Tame Impala Synth Sounds | Part Two

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Welcome back to another episode of Tame Impala Synth Sounds; Part One was mainly about the Roland Juno-106 patches on Currents and how to recreate them using the original hardware or using software. In this article I'll look at some of the other synths used and how to recreate them. As I go through I'll mention the original hardware and the software alternative I'll use.

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The Less I Know the Better

This song isn't actually as synth-heavy as it sounds, although it gets wonderfully layered during the last chorus and outro. In the verses a lot of the instrumentation is actually a MIDI-pickup equipped guitar run through a Roland GR-55, a guitar-specific synthesizer / effect unit. I don't own one of these (yet...) so I'm not sure how these sounds were created, but here's Kevin Parker explanation:

"Could you point out specific instances of camouflaged guitars?"

"Well, for example, the instrumentation in the verses of 'The Less I Know the Better' is all guitar synth. There are organs, pads—even the bass is going through the guitar synth. Other than the drums and vocals, everything you hear there is guitar synth, and it has this sort of ’80s synth disco thing."

Also, a little-known fact is that the catchy bass-line for The Less I Know the Better is actually a 'disguised guitar' as well, being played through an octave pedal:

"The way that I know I’ve done a new riff that is cool, is if my hands don’t want to do it. If you let your hands do the thinking, it will just be the same old shit. But yeah, that bass riff – it’s actually a guitar with an octave pedal – but that very take is the one that’s used in the whole song."

There are still some tasty sounds in this song that we can learn from. First up is the electric piano that fills out the chorus; a marked change from the 80's style Roland Juno peppered throughout the rest of the album. This is a Fender Rhodes, a mellow sounding electric piano popular in the 70s. Its mellow sound makes it a great choice for layering, and it's easy to recreate with software instruments, with Arturia Stage-73 V being a great sounding option. I prefer using these plugins over sampled Electric Pianos because I find I have much more control over the treble/bass balance, which in my opinion is the most important part of getting an Electric Piano to really sit in a mix. 

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During the very last chorus of The Less I Know the Better there are some strings from the legendary Mellotron, an iconic sampler whose string sound Tame Impala use a lot live, but very rarely in studio recordings. The Mellotron string sound is a staple of The Flaming Lips sound, who are a big influence on Tame Impala. Being built in the 60s, actual hardware Mellotron's are hard to come by and even harder to maintain, so it's almost certain that like The Flaming Lips, Kevin is using a software sampler of a Mellotron. Because the Mellotron is basically a sampler anyway (a sampler that used tape!) using a software sampler will get you very close to the sound of an actual Mellotron. GForce MTron Pro is a great Mellotron sampler, with patches for all the classic 'Tron sounds, and Sonicbloom has ten free Mellotron samplers for Ableton Live that are easy to use and sound great.

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Lastly we have the cheesy 80's synth line that punctuates the final chorus. This is a brass lead patch and I'm guessing it came from the Sequential Circuits Pro One. Here's a similar sound that I very quickly put together in Arturia Prophet V, an emulation of another Sequential Circuits synthesizer. The key to dialling in a brass patch is to use the filter envelope with a medium attack, decay and sustain with a low cutoff and high envelope modulation amount. Here's the final track with our lead line:

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Yes I'm Changing

"I've got a Roland JV1080 synth module you plug a MIDI keyboard into. An audiophile would think some of the patches are the cheapest, plasticky sounds. But for me they're so romantically nostalgic".

In Part One I looked at the airy main synth from Yes I'm Changing, which came from the Roland Juno-106. The sound doesn't change too drastically throughout the tune, and the song mostly follows the same chords. What keeps the song fresh is the introduction of other instruments to build up interesting layers. At 0:45 the main synth is joined by a keyboard sound that at firsts sounds like an electric piano, but it has a cold, metallic sound that can only be the product of FM synthesis. The specific sound is usually attributed to the Yamaha DX7 synth, however, Kevin doesn't have a DX7 as far as I know, so it's much more likely that the sound came from his Roland JV-1080, a super-powerful digital rackmount synth that comes with a few different electric piano patches. Listen to the patches below, firstly from the Roland Cloud JV-1080, and then from the Arturia DX7.

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The epic Cathedral-like organ that comes in is also from the Roland JV-1080, specifically the patch 060: Cathedral

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A harpsichord comes in for the song's breakdown, it sounds almost real, but it again came from one of Kevin's synths. This again came from the JV-1080 Harpsichord patches sound complex and difficult to program, but they're actually easy to program on any monophonic synth, and the basic elements are: 

  • Square pulse-waves / square waves with high PWM
  • One octave-up oscillator with lower volume
  • Plucky amp envelope with 0 sustain and short delay/release
  • Filter envelope slightly shorter than the amp envelope

You can pull this patch off with most synths but my go-to for these has always been a Moog because they're easy to program and sound great. Listen to my harpsichord patch in Arturia Mini V below, and then of course, the obligatory JV-1080 harpsichord patch.

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Beverly Laurel

I had a couple of people ask me about this one after the last Tame Impala article so here we go, the Beverly Laurel synths. Something of an enigma as sonically it sits right between Lonerism and Currents, Beverly Laurel is written around some organ chords and a chilled-out sound lead synth line and there's a pumping effect applied that gives it a dancy sound.

The organ chords sounded to me like a Farfisa organ, which I found unusual as Tame Impala songs don't usually feature heavy organ use. I did try to use my Juno-106 but although I got quite close I couldn't get it to sound similar enough to convince me that it was a Juno used on the recording. I did get close using Arturia Farfisa V though. I hear two different-organ sounds in Beverly Laurel, there's the one that comes in first which is higher pitched, low-pass filtered and has no vibrato, then 4 bars later it's followed by a lower pitched, fuller sounding organ with the 'All Boost' button and vibrato both on. Here's both of them:

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The lead sound is really simple, it sounds so mellow because the waveform being used is a triangle waveform. This sound could've been recorded from Kevin's Moog Sub Phatty or his Sequential Circuits Pro One; I used Arturia Prophet V but any synth that has triangle oscillators will do. Listen to the lead on the song and you can hear a little bit of distortion and some nice analogue echo, I used Soundtoys Decapitator and Echoboy with a SpaceEcho patch to recreate this. Here's what I came up with:

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Lastly, we have the growling bass sound that we hear at 2:37 in the song. This is undoubtabl the Moog Sub Phatty doing what it does best. The sound involves a fair bit of distortion and this can actually be created by overloading the Sub Phatty's Mixer section, moving the oscillators over the 12 o'clock mark makes them start to break up. On the Moog Sub 37 there's even an extra knob called 'Multidrive' to overdrive the sound even more. If you're using another synth then use an overdrive plugin for a similar effect. Here's the final product:

Mind Mischief

I'm gonna talk about the wonderful synth riff that we hear at 2:23 in the song, the one that sounds super trippy. This is a pretty coarse sounding patch that you won't get straight from your synth's outputs. To my ears, it sounds like a synth that's been processed with a guitar amp or guitar amp simulator, possibly the onboard guitar sim on Kevin's Boss BR-600 that you can hear all over Innerspeaker. A guitar amp sim can work to distort and break up and an otherwise pretty clean sound synth part. Here's my attempt at the Mind Mischief synth riff.

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I'm running TAL U-NO-LX into Amplitube 4 into an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone. I've got a square wave with about 50% PWM and the chorus off in U-NO-LX, a Roland JC-120 sim in Amplitube with treble right down to remove any harshness and the chorus effect on, and the Small Stone was with low colour and a slow speed. I sweetened the sound up a bit using Soundtoys Decapitator to brighten up the sound, Echoboy for a tape emulation effect and Live's Glue Compressor to thicken the sound up a bit.

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There are plenty of guitar amp simulators to choose from, including Guitar Rig 5 and Positive Grid BIAS. For Ableton Live Suite users there's the fantastic built-in Amp and Cabinet audio effects and for Logic Pro X users there's Amp Designer. Of course, if you have your own a guitar amp you can run your synths through that to dirty up the sound, it doesn't matter how small or cheap the amp is, experiment with the settings to see what works.

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Conclusion

Some things to learn from this and apply to your own music:

  • Try running synth lines through guitar amps or amp simulators to dirty up the sound.
  • Don't be afraid to use a variety of sounds, and if you're working on an LP or EP don't rigidly use the same patches on every song.
  • Try layering multiple similar patches to get a more complex sounding patch.
  • Experiment using triangle waves to get mellow sounding lead synths.

This is Part Two of Tame Impala Synth Sounds, also check out Part One and Part Three.

This article was originally written in April 2017, and was updated in May 2018 to add the Roland JV-1080 and Arturia DX7 patches.