Vintage strings
Future Music|Autumn 2020
Vintage strings
Learn how to recreate this evocative pop staple
Francis Preve

There’s something truly special about the sound of a vintage string machine. Their sound has defined countless R&B, disco, and synthpop tracks. For disco and R&B, that list is endless, with the sound of the ARP Solina String Ensemble dominating songs from the Ohio Players, Rick James, and Prince. Nearly every one of Duran Duran’s early hits was based on the Crumar Performer string machine – usually through a phaser – while Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart was based on the ARP Omni (or was it the Omni II?).

Modern manufacturers have released gear dedicated to reproducing the sound with varying degrees of authenticity. Waldorf’s Streichfett, Roland’s Boutique VP-03, and others served to reintroduce the sound to a new generation.

For technology historians, it helps to understand that the sound of these instruments is based on frequency dividers, which can generate tones by dividing down from a single top octave of oscillators. These were originally found in home organs, and their waveforms were largely based on square and pulse waves – the latter waveform is where the secret sauce of strings is created. While many contemporary strings presets use sawtooth waves, it’s possible to perfectly recreate the vintage sound with just a few elements: a narrow pulse wave, a pad-like amplifier, and a thick chorus/ensemble effect that can be replicated via stacking two or more choruses in series. For extra polish, you can add a high- and low-pass filter duo to more precisely dial in the limited frequency bandwidth of the originals.

In this column, we’ll look at resynthesizing this iconic sound using Serum and Phase Plant, along with simple macros that will let you treat the patch like a dedicated softsynth. Each has slightly different strengths, but the end result is so close that you can probably save a few dollars if you’re coveting one of the original, vintage units.


Each vintage string synth used its own specific pulse-width to define its sound. Keep this in mind as you scale your width between 70 and 95%.


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Autumn 2020