound coming from unconventional use of effects and sonic experimentation.
I'll start with Homage, which features detuned synth chords and a gliding synth lead that weaves in and out of the chord changes. Both parts sound like they were recorded with a DCO-synth, so I'll use TAL U-NO-LX to recreate them, starting with the chords patch. The key elements are a square wave and some detuning of the pitch when a note or chord is played. In TAL U-NO-LX, turn off the saw and sub oscillators and turn on the square oscillator. Bring down the filter frequency to 4 and raise the envelope amount (ENV) to 3. This creates the basic sound, but we'll take it a step further down the psychedelic route and add some pitch detune. Raise the LFO amount under the DCO section to around 2, which will control the amount of detune, and then set the LFO trigger mode to key, which triggers the LFO when a key is pressed, causing the pitch to dip.
The Homage lead is pretty big sounding, so let's use all 3 oscillators with PW modulation set to MAN (manual) with the fader halfway, and the sub oscillator volume turned down halfway. Raise the HPF to halfway too, which will cut some of the low frequencies, ideal for lead sounds. Move onto the filter section and set frequency to 4, resonance to 3.5 and envelope amount to 3. Now add some portamento, which creates the gliding effect you hear right at the start of the phrase. Set max poly under the control section to 1, and then the portamento mode knob (under Portamento) to II. Lastly, raise time to 2, which will give us a quick glide between legato notes. Add a 1/8 delay effect and some reverb to create a wet effect, with the timed delays creating a trippy cascading effect.
Most of the sounds just come from the equipment I have at hand and what I like to hear. The ‘Homage’ synth is a vst I played in Logic and brought back to the studio in my second session, The slide guitar work came from tedious takes in the studio (the kind of thing you can only do in the studio) I had to go back to my beginnings when I realized I could kind of play guitar and music somehow means more than most things to me–I thought I could get away with some slide, maybe some Brian May stylish guitarmonies– The vocal effects on ‘Head Out’ came from an idea I had that was figuratively(and literally) reverse engineered by Jason Kick. A lot of the effects came from my desire to reamp tracks through effects units and play the effects units playing the tracks meta. - Alex Brettin
Carry Me Back
Carry Me Back uses a keys part that sounds like it comes from either a DCO-synth, or a Casiotone keyboard. If it was recorded on a Casiotone, it's still helpful to have a synthesized version of the patch. Start with just a square wave oscillator and set PW mode to manual and the PW fader to around 3. Set both the filter frequency and resonance to 3 and raise the envelope control fader to halfway. Raise the HPF to get rid of some low-end frequencies, raise the attack and decay times a little to make the sound a little longer, and then turn on the chorus II effect.
The patch also sounds like it's been dirtied up, possibly by being reamped, something that Brettin has mentioned doing in interviews. To achieve this effect, either run your synth signal into a guitar amplifier and record that, or use an amp simulator in your DAW. I've used Ableton Live's Amp and Cabinet effects to achieve some dirtying of the sound. Keep it subtle and try rolling off the presence and treble knobs in whichever amp simulator you use to keep things from sounding harsh! I also set the cabinet's mix level to 50%, to blend in some of the clean signal.
I'll move on and explore another sound Mild High Club are fond of: the Rhodes piano sound. The Fender Rhodes was a super-mellow electric piano, and on the MHC records, the sound probably comes from the Nord keyboard they use for live performances, which features an electric piano emulation. A great plugin emulation is AAS Lounge Lizard, which has tons of great Rhodes and Wurlitzer presets, as well as some powerful tweaking capabilities and effects. That said, any Rhodes emulation is emulating the same instrument, so it's mostly a matter of experimenting with the tone within the plugin. Open Lounge Lizard and start with the patch 20 - BFly Rhodes 2, which gets the tone in the ballpark. From here adjust the tremolo effect by raising the rate to 3 o'clock and lowering the depth to just above 9 o'clock, creating a faster, mellow tremolo. Here's the Tesselation part played through the patch:
Chapel Perilous also has Rhodes electric keys, but this time the whole mix has been processed with a lo-fi, vibrato effect. Listen to the acoustic piano that comes in after the intro as well as the guitar that comes in later and you can tell the effect is applied to every track. For the keys sound, start with the same 20 - BFly Rhodes 2 patch and this time raise the reverb mix level to 9 o'clock. Also, activate the chorus and compressor effects, turn up the comp knob to 9 o'clock and lower the chorus knob to 3 o'clock.
Now to tackle the lo-fi sound, which was probably created by running the tracks through an analogue tape machine, in the style of Mac DeMarco. We want to do three things: compress it heavily, reduce the low and high frequencies, and add some vibrato. We can do most of this in Soundtoys Echoboy, a versatile tape delay plugin. Throw Echoboy on the master track and disable the actual delay function by setting mix to 100% and echo time to 0ms. Set style to cheap tape, and raise both lowcut and highcut to 9 o'clock, which will lower the bandwidth and make it sound more lo-fi. For the vibrato, go to settings in the wobble section under style edit and make sure the shape is set to sine.
The track Kokopelli features brooding jazz-influenced chords played on a variety of different keys instruments. It opens up with some chromatic chord movements on a darker Rhodes patch. To recreate it in Lounge Lizard, start with the patch 7 - NE3 Rhodes, turn on the compressor effect and dial in some light compression, then disable the tremolo effect by turning rate down to 0.
For the organ patch, load up a dirty-sounding B3 emulation and a find a driven blues-rock sound that uses the emulation's Leslie speaker emulation, with the vibrato speed on slow. The original was likely recorded from either a VST or the Nord Electro, you can hear what my patch in Arturia B3 sounds like here:
Windowpane features a vintage sounding harpsichord track, and in the music video for the song, the band are shown playing on an old Casio CT-310, the keyboard possibly used to record the song. The CT-310 is a great old Casiotone keyboard, released just before the Casio keyboards became more digital, so it's synth sounds still have a little analogue flavour to them. It also has onboard reverb, a vibrato effect and an automatic sustain function. Unfortunately, there are no samples for this keyboard floating around online, which makes it rather hard to recreate! I tried using my Yamaha PS-20 keyboard, a very similar keyboard release around the same time, which sounded similar, but much thinner than the Windowpane sound, which sounds somewhere between an organ and a harpsichord in the intro.
As always, thanks for reading, hopefully I'll get a chance to update this article in the future with more info about the Casio CT-310. The most striking aspects of Mild High Club's music is the sonic experimentation and the musicality of the compositions. If you like this kind of music, and want to make music like it, try exploring genres outside of this like jazz, which Brettin takes influence from on songs like Head Out. You can also see that he isn't particularly tied to one piece of equipment to craft his sound, instead seeming to find inspiration from a wide variety of sound sources and instruments. Check the download link below for the TAL U-NO-LX, Echoboy and Lounge Lizard patches.
Definitely- during Timeline I listened to a lot of psych pop ala Fading Yellow compilations, and general psychedelic wobbly music. By Skiptracing era, I was OBSESSED with the full discography of Steely Dan, Breakfast in America by Supertramp, Skylarking by XTC, “holding you loving you” Don Blackman, and The Pavillion of Dreams by Harold Budd. - Alex Brettin
The Ableton Projects for my Mild High Club synth tutorial, containing all the MIDI tracks, patches, samples and recordings you hear in the tutorial audio. The projects are pretty plugin heavy, you'll need TAL U-NO-LX, Soundtoys Echoboy, AAS Lounge Lizard and Arturia B3 to run all the MIDI patches. Check out the screenshots to check out what's included!