Last year, Travis Scott released his third album, Astroworld, a continuation of his hip-hop sound pursued on earlier releases, but with a heavy trap and psychedelic influence. The album was hugely successful and cemented Travis Scott as one of the top hip-hop artists of the current era. Astroworld was recorded in Hawaii with a diverse set of collaborators, including Mike Dean, whose analog synth sounds feature prominently, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, who produced Skeletons, John Mayer, who played guitar on the album, James Blake, and even Stevie Wonder, who added his signature harmonica to Stop Trying to Be God.
In this article, I’ll concentrate on the synthesizer sounds on the tracks R.I.P. Screw, Astrothunder and Sicko Mode, deconstruct the synth patches, and put them back together using software synths. Many of the sounds can be created in any suitable softsynth, and I’ll create all the sounds in this article using just u-he Repro and TAL U-NO-LX, as well as some sampled sounds that I’ll share as a free pack at the end of the article.
The first track I’ll look at is R.I.P. Screw, a tribute to the Houston hip-hop DJ, DJ Screw. The main melodic sounds on R.I.P. Screw come from producer Blair Taylor, and Mike Dean later added the Juno pad and synth riser just before the chorus. For the original beat of the track, Taylor used the following synths:
Korg Mono/Poly Spelunking preset for the main pluck synth that starts out.
Korg Polysix Fat Bass Line preset for the bass that comes in for the verse.
A.N.A.1 for the main tremolo/glide synth.
Output REV – for the reverse violins.
The song’s structure is simple, based on a 2-bar loop, but has multiple layers of different synths as the track progresses. The main pluck synth patch that opens the song and plays throughout is a single triangle waveform oscillator through a plucked filter and a big reverb effect. In Repro-1, set the filter with cutoff to 20, keyboard tracking to 0 and env amount to 40. For the filter envelope, set decay at halfway for a snappy pluck, and sustain just above 10. For the reverb sound, set the mix level to 23% and decay to a high 3.84 seconds. In the audio example below I used Valhalla VintageVerb. I also placed a compressor after the reverb, which helps adds sustain to the reverb tail.
- R.I.P. Screw Pluck Dry 00:00
- R.I.P. Screw Pluck Wet 00:00
My favourite synth sound in R.I.P. Screw is the tremolo keys at 0:12, which also have a subtle glide effect, rising in pitch as the chord fades in. For the glide effect, pitch both oscillators 7 steps down, then modulate the oscillators with the amp envelope, with modulation amount set to raise the oscillators 7 steps (back to the original tuning). Using a tuner in your DAW can make setting the exact modulation amount easier. Set the amp envelope with a medium attack (56 in Repro-5) to create the rise in pitch.
- R.I.P. Screw Glide 00:00
For the tremolo effect, I used Ableton’s Auto-Pan effect with mix set to 55% and speed at 11.1 Hz. Tremolo effects are rarely used with synths but can create another layer of interest to your sound.
- R.I.P. Screw Glide Trem 00:00
The wide Juno keys at 0:38 are one of Mike Dean’s contributions to the song. The patch itself is simple and has been run through the onboard Juno chorus as well as a phaser. To create the patch in TAL U-NO-LX, which is a software emulation of the Juno, use a single sawtooth oscillator with the VCF filter set to halfway, HPF filter at 3, and the onboard chorus II effect on. For the phaser, I’m using Soundtoys PhaseMistress in the example, although you could get similar results in other phasers. The trick is to keep the speed and mix level low, to keep the effect subtle.
- R.I.P. Screw Juno 00:00
The metallic plucked bass that plays in the pre-chorus section is a simple plucked bass, and a DCO synth like the Juno/TAL U-NO-LX can work well for these almost metallic sounds. From the default setting in TAL U-NO-LX (full saw and sub), raise the noise level to 7. Lower the VCF frequency slider to 0, set resonance to 2 and then raise the ENV fader to 8. Set up the pluck timing by setting the ADSR’s sustain fader to 0 and decay and release to 5. Lastly, turn on the chorus effect and add plenty of saturation and compression to the track.
- R.I.P. Screw Bass 00:00
Here’s the full R.I.P. Screw recreation mix, using all the sounds covered. In additional sound is the riser synth that plays in the first Juno section, which is created by setting pitch-bend to 12 steps and raising it the full octave; the Repro presets is included in the download. The samples in the song are from an interview with DJ Screw, who the song is a tribute to.
Astrothunder has many producer credits, which include contributions from Frank Dukes, John Mayer, Thundercat, and BadBadNotGood’s Matt Tavares. The star-studded production is full of lush sounds, including exotic guitars and flute-like synths. The sounds are sparse but have a warm ambience created with a mix of delay and reverb that helps the sounds fill the mix.
The synth sound that opens Astrothunder is a guitar-like pluck patch, similar to a palm-muted electric guitar. To create the patch, use pulse wave and square wave oscillators. To select a pulse-wave oscillator in Repro-5, choose the square wave and set the pulse-width knob to 90. Lower the filter cutoff down to 0, set resonance to 25 and envelope to 70. To get the pluck right, set the filter’s sustain to 0 and decay to just below 40.
- Astrothunder Guitar 00:00
The highlight of Astrothunder is the flute-like lead parts that play gliding leads between the vocals. The flute patches can be created in any synth, using a single triangle wave oscillator, filter closed halfway, and the pitchbend wheel to create drops in pitch. I used Repro-1, with Oscillator B’s triangle waveform as the only oscillator., and lowering the filter’s keyboard tracking all the way. Ensure that the pitch-bend range is set to 2 semitones, and lower it and the end of certain notes while you play.
- Astrothunder Flutes 00:00
Other elements in Astrothunder included drums, deep 808s, and some ambient guitar, which I recreated by using a Meris Mercury 7 with the swell function. The original also has some creative sampling of voices during the intro and lots more synth layers during the instrumental sections.
Sicko Mode was the second single released from Astroworld and set the record for the longest a hip-hop song has spent in the Billboard top ten. The song’s memorable intro opens with an unusual organ sound, with pitchbending and vibrato, and is followed by a swing beat and an interesting beat switch after the intro.
The keyboard in the Sicko Mode was played by beatmaker Rogét Chahayed, who says the chord harmony is inspired by Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and can be seen playing the Sicko Mode patch in the below video.
Chahayed is playing the patch on a Korg Kronos, a high-end music workstation, but the patch he’s playing is a sampled sound using samples from the Casio Rapman, a cheap toy keyboard from the early 90s aimed at aspiring rappers and hip-hop producers on a low budget. The Rapman voice sampled on Sicko Mode is 24: Waw Voice, an unusual patch with two voices set an octave apart, and the high voice glides up when you play a note. The Casio sample is included in the Native Instruments Kontakt library, which is where Chahayed got it from.
To get the raw Rapman samples to sound more like the sound on Sicko Mode, it needs to be EQed for brightness, and run through a tremolo effect, similar to the R.I.P. Screw glide patch, but more subtle. For the EQ, high-pass around 240 Hz, cut around 1 kHz and boost around 3.67 kHz. For the tremolo effect, set the effect at 17.5% wet with a modulation rate of 9.36 Hz.
- Waw Sound Dry 00:00
- Waw Sound Processed 00:00
The patch is also available in the NI Kontakt Factory Library, under the Electronic Toys folder, where it’s called Rapman Waw. The Waw sound has been tweaked considerably for Sicko Mode, with a light tremolo effect, aggressive EQ shaping, and mild saturation. It’s also been layered with another sound, which is similar to a harp.
The Rapman sound is also layered with a harp synth patch that doubles the notes from the Rapman patch. To create the harp patch, use a triangle oscillator with a square wave oscillator pitched an octave low. Set the lower square wave oscillator’s volume much lower than the triangle wave oscillator, so that it doesn’t overpower it. Lower the filter cutoff to 66, and set the amplifier envelope with no sustain and decay/release settings of 62/65 to create the sustained effect similar to a harp.
To create the harp-like strum effect, add an arpeggiator with the arp rate set to 20ms and no repeats. There are also similar effects on the harp sound to that of the Rapman track, and the two tracks may have been processed together as a group.
- Sicko Mode Harp 00:00
The Sicko Mode bass sound is a classic growling mono-bass, which can be created with two pulse-waves, one pitched an octave lower than the other. In u-he Repro, set the square wave’s PW knobs to around 70 and 25, and lower the volume of the higher-pitched oscillator to 65. Set the filter’s keyboard tracking to 0, cutoff to 30 and envelope amount to 25, which will create a subtle pluck. Set the filter envelope’s settings with a quick attack of 10, a decay of 60 and no sustain. Leave the amp envelope as-is and process the patch through some saturation to make it growl.
- Sicko Mode Bass Synth 00:00
The snare fill before the beat is created by triggering a snare sample with a chromatically descending sequence, causing the snare to detune as the trigger notes get lower.
- Sicko Mode Snare 00:00
An interesting mix choice of the Sicko Mode intro is that it’s mostly in mono. This helps give it an intimate, vintage vibe. Many digital effects such as reverbs and delays will add lots of width to your mix by default, which sounds good most of the time. For these Sicko Mode sounds, I either dialled down all effects width settings or placed a Utility effect on the tracks to make everything mono.