Do you want to make tracks that sound like Bicep? Watch the brilliant video below in which Oscar from the Underdog Electronic Music School walks you through the key aspects of creating a track similar to Bicep’s dance floor destroying Glue.
In this tutorial Oscar uses Ableton Live along with Xfer records Cthulhu and Sylenth1 plugins but the principles he demonstrates here can easily be applied to any DAW running the plugins of your choice.
Once you’ve worked your way through the video you can read below for my tips and thoughts on nailing the Bicep sound too.
Who are Bicep?
If you’re new to Bicep then get ready to have you mind blown by the music of Belfast-born/London-based duo Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar. These life long friends and music enthusiast bloggers have in recent years become one the hottest names in dance and electronic music thanks to the success of their first album ‘Bicep’, and follow up album ‘Isles.’
For comparison, here’s Bicep’s Glue as produced by the lads themselves:
Oscar did a really fantastic of explaining the basics but in music production there are an infinite variety ways of “sounding like” your heroes as well as different techniques to push the sound you are aiming for in entirely new directions.
My take on getting the Bicep Glue sound:
Step 1: Create a Bicep style chord progression
“…we would often sit down with a piano and spend ages just getting a set of chords, and once we’ve got the chords we’ll move across to the gear and start sending it out to stuff.”Bicep’s Matt talks chords with Mixdownmag
Let’s dive into making a synth chord progression and then chopping it up for that stuttery effect. Instead of using Cthulhu plugin to break up the chords try using a trance gate style effect on them instead.
If you have access to Scaler VST then it’s easy to experiment with many of the included presets to create a simple, melancholic four chord progression in a minor scale.
I got great results triggering Dune 3 VST with Scaler’s Synthwave 5 preset (E minor scale) as a starting point. In a variation from Bicep’s own chord progression I ended up with a Emin7, D Maj, Bm and A min7 progression. You can see my Scaler settings in the image below and listen to the audio.
To chop up the four chords in Scaler you can try experimenting with the numerous preset rhythms in the performance section of Scaler (at the top of Scaler). Try one of the faster rhythms to start with such as ‘Marcato‘ or ‘Marziale‘. In the Scaler options menu (top right) experiment with setting the chord length to either 4 beats or 8 beats.
Hear my chord progression so far:
When you have a 4 chord progression you like, drag it from Scaler straight into your DAW’s piano roll and you can further shorten the midi note lengths to taste.
Dune 3 has plenty of ready to use gated presets (as do many other synths of course) and I got good results with the Costa Brava preset (in the Dune 3 factory bank gate folder) as a starting point (combined with the Marziale rhythm in Scaler). Preset 026: Rich Gate RH worked really well for me too as did 007: Entertainment KS preset (in the Dune 2 factory bank). The possibilities are endless!
Gated chords in FL Studio
If you’re working in FL Studio you can try experimenting in the piano roll with the Chop function to quickly chop longer chords up into shorter midi notes (make sure your chords are selected and then select Tools > Chop.. in the piano roll menu). When the piano roll Chopper dialogue box pops up you can experiment with some of the handy presets (Trance 1 and Trance 2 are good starting points) and then adjust the Time Multiplicator knob to taste.
Once you have your choppy, four chord progression worked out, try copying the midi pattern to a new track, fire up a new VST instrument of your choice on that track and then select a pluck type sound (or something distinct to your chord sound) and then shift the midi up one octave. This is a very quick and easy way of creating a melody to compliment your chords and you can use your synths cut off filter and volume controls to introduce and remove this melody as your track progresses.
Moving away from presets and adding some analog mojo
My Dune 3 presets are just the starting point and I use Ujam’s Retro plugin to add warmth, dirt and saturation, trying various ways to lose some of the well polished digital “sheen” that comes from Dune 3. Ultimately we want our sounds to sound like they are coming from some much abused 80s or 1990s gear.
“even though we’ve got an M1 and stuff, we would never use it like a normal M1. Same with a Juno – we make sure it goes through at least three pedals to make it not sound like a Juno, if that makes sense. We always try and process stuff to the point where it does actually just sound like us, and to be honest, half the time we don’t even know what we did.”Bicep’s Andy discusses processing synth sounds using guitar pedals. If you’re working “in the box” look for plugins designed to add dirt, saturation, grit, vibe, tape noise and analog mojo such as Ujam Retro or the RC-20 Retro Color from XLN Audio.
Step 2: Bicep style drum tracks
There are limitless ways to create the drum sounds depending on if you want to use samples or synths (or a mixture of both!).
I found that Ujam Beatmaker Hype got the kick drum job done in seconds (try the ‘Stompin‘ preset with the kick soloed as a starting point). You’ll probably also get good results with Beatmaker Eden.
What I have come to really enjoy about the Beatmaker series of plugins is that give you a rompler style bank of ready to go stock sounds and once your MIDI drum track pattern has been set up in your DAW’s piano roll you can quickly flick through all the preset kits to find something that suits and then further tweak to taste.
What drum machines do Bicep use?
Roland’s TR-909, treated with some saturation, is a staple in most Bicep tracks. They also make good use of a TR-808.
“Yeah, yeah the TR-909, you’ve heard it all before, blah blah… but we’ve got to include it as a real staple of our workflow. It was one of the first things we bought when we delved into the analog world, and it’s safe to say we will never part ways with it. For the kick alone, the 909 is worth it. Kicks are one of those things that are generally important when making dance music, and by just sticking it in a compressor or driving it through a filter, you have thousands of variant kicks to suit your track. I’m not sure where we would be without it now.”Bicep discuss their love of the TR-909 with Xlr8r.com
If you’re working in the box and want to get a TR-909 emulation then check out my guide to the best TR-909 plugins you can get today!
If you’re opting for samples, however, then you want to explore 909 bass drum territory. Try finding a punchy, warm kick drum sample that doesn’t have too much decay – you want to keep it quite short (a distinct thump rather than a long boom).
When it came to a suitable rim shot I opted for a Mode Audio sample (Power Rim 03), one of the samples that comes free with FL Studio. I ran the rim shot through a Fruity Delay Bank plugin (Mono Echoes preset) and then added a touch of Fruity Reverb. I opted to pitch the rim up +600 cents.
I layered the rim shot sample with one clap sample (Attack Clap 25 from the same Mode Audio/FL Studio pack) pitched to – 600 cents. With both the rim shot and clap samples running through the delay and reverb they overwhelmed the kick drum so I turned the clap down until it was barely audible and also reduced the delay’s mix level to 42%.
Finally, by playing around with the two sample’s attack and delay settings I was able to create a wide variety of interesting “slushy” rim shot sounds. With the delay already providing some nice movement to the sound, swing was set at a subtle 8 percent.
You could opt to make the rim shot more “slushy” and metallic sounding by adding a touch of phaser, blending it somewhat with the high frequencies of any hats and shakers you have going on.
I also managed to get really good results with Drumaxx drum machine, starting with the included DnB Rimshots presets. If you got Drumaxx with your FL Studio purchase then you basically have a fantastic emulation of an analog drum machine ready and waiting to be used in an infinite variety of ways – fire it up and learn what it is capable of!
Remember that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to creating your Bicep style drum loop. Bicep take inspiration from just about every music genre going (remember that they started of as music bloggers) and would not have got where they are today if they had just copied what everyone else is doing – do not be afraid to experiment with unusual sounds or unorthodox effects chains.
The key take home points to pay attention to if you’re trying to get the Glue sound down is to pay attention to the relatively sparse breakbeat style arrangement, the swing and pushing/pulling individual drum hits off the grid plus the overall warmth/darkness of the drum track.
If you’re using Ableton Live to make your Glue track then make sure you are familar with Live’s “grooves”.
Step 3: Creating a synth pad
For the “violin style pad” Oscar discusses at the ten minute mark, I created a simple 4 note riff in the E minor scale, starting with a B5 on the piano roll.
I wanted a “sad”, subtle, warm and floaty pad type sound. Dune 3 preset Classic Synth Pad RH (in the Dune 2 factory sounds bank) was a good jumping off point for me.
With my four note riff looping, I reduced the low pass filter and bumped up the reverb until the sound was sitting nicely in the background, running under the chord progression.
This is a simple one voice pad preset so adjusting it to taste was super easy – first I opted to use Dune 3’s FM synthesis mode for voice 1 (the preset uses VA synthesis type) and then adjusted the Osc 1 FM ‘fine’ parameter to about 1 o’clock on the dial (approx. 0.0030) which gave the pad sound a haunting, vocal like quality. Finally I increased the Osc 1 spread to 75%.
You could try swapping a pad sound, which here sits at the back of the mix and provides a supporting role to the choppy chords, for a more upfront lead sound that really drives the track forward.
Again I added some Ujam Retro to dirty up the sound a bit.
Step 4: Create a Bicep style vocal
Sticking with FL Studio stock samples, I felt that the ‘Laurie Webb Ahh A‘ in the vocal folder was almost a right match for the track. I’m using this short vocal here mainly for copyright reasons and also to save time. When you come to add your own vocal you’ll want to find a longer vocal.
With the sample playing on the first beat of every (64 beat) bar, I adjusted the pitch just slightly (+46 cents) and then ran it through an instance of Fruity Delay Bank (Classic Ping Pong preset), Fruity Reverb 2 (Cathedral preset) and then shaved the low mid frequencies off with a Fruity parametric EQ 2 high pass filter set at about 504hz leaving just the upper mids and top end of the sample.
Finally I adjusted the attack and hold settings of the sample envelope until it was barely recognizable but still retained an obvious human vocal like quality.
Hopefully you’re now on your way to creating a Bicep Glue type track in your DAW. While the drum sounds can be built from almost any bog standard house or techno sample pack, the key to the Glue sound is getting those catchy, melancholic, four chord progressions right – once you’ve got a suitable chord progression going on it’s a case of enjoying yourself with your synthesizer to play those chords with a sound that suits your tastes/the track and then taking the track in new directions.
Do Bicep use software or hardware?
Bicep are famous for their live, gear rich sets. These guys are unabashed lovers of anaog hardware as they explain below:
“…pretty much only use hardware, but we obviously still mix a bit in the box. We record everything straight in and do a little EQ-ing to clean stuff up inside the box, but we’ve started using hardware compressors a lot more. For this album, we tried to focus on recording stuff pretty wet, and use big effects chains to get it right on the day, which is something we want to move towards so we don’t have to use anything in the box at all.”Andy enthuses about hardware with mixdownmag.com
Thanks to Oscar at the Underdog Electronic Music School for the original tutorial video and inspiration. If you’d like to see more of Oscar’s awesome music production tutorials then do check out the Underdog Electronic Music School Youtube channel. And if you want to hear more incredible and inspiring music from Bicep then check out the official Bicep Youtube channel for all the latest.
If you’d like more information on the Scaler plugin then check out the dedicated Scaler website and community forum.
Head on over to Xfer Records for more information on their Cthulhu plugin.
You can visit the Synapse Audio website if you’d like to download a demo version of the Dune 3 synth.
There are countless delay/reverb combos you could slap on your Bicep style vocals. If you’re looking outside your DAW’s stock plugins for something special then you can’t go wrong with Valhalla’s Super Massive plugin – not only is it 100% free but it’s also capable of taking your sounds and turning them into something out of this world! It’s a must have plugin from one of the most respected developers in the business. Get it here: www.valhalladsp.com/shop/reverb/valhalla-supermassive/
Check the Ujam website for more details of the Beatmaker: Hype plugin plus Retro plugin.
Finally, in these troubled times, here’s a stunning video of Bicep playing at London’s Printworks night club to remind us all of why we make music in the first place:
Bicep Gear List:
Bicep make use of a huge amount of gear. Their production set up changes regularly but at its core are classic synths and drum machines from the ’80s and ’90s including:
- Roland TR-909
- Roland TR-808
- Akai MPC
- Korg Poly-800
- ARP Odyssey
- Roland SH-101
- Juno 60
- Korg Polysix
- Sherman Filterbank 2