James Blake is a British singer/songwriter and producer whose musical output is characterized by minimalism, sparseness, and use of silence. His highly individual sound is influenced by UK dubstep, trip-hop, gospel, soul, and ambient music, and his 2011 album James Blake helped define a new sound often associated with the term post-dubstep. He accompanies his often electronically-manipulated voice with intimiate pianos, warm synths and punchy drums, and his main pieces of equipment include a Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08, a Nord Piano 2, a Clavia Nord Wave and a Moog Minitaur. For live performances the Prophet 08 supplies his main synth sounds while the Nord Piano 2 is responsible for his piano sound. In this article I'll explore how to bring some of Blake's musical ideas into your own projects.
"He works mostly by subtraction, he takes lots of stuff out and ends up with very skeletal pieces." - Brian Eno (http://www.dummymag.com/features/james-blake-interview-songs-that-pierce)
The most important element of James Blake's sound palette is the moody piano that forms the basis of many of his tracks, and the key elements to this piano sound are intimate tone, use of dynamics and punchiness. This sound can be acheived by using close mic'ed piano recordings, darker tones, lower dynamics as well as certain reverb and compression effects. Although he likely uses an upright piano to record his studio albums, Blake uses a Nord Piano 2 for his live piano sound, likely using an upright piano preset of some type. There are also tons of great plugin pianos to use in your DAW that use meticulously sampled piano recordings, and just as different pianos have subtley different sounds, so does each piano sampler. Most good samplers have powerful sound-shaping parameters such as choosing close mics, adjusting the width, and adding reverb and compression. For these effects focus on reverbs with a small decay time (think room reverb instead of hall reverb) and transparent compression. I'll talk you through some good options and let you hear what they sound like.
Ideally you should record the notes for your MIDI parts using a MIDI keyboard to get your part to sound as human as possibly; small nuances in timing and dynamics can go a long way to making your sampled piano sound more 'real'. If you can't play keyboard and instead prefer to work in the piano roll, adjust dynamics and timing of notes manually to get the groove to sound right. Think about emphasising some chords with higher velocity dynamics while making other chords softer, and also shift certain notes to sit late in the beat.
Firstly I tried the free Ableton Grand Piano. I adjusted the reverb to increase the mix while decreasing the time so as to create a roomier space. I also decreased the tone to make the initially bright sounding grand piano sound a little darker.
For a more authentic upright sound check out Native Instruments The Gentleman. This has the tonal characteristics of a household upright piano, as opposed to the grand pianos found in most other sound libraries. A key element of Blake's piano sound is that it's often recorded in mono to be as big in the mix as possible. I started with the preset Narrow Upright and turned Stereo Width (under Anatomy) to almost minimum. Most sampler piano presets will have the width turned up to sound impressive upon first listen, but a mono track will be much stronger in the context of your mix and song, especially when it's the main instrument. Another reason to do this is that many classic jazz, blues and gospel recordings are in mono, so it'll help make your piano track sound more 'vintage'.
Native Instruments do plenty of other piano samplers too, each with a distinct sound. Alicia's Keys is a favourite of many, it's recorded from Alicia Keys Yamaha C3 Neo piano and has a deep rich emotional piano sound great for many applications. Listen to it below where I'm using the preset Small Studio and have again reduced the stereo width.
Cinesample's Piano in Blue has a warm, versatile sound and the lower dynamics sound perfect for moody, jazzy chords. I used the close mic samples only and set the Vintage Mono switch to "on" to get a mono signal just like in numerous classic recordings. Lastly I switched the reverb on and adjusted the settings for a nice small room sound.
Which piano sound do you prefer? To take these sounds further try processing with more reverb and thicker compression to make them sound even more intimate. Opt for dark-sounding reverb's with a short time / high mix, and transparent-sounding compressors that won't make your piano sound squashed. A very cool trick is to place your compressor plugin after the reverb plugin, so that your reverb tail gets compressed along with the main signal, which creates a ghostly sustain effect great for long chords.
Blake's main synth sounds come courtesy of his Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08, a powerful modern polysynth perfect for thick oscillator sounds. Although the Prophet 08 allows for some really deep programming, Blake mostly uses simple patches that take advantage of the Prophet's fantastic sounding analog oscillators. The Prophet 08 is a solid investment for any budding synthesist (Thom Yorke and Sufjan Stevens are also users), however players wanting to use software instead should check out Arturia Prophet-V, an emulation of an older Prophet-synth, the Sequentials Circuits Prophet 5. That said, most of Blake's patches are very basic to program and should be easy to create in any polysynth.
The basic James Blake patch is detuned sawtooth waveforms played through an envelope controlled filter with a medium attack. You can hear this in action on the track Overgrown when the synth replaces the piano towards the end of the song. To program this patch in Arturia Prophet V, start with the template Pro5 2 Osc and adjust both the Cutoff and Emv Amt to the 11 o'clock mark. Then set the filter envelope with full sustain and the attack at the 1 o'clock mark to create the swelling effect. Hear what the patch sounds like in Arturia Prophet V:
The synth patch that comes in towards the end of Love Me In Whatever Way is almost identical to the Overgrown patch, only here the 2nd oscillator is tuned down an octave and the envelope settings are slightly different; the attack time is quicker and the Env Amt is higher. Generally speaking it's a good idea to adjust the attack time of these patches dependent on the song. As Love Me In Whatever Way progresses the filter cutoff opens up and the synth becomes huge-sounding. Listen to the part with the filter closed and then open in Arturia Prophet V:
The Wilhelm Scream starts with another great Prophet patch that utilises pulse-width modulation to create a thin sounding patch almost like a sustained electric piano. Use one square waveform oscillator for this patch and lower the PWM knob to 0. Lower the filter to dull the sound and then apply a bit of envelope modulation to the filter so that each note starts with a little bite. Resist the urge to run this through huge reverb / delay sounds, instead use more intimate sound plate reverb settings so the patch retains it's thin vibe. Check out my settings in Arturia Prophet V below.
While many of Blake's synth patches are very simple, part of what makes them sound so good is his masterful use of harmony. He uses many harmonic techniques throughout his songs, such as extended chords, inversions and chromatic chords. He has a strong background in piano playing and his musical interest extends far beyond the electronic music genre. He cites piano influences from jazz and gospel, two genres that make use of abstract harmony, and talks about learning from gospel records, something that no doubt influenced his harmonic sensibilities. The best way to develop your own harmonic knowledge is to learn from recorded music of genres such as jazz and soul.
"I grew up playing the piano and singing, but really I think my first love was piano. I grew up listening to a lot of different musicians, ranging from Art Tatum to Erroll Garner, to Vladimir Horowitz. It’s not necessarily one style of piano that I was into. I also grew up listening to a lot of gospel piano. I actually didn’t even get into any specific artist, but I just went through a phase with gospel of just kind of quite obsessively picking apart what the organists were doing. That to me was one of the most amazing ways to play, that sort of fluid motions between the part leading where you create a massive emotional impact with just a slight chord change. That’s something that you don’t really find in a lot of other types of music, and gospel has that down to a T" - James Blake (link - http://revive-music.com/2011/03/29/deconstructing-james-blake/)
A recurring arrangement trick in many of Blake's songs is that he tends to start on the piano and then switch over to synths later in the song, a trick that serves to drastically change the mood of the piece as well as create a sense of movement within the song. If you're working with MIDI in Ableton Live you can use Session View to move MIDI clips between different tracks, for example moving a MIDI clip from a piano sampler to a synth plugin, or vice versa.
Lastly, it's Blake's use of minimalism that defines much of his sound. If a song of your own is sounding busy then don't be afraid to remove certain tracks to allow others to breathe more. Allow space in between chords and melodic phrases and program your drums with the minimum amount of hits required to convey the groove. To explore minimalist music more check out minimalist and ambient artists such as Brian Eno, Jon Hopkins and Arthur Russell.
Thanks for reading, subscribe below to download the Arturia Prophet-V patches from above as well as a couple more James Blake style patches.