In the June 2014 issue of Electronic Musician, Tony Ware profiles Chromeo's White Women studio sessions.
Here, Patrick "P-Thugg" Gemayel muses on vintage synths and modern mixes.
Most vintage synthesizers to me don’t sound electronic; what sounds electronic to me is something that stays on pitch, all the oscillators are aligned, all the voices are the same pitch. That makes the base of the sound very cold and stable. That’s why I love older synthesizers; they each have their own personality, their own quirks in completely different frequency ranges.
However, there are definitely sounds you want to avoid for two reasons: one is that the sound is so classic and everywhere you don’t want to put yourself out there using the same thing. Or, that sound … for example, everybody loves the [LinnDrum] LM-1. It’s classic, you put it on and you know what it is, you can’t get away from it. But I wouldn’t do a song with the LM-1 from beginning to end because there are a million Prince and Phil Collins records that have it; the secret is out. I’d rather use something that makes you think it’s an LM-1 but it creates a buzz around it because it’s not exactly the same. You want to give people the sounds and remind them of the era, but not give it directly, too on point. I’ll always find an alternate drum sound that’s as beefy, but sounds a bit more modern, a bit different. You want to try and keep a bit of mystery in the sounds and machines you’re using.
Once you have your main synth line you can’t always keep adding to compensate; you need to limits yourself to two, maybe three sounds in a stack. Once you have your main synth to throw your progression on then you get a bit more of a final product, with the bass, synth, drums, guitar, and that’s when you might know what to add with another synth, what’s missing and what you can find in another synth.
I learned a lot of my machines by trying to recreate classic patches, like the Van Halen“Jump” tone. Experimenting with something familiar helps you understand the effect of oscillators, subtractive and additive synthesis, etc., because you can compare your result to a well-known texture and see how each decision changes it, puts it in a new category.
The first time I learned to sync an oscillator to another oscillator … that classic Prophet 5 sound, basically it syncs the second oscillator to the first following a certain envelope. So the second goes high pitch low pitch back to the original pitch following a decay or envelope you gave it, but before you learn that you have to understand what the sound is, then you find out why it does that. So every time you have a sound you want to learn, get in the machine, route everything possible, know the machine by heart. That’s how I experiment, within machines rather than using them to filter snippets, etc. If you just do that you end up with plenty of great two-bar loops, but no songs.
When I get a new synth I often wipe the presets so that I’ll be forced to come up with my own ways to make the oscillators react. And it teaches me how to make sure everything sounds good coming out of the synth itself, not through a long signal chain. The most important thing is I try to keep my synths as clean as I can, having them reworked every year, changing the power supplies, etc.
My first synth was a Moog Prodigy, and I can still taste what it sounds like, even if it’s hard to explain to someone else.
If I need to deal with frequencies I prefer tweaking the hardware that’s right in front of me till it feels good out of the speaker rather than going visual and trying to get it to “look”good, because you can get lost looking at WAV files and cycling through multiple plugins windows to reshape things.
A great thing the Internet has given up is leaked multitrack sessions. It’s amazing to be able to pull up a famous song and dissect everything, learn what everybody is playing, what the guitar does, what the Rhodes does, what the piano does, what the bass does … how these things were built and how the parts affect each other.
Dave and I have the same lingo, but I’m a bit more technical, so sometimes I have to translate what he’s saying. If he says he wants more wah, it means more filter and resonance.
We’re both working to achieve sounds that can sound just as good against modern records as they do vintage ones, because we’re competing frequency-wise against contemporary kicks and subs while referencing the eras we love.