The Synth Sounds of Blade Runner

To mark the release of one of the most anticipated sequels of all time, resident synth maven and replicant expert Justin DeLay is back with a new installment of our Synth Sounds of series covering the cinematic monolith Blade Runner.

You’d have an easier time tracking down Deckard than overstating Blade Runner’s importance. Ridley Scott’s loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? defined the dystopian urban future, influencing subsequent sci-fi to this day. The film’s blend of gritty, “retrofitted” visuals and classic neo-noir storytelling influenced over 30 years of media, from The Fifth Element to Battlestar Galactica to anime staple Ghost in the Shell. The Library of Congress even added it to the United States National Film Registry for preservation.

Composer Vangelis

Blade Runner’s cult status stems in no small part from its soundtrack. Crafted by famed composer Vangelis, a pioneer in the world of synthesis who made his first mark with Chariots of Fire, the soundtrack took an orchestral approach to the medium of synthesizers, setting another precedent for years to come.

Vangelis was famed for using the Yamaha CS-80, a lumbering early polysynth that runs north of 20 grand on today's vintage market. It was the company’s flagship instrument of the day, and Vangelis reputedly had seven at his disposal while scoring Blade Runner. Because we don’t have the down payment on a house lying around, an extremely accurate Arturia CS-80V plugin emulation from the Arturia V Collection is used in its stead.

For this Synth Sounds of installment, Justin is using Ableton Live with a combination of old and new hardware as well as software to achieve the sounds. If you’re unfamiliar with the DAW, check out our Learning Ableton Live videos for a quick, informative tutorial.

Achieving that iconic brass sound in the strings is all in detuning the voices. As Justin demonstrates, combining a slow attack, long decay, and touch of detune mimics the slight imperfections of a human player, adding the depth and emotion that made the music so captivating in the first place. Justin’s using the CS-80V plugin, but a Korg Minilogue or any polysynth that has one or more sawtooth oscillators also does the trick. Use a bit of slow LFO modulation to add extra movement.

Download The Synth Sounds of Blade Runner

For the bass line, Justin uses both a Roland Boutique Series SH-01A and onboard Ableton patch dialed to a saw wave to recreate the paranoid low-end buzz. If you don't have access to a SH-01A, another sonically similar way to achieve this is with the D16 LuSH-101. The key for either route is sequencing the four notes and adding a bit of distortion (try overdrive or bit reduction) to achieve a grainier quality in the tone.

To recreate the synthetic harp sound, Justin used a stock-sampled harp instrument for the initial attack, then added a layer of processing by routing the harp through a flanger plugin. The trick here is to set the flange sweep in time with the tempo of the composition, so that the flanger perfectly sweeps up and down in time with the descending harp line.

The deceptively simple drum pattern is brought to life using patches in Ableton to emulate the TR-606, the lo-fi candidate of Roland’s drum machines. Justin lays out a straightforward hi-hat/kick pattern, and builds on it with a cabasa dabbed with some reverb and delay for that signature ghostly presence. Of course, it wouldn’t be the Blade Runner tune without that crashing timpani, and Justin brings that into the fold with an onboard Ableton patch.

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