Flume, the alias of Harley Streten, burst onto the electronic music scene in 2012 and swiftly rose in popularity with his darkly textured yet soulful electronica. His debut album Flume perfectly showcases his penchant for chopped-up sound design and guest vocals. One of the key elements to Flume's sound is the marriage of experimental sounds with poppy chord progression, melodies and hooks, which gives his music an accessible yet interesting character.
"Music essentially boils down to two main elements, rhythm and melody. I feel tones and textures often get overlooked, so I like to take my time finding the right sounds." - Flume
Most of Flume's sound design is done with powerful digital synthesizers that allow him to take advantage of unison / voice detune and interesting sounding wavetable oscillators. Some great digital synths are Native Instruments Massive, XFer Serum and LennarDigital Sylenth1, but there are plenty of options to chose from. Most of the sounds from Flume were likely created with Sylenth1, of which Flume said "I know Sylenth1 back to front so I can make any sound on that now... it’s the one synth I really know well."
Most of the Flume sounds are pretty basic at core, their quirkiness is usually due to post-processing with effects and being chopped up after bounced to audio. I'll quickly talk through some synth sounds from Flume and how to recreate them.
First up is a classic Supersaw patch, heard prominently in Holding On. As the name suggest it's made up of a lot of sawtooth waves with plenty of unison and voice detuning to get it sounding as huge as possible. I've used Sylenth1 with 4 oscillators, 2 set to Saw, 1 set to Saw an octave up, and a 4th oscillator set to Noise. The 3 Saw oscillators are each on 8 voices with detune up to make them sound nice and thick.
Another great patch is the Mellow Keys sound heard at the beginning of Holding On. For this you want a basic sine wave going through a mellow sounding filter, I'm using Xfer Serum with the 'Basic Mg' waveform and the 'Low 12' filter. From here you can add some modulation to the pitch to create an interesting effect; you could use an LFO but instead I'm using another envelope to slightly push the pitch out of tune every time I play a chord.
To get a Drifting Keys sound like the from Sintra, again start with a basic sine wave through a filter, but this time use a slow moving LFO to modulate the pitch. Keep it nice and subtle as too much modulation will make your patch sound out of tune!
We can also utilize Serum's wavetable functionality to easily create some unusual sounding leads. I'm using the 4088 wavetable to get an interesting bright sounding lead that sounds similar to the lead at the end of Holding On.
From the track Insane we have a really simple Portalead sound, which as the name suggests is a lead synth that uses long Portamento to glide between notes. Open Serum and from the default patch add a little unison detune to the sawtooth wave, put the synth into mono/legato mode and turn up the glide time to around 550ms.
Another trick that crops up is using an arpeggiator to create really quick arpeggio runs. Flume tends to turn off repeats to get less of a continuous arpeggio effect and more of a rapid run, so turn off the Repeat function on your arpeggiator and play in the chords of your song. You can hear this used on Sleepless and Holding On. Also check out Helix from 2016's Skin for some super-creative uses of an arpeggiator.
Flume's tracks aren't too bass heavy, so I'm sticking with a simple sub-bass patch to fill up the low-end. I'm using Serum's Sub Oscillator with the square wave to create a growling bass to fill the low-end. For a more subtle, mellow sub-bass you could use a sine wave instead of a square.
Many of Flume's songwriting ideas are rooted in simple pop tradition; he often uses repeating chord progressions that go through small variations to keep things sounding fresh, as well as using cool harmonic choices such as seventh chords and inversions. Holding On features a repeating Fm - Abmaj7 - Cm - Bb chord progression which is similar to the chord progressions in Daft Punk's Lose Yourself to Dance and Get Lucky.
We could start writing our own track by using a common pop chord progression such as the legendary I– V–vi–IV progression, which in the key of C is C - G - Am- F.
This sounds decent but for me it's a little uninspiring; we can make it more interesting by changing some notes. I've added some notes on top from outside the chords to turn the C into a Cmaj7 and the G into a Gsus2. We can also turn the progression on it's head by starting halfway on the Am chord, so we get this:
And here it is with a basic beat underneath:
Flume's music is full of neat production tricks that help his music stand out. He uses some advanced techniques like manipulation of vocal samples with pitchbending and portamento, but he also uses some simple techniques to get his mixes to sound great.
Sidechain compression is a quintessential technique in electronica, but it doesn't have to be used for the extreme pumping effect as in Daft Punk or deadmau5 songs. Sidechain compression can be used in a slightly more subtle way to give more room to the drums, giving the beat more emphasis in the mix.
Sidechain compression involves lowering the volume of a track (keys, guitars, busses, anything) when triggered by another track, often drums. When the trigger drum hits our sidechain track ducks in volume, giving the rhythmic pumping effect that sounds so good in 4-to-the-floor electronic dance music. The technique is applied differently in every DAW, but in Live I'm using Glue Compressor to duck the chord progression in time with the beat. Listen below and notice how the drums cut through the synth tracks.
One of the most distinctive elements of Flume's sound is chopped up sounds, especially vocals. You could either record your own vocals, find a guest vocalist, or search through sample packs for good vocal samples. Flume uses sample packs a fair bit and says he's picky about choosing samples for his productions:
Also, I download a lot of sample packs. So I go through thousands and thousands of kick drums and snare drums to find the right sound. I’m very particular about my sounds. They all have to be unique. I don’t want to use standard sounds, I want to find weird ones.
Here's the sample over my track with no cuts, I've repitched it to fit the key of my song, in this case 2 semitones down to C Major. It sounds good but it doesn't flow with my track particularly well, especially towards the end of the sample.
To get the sample to fit with your track better, use your DAW's tools to cut, paste, duplicate and move the sound around the beat and add rhythm to it. Reversing portions of the sample is also a great way to get a slightly surreal effect. To explore this technique even further research repitching your samples and applying them to a keyboard to use pitchbend and portamento. Listen to my chopped up version, I'm a big fan of duplicating small sections to get a stuttering effect.
Make sure to root through some sample packs to find your own interesting samples, they don't necessarily have to be similar to the one that I used, it's how you use the sample that will define your sound.
Check out the link below to download the Serum patches I used for the audio. Thanks for reading and remember to explore all these ideas further and apply them to your own music, in whatever genre that may be. Many techniques and sounds can be used across multiple genres and you can get great results from experimenting with ideas from different genres.
Written By ReverbMachine