There's something about older recordings that just takes you back in time. Maybe it's the production techniques that time-stamps certain songs. Or maybe it's the recording medium and equipment itself that captures the feeling of the old days. I wanted to create a collection of instruments that sound like they came right out of a time machine. I grew up in the 80's, watching MTV and VHS tapes; so the mission of this project is to bring back the sounds of my childhood.
The 80's VHS Synths Ableton Live Pack is combination of all of these elements! It's a collection of 80's style synth presets, programmed on analog and digital synthesizers, recorded to VHS tape and then resampled into Ableton Live.
The Synthesizers Behind the Sound
Creating this Pack was a pretty big undertaking. The first step was to program the synths with appropriately 80's sounds. For this I turned to my collection of Analog, Digital, and Virtual synths. Let's discuss the hardware involved....
The Sequential Circuits Prophet 6 is probably the largest contributor to this Pack. After all, it is basically an updated version of the classic Prophet 5, which was an 80's mainstay. This synth is so fun to program, and the built in effects (especially the Chorus) were often a nice touch to recreate a vintage sheen. The Prophet 6 is truly a beast and every time I use it I get inspired by it.
Korg Volca FM
FM synthesis was a defining part of the 80's synth sound. The Korg Volca FM allows you to import actual Yamaha DX7 patches, and they are really spot on. I downloaded a few patch libraries and chose some of the more 80's sounding presets. Some of the patches were edited right on the Volca, to get the sounds just right. The Volca FM is a homerun by Korg. The only downside is now I want to get some of the other Volcas!
Moog Realistic Concertmate
I first played this synth at the Brooklyn Synth Expo held at Main Drag Music. I put the headphones on, and two minutes later twenty minutes had gone by. I bought it right then. This synth really transports you to another world. It's super gritty and noisy. It has two oscillators, a bell tone (which is essential another oscillator), one of the most interesting sounding noise generators, and a polyphonic layer. This synth requires periodic tuning, but it sounds like nothing else.
Novation Bass Station II
I don't really hear a lot of discussion about this synth, but it has really grown on me over the last two years or so. It excels at bass sounds, there's a few different filters that each have a ton of character, and there's an awesome arpeggiator and sequencer. It's also USB powered! A lot of the bass sounds in the 80's VHS Synth Pack came from this guy.
Sampling the Synths to a VCR
After programming my synth patches, I recorded multiple samples of each patch into Clips in Ableton Live. The next step in the process was to record the samples of each patch to a VHS tape. I found it surprisingly difficult to acquire a functioning VCR. The one I have been storing at home would not record audio. I spent a weekend traveling to neighborhood garage sales with no luck. The next option was thrift stores. It wasn't until the third stop that I found a couple of old VCRs. Only one of them had stereo audio inputs, and luckily I got it to work.
I set up my clips in Live with some Follow Actions, so they would automatically play and move on to the next clip. There were over 50 Clips, so this was a real time saver. (More on Follow Actions here and here). I pressed record on the VCR and started my Clips. Here's a short Instagram video I made of the process:
Once I recorded all of the Clips to the VCR, I rewound the tape, pressed record in Live, pressed play on the VCR and recorded all of the samples back into Live. I was very pleased at how much the VHS tape had changed the samples. They still sounded like the originals, but there were now subtle imperfections and noise from the tape. It's exactly what I was going for!
Then came the tedious process of cutting that new audio file into individual samples of each synth preset. I'm glad that part is over!
Building the Instrument Racks
I didn't want to be stuck with the sound of the presets as I had programmed them, so I created Instrument Racks to allow each sound to be fully customized. Therefore, each preset has a Low and High Pass Filter, with a shared Resonance control. There's also a Filter Envelop with adjustable speed to add movement to the Filters. These controls allow you to sculpt away frequencies you don't want and add some interesting movement to the sounds. The Attack and Release controls let you decide how quickly the sound fades in and out. Finally, the Tone Shifter control changes the way the samples are distributed across the keys, causing interesting stretching of the samples. This drastically changes the overall tonality of each preset.
So many of the patches I made sounded really cool with arpeggiators on them, so I thought I would build a super arpeggiator for each preset. The Low and High Arp. MIDI Effect Rack is another set of controls you can use to further alter each preset in the collection. It's actually two arpeggiators in one rack and is capable of some cool effects. You have a Low Arp and a High Arp; the High Arp is one octave above the Low Arp. Turn them both on by using the corresponding Rate knobs, and you can create all kinds of intertwining rhythmic arpeggiations. If you leave the Low Arp off (turn the Low Arp Rate knob all the way to the left), you can hold sustained chords while the High Arp dances around on top. It's a really powerful effect that I think you will love!
Some Fun Extras to Capture the VHS Experience!
As soon as I powered up the VCR and put the tape in, I remembered that just the sound of the machine running, playing, rewinding, and ejecting tapes was a huge part of the experience (and probably why VCRs eventually went obsolete!). So I put a microphone in front of the VCR and recorded all the sounds it makes. I sliced this sample to a Drum Rack, and now you can use these sounds in your productions, either for percussion or special effects!
Finally, I recorded samples of the VHS tape playing back silence. It's a very noisy silence! The tape creates a characteristic hiss which I had to capture. I did this with three different VCRs I collected, which all had slightly different noise character. I put these samples into an Instrument Rack. I then created another chain on the Instrument Rack, which I labeled "Add Inst. Here." You can simply drop any Instrument or VST right on that chain, and it will sound as if it were recorded onto a VHS tape. The Macro Controls allow you to mix in the VHS Noise Volume, and to select between the three different VHS Noises (they are arranged from quietest to loudest).
80's VHS Ableton Live Pack
58 Ableton Live Instrument Racks made from samples of various analog and digital synthesizers. The synths were recorded on to VHS tapes with an old VCR, and then imported into Ableton Live. The VHS samples were used to create the instruments in this collection.
*Requires Live Standard 9.6 and above*
So that's how I created the 80's VHS Synths Ableton Live Pack. It's something I've been meaning to do for years, and I couldn't be happier with the results. I'm always trying to add character, warmth and imperfections into my music, and this collection makes it so easy. I hope you will check it out and make some music with a nice vintage flare to it. Have fun!