This summer’s Netflix one-to-watch has undoubtably been the Duffer Brothers’ nostalgia soaked Stranger Things. Incase you’ve been living under a rock, the story follows a group of kids, a mother (played by Winona Ryder), two adolescents and a cop searching for Will Byers, a boy who vanishes in the first episode.
With clear hat tips to directors like Stephen King, John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, TV series like Twin Peaks and even The X-Files, Stranger Things has perfectly blended the right amount of thriller, science fiction, supernatural, horror, fantasy and good ol’ fashioned drama, spawning a plethora of fan art and adulation from all corners of the internet.
It also has an excellent soundtrack to match including the likes of Joy Division, Peter Gabriel, Toto, The Clash, Foreigner, Vangelis, as well as an excellent original score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the Austin Texas band S U R V I V E, which is what I want to concentrate on today.
We’ve probably already heard Luke Million’s superb replay of the opening theme but it was one of the other tracks from the OST that really gripped me. The soundtrack saw release on Friday 12th August 2016, and I’ve just got back from holiday today so I was able to purchase a copy and work on a quick replay of the track, Kids.
The Kids are Alright
The Kids theme can be heard in multiple places during Stranger Things, each with slightly variations. I felt it beautifully set the mood and tone in a way that only eighties music (or deliberate homages too) can.
S U R V I V E are known for using a plethora of analog synthesisers and drum machines, and luckily we can approximate many of the below synths with vsts and emulations from the likes of Arturia and Korg. That said most any subtractive emulation can get you close to many of the Stranger Things sounds.
As with other replays I’ve done, this isn’t going to be an exact copy, this is just a quick attempt at mimicking the vibe of a track that has captured my imagination. Let’s open up Ableton Live and set our tempo to 120 bpm.
The whole track is based in G minor, and all (at least that I could transcribe) fits solely within the G minor pentatonic scale (G, Bb, C, D, F and back to G). To program some of the sounds in this tutorial/replay, it’s at least worth being on first name terms with some of the parameters found in a common subtractive synthesiser.
TRIGGER WARNING: There is some preset tweaking in this article. If you are offended by the liberal tweaking of stock presets and think each sound should be carefully crafted from soldering resistors and capacitors to breadboards, please don’t wind yourself up by reading on.
Whilst it’s impossible to know exactly what Dixon and Stein used for the instrumentation, we can make some educated guesses. The first eight bars starts with a polyphonic motif that repeats in various guises throughout. Here’s what it looks like:
An alternating G and F in the right hand ping-pong off a high Bb with the left hand outlining the chords G minor, Bb, Eb, F at a rate of one note per bar.
To me it sounds like one of the great 80s poly monsters like a Roland Jupiter-8 (produced from between 1981-84), so I started out flicking through the Bright presets folder in the Arturia Jupiter-8V. I settled on the Celm_VibraPad02 patch and went about tweaking it.
Firstly I cranked the Balance knob all the way to the right, using just the top layer of the Jupiter. Next I spent time adjusting the filter and amplitude envelopes, carefully trying to match the decay and release settings to my reference.
I also disabled any LFO modulation on the filter and removed the synth’s internal FX. Lastly adjust the high-pass filter (HPF) to clean out some of the bassier sounds. To add some glassy swirliness to this I added the SoundToys Crystallizer, which emulated the Eventide H3000 – another 80s studio staple. Tweaking the Great Doubler preset got me to where I wanted.
I doubled the left hand part with Arturia’s Mini V, based on Moog’s game-changer the MiniMoog. The default patch it loads up is fine in terms of oscillators (three detuned sawtooths). I adjusted the cutoff frequency and filter emphasis (or resonance to you and I) until the harmonic content was there or there abouts.
One of the bigger challenges in this sound was getting the decay and sustain right, as it appears these are tweaked at various stages throughout the track. Here’s how the Moog and Jupiter sound together – not perfect but it gets us in the right ballpark.
The Jupiter then changes the lead pattern to a more half-time feel and we have an offbeat bass added to the mix, playing a G1. To me it sounds like a Korg PolySix, but it could be anything! I used probably the most rinsed patch of all time: the Korg Legacy PolySix‘s default patch (sorry synth Gods!) but it sat just fine.
To toughen it up a bit I added some compression from Live’s stock plug-in and the SoundToys Radiator, boosting the treble and increasing the input.
Now we hear the main theme for the first time. Depending on where you hear the soundtrack, this can be heard in slightly different variations. For example when the boys are dressing Eleven up in girls clothes and a wig there’s a variation of this in 6/8 (or 12/8, I can’t really remember).
This could be another Jupiter or similar bright eighties polys, but I opted for the KV331 SynthMaster, which is a damn cheap synth considering how powerful it is! This can handle subtractive, additive, FM, wavetable and more, so it’s a useful tool for get bright, expressive poly synths. Here’s a quick video detailing the front panel:
I started by reseting the patch. I’m only going to use one layer but you could add a second if you wanted something with more depth. Enable both Osc 1 and 2 and in the bottom right panel. These should default as sawtooths, which is what we’re after.
Switch their phase to be free. This means they wont restart from a certain position in their cycle each time a note is triggered. Set both of their voices to 3, and offset the Fine tune parameter on each. I also panned Osc 1 a little left and 2 a little right. Reduce the Detune to around 7’o’clock and increase the Stereo to close to 1’o’clock. This gives us a nice rich, shimmering sound. Sounding good.
Enable Filter 1, keeping it as a low-pass filter in Analog mode. I’ve set the cutoff at just under halfway and set the resonance to similar amount. I’ve used envelope 1 to control the filter cutoff as well as the amplitude. Reduce the sustain and increase the decay and release until it sounds sufficiently ethereal.
To finish off I enabled the Ensemble and EQ, adding some high shelf band in. In the FX page I’ve enabled the built-in Reverb, adjusting the Mix, Size and Distance to taste. Here it is, with the bass and motif:
To add some extra beef to this section, I’ve doubled the Moog bass with a Korg Mono/Poly (again from the legacy collection). This is a straight-up preset called Phat MG Bass. I bussed this and the Moog into group (shift select, then hit cmd + G) and two Waves plug-ins, the API-560 (boosting around 63 Hz) and the CLA-2A.
This isn’t really a bridge, I am just struggling to name each section. This is 32 bars in, and we have our first “chord change”. We have some synthetic string-like sound added playing an Eb and G minor chord. For this any Solina-like strings would suffice but I’ve opted for the Arturia Oberheim SEM V (an emulation of the Oberheim SEM).
I found a patch called KL_PseudoOrch_St which was fine. I reduced the attack time of the filter to make it sound a little less pompous. Finally some high-pass filter courtesy of Live’s stock Auto Filter to reduce the low-end.
In this section the Moog, Mono/Poly and PolySix move to a different pattern and the Jupiter plays the same G, Bb, F, Bb ostinato:
This leads into a breakdown with just the strings and the Jupiter, and then to our last section.
Main Theme Reprise
We now move to the final section of the track, with the PolySix switching to this sequenced octave bass line:
This could well have been triggered via the rim shot output of a TR-X0X drum machine or similar, but I’ve just programmed at in.
The final ingredient in this section is a thin arpeggiated line, running up a G minor pentatonic scale, creating a 6 against 4 polyrhythm. For this I’ve used the Arturia Prophet-V (an emulation of a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5). This is a simple two oscillator patch with Osc A set to a pulse wave (with the pulse width just after halfway) and Osc B set to a triangle and sawtooth, tuned down one octave.
This runs into the low-pass filter with a quick envelope decay and sustain set to about half way. Almost certainly the filter envelope amount was adjusted live in tracking, so I’ve approximated this by with some automation:
I’ve used Live’s Auto Filter to remove the unwanted bass and the Waves Aphex Vintage Exciter to add some presence to the sound. There’s some echo on this too, which I used the SoundToys excellent EchoBoy (easily my favourite delay plug-in) on a send/return track. I set the rate to 1/4 beat, turned the mix to full and the feedback to about halfway. I found the Space Echo algorithm to work best (an emulation of the classic Roland RE-201 Space Echo).
To finish off the mix I added some Valhalla Shimmer and SoundToys LittlePrimalTap on sends. These are both eighties-sounding effects to me (or early nineties in the case of Shimmer but…). These helped butter some elements of the mix up like the leads and arpeggios.
On the master bus I added an instance of Fielding DSP Reviver (great cheap plug-in) to add a bit of third order harmonics. I topped it off with some Waves SSL Bus Compression and PSP Vintage Warmer. Here’s the finished mix!
It’s certainly NOT perfect but I just wanted to capture the mood of this haunting but uplifting piece. This is only really a mornings work and although I may be able to get marginally closer than I have done to certain sounds, I’m happy with where it is as a guide.
I, of course, (like many others) love the Stranger Things soundtrack but also the genre as a whole, and there are loads of other great eighties synthwave stuff to check out if you like this. For example I would highly recommend Makeup and Vanity Set, Boards of Canada’s later work, Mitch Murder and almost anything you can find here.
If you enjoyed this, feel free to download the project and MIDI here. Any comments, criticism and feedback welcomed.
But wait, there’s more….
The nice guys at Reverb.com have also published this video on the synthesisers used in the soundtrack, including Kids at 5.12. Enjoy: