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The art of synth soloing: how to get Lyle Mays' signature synth sound

(Image credit: Getty/Michel Delsol )

Whenever anyone compiles a list of the most famous synth sounds, Lyle Mays’ ocarina-like lead is certain to be in the Top 10. That’s interesting, considering he never took a true solo with it: He used synths exclusively as orchestration tools. Yet the sound became his signature, and every few months I see people asking on synth and keyboard forums how to make it. 

Synthesizers designed since the advent of patch memory usually come with a preset paying homage to the sound. Yet far too often, they come close but don’t nail it. So with Lyle’s help, let’s explore this beloved timbre.

A bit of research

When the original Pat Metheny Group was formed, Lyle started with acoustic piano, autoharp, and an Oberheim Four-Voice analogue synth (see Figure 1). It was used sparingly on their first recording, and the classic sound didn’t appear until their second release, American Garage, on the tune “The Search” in 1979. By the time of our first interview with Lyle in the October 1980 issue of Contemporary Keyboard, he related that he had recently added a Rev. 2 Prophet-5 to his arsenal and was using digital delay (likely an MXR M113) on both synths, along with reverb. He recreated the sound on the Prophet, using both synths for many years. After constantly having to repair the Prophet (he had two), he finally replaced it with a Roland JX-10 in the late ‘80s, again re-creating the sound, and he used the JX through the rest of his time with the group. Somewhere along the way, he sampled the Prophet-5 version of it into Pat’s Synclavier, and he still uses those samples today, played using MOTU’s MachFive software sampler.

Fig 1. Lyle’s ocarina lead as he first made it using an Oberheim Four Voice, re-created here using Arturia’s Oberheim SEM V software. 

Fig 1. Lyle’s ocarina lead as he first made it using an Oberheim Four Voice, re-created here using Arturia’s Oberheim SEM V software.  (Image credit: Arturia)

The sound

Considering that Lyle had added the Prophet-5 by the time the album As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls was recorded in September of 1980, it is most likely the Prophet-5 version of the sound that we are most familiar with from the tune “It’s For You.” So I’ll explore it using that engine with the help of Arturia’s Prophet V software (see Figure 2). The basics of the sound are very simple; detuned square waves (± 2 to 5 cents) with a relatively dark filter cutoff, with no real envelope shaping of the filter. Being an ocarina/flute-type sound it does not have a percussive attack, so soften your amp envelope’s first stage to taste. Lyle has never used velocity control on the sound and chose to have the amp envelope settle down to a slightly lower level than the attack.

Fig 2. Lyle Mays’ signature ocarina sound, as realized on Arturia’s Prophet-V. 

Fig 2. Lyle Mays’ signature ocarina sound, as realized on Arturia’s Prophet-V.  (Image credit: Arturia)

The secret to giving the sound its notable character is to use an envelope to create a slight downward pitch bend on one of the oscillators. Lyle stated that the concept for the sound was based on his recollection of playing in a flutophone ensemble in early elementary school. Whenever the group would start to play, half of the kids would get the note wrong, and then settle in when they heard what the others were doing. So this “disagreement of pitch” was what he wanted to recreate. Given the Poly-Mod design of the Prophet-5, this would have come from using the Filter Envelope to modulate FreqA, or the first oscillator (look at the top left of the synth in Figure 1 again). You want the pitch to start sharp of the note and settle down into it, retaining some detuning between the two oscillators.

Lyle was kind enough to share an isolated audio snippet of his sampled Prophet-5 version of the sound, which we have posted online to accompany this article. Sans the usual effects, it is very striking how prominent that pitch modulation is. You should experiment with the depth of the modulation and the decay time of the envelope to dial this “swoop” to taste. Be sure to have a long release on the modulating envelope so you don’t hear any further pitch movement when you release the key.

Effects play an important role in the sound, and you want to create a wash of delay without any prominent repeats, so dial back the mix to create more of an ambient effect. Both Lyle and Pat used delays that could add a bit of pitch modulation to the sound, so a modulation-delay algorithm with the slightest pitch mod is truest to his sound. Using a straight chorus can be done in a pinch, but keep it dialled back. A touch of reverb and you’re done! 

Ideas for building on this foundation

Lyle mentioned to me that he often introduced a touch of pulse width modulation, which can be driven by an LFO. Just be careful not to go too far, so the sound doesn’t lose its hollow characteristic. A shallow, slow movement can add a nice bit of life to the sound. In synths with sampled waveforms you can layer in any number of additional timbres to make the sound richer. Obviously ocarina, pan-flute, blown bottles and other wind-driven sounds can compliment it nicely, but you don’t want them to overpower the square wave tonality, so blend them back. Airy vocal components can add nicely to the sound, dialled way back so they are felt more than heard. Any sound with a prominent attack “chiff” should be adjusted to lose that. You might be able to adjust the sample start point to just after this transient or use a soft attack envelope to slightly fade in the sound.

If your synth allows it, routing velocity to the depth of the envelope that is modulating the pitch can be a nice way of interacting with that attack characteristic in a musical way. Set it up so your softest playing doesn’t have much pitch swoop (little to no direct modulation from the envelope) and harder playing brings it in more prominently (by routing velocity to envelope depth). If you’re staying true to Lyle’s vision, your amp should have no velocity modulation, so the sound will stay at the same volume no matter your touch, only the pitch swoop will react.

Thanks are in order

“It’s been endlessly flattering to see new synths come out with my name in the patch list,” said Lyle. “But I have to say that no one ever nailed the sound.” Now with his help we all can get closer and pay musical tribute to his enduring sonic legacy. And by the way, you do know he also plays piano, right?