How to program a classic cinematic synth lead sound

Many of the most memorable sounds in movie soundtrack history are based in analogue synthesis - these days, we can emulate them in software…

Nowadays, electronic instrumentation is everywhere in cinematic sound design, but 40-50 years ago, the analogue synth was a gamechanger for film composers and audiences alike.

From Walter/Wendy Carlos' pioneering work on A Clockwork Orange, through the flawless minimalist stylings of John Carpenter (Halloween, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13) to Vangelis' seminal orchestro-analogue backdrop to Blade Runner, the early days of the voltage-driven soundtrack were a watershed in movie music. In this walkthrough, we'll show you how to relive them in the comfort of your computer-based studio.

Check out the May edition of Computer Music's full Cinematic Atmospheres cover feature for more advice on silver-screen sound design.

Step 1: Synthesisers really began taking a lead role in film scores during the 70s and 80s. Artists such as John Carpenter and Vangelis brought now-classic leads and textures to the fore of popular culture. Let’s create one of these classic lead sounds from scratch. Start by creating a new stereo instrument channel and load in an instance of Zebra CM

Step 2: Zebra CM is a powerful synth, but we’re going to keep it basic for this tutorial. Change the mode of Oscillator 1 to Single and turn Oscillator 2’s Volume all the way down. We only need one envelope to control both the amplitude and filter, so head to the centre panel and change the VCA box to Env2.

Step 3: These classic synth leads tend to have a gentle attack and a long release time, so change Envelope 2’s Attack to 40, Sustain to max and Release to 85. Pull the filter Cutoff back to 40 to roll off high-end, and turn the Env2 parameter to 90 - now Envelope 2 is modulating the filter cutoff. 

Step 4: Time for effects. For instant repeats, double-click Zebra CM’s Delay 1 icon, then pull the delay Mix up to 30. TAL-Chorus-LX is a fantastic free chorus effect - drop it in after Zebra CM and leave it at its default setting for swimming width. Finally, drop in your DAW’s stock reverb and crank the decay time up to about 7 seconds - majestic! 

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