Tycho - Awake Synth Sound

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Tycho started out as something of a solo project for bandleader Scott Hansen, and has since evolved into an ambient rock band whose signature sound consists of swirling pads, dreamy synth leads, and muted electric guitars, usually backed by live drums and bass guitar, all washed out with a saturated wall of reverb. I'm going to talk about the synth lead in the song Awake, from the album of the same name. Here's what we're going to end up with:

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The Tycho Sound

The most important thing about the Tycho sound is the use of reverb and delay, the space created is big and modulated but never muddy, and elements never get lost in the space. This is in part due to the use of compression after the reverb/delay to raise the volume of the tails in relation to the original sound, and aggressive EQing to carefully control the tonal quality of the signal. There is an inclination towards analogue gear, or analogue-emulations, that have a natural tendency to impart desirable distortion and saturation into the signal chain. Generally the signal flow looks something like this:

input - compression - heavy EQ - reverb - delay - heavy compression - EQ - output

Scott is incredibly open about his production methods, frequently answering questions and hosting reddit AMAs, he owns an envious collection of hardware synthesizers and effects unit, but also tends to mix things in-the-box with software plugins.

How do you go about melding traditional/organic instrumentation with electronic music without it sounding forced?

That's never been that difficult. I think it's because I use so many effects on everything. At the end of it, sometimes the guitars end up sounding indistinguishable from a synth. Once you put enough reverb, compression, and delay on things, you can start to get things into the same space, no matter where the original tone came from. Basically, I'm kind of applying the same ideas to all the sources, so at the end of it, it becomes cohesive.

- Scott Hansen

Plugins

I've tried to stick as closely as possible to plugin's that Scott is known to use, however I've also tried to keep it as light as possible as Scott seems to use a lot of different plugins in his productions. Here's a list of the plugin's I'll be using in this article:

  • Native Instruments Monark (Minimoog emulation, opens in NI Reaktor)

  • Valhalla VintageVerb (great versatile reverb)

  • Soundtoys EchoBoy (analog-style delay, really important)

  • PSP oldTimer (analog-style compressor)

Tycho's sound has more to do with the effects and the order of those effects than it necessarily does with the synthesizer being used, if you don't have access to the above plugins then make sure the alternatives you use are a moog emulation and the effects are analogue-style.

Awake Lead

For the lead synth in Awake you'll need to program in a really simple single-oscillator triangle waveform patch and tweak the Filter and Filter Envelope so that the sound starts bright with a quick decay. This gives it a percussive quality that's going to really play well when run through delay. Come back to this step after you've added the reverb/delay because tweaking the Filter Decay has a massive effect on the way the synth reacts with the reverb/delay. Set the attack slightly higher than 0 so you don't get any clicking.

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The next step is really important, we're going to use some very aggressive EQ to shape the sound, cutting the bass and high-end frequencies and boosting the upper-mids. You can really get aggressive here, and again it's good to come back to this step after you've added the reverb-delay-compression to see how much of a difference this step makes in shaping the sound.

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For reverb, I'm using two instances of Valhalla VintageVerb as inserts. The first is a simple plate verb to make our base signal sound less dry, I've used the preset Fat Plate as a starting point, dragged the Mix level down to 15% and tweaked it a tiny bit. The second is a long, lush modulated reverb that uses VintageVerbs 70s colour mode. I've used Large RHall as a starting point, taken the mix down to 30% and cranked up the modulation amount and depth.

At this point we could stop, playing a synth into a big reverb usually works fine. It's sounding big and spacey, however, it's not sounding tight like we want it to, so we're going to keep going.

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Next up is the delay; note that delay after reverb is unusual and the other way around is the conventional way of ordering effects. Delay after reverb creates an even bigger sound as our big modulated reverb is now getting repeated by the delay effect. Some of Scott's favourite hardware delay units are the Roland Space Echo and the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man (the older big box versions). These are both dark-sounding wobbly delays, great for making a sound huge but not drowning out the original element.

I'm using Soundtoys EchoBoy which emulates several delay-boxes, including the two I just mentioned. I've used Memory Man as a starting preset and set the echo time to 1/4th to get it to play well with the song. I've then raised the Feedback a little while lowering the Mix level, this has the effect of making the delay signal less prominent and washier.

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Now that we've added reverb and delay, we want to smash the signal with some heavy compression to raise the level of the reverb tails and sustain the sounds. I've used PSP oldTimer which has a nice gainy analogue sound, and set it as shown. The ratio is high and the compression is high, so try get it to sound aggressive but not overly-squashed. Notice how the comp keeps the volume of the reverb/delay tails at a high volume, making the sound really sustain and dreamlike.

To finish off I'm once again EQing the signal, with similar settings before but more precise. This should be set on a track-by-track basis to let the synth sit well with the other tracks, here I found that boosting 1060Hz and using a low-pass filter above that get it sounding like the original.

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Awake Lead 2

There is another synth lead in the song (about 0:44) that works in a similar way to the patch we just created, it is much higher in pitch and the synth sound itself is darker and a lot less percussive.

We can use the same effect settings as before and make just a couple of tweaks to our synth patch to get this sound. Firstly turn off keyboard tracking to make the sound less bright on the high notes. Next take the contour, or envelope amount right down and raise the cutoff a little, then on the filter envelope raise the decay and sustain to make the sound less percussive. Add in the same effects as above and you'll have a second lead patch to complement the first.

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Try experimenting more with the synth settings to see if you can come up with more patches. Also try boosting different frequencies in the EQs you use, as well as trying out the different reverb types and delay styles to see if you can come up with your own sound.