SZA is the artist name of Solána Imani Rowe, a singer, rapper and songwriter who blends neo-soul with R’n’B, trap and hip-hop influences. Her debut album Ctrl was released in 2017 and boasts appearances by Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar. SZA also worked with the Kendrick on the Black Panther soundtrack and released The Neptunes produced Hit Different this year, her first release as a lead artist since Ctrl.
SZA’s diverse sound blends a neo-soul backdrop of electric pianos with psychedelic guitars and silky synths. Her beats are usually quite minimal with plenty of space for her vocals. This article looks at the synth sounds and production of my two favourite tracks from Ctrl: Love Galore and The Weekend. I’ll look at each of the individual sounds used in the production of the tracks, as well as how to program the synth patches. The Arturia and Xfer Serum used in the track remakes are available for free download at the end of the article.
Love Galore is a sparse trap song that features Travis Scott, who I covered in a previous article. The song was produced by Carter Lang who used a Roland JX-8P and a Moog Voyager on the track:
“And then the next piece of gear I got was Knox Fortune’s [Roland] JX-8P poly synthesizer—which I bought for like 250 bucks. Whatever it is, it turns shit up, because now I had a mono- and a polysynth and they’re both analog. I still have them, and I still use them. I programmed a sound into the JX-8P that I called Moonbaby, and I used that sound for the “Love Galore” track for SZA when we made that shit. I also used a Moog Voyager on that, because they’re so tight.” – Carter Lang
There are only two melodic sounds in Love Galore; the first is mellow almost-sine wave bass that plays a recurring three-note pattern throughout the track. I recreated the patch in Serum starting with a sine wave from the Basic Shapes wavetable and added some harmonics with the FM (Sub) warp mode. There’s no filter needed and the envelope is set with a long 3.6 second decay time and -24 dB sustain. I also raised the attack time to 16ms to remove any clicking from the sound.
The patch is relatively simple but the first note of the pattern is noticeably louder than the other two. I recreated this by setting the oscillator volume to be velocity sensitive (with the Velo modulator) and adjusting the velocity in the MIDI clip. This could’ve also been done with layering two separate tracks in the original production. Here’s the result:
- Love Galore Bass 00:00
At 1:11 a warm analog-sounding pad is introduced, this was a Roland JX-8P on the original recording but I recreated it Arturia Prophet V, a softsynth emulating a classic 70s analog polysynth. The oscillators are both sawtooth waves with Osc B detuned by 4%. The pad has a soft fade-in effect, so set the attack time of the filter and amp envelopes to 162ms and 480ms respectively. Darken the sound by setting the filter cutoff to 125 Hz and envelope amount to 18.
The analog flavour comes from the pitch vibrato, which is created using the LFO. To modulate the pitch with the LFO in Prophet V, first activate the Freq A and B buttons in the Wheel-Mod section. Then, set the LFO rate to 0.53Hz to set the vibrato speed and raise the mod wheel to 0.04 to set the vibrato depth. There are also some pitch-dips, which are done with the pitch-bend wheel.
I also widened the sound heavily through a combination of Prophet V’s onboard chorus set to 30% wet and the free iZotope Ozone Imager 2 set to 80% to push the sound into the stereo sides. Widening synth pads like this are a great way to thicken up the sound and make them pop out in the mix.
- Love Galore Pad 00:00
The outro at 3:47 is the beat played at half-speed. Changing the playback speed on some analog hardware devices also changes the pitch – half-speed results in audio played an octave lower – and that’s what’s happening in the outro of the The Weekend. In Ableton this is easily done by bouncing the tracks to audio, set the Warp Mode to Repitch and reduce the tempo by half, in this case from 135BPM to 67.5BPM.
The Weekend started life as a gospel choir sample taken from Justin Timberlake’s Set the Mood Prelude / Until the End of Time. The beat was created by ThankGod4Cody who produced four tracks on Ctrl, including Love Galore that we just looked at. He did a Genius “The Making Of” episode which looks at the Logic session for the The Weekend beat; unfortunately the episode doesn’t look too much at the synths or plugins used. The Weekend has a few different musical elements and works so well because they don’t all play at the same time, generally leaving plenty of spaces for the other instruments to play.
The intro of The Weekend features a rich-sounding pad with a long swelling fade-in. The oscillator sound is a unison/detune sawtooth wave and the fade-in is created by modulating the filter with a long envelope attack time. You can recreate the patch in Serum by setting Osc A’s unison setting to 5 and the detune knob to 0.13. Activate the filter and set the model to MG Low 24. Set the cutoff knob to 1000 Hz and modulate it with ENV 2 set with a 1.1 second attack time with a depth of 19.
- The Weekend Pad 00:00
Each of the chord voicings in The Weekend‘s intro section are two notes using the same interval: root + 16 semitones, or a major third up an octave. A fun creative way to create these jazzy sequences is to use a MIDI chord device such as Ableton’s Chord device, which will automatically add the +16 semitone to every root note you play.
The lead sound plays throughout the intro and then plays a melodic triplet phrase at the end of every eight-bar loop. I use Arturia Mini V for the sound and the patch itself is nice and simple. It uses a single sawtooth wave with the filter cutoff set to 625Hz and no filter tracking (the ‘keyboard control’ switches in Mini V). There’s some portamento glide in the patch so set the glide time control to 4.16. There’s also pitch vibrato so set the mod wheel to 0.86 and set VCO 3 to Lo Mono mode with frequency set to -28 semitones, which will be the LFO speed in Mini V.
- The Weekend Lead 00:00
The main chords are played by a Rhodes electric piano sound. The original track most likely uses Logic Pro X’s native Rhodes patches, but being an Ableton user I instead used the AAS Lounge Lizard preset Basic 1 for the sound.
- The Weekend Rhodes 00:00
The arp sound that plays in the background is my personal favourite sound in the track. It’s heavily high-passed, which means it has no bass or lower-mid frequencies, resulting in a very thin-sound that sits at the back of the mix. I started with a single sawtooth wave in Serum and then added slow (0.2Hz) LFO modulation to the filter so that the sound will get brighter and darker over time. I then added delay, reverb and an auto-pan before adding the low-cut EQ at 3 kHz.
- The Weekend Arp 00:00
There are two bass sounds in The Weekend, the first is the chunky plucked bass which plays in the verses. For this sound, I created a simple Serum pluck patch using a Saw oscillator with a small amount of unison/detune and a pulse wave in the sub oscillator pitched an octave below.
- The Weekend Chunky Bass 00:00
The second bass is a thick sustained unison bass sound which plays when the drums drop out. For this patch I used a sawtooth wave with 5 unison voices, detune set to 0.07 and the sub oscillator set to sub an octave below Osc A. The filter is set to a low 300Hz on the MG Low 24 model to add some growl.
- The Weekend Unison 00:00
Finally, here’s my full remake of The Weekend. The instrumental parts are nicely spaced out so not much EQing was needed to make the different sounds sit together in the mix. Instead, the sounds naturally fit within the spaces created by the other parts. The drum beat is varied, with lots of different drum parts coming-and-going in each 8 bar section, such as alternating between an airy snap sound on the downbeat and a layered snare, as well as sections where the kick drum drops out. Here’s the remake: