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How to play synth solos like ‘Fifth Beatle’ Billy Preston

As anticipation builds ahead of the release of Get Back, Peter Jackson’s new three-part documentary on the making of Let It Be, we’re celebrating the fifth Beatle, keyboard legend Billy Preston - who played on the album - and in particular his ‘70’s synth classic Space Race.

Released in 1973 as a follow-up to the monster Outta Space, it topped the charts for a short time (#4 Hot 100, and #1 R&B Single). This was a powerful achievement for an all-instrumental funk jam. 

The sound

Billy used the ARP Pro Soloist for the track, which is in keeping with the comments he made in his first interview in Keyboard Magazine back in February 1977, when he stated: “… I prefer pre-patched synthesizers, because they’re quicker and easier to use onstage.”

He was an Arp endorser, and was featured in an ad for the Pro Soloist touting his use of it specifically for the song. The ad even tells us he used the Trumpet preset with the Wow function.

The Pro Soloist was a single oscillator preset analogue synth with some unique features like fixed bank filter resonators per preset, and a primitive but effective form of aftertouch for sound modulation. It’s not easy to recreate its sounds, but we can come close enough to enjoy covering the tune.

We used Logic Pro’s venerable ES-2 synth (also available in MainStage), but any subtractive synth worth its circuitry (real, modeled or otherwise) can get there.

The Pro Soloist’s single oscillator output a blend of Sawtooth and Pulse, so we can achieve that using two oscillators with a bit more of the narrow Pulse Wave audible in the mix. No detuning please, if you want to be accurate, or very little if you are inclined to thicken up your waveform.

How to play synth solos like Billy Preston

(Image credit: Apple)

Use a 24dB low-pass filter, as you are imitating the PS’s imitation of a Moog ladder filter. Crank up the Resonance to between 60-75% - trust your ears with this. To get the Wow function you’ll need to use an envelope to modulate the filter cutoff as seen in Fig. 2. 

A medium slow attack with a fairly slow decay to a bright sustain is needed. Then you need to play with the levels of the envelope modulation versus the filter cutoff until it sounds right to you.

The Amp envelope should be fully open, but you might back off the attack a few steps to avoid any clicks. The sound must be in mono mode, with legato triggering so the filter only opens when you play detached notes. Your legato playing can’t have any of the ‘wow’ effect, and should be smooth and bright. Set your pitch modulation LFO to around 7.3Hz.

The final step is to create a super-fast LFO-to-Filter Cutoff modulation routing to imitate the Growl function of the Pro Soloist. This second LFO will have to be as fast as your synth can generate, which may not be fast enough, unless you’re using a true analogue. The Pro Soloist generated a 32 Hz modulation rate! We have it set to 20 Hz, which is the best the ES-2 can do, and it’s close, but not as fast as the original.

If your synth has aftertouch you can use that to bring in the filter modulation, and leave the Mod Wheel for vibrato, or vice versa. No aftertouch? You can use any controller you wish: a foot pedal is nice since it leaves your hands free for playing and vibrato, but a ribbon or a slider will do.

The solo

An important part of keeping things interesting is noting how Billy interacted with the sound, changing small but important elements throughout the tune. You’ll want to set up some tasteful portamento to do glides like those we hear at the :50 mark, but have it able to be turned on and off via a switch.

To emphasize the ‘wow’ you’ll want to lower the Filter Cutoff at times and play all detached notes, and then open it up again and play more legato. Vary your use of vibrato versus the fast filter modulation. 

We’ve shown the main melodic figure in Example 1, and the refrain melody in Example 2.  Example 3 shows his first solo, which starts off in A Mixolydian mode and quickly moves into some basic A Major Blues scale licks. Nothing difficult, but it’s highly melodic, which surely helped the song to catch on with so many listeners.

Example 1

How to play synth solos like Billy Preston

(Image credit: Future)

Example 2

How to play synth solos like Billy Preston

(Image credit: Future)

Example 3

How to play synth solos like Billy Preston

(Image credit: Future)