Recreating Toro y Moi's Synths with Software Instruments

Banner Photo by Patrick Jeffords

Toro y Moi's evolving sound has always been unique—his albums have drifted through the labels chillwave, hip-hop, psychedelic, and synth pop—yet his music is always clearly recognisable as his own. 2017's offering, Boo Boo is a nostalgic-sounding, synth-driven album that blends emotional songwriting with a slick '80s-influenced backing.

Toro y Moi is a big advocate of hardware synths, and he has been known to use a Moog Voyager, a Roland JX-3P and a Korg MS2000, as well as his Fender Rhodes electric piano.

Many of Boo Boo's most prominent sounds come from the Yamaha DX7, where the synth takes centre stage and imparts its own voice on the album. In a 2013 interview, Chaz Bundick said:

"I recently got this Yamaha DX7s synth. It's awesome. I'm using that on everything right now."

The DX7 quickly became the best-selling synthesizer when it hit the markets in 1983, and it was revered for its at-the-time groundbreaking sounds, which were created with a new, complex form of synthesis called frequency modulation synthesis. FM synthesis involves using oscillators to modulate other oscillators by set ratios to produce new sounds. FM synths are notoriously difficult to program, and as programming the DX7 involved cumbersome menu-diving, it was mostly used for its presets, some of which became highly recognisable '80s tones.

This article will include far more use of presets than my regular tutorials, where I usually build the patches up step-by-step, as, although Toro y Moi is more-than-capable of programming his own sounds, he also uses the DX7 for its presets, saying in an interview:

"The sound that you first hear in 'Girl Like You' that was a preset that was just one of the sounds. I just played with it throughout the entire album, because it's so beautiful."

Some modern remakings of the DX7 include the portable Korg Volca FM, and the software Arturia DX7 V, which I'll use in this article. Both ship with factory presets that mirror the original Yamaha DX7's factory preset bank.

"Labyrinth"

"Labyrinth" is a good place to start as it opens up with the most recognisable DX7 sound of all time: the DX Electric Piano. The original DX7 EP preset was called "11: E.Piano 1," and it was used on Whitney Houston ballads and the opening theme from Twin Peaks. Arturia DX7 V comes with a preset called ROM1A 11-EPIANO 1 which models the original preset, however, the patch really comes to life when it's processed with chorus and reverb, and the RoadsForMe preset adds several effects for a richer sound.

You can also quickly adjust some of the patches settings with the sliders on the DX7 V interface, for example boosting cutoff and mod level to brighten up the sound. On "Labyrinth" the patch has then been run through a two-beat long delay to create a cascading effect.

The DX7 can also create guitar and bass guitar noises, and although they don't sound anything close to convincingly real, they do have their own charm. The DX7 bass sound was popular in the '80s, and it provided the basslines to hits like "Take on Me," "Bad," and "Danger Zone."

In "Labyrinth," the guitar and bass tracks also come from the DX7, where they're again processed with a delay effect for 2-beat repeats. The muted guitar can be recreated with the preset ROM1A 16-BASS 2 and the bass guitar from the brighter ROM1A 15-BASS 1 patch.

The synth lead sounds like it came from Chaz's Roland JX-3P, a preset-based synth from Roland released around the time of the Roland Juno and Jupiter synths, and features similar technology. You can create the patch in Arturia Jupiter V by using two sawtooth oscillators, one an octave above the other, setting the filter to -24dB and closing it almost all the way.

Use the pitch-bend wheel with a pitch-bend amount of two semitones to bend the notes like a guitar player bending strings. As Chaz is also an accomplished guitar player, it's possible that this part started as a guitar idea.

"Don't Try"

"Don't Try" features the DX7 bass guitar patch again, here playing a straight 8th note pedal on G throughout the entire song.

The thick analog swells in "Don't Try" can be created in Arturia Jupiter V by setting up an 8' sawtooth wave and a 16' square wave, then lower the filter cutoff to 60Hz and raise the modulation to 0.800.

For the swell effect, set up envelope 1 with an attack of 1200ms and a very long decay of around 30,000ms. Lastly, open up Jupiter V's extension panel and turn on the chorus in the effects section, which will add some of the chorus effect present on the JX-3P.

The piano sound in the chorus is heavily processed to sound distant and ghostly. Arturia Piano V features several different piano sounds, from warm grand pianos to punchier pop pianos. To get a bright piano sound like that in "Don't Try," use the bright-sounding Piano-bar Simple patch and run it through some chorus.

I used Ableton's built-in chorus with amount set to 1.90ms and mix set to 30%, then applied a reverb with a time of 4 second and a very generous mix of 50% to achieve the distant quality that makes the track sound so distant within the space of the mix.

"Mirage"

"Mirage" opens with some jazzy chords played on a brassy sounding pad that would be challenging to program on an analog synth because of the moving modulation elements present.

To create it, start with the DX7 V patch Ambient DX Brass and make a few adjustments. Firstly, adjust the front-panel macros Cutoff and Mod Level to -65% and 100%, respectively. You can make the patch less ambient by going into the under-the-hood settings and lowering the attack time of the modulation envelopes, and then turning off the analog chorus effect in the effects section. Make sure to save your new patch.

The lead synth in "Mirage" is processed with a 2-beat delay effect, just like in "Labyrinth," clearly a favourite trick of Bear's when working on Boo Boo. You can again program this sound in Roland Jupiter-V, which has a built-in delay effect and sounds fantastic all-around. Set up a patch with two sawtooth oscillators, one pitched an octave above the other, and use the LFO mod button found at the bottom-left of the interface to create the wild vibrato effect. Make sure the LFO is speed is set-nice and high, around 7.6 Hz for a fast vibrato.

Ghostly Choirs

A recurring sound on Boo Boo is a ghostly choir that is used in "Girl Like You," "You and I," and "Embarcadero." Chaz mentioned that he found the sound as a preset on one of his synths, and he may have been referring to the patch 30 VOICE 1 from the original DX7, which sounds similar to the "Girl Like You" pad, or possibly an edited version of the patch. I created another patch from scratch in Arturia DX7 V to closely emulate the one in "Girl Like You." At its base, the patch involves just two operators, with the second oscillator slightly detuned and modulated through a much slower envelope than the first.

Thicken the sound up by raising unison detune in the global settings to 33% and play around with the envelopes to get a sound that evolves over time. Lastly, add some of the DX7 V's onboard analog chorus effect to widen the sound even more. FM synthesis is incredibly complex, and the sound can be made more interesting by adding more operators and modulation options.


Toro y Moi's sound is a blend of classic and modern, mixing slick production with vintage sounds. Although he originated in the chillwave genre, he moved on to incorporate hip-hop and R&B influences in his music, instead of getting pigeonholed in that genre. Although he also plays guitar and bass, he is clearly inspired by synthesizers, and this shines through in his music.

Download Reverb Exclusive Projects and Patches

About the Author: Dan Carr runs Reverb Machine, a website dedicated to exploring "the wonders of synthesizers and music production." Check out his site for more breakdowns of popular artists' use of synths and unique recording techniques. Above, you can download the Arturia software synth patches used to recreate Toro y Moi's tones—and the Ableton Live sessions for each track.


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