In 1999 The Flaming Lips finally achieved a mainstream breakthrough with their album The Soft Bulletin. The album opener Race for the Prize's mixture of emotional, Disney-esque strings, pounding rock drums and sci-fi lyrics set the tone for the rest of The Soft Bulletin, and is now their signature song and frequent set-opener. For a bit of background info on the recording of the song, check out the band discussing the song's inception in the Pitchfork Classic documentary for The Soft Bulletin.
Race for the Strings
The strings that form the main hook of the song are taken from the Mellotron, an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard from 1963 iconically used by The Beatles in Strawberry Fields Forever, as well as by prog-rock groups such as King Crimson and Genesis in Epitaph and Watcher of the Skies. The Mellotron string sound is lush, full, and has a distinct lo-fi cinematic charm to it. Unlike real orchestra's the Tron string sound is limited in range as well as note length, each note triggers a tape that can only play 7-8 seconds of sound. This limitation lends itself well to playing interesting melodic lines as opposed to just block chords.
Interestingly, despite the Flaming Lips's frequent use of the Mellotron, especially around The Soft Bulletin era, the band never owned an original Mellotron and instead relied on samplers. Some purist's may believe that samplers don't sound as good as the real thing, however there is an undeniable benefit in the cheaper cost and better reliability of using samplers. There are plenty of options for Mellotron samplers:
- GForce M-Tron Pro (paid plugin, VST / AU)
- Logic Pro X Vintage Mellotron (built in software instrument)
- Sonicbloom Mellotron Live Packs (Ableton only, free, can also download raw samples)
- Leisureland's Mellotron samples (raw samples to use in any sampler)
"One thing I've noticed is that gear isn't as coveted as it was when I was younger. I dreamed of owning a Mellotron for about 15 years but by the time I could afford one I didn't care anymore!" - Steven Drozd
An interesting part of the Race for the Prize hook is the pitch-bend effect at the end of each phrase, this was initially created by manipulating tape speed but the band admit in the above documentary that even they can't recreate this perfectly. Part of it is also due to how the part has been layered, with the timing for the pitchbend being slightly different in each layer. I just used the pitchbend wheel of a MIDI keyboard to emulate the effect.
If you use the Sonicbloom Live Packs (which you should, they're free and sound great) you'll need to adjust the sampler settings to set the pitch bend to 2 steps, as by default it's set to 5 steps. You can't do this in Simpler so you'll need to right-click the instrument and choose 'Simpler -> Sampler'. In Sampler you can then adjust the pitch bend range under the MIDI tab.
Here's the basic Race for the Prize hook played through a couple of different Mellotron samplers, so you can get an idea of how each one sounds.
Layer for the Prize
We can make our Mellotron parts sound bigger and better by layering different samples. The band say that the strings in Race for the Prize are layered from Mellotron strings samples alongside the original 4-track tape demo by Drozd. Careless layering can quickly make the mix sound like a homogeneous slab of sound, so you'll want to use EQ and detuning to make sure the layering is making the sound as big and shiny as possible.
When EQing your layering parts make sure that each separate layer has it's own defined frequency space and that there's not too much frequency clashing across all the layers. For example, layer 1 occupies the low-mids, layer 2 occupies the mid-range frequencies and layer 3 is a treblier part that adds brightness to the mix. Use low and high cuts to remove unwanted frequencies and use boosts to accent the frequencies you want each layer to occupy.
You can then group the layers on one channel to apply bus effects to. In Ableton select several tracks then right click -> Group Tracks (or use ⌘+G) and in Logic Pro X instead select Create Track Stack (⇧⌘+D) then select Summing Stack. Effects to use on the group channel include glue compression to flatten dynamics, EQ to make your layered part fit with the rest of your song, and reverb to make your part sit in the mix.
Detuning can also be used to thicken up parts considerably; think of detuning oscillators on a synthesizer. For lead synths this is really useful, but for Mellotron sounds that are already a little bit out of tune this can still help. In Ableton's sampler the Detune knob is on the main page underneath the sample, and in GForce M-Tron Pro the Detune knob is on the left of the interface. Use detune sparingly, you don't actually want your parts to sound out of tune!
Lastly you can divide up your notes between layers, for example having your treblier layers play the higher notes while your low/mid-range layers play the lower notes. I have a feeling that this is what happens in Race for the Prize as some of the lower notes have a different tone to the high melody notes, but it's just speculation on my part.
Check out my layered examples below. In the first one I've layered the Sonicbloom MkII with some much duller sounding M300 Strings from M-Tron Pro. I've split some of the melody and chord notes between samples and used EQ to boost high frequencies in Sonicbloom while cutting the same frequencies from the M300 samples. I've detuned one of the layers slightly sharp and the other slighty flat to make the full thing sound thicker, then heavily compressed the group channel them to get the layers to gel together.
For the second example I've got 4 layers, the two layers from before, some lo-fi Birotron Strings from M-Tron Pro and another instance of Sonicbloom MkII Strings. For the Birotron layer I EQed out the bass and ran it through some distortion to get it to cut through the mix. For the 2nd Sonicbloom layer I detuned it a lot and EQ boosted some lower frequencies than in the first Sonicbloom layer. I also creatively panned each layer to create stereo space. A quick recap of all the layers:
- Sonicbloom MkII 1: detuned sharp and boosted 2.60kHz.
- M300 Strings: detuned flat and made a big cut around 3.10kHz.
- Birotron Strings: cut below 700kHz and used saturation.
- Sonicbloom MkII 2: detuned very flat and boosted around 500kHz.
Layering your strings like this will make them sound really huge in a mix whilst still sitting nicely and not being too overpowering. Try to match samples that have a different character, and experiment with some of the techniques I mentioned whilst using your ears to determine the effect that these adjustments have on the whole part. Also keep in mind that making your layered part sound good soloed isn't the same as making it sound good in the context of your song.
I couldn't resist quickly recreating the rest of the tracks so you can hear the layered strings in a mix. I used Superior Drummer and my Fender P-Bass, both run through Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe for some really crunchy distortion.
Thanks for reading and have fun with your new Mellotron sounds!