Synthwave is an electronic music genre heavily influenced by 80’s synthpop and film soundtracks, and has reached wider popularity in the last 10 years. One of it’s most popular artists is Timecop1983, a Dutch musician otherwise known as Jordy Leenaerts, who combines nostalgic 80s synths with a dream-pop production aesthetic and melancholy songwriting. Last year he released the EP Lovers, Pt. 2, a follow-up to 2016’s Lovers, Pt. 1, which I’ll focus on deconstructing in this tutorial. I'll look at his synthwave sounds and the way he makes them sound unique with his music production techniques.
Part of synthwave’s appeal is its accessibility; anyone with a laptop can get involved, starting making music, and be part of the scene. Free synth plugins, cheap DAW software and samples of 80s drum machines mean it’s affordable to make. Synthcop1983 uses FL Studio and mostly free plugins, although as his career has progressed he has increasingly invested in hardware synthesizers.
“Mostly I use free software synths like Synth1, OBXD, TAL UNO62, but I also use software like D16’s Lush101, U-He Zebra2 and Arturia Spark a lot. For hardware I use a Alesis Micron, Yamaha AN1x, Korg Radias KB, Roland D50, Roland Alpha Juno and recently the Roland Juno106.”
Synth1, OBXD and TAL UNO62 are all fantastic sounding synths, especially so for being free synths. TAL UNO-62 is an emulation of the Roland Juno series of synths, unfortunately, it is a Windows-only plugin, so I’ll use TAL U-NO-LX II, a more powerful paid plugin, for the walkthroughs below. The patches should be easy to create in UNO-62, and feel free to try creating them in Synth1 and OBXD too.
We’ll start with some simple lead and bass tracks, firstly from the track Eyes Closed. The bass tracks tend to be plucked synth basses, meaning the envelope triggers the filter cutoff to create a guitar-like effect. They also use the Juno’s sub-bass oscillator to achieve varying blends of treble-to-bass in the bass mix. For the Eyes Closed bass, bring the sub oscillator down to 6 to get a lighter sound, then setup the filter by bringing the cutoff down to between 2 and 3, and the env fader up to 5. Turn on the Chorus I effect and you’ll have created a great basic synthwave bass pluck!
To create a synthwave lead like that in Eyes Closed, start by turning off the sub oscillator to get a really light sound, and then set the cutoff frequency to 3, resonance to 2, and the envelope amount to 5. This will create some subtle movement in the sound, and the resonance adds some colour, suitable for lead sounds. Move on to the ADSR envelope, which is really important as it shapes the timing of the sound. Set each fader under ADSR to 2, 5, 6 and 7 as starting points and tweak them by small amounts to hear the effect they have on the sound. I find that having a MIDI track play while I adjust the settings helps me hear what changes are taking place. The longer decay and release times help the notes bleed into each other, which sounds really lush. Lastly turn on the both Chorus effects for a really wide sound!
Note that all the audio has been processed with compression, delay and reverb, which I’ll go into a little more later in the article!
Lovers is similar to the last track in that it features a pretty sparse arrangement; it’s a vocal track featuring SEAWAVES so the vocal takes up much of the space, and the mellow synths compliment that. For the bass in Lovers, leave the sub oscillator at max and set up the filter similar to the last bass patch we did. This time, change the VCA mode to ENV, which will make the envelope trigger the patches volume, then set the ADSR to 0, 4, 3 and 4. Turn on Chorus I and we have another plucked synth bass patch great for chugging lines.
The lead synth in Lovers uses a great technique for making your patches sound super-rich: using the square wave with pulsewidth modulation mixed in with the default sawtooth oscillator. Using the LFO mode for pulse width makes it sound much richer than the manual mode. Turn off the sub oscillator and set the PW fader to 6, then set the LFO trigger mode to ‘free’ and leave the rate at 5. Set the ADSR faders to 2, 8, 5 and 6 and turn on Chorus I, this create movement in the patch, lets the notes bleed into each other and finishes off a great lead patch.
There is a simple arpeggio part in Come Back that uses a patch similar to leads we’ve already created, however, to create patches designed specifically for layering you can use the HPF to filter out the bass frequencies, making it much lighter and easier to sit in the mix. It also uses a short decay time (the fader is at 4 in TAL U-NO-LX) to create the percussive quality suitable for arpeggio patterns.
The lead in Come Back is also great. This lead uses the sub oscillator at 6 to get a really thick sound that’ll be prominent in the mix, and the ADSR envelope is set to 0, 5, 5, 5 for long, flowing notes that bleed into each other. Finish it off by setting the filter cutoff to 6, resonance to 3 and envelope to 2, and of course turning on the Chorus II effect.
The lead in Home is another exercise in simplicity, this patch dry without effects wouldn’t sound great, but with the right melody and some nice wet delay and reverb, it can sound great. It’s simply a saw with the sub at 6, cutoff at 0 with the envelope triggering it almost at maximum, then raise the decay time slightly up to 6 and turn on the chorus. The original Roland Juno synth (that TAL U-NO-LX is based on) is really one of those synths where every setting sounds fantastic, and this simple patch really illustrates that point.
Home has a lovely strings-like patch that the Juno is great at creating. Turn the sub oscillator down to 1, then the cutoff frequency and envelope to 4 and 2.5, respectively. For a string sound we want some attack and a long, fading envelope, so set the ADSR to 1, 6, 8, 6 then turn Chorus II on.
An important part of Timecop1983’s sound is the production, which features lush ambient space, created through the tasteful use of delay and reverb, to add the dreamy element to compliment the 80s elements. In the synth audio examples above I found that treating the synths with heavy compression, delay and reverb helped the sound. For compression, I used Ableton’s Glue Compressor, which is pretty transparent sounding, and for the delay I used Filter Delay to get an analogue-like wide delay sound, with the delays occupying the stereo channels. For reverb, I found a big hall sound with space at maximum and time over 3 seconds worked perfectly. In Ableton Reverb, I also boosted Reflect and Diffuse to really make the reverb signal sparkle.
“I don’t have a particular technique or anything, but I do have a FL Studio template I use all the time. It consists of a multiband compressor, parametric EQ and a limiter. This gives my music the same feel and sound every time.”
Another detail to note is that his drum tracks often eschew hi-hats and cymbals, and instead rely solely on simple kick and snare patterns, sometimes with toms for fills. The lack of hi-hats and cymbals gives his songs a sparseness and gives up a lot of frequency room for the synth elements.
“The basis is always a short loop — 6-7 seconds — that has all the sounds that are played in the middle of the track, and from there I start working on the build-up and break-down of the track.”
One of the elements that makes Timecop1983's music sound so catchy is the choice of harmony in his songs. A chord progression he really likes is the IV - V - vi - I progression, which has an ascending bassline and sounds interesting because it doesn’t start on the I chord. It is the basis of the songs Come Back and Lovers; in the key of C Major the chords are F - G - Am - C, and they sound like this:
You can also make these progressions sound more interesting by layering a repeating arpeggio over each chord that helps to pull the harmony together, and makes each chord sound more colourful than when using standard block chords.
Thanks for reading! These patches and ideas can be used as the a starting point for producing your own synthwave and synth-driven dreampop music. Nostalgic music like synthwave tends to run the risk of sounding repetitive, but by experiment with ideas outside the genre, you can create some really interesting music using simple instruments and patches. As with every genre, the keys are strong songwriting, interesting arrangements and strong production. Check the download link below for the patches and try to edit them to create your own patches!
These are the Ableton Projets I used when working on the Timecop1983 article, and they contain all the MIDI tracks, patches, samples and recordings you hear in the tutorial audio. You'll need TAL U-NO-LX to run the MIDI tracks, and all the effects are the Ableton native audio effects. There are 4 projects, for the songs Come Back, Eyes Closed, Home and Lovers. I've turned several of the patches into Ableton Instrument Racks so you can easily tweak and automate some of the settings in your own arrangements.