The pads in 808 State’s genre-defining ‘Pacific State’ are no doubt at the top of the list of the most iconic sounds in dance music. In this Synth Secrets, we replicate the Mancunian quartet’s synthesis secrets.
For many people of a certain age, ‘Pacific State’ by 808 State was their introduction to dance music. The unique instrumental – which combined elements of jazz with techno and set it all to a 909 beat – sat for 11 weeks on the UK singles chart, peaking at number 10. While there are a lot of things in this song we could go on about, from the SH-101 bassline to the saxophone solo to the loon sample, we’re going to focus on the pad sound that ties it all together.
From a basic synthesis perspective, the pad isn’t all that complicated. However, it’s a bit more involved than just playing some chords on a Juno-106, as we’ll soon see. We’ll be using Ableton Live but any DAW will work. And as always, click on any image to see a larger version.
Here’s today’s goal:
Step 1: Analogue Synthesis
We start with the same instrument that 808 State started with: a Roland Juno-106. (Except that we’re using the Roland Cloud version.) If you don’t have access to a 106-ish soft synth, any single-oscillator analogue-style synth will work.
Place a copy of the Juno-106 on a new MIDI track and initialize it. Make sure it’s set to a range of 8’ (it should be already). We want a strong, buzzy sawtooth sound, so turn off the square wave and turn up the sawtooth all the way. That’s pretty bright and in yer face (see what we did there?) so lower the cutoff frequency a bit. You don’t need to go too overboard, as we’ll do more filter tone shaping in a later stage. A touch of resonance helps too.
The Juno-106 has a lovely resonant boost in the highpass filter when set all the way to zero. While this is one of the reasons that the 106 is so great for bass, we don’t need it in our pad, so raise the highpass slider a little to take some of the bass weight out. The pad has very little volume dynamics so the envelope can stay as is.
The last step is to engage the chorus. Hit the mode I button for a swirly effect.
Here’s the finished sound played on a single note.
Step 2: Bounce A Chord
The four chords in the famous pad sequence are actually parallel chords, notes in the same configuration that just move up and down the keyboard without changing position. This was a popular technique in dance music at the time. It could be achieved by playing it manually (the hard way), using chord memory (if your instrument had it – the 106 did not), or by sampling. This is what 808 State did, so it’s what we’ll do too.
Set your BPM to 128. Record in an F major 7 chord that lasts longer than one bar. Because we’ll be playing our sampled chord chromatically, we need a bounce that’s longer than the original note. Remember, higher notes will play faster than the root and we don’t want to have to worry about loop points. One and a half bars is plenty.
Now, bounce out your Fmj7 chord.
Here is the chord:
Step 3: Sampler
Graham Massey and the other members of 808 State used a Casio FZ1 to play the sample. We’re going to use TAL Software TAL-Sampler, as it’s amazing for emulating old-school samplers, but any standard DAW sampler with a filter will do.
Create a new MIDI track with a sampler and import the chord audio into it. Our sample is nice and long so we don’t need to worry about loop points. Let’s look at the filter next. Massey has said that he did further filtering on the FZ1. Lower the cutoff just a bit. It should sound pleasant and mellow. We’ve lowered it to about 2 o’clock. A little resonance sounds good too.
In terms of volume dynamics, the original pad is pretty flat although we added a little release to the envelope make the transition between notes a little less abrupt. We also used the Resampler to add some hiss and saturation.
Finally, we play in four notes, C, D, G, and A, resulting in a parallel chord progression that goes Fmaj7 > Gmaj7 > Cmaj7 > Dmaj7.
Damn, there it is:
Step 4: Layering
Wait, we’re not done yet. Although it sounds good, 808 State further filled out the sound by layering it with a Roland D-50. Layering was a popular way to create complex synth tones in the late ‘80s, often mixing analogue and digital, like with ‘Pacific State’. The two styles of synthesis work well together and also help add depth to the mix.
Create a new MIDI track and load up D-50 from the Roland Cloud. 808 State used the Warm Strings preset and thankfully Roland’s virtual version has it too. It’s a little quiet so we raised the volume but other than that, it sounds good as is.
Next, we need to recreate the chords. Program in a chord progression of Fmaj7 > Gmaj7 > Cmaj7 > Dmaj7, the same that the sampler is playing.
Here is the D-50 on its own:
And layered with the Juno-106 sample played off the sampler:
Step 5: Finishing Touches
To finish off the sound, we add an EQ8 to the D-50 channel and carve off the lows under 500Hz.
We also send both TAL-Sampler and D-50 channels to Waves H-Reverb on the reverb send to help hold them together.
Finally, we program in a quick pattern using the famous loon sample run through a ping pong delay. It originally appeared on an Emulator II factory disc, although 808 State played it on an Akai S900.
And our Pacific pad is done.
Want more? Check out The Secrets of Dance Music Production, the definitive guide to dance music production brought to you by Attack Magazine.
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