Tyler, the Creator Synth Sounds
Tyler, the Creator, real name Tyler Gregory Okonma, is a rapper and producer with a unique, alternative take on hip-hop. Tyler produces all the music on his releases, and he has also co-produced on releases by Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller. His style incorporates samples less than his peers, and he frequently uses synthesizers and electric pianos to accompany his unique, often aggressive vocal delivery. A photo of Tyler’s room posted on his Instagram page in 2015 shows a Roland Juno-6, JX-8P and Microkorg in his collection; he has also mentioned owning a Yamaha DX7 in a 2018 interview. He is a co-founder of the alternative hip-hop collective Odd Future, and he also creates album covers and merchandise designs.
In this article, I’ll recreate some of Tyler’s sounds from his newest release, 2017’s Flower Boy. I’ll use the software synth TAL U-NO-LX, an emulation of the Roland Juno, and several plugins from the Arturia collection, and share the patches at the end of the article.
I got like a Juno, a Roland, I got a bunch of random stuff at home that I’ll pull out when needed. Like, one day I just went on the internet and took any random keyboard and didn’t want to look it up because I’d rather be surprised. I bought a DX7 and didn’t get the right cartridge, so I just had a bunch of random sounds but they ended up working out really well. I used a lot of those keyboards on the last album and it gave me sounds that I’ve never had. Some of those sounds, as cheap as they are, they’re just so rich because they have so much texture and personality. - Tyler, the Creator
Flower Boy’s album opener, Foreword, is built around a harmonically minimalistic sample and some jazzy synth chord sequence, a motif that continues throughout the album. The synth patch is rich mix of sawtooth and square waves run through a chorus effect, and can be recreated easily in Arturia Prophet V. Load up the template preset Pro5 2 Osc and lower the frequency tuning of one of the oscillators by 12 semitones, or an octave. Turn on the square waveforms in both oscillators and set their PW knobs to 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock to thin them out. In the filter section, set both the cutoff knob and the envelope amount to halfway, and raise the attack time to 300ms, creating a soft fade on the filter. Raise the resonance knob slightly and add some chorus from Prophet V’s built-in chorus effect with the wet/dry knob at 50%. Save the patch and use it to play jazzy chords for instant Flower Boy vibes!
The bass in the video comes from Arturia Mini V, and the beat is sampled from the Sonic Youth mix of Spoon, by Can.
Harmonically, chromatic movement makes the chord progression sound so intriguing and jazzy. A descending chromatic voice of D-Db-C-B is present in the progression. Additionally, the last two chords are an example of a ii-V cadence, but with tritone substitution on the V chord. This essentially just swaps one dominant 7th chord with another six semitones away; in this case the original ii-V is Dm7 | G7, but with the substitution it is Dm7 | Db7.
You can read about the technique in more depth in my Guide to Cadences article, which I’ll link to at the end of this piece!
Boredom is built around another jazzy chord progression played on an electronic piano, and some retro-style synth leads that could’ve come from one of Tyler’s Roland synths. To create the electric piano patch in your DAW, fire up Arturia Stage-73, a software emulation of the Fender Rhodes, and find the preset Smooth Jazz to use as a starting point. You can greatly affect the electric piano tone with velocity, so play your MIDI keys softly. You can also adjust the virtual amps settings to manipulate the tone, so try lowering the bass EQ and boosting the treble to get a brighter sound. I also ran the patch through XLN Audio’s RC-20 Retro Color to give the track some subtle vinyl character, although iZotope’s Vinyl plugin is a good free alternative.
For the lead synths, you can use TAL U-NO-LX to get some instant chorused Roland Juno character. The first lead is a super-simple sawtooth patch using some slight filter pluck with a quick attack. The second patch, that plays the longer melody lines, uses pulse-width modulation to create a rich string-like sound. Turn on the squarewave oscillator and then simply set the PW fader to 7, with the mod source set to LFO, then set the LFO’s rate to the 3 mark, on free mode. Mixed with the sawtooth wave, this contains lots of harmonic and sounds very bright. You can see the rest of the settings to finish the patch in the video below! The beat in this song is sampled from The Montereys Get Down.
Harmonically, the chord progression is a classic jazz ii-V-I cycle, with the V chord being voiced as an extended flat 9th chord (R 3 5 b7 b9), a great way to add some dissonance and jazz flavour to the progression. The b9 in the Eb7 chord creates a descending F-E-Eb voice through the progression.
Glitter features a retro-sounding synth lead reminiscent of the Ohio Players much sampled Funky Worm. Firstly, the synth chords have a bright attack with a chorused sustain portion, and although this could be two parts layered, it’s also easy to create the effect in one patch. From TAL U-NO-LXs default patch, lower the sub volume to 2 , set the HPF fader to 3 and the VCF’s cutoff to 5. Turn on the chorus II effect and you have a basic Juno patch. To add the bright attack, simple raise both the envelope amount and decay faders to between 3 and 4. Use compression to smooth out the volume of the patch, and plenty of delay to give the patch a nice sense of ambience.
For the lead patch, use just the sawtooth wave with the HPF, cutoff and resonance faders all set to 5, and leave the chorus effect off for a dry sound. Once more, I used RC-20 Retro Color to give the lead synth track a vinyl flavour, aiming to create some subtle detuning and tone loss, which gives the track the same character it would have if it were sampled.
November opens with a warped sounding synth patch, that is reintroduced later in the song. The patch sounds complex, but is easy to create using Prophet V’s advanced modulation capabilities. Start again with the Pro5 2 Osc template, find the Poly-Mod section (top-left), activate the filter button and turn the Osc B knob up to 50%. This simply routes the pitch of oscillator B to the filter cutoff as a modulation source, creating unusual sounding filter movement. From here set the cutoff and envelope knobs to 10 o’clock and the resonance knob to 11 o’clock. Set the filter envelope’s attack time to 110ms and EQ out any low end below 300 Hz to clean up the patch.
See You Again
See You Again is one of the more layered tracks from Flower Boy, opening with simple piano accompaniment and growing to a quasi-orchestral vibe. The main synth that comes in at the 24 second mark can be created in Prophet V using detuned saw and square waves, a partially closed filter (cutoff at 2 o’clock) and a small touch of chorus (mix at 25%). The lead synth is a rich, string-style patch, and the same sound can be found in Arturia Solina V’s default patch, Blue Moon. I also used the Arturia plugins Piano V and Mini V to round out the piece.
Harmonically, only the last chord in this progression has out of key-notes, the first three chords are just I - vi- ii. The last chord, G7, is a tritone substitution of the V chord, which is C#7. In fact, these last two chords are functionally the same as the last two chords in the Foreword progression, from the start of this article!
Thanks for reading, and as usual you can find all the patches created above as a free download in the button below!
If you want to dig deeper into these Tyler, the Creator Synth Sounds, check out my Patreon page to get access to the MIDI files, multitrack stems, and Ableton Projects from the recreations in the article.
Tyler’s Instruments 3.0: Exhaustive list of samples and plugins used across Tyler’s work.
Read King Krule’s Interview With Tyler, The Creator: the two talk a lot about music and gear.
A Guide to Cadences: more exploration and explanation on jazz harmonic techniques.