Taking inspiration from a diverse set of genres, including house, techno, and Italo disco, Bicep have forged a unique style since forming as a DJ/producer duo back in 2009. The Belfast natives (also known as Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar) have released numerous singles and EPs and two full-length albums on eclectic indie label Ninja Tune.
Their trademark, evolving synth-laden sound is designed with both the home listener and dancefloor in mind. Their sound is borne from their shared knowledge of music theory, a love of sampling, and a lot of experimentation with classic hardware synths, drum machines, outboard effects and plug-ins at their basement studio in Shoreditch.
To get under the skin of how the Bicep lads make their music, we’ll deconstruct some of the sounds from their recent single Apricots, from their current album Isles, which reached number two in the UK album chart earlier this year.
By running through how the duo use production techniques such as synth layering, MIDI triggering of effects and sampling, we can gain a deeper understanding of their sound, and how you can achieve something similar in your studio.
To avoid the finished piece sounding overly cluttered, the drum track in Apricots is purposefully sparse, with a kick drum, rimshot, hi-hat and ride making up the kit. Roland’s TR-909, treated with some saturation for a warm analogue sound, is a staple in most Bicep tracks, including this one. We’ll use some 909 sounds to make our drums, with a bit of swing for groove. We’ve taken a stock sample from our DAW, then added some saturation courtesy of Kush Audio’s Omega TWK to give the kick a more rounded, analogue sound.
The cool, lightweight rimshot in Apricots is naturally snappy and lacking in decay, with a little reverb added afterwards for effect. We’ve used a pitched up 909 rimshot and clap layered together to make this sound, with the amp envelopes set to give a short, tight sound. Routing the layers to a bus with some Omega TWK saturation glues them together, with a splash of short but dense reverb from ValhallaRoom completing the effect.
Later in the track, after the breakdown, there’s a hi-hat and ride that helps the arrangement evolve. We’ll place a closed hi-hat on the offbeat, with a touch of saturation. Meanwhile, the ride cymbal on every beat in the bar is more heavily saturated for a fizzy, rounded sound. Finally, we add some sidechain compression to the ride, triggered by the kick drum, making it move around the kick, giving the drums a splashy feel without overpowering the other elements in the track.
The main synth that runs through Apricots, might sound like a complicated patch, but it’s composed of raw layers taken from three classic synths. These are the analogue Roland Juno-60 and Alesis Andromeda, alongside the digital wavetable-based Waldorf Microwave. The synths are then processed as a group using complex effects and filtering.
To make our version of the lead synth, we’ll use the analogue-emulating Juno-60 from Roland Cloud and U-he Diva, then supplement them with Xfer’s Serum wavetable synth. Stacking three synths up in this way gives a powerful, rich sound that’ll react well to further processing. We’ve started by making a sawtooth-based patch using the Juno-60, with the onboard chorus enabled to give the sound a wider, more impressive tone.
To add depth to the synth line, we’ve made a simple triangle wave patch using Diva, which emulates the oscillator and filter modules from several classic analogue synths. The Alesis Andromeda used in the original sound features oscillators based on classic Moog designs, so we loaded up the Triple VCO oscillators and followed that with some low-pass filtering to make a warm sub-bass.
The last part of our layered synth comes from Serum, adding some digital wavetable brightness to the overall sound, as the Microwave would. We’ve triggered the synth using the main chord progression pitched up by one octave, but with some of the chords inverted to add variety to the finished sound. To create more motion in the sound, we’ve used the LFO to modulate wavetable position.
Effects are a big part of how Bicep achieve their sound, with many of their sounds originating from recording synth and drum machine parts live through an extensive selection of outboard effects. Apricots is no exception, so let’s focus on the effects processing used on the main lead line. Two of the most noticeable effects used are filter modulation and panning, and we can achieve a very similar effect by using a couple of the modules from Cableguys ShaperBox 2.
Firstly, we’ve used the filter shaper to add the low-pass filter modulation, as we can draw in a series of curves that closely mimic the original sound. However, there’s more to it than that, as the original sound uses MIDI triggering to start the modulation cycle, so we’ve used the filter’s MIDI trigger input to copy this technique. Additionally, as you increase the cutoff frequency in ShaperBox, the modulation decreases in intensity, allowing more of the sound’s mid and high frequencies through in a similar way to the original.
Next, we’ve used the panning shaper to recreate the panning effect. This has a handy crossover, allowing us to apply panning to the sound above 100Hz and leave the bass frequencies in the centre of the mix for mono compatibility. We’ve used a sine wave to modulate the panning, with a slow 8-bar LFO time.
After the modulation and panning, a little delay and reverb complete the effect. The original sound was processed using some unspecified Eventide hardware effects, so we’ve plumped for EchoBoy and LittlePlate from Soundtoys. Fun fact: Soundtoys was founded by a team of ex-Eventide engineers, giving their plug-ins a similar vibe, sonically. We’ve mixed the delay and reverb subtly, so the effects glue the sound together and don’t get in the way.
There are two sampled parts to the vocal in Apricots: the chopped up vocal and shaker combo from Hugh Tracey’s Gebede-Gebede Ulendo Wasabwera, and some choral stabs taken from Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares – Svatba (The Wedding). While we sadly can’t show you how to slice up the original sounds due to copyright restrictions, we can run through some techniques using similar sounds from Bandlab Assistant.
The main vocal line was sampled into an MPC, before being pitched up and replayed in a new pattern. We can do something similar by choosing a vocal line from the free African Afropella pack, pitching it to the track’s key, then slicing it up syllable by syllable into a drum pad sampler. Now, it’s possible to play the vocal slices using a MIDI controller until a suitable vocal line pops up. After playing in the vocal line, a splash of Inphonik’s RX-950 gives the sound a more old school, Akai sampler-esque tone.
Apricots’ choral stabs aren’t slices of audio on the timeline, but are instead picked out using a MIDI-triggered gate. The advantage of doing this is that you can set the attack, hold and release times of the gate to give a less stark, obviously chopped sound than editing the audio directly or triggering it using a sampler. We’ve used Fabfilter’s Pro-G for this, switching in the Enable/Disable MIDI function to act on incoming MIDI data, rather than the internal threshold settings.
The final result
Now we’ve made our own version of the Apricots drums, lead synth and vocal, we have a set of sounds that compare favourably with the original track. To give our track more of the warmth and vibe that Bicep are known for, we’ve added some modelled tube saturation to the drum and synth busses using Softube’s Harmonics.
The drum saturation has glued the drums together more while imparting a slightly darker, less digital tone. We’ve also increased the character amount slightly for the synth bus, taking a little bit of the lowest bass away and simultaneously giving the main lead an even more analogue feel.
To give the mix some analogue mojo, we’ve strapped a Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor over our DAWs master out, with the Steel transformer giving a slight bump to the low-end of the track. A little 20kHz air boost using Maag’s EQ4 increases the high-frequency detail without detracting from the analogue feel we’ve been careful to add.
This piece works well as a recreation of the techniques used by Bicep in their productions. It shows that it’s possible to closely mimic even very hardware-focused sounds in the box, providing you understand the original equipment and signal paths used to recreate the sounds in question. While it’s not always feasible to recreate the sound of esoteric kit faithfully, the plethora of software recreations of studio classics can get you pretty damn close.
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