Tears for Fears Synth Sounds


The following was originally split into two separate articles. Here I’ve combined both articles into one post.


Songs from the Big Chair was released in 1985 and spawned the hits Shout, Everybody Wants to Rule the World and Head Over Heels. A new wave classic, the album is a masterclass of songwriting and production, full of classic 80s synth sounds that have a more mature feel than many of their contemporaries, and one of my personal favourite albums of all time. Shout went on to become one of the most recognisable songs from the mid-eighties and is also recognised as the group's signature song. Featuring a repetitive chorus, power chords and an intense rock backing, the song was a no. 1 hit for 3 weeks.

"Orzabal played Hughes a chant he had written called “Shout.” They stopped everything else to focus solely on that number, which would become their second Number One and one of the most recognizable songs of the decade. They spent many, many months on that powerful anthem alone, making sure that each layer worked perfectly with the others."

The band consists of the songwriting / production duo of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, who seem to switch roles frequently when collaborating. In live performances of Shout the duo share vocal duties, Orzabel plays guitar and Smith plays bass, so I'm assuming this is how it was recorded. Around the time of Songs from the Big Chair they were joined by key member Ian Stanley who acted as the bands keyboardist. By this point the group owned an enviable collection of analog synthesizers:

"Their layered style of recording also made it easier to work from Stanley's home studio, which the band had recently upgraded using advance money from the second album. Stanley's newly expanded home studio included a 32-channel Soundcraft console, a 24-track analog tape machine and room for the band's keyboard and synthesizer collection, which included such classic designs as Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Fairlight CMI, Roland Jupiter 8, Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and PPG Wave. They also had a LinnDrum LM-2, another recent acquisition."

The main sounds I'm interesting in exploring are the breathy vocal synth from the Fairlight CMI, the huge unison bass from the Prophet 5 and the classic 80s PPG / DX7 bass.

Bass From The Big Chair

The song opens with a percussion loop followed by the songs hook over an ominous sounding synth bass. This simple yet iconic bass sound comes from the groups Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. I don't have a Prophet 5 (it is on my wish list!), but Arturia have a Prophet V software emulation that I'll use. The key element of the sound is the use of unison mode, which sets all the synth voices to double the same note, creating a huge, thick sound great for basses. In Arturia Prophet V, you can start with the template patch Pro5 2 Osc, which will give you a basic patch with two sawtooth waves. From this template patch, turn on unison mode at the top-right of the interface, decrease the cutoff to the 2 o'clock mark and rase the resonance to 9 o'clock. To fatten up the sound even more, increase the detune knob next to the unison switch. This last part is largely down to taste and what the song requires; I also found that adding a little resonance to the filter went a long way to fattening up the sound.


The drums in my recordings come from some Emu Drumulator samples I found in my sample library, the original drum machine was the one used on Shout and samples of it can be found in many classic drum machine sample packs.


The main synth hook from Shout is the Fairlight ARR 1 sound that you can hear in the pre-chorus. This is a unique, recognisable choir sound marked by it's breathiness and low bit-rate quality; it was very popular and used by many 80s new wave artist, for example on the following songs:

  • Art of Noise - Moments in Love

  • INXS - Kiss The Dirt

  • Pet Shop Boys - Domino Dancing

  • OMD - Secret

  • Yazoo - And On

The sound comes from the Fairlight CMI (Computer Music Instrument), a lo-fi sampling synthesizer that cost a staggering $30,000 when released. The synth utilised a combination of sampled sounds via the onboard computer and classic synthesising elements, making it easy to recreate in the digital realm with plugins and samplers. Arturia CMI V features the ARR1 patch as it's default setting, so you can throw the plugin on a track and start playing it immediately. Ableton users can also make use of Sonicbloom's free Fairlight Instrument for Ableton Live, found here. The ARR1 patch is located in the Humans pack! For mixing the patches, I panned each of the two parts left and right slightly, added reverb and cut some low-end frequencies using EQ.


Also be sure to check out my New Order - Elegia tutorial that features a similar vocalsynth patch derived from the Emu Emulator synthesizer, a direct competitor to the Fairlight.

DX7 / PPG Bass

A synth sound that's introduced during the chorus is the more percussive bassline, that was recorded from either the PPG Wave synth, an early wavetable synthesizer, or the groups Yamaha DX7. Although it's a simple sound it's hard to recreate in synths that don't offer wavetable functionality. Here's the sound recreated using Arturia DX7 V, a software emulation of the DX7.


Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Tears for Fears' 1985 album Songs from the Big Chair is full of timeless synth-laden pop hits, combining stark poetry with slick production, the album's biggest hit was a last-minute addition titled Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Initially titled with Run instead of Rule, the song went on to blitz charts everywhere and has remained a classic of the 80s synth era. The duo, consisting of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, were primarily songwriters, and the album's tight production was a result of utilising at-the-time brand new technology, as well the duo's perfectionism. Everybody Wants to Rule the World was one of the simpler tracks off the album, mostly made up of MIDI programmed tracks, with the only organic elements being guitar and vocals.

Rule the Prophet

One of the composition's central musical ideas is the synth chord stabs, which outline the harmony as well as providing call-and-response interplay with the verse vocals. The part was likely recorded on the groups Prophet-5 synth, a powerful 80s polysynth famed for its lush sound.

Near the end of its [Shouts] evolution, Orzabal walked into the studio and played two simple, chimey chords on his acoustic guitar. He didn't give them much thought, yet he couldn't stop playing them. “It's nothing,” he told Hughes. “It sounds a bit like [the Simple Minds song] ‘On the Waterfront.’” Those two chords became the foundation for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

Rule the World.png

The patch itself consists of two detuned squarewave oscillators with some subtle filter modulation. A great software version of the Prophet 5 is Arturia Prophet V, which can recreate the sound quite well. In Arturia Prophet V choose with the template preset Pro5 2 Osc, which gives us a simple two oscillator patch to start working with. Switch both oscillators from the default sawtooth waves to square waves, and move Oscillator A & B's PWM (pulsewidth modulation) knobs to 0.30 and 0.75 respectively to create the sharp, almost metallic oscillator sound.


Now move to the filter section, and set the filter cutoff to 10 o'clock, the resonance to 9 o'clock and keyboard tracking all the way down. Now we want to control the filter cutoff over time using the envelope, so raise ENV AMT to 4 o'clock and set the ADSR envelope with no attack, decay just below 3 o'clock, sustain at 9 o'clock and release at 11 o'clock. Experiment with these envelope attacks to see what works best for you, and if you're following this using another synthesizer then definitely experiment with envelope settings. The most important elements are the low sustain and long decay, as they have a big influence on the brightness and length of the sound.


Now add some subtle LFO modulation to the filter to give a wobbly sound once the chord has begun to fade out. On the Prophet-V the only way to control modulation amount is using the mod wheel, so raise the mod wheel until the value at the bottom left is 0.06. Make sure that only FILT is activated under the Wheel-Mod section, set the LFO shape to triangle and raise the LFO rate to the 2 o'clock mark. Process the track with a small amount of reverb and you're done!


Rule the Bass

The bass synth is a complex patch that was created on a PPG Wave synthesizer, an early wavetable synthesizer great for metallic basses and interesting digital sounds. A wavetable synth refers to a synth that can use sound sources called wavetables as the sound source, instead of just traditional oscillators. This allows timbral possibilities that traditional subtractive synths just aren't complex enough to produce. The sound can be approximated in other synths with wavetable capabilities, and it just so happens that Arturia Prophet-V has a wavetable mode! Clicking VS at the top-right of the interface switches the synth to VS mode, an emulation of the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS, a wavetable synth from the same makers of the Prophet-5 synth.

In Arturia Prophet V, start with the template ProVS 2 Osc Structure, and change Oscillator B's wavetable to 087: hack3. Then, to fatten up the sound considerably, go to Audio/Effects, turn on Unison mode, and raise detune to just over halfway. This starts us off with a complex oscillator sound suitable for guitar-y bass sounds. 


Now we want to add a plucking effect, which we'll do using the filter envelope. Lower the filter cutoff all the way and lower ENV AMT to halfway. Then go to Filter Envelope and set up an envelope with a short decay and no sustain, by lowering the volume and time of Stage 2 to 0 and 433 respectively, as shown below. Process with some light saturation to add some drive to the track, and that's the basic patch done.


There is also an octave-up part layered with this bass part that makes the bass part sound a lot fuller in the mix. It's pretty wood-y sounding and could've come from the PPG Wave, or possibly a Yamaha DX7. I recreated it closely in Native Instruments FM8 but the patch ended up being really complex. For anyone who knows their way around FM8, you can see the operator settings I found worked below, otherwise just layer the same Prophet VS patch an octave up and tweak the decay time to be shorter to get a good layered patch that sits well an octave above the original bass patch.


Rule the Drums

The drums are a major driving force of the song, giving it a bouncy groovy that sounds natural despite being from a drum machine, or rather a variety of machines:

Hughes programmed most of the drums on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” They borrowed the snare drum sound from “Shout” and pitched it up. The hi-hat and shakers came from the LinnDrum. The kick drum sound came from the Fairlight CMI.

Although the original vintage drum machines used in the track are now hard to find, all of them have been sampled for use in the digital age. I did some digging around in my drum sample collection, mostly downloaded for free from various online sources, and managed to come up with a couple of samples that sound like the original sounds from Everybody Wants to Rule the World. I only struggled with the snare, which is the snare from Shout pitched up. The original snare sound on Shout comes from the Emu Drumulator with the rock drum setting, and although I found similar samples, I didn't find anything that sounded exactly the same. Check out the different layers in action:


Putting It All Together

“It's probably the most straightforward recording on the record,” adds Hughes. “Other tracks were recorded to two 24-tracks, then we would do edits on tape, and any piece of technology that could have gone wrong or held us up probably did. But ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ was so simple and went down so quickly, it was effortless, really. In fact, as a piece of recording history, it's bland as hell.”

Lastly, hear the recreated tracks all together. I used minimal EQing and reverb, but for the most part the tracks compliment each other so well there's little need for lots of mixing.

Thanks for reading, this article took a while to come together but was worth it in the end! Check the link below to download the Arturia Prophet-V patches to use for yourself.