Create retro sci‑fi soundtracks with Cubase’s Retrologue 2.
The use of songs by Metallica and Kate Bush may well have stolen the musical headlines for season 3 of Stranger Things, but the underlying synth‑based score remains hugely important to the show’s iconic retro sci‑fi ’80s vibe. In our March 2017 interview, composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein explained the influence of the likes of Jean‑Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter and Giorgio Moroder, and how the pair made use of their impressive collection of (mainly vintage) analogue synths.
For these sorts of sounds, it makes sense to start with the sine, saw or square oscillator waveforms typically used in vintage hardware synths.
If the idea of creating a similar sound in software appeals, the Retrologue 2 synth bundled with Cubase Pro and Artist (it can be bought separately too) can get you pretty close. For these sorts of sounds, it makes sense to start with the sine, saw or square oscillator waveforms typically used in vintage hardware synths, but that 2017 interview offered some other helpful pointers. These include: not being afraid to let the mix get a bit ‘murky’; using low cutoff frequencies (particularly for bass sounds) so things don’t get too ‘growly’; using EQ to keep high‑end fizz at bay; keeping filter resonance modest; using analogue‑style delay to add texture; and detuning notes to provide an unsettling or random dimension.
The score uses synth sounds in various roles, but in this workshop we’ll explore three prominent examples: arpeggiated leads, evolving pads and dark bass tones.
The first screen is a good, simple starting point for the kind of arpeggiated lead used in the Stranger Things theme tune. A pair of oscillators, both based on single saw waves, are set an octave apart for a slightly fatter sound. In the Voice panel, Mono mode is switched on and a very short Glide time provides a slight sense of pitch‑sliding between notes. In the Main section, the most important thing is a very low (not zero) Rnd Pitch setting, giving the pitch of each note a very small random offset.
In the Filter section, note the low values of the 12dB/octave low‑pass filter’s Resonance and Cutoff. The Filter envelope is given only a modest amount of velocity response (as is the Amplifier envelope; lots of old‑school analogue synths didn’t have velocity sensitivity), and a touch of tube‑like distortion adds a little ‘warmth’.
The only entry in the modulation Matrix provides very subtle mod‑wheel control over the filter cutoff, so that you can gently open the filter for a brighter sound. In the Quick Control panel (at the top of the UI), I’ve linked the Master Volume control to my first QC slot, making it easy to add volume changes in real time or via automation. It’s not shown in the screen, but I also added a subtle touch of chorus in the Mod FX section, and then a quarter‑note ping‑pong delay with the High Frequency Damp set at its lowest value (1000Hz) for more of an ‘analogue tape’ effect. In the EQ section, you could opt for a high‑end shelving EQ here if you wanted to remove even more top end.
The next screen shows the Arpeggiator panel with a 16‑step note pattern and 16th‑note intervals. It’s similar to the pattern used in the Stranger Things theme tune — so be sure to create enough melodic or timing differences to make it original! I’ve not used any MIDI velocity variations or other controller patterns here.
Prime targets for further experimentation include the oscillator settings, using Multi waveforms (found in the Type drop‑down, these effectively turn a single oscillator into multiple oscillators, with the option to gently detune them for a fatter sound), and ring modulation. All these possibilities can help you create useful variations.
The third screenshot shows the Retrologue configuration for a suitably analogue‑esque evolving pad, and a few differences between this and the lead sound are worth highlighting. First, I selected Poly mode in the Voice section to allow chords to be played. While I’ve again used two sawtooth waveforms, both osc 1 and osc 2 use more complex types (Cross and Multi), given their somewhat fuller/fatter basic tone. The sub oscillator has also been enabled to blend in a little extra low end. As with the lead sound, a low cutoff has been set using a 12dB/octave low‑pass filter type with no resonance applied, and a little tube‑based distortion added for extra warmth.
In the Matrix, a key difference is that the mod wheel is somewhat busier, acting as a ‘macro’ control by targeting multiple parameters, including adding a hint of detune to osc 2. The mod wheel therefore allows you to change the timbre of the sound in real time to add a sense of movement. The Arpeggiator is disabled while, in the FX section, I added a small amount (the Mix value is set at 25%) of quarter‑note ping‑pong delay. However, I’ve also added a gentle chorus in the Mod FX panel, with a slow Rate, shallow Depth (around 1), Feedback set to 10% and Mix to 50%; this adds some gentle movement and width.
If you want to get more experimental or aggressive, try introducing a square wave in osc 3 and experimenting with the Shape control, or engage the Ring Mod option in the Oscillator Mix section. Beyond that, move to the effects section and explore some of the ‘modulated’ presets for the Resonator; there are some cool starting points for creating sweeping sounds amongst these.
If required, this pad sound can supply plenty of low end so, for my ‘bass’ sound, I decided to go for something that also offered a percussive element. The final screenshot shows the basic Retrologue configuration. This patch uses a single, square‑tooth‑based oscillator, although the type is set to Multi for a fatter sound and the Noise oscillator has been blended in for a bit of extra character. Again, a relatively low cutoff frequency has been chosen for the filter, with zero resonance and some tube distortion added. In the Amplifier panel, a fast Attack and zero Sustain setting has been used, providing a short percussive feel to the sound when played. In the Matrix section, the mod wheel is again serving as a macro control, changing the Amp Decay, Noise level and filter Cutoff.
The final element is within Retrologue 2’s FX section, where a ping‑pong delay has been set to 1/4D (dotted), along with 50% Mix and high Feedback (around 6) settings, to give multiple repeats — because these are dotted, they’ll provide a nice rhythmic contrast to the straight 16th‑note rhythm of the arpeggiated lead sound.
When it’s played at MIDI notes below C3 (note the Octave setting for osc 1), you’ll find that the sound seems to have very little pitch information, and provides more of a heartbeat‑style effect. But if played around C4 or above, the pitched element in the sound becomes much more obvious, allowing you to play a more conventional melodic bass line. As an additional option, you can add a second oscillator, based on a sine waveform and with Type set to Multi. This will fatten the bass further, as well as giving it a more obvious pitch over its full range.
Does Retrologue supply the same degree of undeniable cool or compositional inspiration you might experience when working in a room full of classic analogue synths? Er... no! But neither does it come with the same price tag, maintenance costs, or space requirements. More important is how these Retrologue‑based patches actually sound. You can easily recreate what I’ve done, but if you just want a quick audition, check out the audio examples on the SOS website. These include a short example ‘cue’ that I created using these patches, and as with any sounds, you can feel free to massage them further with all sorts of EQ, compression and cool‑sounding effects. Retro sounds with Retrologue? Stranger things have happened...