Tyler, the Creator 'I THINK' Synth Breakdown
Tyler, the Creator recently released a new album, titled IGOR, entirely written, produced and arranged by himself. I’ve previously covered Tyler’s retro-styled synth sounds in my Tyler, the Creator Synth Sounds article, where I concentrated on tracks from his previous album, Flower Boy.
In this article, I’ll look at one of IGOR’s more ambitious tracks, I THINK. The track is heavily layered, features a lengthy instrumental bridge, and has drawn some comparison’s to Kanye West’s Stronger. The track was inspired by Nigerian music, and is based on an interpolation of the track Special Lady by Nigerian soul artist Bibi Mascel. Additionally, the drums in I THINK are sampled from another Nigerian artist, Nkono Teles. The track was inspired by a trip to Italy with Solange and Frank Ocean, the former appearing on the track singing the chorus hook.
Tyler has several synthesizers, including a Roland Juno-6, a Roland JX-8P, and a Yamaha DX7. Throughout the article I’ll use the software synths TAL U-NO-LX and Arturia DX7 V to recreate Tyler’s sounds.
First thing’s first, I THINK is built a drum beat sampled from artist Nkono Teles’ Get Down. Tyler’s sample of the beat simply cuts four beats of the sample and speeds it up from the original tempo of approximately 115bpm to I THINK’s tempo of approximately 121 bpm. Here’s the original track:
The first musical elements in the verse are a thin, bright electric piano part and a descending synth line. Tyler either has own electric piano, or he has access to a studio with one. For those of us who don’t have an electric piano handy, there are plenty of plugin options for virtual electric pianos. I personally like the Arturia keys (Stage-73 V and Wurli V) and AAS Lounge Lizard, and Ableton also has a serviceable EP instrument called Electric. For the keys sound on I THINK, you can get great results by running your EP plugin through an amp emulator. For the audio below, I used Arturia Stage-73 V run through Ableton’s Amp effect on the clean setting with a mix level of 30%.
The descending synth line sounds like it came from Tyler’s Roland Juno-6 or his Roland JX-8P. I’ll assume the Juno throughout the article, but many of the sounds could have just as likely come from the JX-8P, as they are similar synths. For this lead patch, use just a square wave (no sub osc) with the PW fader set to halfway. Raise the HPF fader to halfway, removing bass frequencies from the sound, and then move the VCF frequency fader all the way down to 0 with a resonance of 6. Now we need to control the filter with the envelope, so set the ENV fader to 7, and set the envelope with an attack of 4, a decay of 8 and no sustain.
Next, some chorused chords play the full progression, and this is the main synth sound of the song. The wide-chorus sounds distinctly like the Roland Juno, and the patch is similar to the Strings factory presets. Creating the sound from scratch is easy, start by turn off the sub oscillator and then raising the HFP filter fader to 4. In the VCF section, lower the frequency fader to 6, set resonance to 4 and envelope to 2. The resonance adds some buzziness to the high end, which helps to make the patch brighter. Lastly, set the envelope’s attack and release to 4 and 3, respectively, and turn on the Chorus II effect. This patch is also very dry, with only light reverb being used for effects.
The bass sound throughout the song is also chorused, and if you listen closely you can tell it isn’t an entirely mono bass track. The track probably came from the Roland Juno again, so fire up TAL U-NO-LX and cook up a bass pluck patch by setting filter cutoff frequency to 0 and envelope to 9, with a decay of 6, release of 7 and no sustain. Add some low-end by raising the sub oscillators’s volume to 2, and also set the filter’s resonance to 2. Turn on the Chorus I effect, which is the more subtle sound, suitable for bass patches.
When the chorus is introduced, with the main hook sung by Solange, there is an electric piano-like synth melody line. The sound definitely comes from a digital synth, and popular 90s synths like the DX7 or Roland D-50 would be the most obvious choices to create such a sound. Tyler has previously mentioned in interviews having a DX7, and the DX7 factory preset 11 E. Piano 1 sounds very similar to the lead on I THINK. For softsynth options, Arturia’s DX7 V has a patch called RoadsForYou which is a great version of the E. Piano sound with effects, and the free synth DEXED is also great at emulating DX7 sounds.
After the chorus is a Juno lead line, featuring a huge chorused sawtooth patch. Unusually, the bass synth drops out for the solo section! This patch is about as simple as they get, use just a single sawtooth waveform in TAL U-NO-LX and run it through both Chorus I & II effects. Also remember to set the Bender DCO fader in the control section at the bottom of the interface to its maximum setting, which will allow you to do the pitch-wheel dive during the solo. For effects, run the track through a saturator to give the track some drive, as well as a small amount of reverb.
Take ‘em to the Bridge
man having random folks walk up to me telling me about the bridge on I THINK gives me so much joy. if u know me i can be annyoing with talks about bridges and progressions so im hyped its people who care. the version you hear is the 9th one, kept going back until it was PERFECT.— Tyler, The Creator (@tylerthecreator) May 18, 2019
The bridge in I THINK consists of an extended keyboard solo over some jazzy neo-soul influenced chords. Although Tyler is a capable keyboard player, I don't think this shredding keyboard solo is him. A look at the album credits reveals that keyboardist Kevin Kenricks contributed keys to I THINK, so this solo is probably played by him. The solo starts on a mellow flute-like patch, before moving onto a waspy vibrato Juno lead.
The flute patch is created with a sine wave played with portamento and reverb. Opt for a digital synth, as analog sines or triangle waves won't sound clean enough, and any digital synth with a sine wave and portamento can create this sound. You can use Arturia DX7 again, with a simple single-operator patch. Press the Poly button to deactivate polyphony and make the patch monophonic, ideal for lead solo performance. Turn on portamento and gliss, and raise the time knob to 35, which will cause all the notes to slide into each other. We also want the glide to be on all the time, even between notes that aren’t played legato, so open the extended panel and change portamento mode from fingered to full time.
The second half of the solo is played on a chorused Juno patch. To create the vibrato effect, we need to use the Juno’s LFO routed to the pitch, to create the rising and falling in a pitch, like a guitar player or a singer. From the default settings, lower the sub oscillator’s volume to 7 and leave the filter settings as they are. In the LFO section, set the rate fader to 8.12 and set the trig mode to Free. Now go back to to the DCO section and set the LFO fader to 2. Lastly, turn on the Chorus I effects, and EQ the track with a high-shelf boost to make it a little brighter in the mix.
Putting It All Together
After the bridge, the chorus is reprised, and the song ends on another Juno lead. This last lead patch is the same as the first Juno lead we programmed (I Think Lead), just playing a different melody.
Mixing-wise, a lot of the sounds are very dry, with only light EQ, compression and reverb on the tracks. Most of the tracks simply work together well because the individual sounds complement each other.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading! As usual you can find all the synth patches created above as a free download with the button below. You’ll need the Arturia Collection and TAL U-NO-LX to open them.
If you want to dig deeper into these sounds, sign up to my Patreon page to get access to the MIDI files, multitracks stems, and the Ableton Live project from this tutorial!