Unknown Mortal Orchestra is the project of Ruban Nielson, a New Zealand born musician who records and produces from his Portland basement studio. The band have a unique character, mixing 70s influences such as Bowie and Prince with a distinctly vintage processed sound to create a soulful lo-fi vibe. Nielson played everything on UMO’s debut album, but on subsequent releases, he has collaborated with his brother Kody Nielson and longtime bassist Jacob Portrait.
Pictures of Nielson’s basement studio reveal several keyboards that he has used over the years. First is a Korg SV1, which is likely used for electric piano sounds. For synths, Nielson has used a Roland RS-09, Korg Lambda ES50, and a Korg MiniKorg 700s, which the band have toured with. All three are vintage synths dating from the mid-to-late 70s. More recently the band have been using a Moog Sub37 and Lil Phatty for live performances, likely due to their suitability for life on the road. Also an electronics enthusiast, Nielson builds his own custom guitar pedals, mostly modified fuzz units.
Unknown Mortal Tape
One of the biggest factors in Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s sound is the use (and abuse) of tape. Nielson’s recording techniques involve using tape recorders and various other pieces of outboard gear to achieve a warm, crunchy sound, akin to certain recordings from the 1970s.
Tape affects its signal source in many different ways, such as compression, saturation and the recolouring of music’s tone. Higher input levels can be used to increase the amount of compression and saturation. The cover of 2015’s Multi-Love is a photo of Nielson’s basement studio, prominently showing two Fostex Model 80s, with one being hooked up to a Chandler Mini Rack Mixer.
There are a multitude of software tape simulator plugins, offering different characters and layers of depth. In this article I’ll use XLN RC-20 Retro Color, as it sounds great, does several different things in one plugin, and is easy to use. You can also achieve some tape-like character by using saturation/drive plugins like your DAWs built-in effects, or Soundtoys Decapitator, and analog-style compressors like Ableton Live’s Glue Compressor or PSPAudioware VintageWarmer and OldTimer.
“Of course I have a lot more shit than I had during the first two records. I made those with mostly one cheap microphone, a laptop, a little 15 watt amp and some tape recorders. That is more than enough if you have a few tunes I think. I picked up other stuff as I went but those were my main tools.” – Ruban Nielson
Multi-Love opens with a catchy Wurlitzer sequence that repeats throughout much of the song. The Wurlitzer is an electronic piano, popular in the 70s, and heavily used by Unknown Mortal Orchestra as the main instrument. Arturia Wurli V is a software emulation of the legendary Wurlitzer, with great sound and plenty of character tweaking options. Here’s what the basic patch sounds like:
- Multi-Love Wurli Dry 00:00
Sounds nice, but it’s missing that vintage UMO character. You want to run the track through some tape-style plugins, such as XLN’s RC-20 Retro Color, focusing on adding tuning drift, saturation, and tape-style wear/flutter. One of the most important settings is the EQ, which is at the bottom of the interface, although a separate EQ will act the same. Here I’ve added a high-pass and low-pass filter at 370 Hz and 4.9 kHz, respectively. You can see the full settings below. After Retro Color, I’ve run the track through an EQ with a notch cut at 1 kHz, which slices out a chunk of the midrange, and some heavy compression.
- Multi-Love Wurli w/RC-20 00:00
Worth checking out is the SongExploder episode on Multi-Love, where Nielson discusses writing the song and its influences. He also mentions using a broken synthesizer that he had repaired on the track, most likely the Crumar Orchestrator seen in his Instagram pictures. The Native Instruments Kontakt Library Retro Machines Mk2 features an emulation of the Orchestrator, and the patch Orchestrated Strings is perfect for recreating the original patch.
- Multi-Love Orch 00:00
Lastly, here’s the full track. As with the original, the Orchestrator synth track is buried in the mix but adds some subtle character to the electric piano part which it doubles. The bass guitar in the video is a Fender P-Bass run through Ableton’s EQ, Decapitator and PSP OldTimer.
Not in Love We're Just High
The lumbering groove of Not in Love We’re Just High uses the Wurlitzer run through a strong phaser effect, which is a classic effect choice for the Wurli. This time, we’ll create a Wurli V patch from scratch. Open up the under-the-hood settings by clicking the side panels, and select the Harsh High End harmonic variation, which will give us a nice, bright starting point. Set the PU distance, PU axis and impendence settings to 90%, 42%, and 50% respectively. The PU settings refer to the pickups, which has a big effect on the electric side of the sound. The impedance setting causes the sound to become longer and more sustained. You can also dial in some EQ settings here, boosting the bass and making another cut at 1 kHz.
Wurli V has a phaser effect built in, in the appearance of a guitar pedal below the body. Turn it on and dial in a subtle but thick setting, I found a rate of 0.557 Hz and a depth of 50% worked well! I also made a subtle EQ cut at 720 Hz and RC-20 for tape effects.
Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays
The electric piano sound in Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays also uses a Wurlitzer sound run through a phaser. This time use the harmonic variation Low End Boost as a starting point and notice the different character this setting gives the patch. This time Set the PU distance, PU axis and impendence settings to 80%, 0%, and 80% respectively, again listening to how they affect the sound. Turn on the phaser again, with the depth at 38%.
Necessary Evil is built around a tight guitar, bass and drums groove, and only makes light use of electric piano. One highlight of the song is the synth lead that plays during the introduction and several times throughout. I initially mistook the lead for an organ but had better luck recreating it with a mono synth. If you listen closely, you can hear the track has some stereo-width, meaning it was likely run through a chorus effect. The track may have been recorded from the Korg MiniKorg 700s, which has a vintage onboard chorus effect.
To recreate the patch in Arturia Mini V, use three oscillators tuned to 16’, 8’ and 4’, then set the waveforms to square, narrow-rectangular and triangle, setting the volume of the 16’ oscillator to 2. Lower the filter cutoff to halfway and set resonance the 6 mark. Recreate the subtle tremolo by opening the extended panel, going to the modulation matrix and routing the LFO to VCA AM, which is the amplifier sections volume. Set the modulation amount to 0.0836 and set the LFO rate to 3.57 Hz. Lastly, go to the effects section and turn on the Chorus and set the mix level to 30% wet, with depth set to 0.30.
Can't Keep Checking My Phone
One of the bands biggest songs, Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, is one of their more layered pieces. Here the electric piano is one of the quietest layers, accompanied by strings, synths and guitar. For the strings, I used the Retro Machines Mk2 patch Orchestrated Strings patch again, with separate layers for higher and lower octaves. For the electric piano, I used the basic Wurli V patch Midrange.
- Wurli & Strings 00:00
The synth stabs patch is highly resonant and may have been run through Nielson’s guitar pedals, particularly an envelope follower, to create the effect. Set up a basic patch in Arturia Prophet V (or any polyphonic synth) with one oscillator tuned an octave above the other. Set the oscillator’s volume so that the higher-tuned oscillator is louder than the lower-tuned oscillator, creating an even balance.
Set the filter cutoff to the 9 o’clock mark with resonance at halfway and envelope amount set to maximum. Set the filter envelope with a 1300ms decay and no sustain, creating a resonant filter sweep on each chord stab. For the envelope follower effect, I used Live’s Auto Filter effect on bandpass mode with the envelope knob set to 70. This moves the filter in time with the incoming signal, creating an auto-wah effect typical of certain guitar pedals.
The overall mix is unusual and the effect of the hardware processing is very apparent. Many of the elements in the original are almost buried in the mix, leaving lots of room for Nielson’s vocal.
Most Loved Synthesizer Moments: Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Ruban Nielson’s handpicked favourite synth tracks.
Reverb Soundcheck: Unknown Mortal Orchestra. A rundown of UMO’s live equipment, including some great insight on the vintage synths they bring on the road and Nielson’s pedalboard.
UMO Drums. An UMO inspired drum sample pack from PastToFutureSamples, used for the drum tracks in this articles videos.