Next to Aphex Twin, there is perhaps no-one more synonymous with the cringe inducing term “IDM” than Tom Jenkinson, better known to most as Squarepusher. Part virtuoso bass player, part programming wizard, Squarepusher has had a fantastically eclectic career, wowing both bedroom producers and wannabe Fleas alike.
Jenkinson’s earlier works came from a more jungle/drum’n’bass background, compared to his peers on Warp, whom have tended to emerge from the acid techno scene. His live show is really something to behold, with blistering slap bass, jaw-dropping visuals and music that sounds so futuristic it’d give even Hal 9000 an anxiety attack.
Squarepusher, like many of his contemporaries, has weaved elegantly through many different styles and genres. From his aforementioned earlier jazz jungle leanings like Feed Me Weird Things and Hard Normal Daddy to more esoteric and brutal digital explorations such as Ultravisitor and what we’re going to look at today; Go Plastic from 2001, in particular a little ditty of a track Tommib. For anyone who doesn’t know the track, here it is in it’s original glory:
Tommib is probably more familiar to the masses as “that weird Rhodes track from the Lost in Translation OST”, which to those who know it, is a great soundtrack. I want to take a quick look at getting close to the sound. I’ll be using Ableton Live but any DAW will do.
N.B this soundtrack is awesome and has contributions from Kevin Shields, Death in Vegas, AIR, Phoenix, The Jesus & Mary Chain and Sebastien Tellier, to name but a few. So if you’ve been living under a rock I would seriously recommend digging this one out.
Tommib is in the key of Db, which sounds like a pain-in-the-arse key signature but in actuality it’s “all the black notes plus a few white ones”, to those in the know.
Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db
The motif is quite simple and repetitive, so they key to making it sound natural is the rubato feel. Here’s an excellent (and weirdly under appreciated) performance from YouTuber Leroy Illanois, who has kindly added the little black dots for us to play-along to.
Okay so if you didn’t catch that here is the main loop:
…and if you don’t read music here’s the piano roll:
[BTW if anyone from Ableton ever reads this, please consider adding a score editor in future, it would reach push the DAW over the edge for me <3. Ed.]
The Synth Sound
Around the time of Go Plastics, Jenkinson has been quoted as saying two of the main synths in use on this record were the Yamaha TX81Z and FS1R. Listening to Tommib I would hazard a guess that it’s the former; a rack-mounted FM synth released by then Yamaha corporation in 1987.
A stripped down version of the DX-11, it had 8 voices of polyphony and is responsible for some of the most famous bass sounds in dance music. I’m going to try and get close to it using Native Instruments FM8.
Because this sound is fairly complex, I’m going to skip over explaining every feature in detail, instead I’d implore you to read this on ambient pads in FM8, where I explain my thinking a little more along the way. Let’s start in the master section.
As per the original unit, I’ve set the voices to 8. Add some Analog and Digital quality – these will add some subtle detune (analog) and sample rate and bit reduction (digital).
Next let’s have a look at our operators. Each of the six operators here are in pairs: A and B, C and D and E and F. I’ve utilised the handy “TX waves” FM8 comes bundled with, and detuning each of the pairs apart (with the Ratio and Offset). E and F are also Key Synced, meaning their phase will restart at 0º when a new note is triggered.
In the FM matrix you can see that only E, F and Z are routed to the master (Z is our multimode filter, which I am using a simple low-pass). Notice too that each pair is panned apart, widening the sound.
Each Operator is modulating E and F, as well as being fedback into itself to add some extra crunch. It’s really easy to overdo this, so be wary of how much modulation you do.
In addition each operator has some degree of velocity modulation added. This means higher velocities will increase the amplitude of that operator, thus increasing the frequency modulation. Again this is easy to overdo so always tweak your operators to find their sweet spots.
From our envelopes page you can see most operators share a similar shape: short attack, long decay, low to medium sustain and long release. A tip with this is always ensure the FM operators (the ones not being heard, A, B, C and D) have longer releases than E and F. This will prevent any weird choking sounds.
To tie this up I’ve added some slow LFO modulation to E and F in the Mod tab, some reverb and tremolo from the Effects section. Finally the Easy/Morph tab means we can make broader changes more easily. I’ve increased the vibrato, tremolo, detune and velocity slightly, while lengthening all of the envelope parameters:
It’s not perfect but it’s a good start:
Effecting our Patch
To get a slightly closer sound let’s add some warble courtesy of Eventide’s UltraChannel, using a tweaked version of the Thriller Background preset. This uses the Micro Pitch unit which is similar to the Eventide harmonisers Squarepusher would have used around the time of recording.
I’ve added a smidgen of compression and reverb (both stock Live effects) to help smoothen out some of transients from FM8. Lastly we’ll add some Valhalla Shimmer on a return track. This unit closely emulates some of the early 90s reverb units like the Alesis Quadraverb series. It’s not easy to know exactly what would have been used, and this is far from perfect, but it’s buttered up our playing nicely:
I’m not sure hearing this you’d do a double-take but it’s close enough for a morning’s work. Hopefully it’s shed some light on the composition and synthesis of this excellent track from an astounding producer.
Oddly there was a track from Ultravisitor called Tommib Help Buss, which apart from being a similarly short ambient noodle, bares little relationship to Tommib. Here it is:
Finally, if you want to get into Squarepusher but don’t know where to start, some smart-arse has compiled this pretty good flow chart of his albums, some of which I’m not even familiar with. Happy tweaking!