A Little Bit About Celeste’s Synths (And Some Bonus Piano)
Hi! Celeste’s music has been talked about a lot (thank you), and of course there’s a lot of descriptions and summaries of its style as being “chiptune” + “piano”. The piano part is totally legit! I did play piano (I used the amazing Felt Piano library by Spitfire Audio). But, for the synths, I built up a bunch of presets that actually go a little farther beyond what I’d consider chiptune. There’s an inspiration style-wise for sure, but I wanted to take a moment to write out a little preface & then show how I created some of the synths that I used in the most popular track from the game, Resurrections.
So what is chiptune?
Chiptune is music created from sounds originating from hardware/analog synths, usually from older game consoles like the NES, Gameboy, Genesis, etc. These can be 8-bit, the Commodore 64’s SID chip, etc. It’s all chip-generated synth music, but usually from a certain demographic of analog synths. The most important part is that everything is contained within the chip itself. There are no external settings or knobs or patching that can be used to layer or modify the sound. It’s generally identified as a more pure, clean sound that isn’t too heavily effected. (There are a number of exceptions, of course, and creative composers have done a LOT within these chips, so I understand there’s some confusion in modern times!)
So what is used for Celeste then?
Synthesizers, which I use, can be either analog or digital/emulated. These are usually keyboards or rack-mounted synths that use the same general sound origins as chips, BUT! The important part is they have a multitude of tweakable parameters, knobs, effects, and the ability to patch to different modules and oscillators to create a more complex, layered sound.
For Celeste, I used a software synth called Massive by Native Instruments which emulates a hardware style synth. There’s 3 oscillators (tone generators that determine the base sound you build from). You can either use one or layer them together to create a more complicated sound. Beyond that, it patches into a bunch of other modules like modulation oscillators, noise filters, feedback and distortion, delays, reverbs, etc. Massive has a ton of default modules that let me create a ton of different sounds all within the same synth. It’s the primary one I’ve used across a number of soundtracks such as Hackmud, Celeste, ESC, and even a bit in Guild Wars 2.
Let’s build up some synth patches!
The very first sound you hear in Resurrections is a rising arpeggio (arp) that I made using a very soft synth that is, ultimately, pretty simple. Here’s how it’s built up.
- This synth patch uses three different oscillators. The first one, played here, is a pretty simple sawtooth wave with its intensity cranked down to 0 to soften it up.
- The second oscillator is more of a square wave, also with its intensity totally softened up.
- The third oscillator is a sine wave at low intensity, also transposed up an octave (up 12 semitones) to add a bit of depth to the sound.
- Then, we add them all together! This creates a nice, thick sound with a bit more complexity than any of the individual oscillators on their own. It also has a bit of an organ-like quality, due to having similar acoustic properties created from the overtones of the 3rd oscillator. (I’ve also used actual harmonics in additional layers to create even more complicated sounds out of basic shapes.)
- Reverb!! Almost everything in Celeste heaps on the reverb to create a certain atmosphere, but in a way that thickens the sound and gives it some depth.
- Finally, we add on a pretty substantial delay to let each arpeggio upwards overlap onto each other and make it even more complex. It’s important that the top portions of each chord are complimentary, because once you layer chords on top of each other with a delay, the higher registers stick around longer and can cause some really ugly clashes if they’re not carefully written.
Once Resurrections picks up and the drum parts start up, the bass gets a bit thicker and more complex. Let’s dig into what makes up my favorite kind of synth: big, juicy, and crunchy.
- There are two main oscillators in this bass. The first one is straight-up sawtooth wave with a bit of an intensity LFO (low frequency oscillator) that gives it a wah-wah effect. For the whole synth, I’ve also made it monophonic with a little glide to it so that the octave pattern swoops up and down.
- The second oscillator is a sine wave with a little square wave mixed in to harsh it up a bit. If the 1st oscillator creates the texture, the 2nd one here creates the juicy quality for the bass.
- When we add them together, you get a beefy-sounding bass with some grit to the upper registers, but still deep enough to feel juicy.
- The first module used is a noise filter set to a tape hiss setting. This gives it a bit more activity in the higher register and makes it a bit more lo-fi sounding with its artificial analog hiss.
- The second module is a bitcrunch that makes the sound even more degraded. I almost always put my building block sounds into this module so that they sound imperfect. Software synths often sound a bit too pristine, clean, pure… Crunching it up a bit and adding noise makes it sound more analog, like you can relate to them a bit more.
- Kick in that reverb! Again, this adds dimension to the sound and lets it really widen up and start getting big.
- I then take it into a chorus module to widen it up and make it even bigger.
- Finally, I tweak the EQ to boost up the bass and let it get into the subwoofers to round out the sound.
Once the chase with Badeline begins, we really amp up the intensity and put all the drama into a series of lead synths, the first of which I’ll go into here. (Remember the Massive screenshot above? That’s the settings I’ll be talking about!)
- The first oscillator for this lead is actually pitched up an octave (again, up 12 semitones) and is a sine wave with a bit of square mixed in. Like before, you’ll notice that this layer will widen the sound a lot.
- The second oscillator is a pure sine wave, back at the root pitch. This is definitely the core of the compound sound.
- The third oscillator is a pure square wave, pitched down an octave (down 12 semitones). This gives it a bit more texture, and again, more depth.
- Added all up together, you get a sound very close to the final lead. Because all three layers are in different octaves, the overall sound is huge and attention-grabbing. It cuts through literally every other sound in the mix because of how harsh and commanding it is.
- Like the bass, we then take the compound sound through the tape noise filter to give it some grit.
- And again, it goes through the bitcrush insert to degrade the sound and make it more harsh and lo-fi.
- The lead then goes into a very aggressive delay module. Like I mentioned with the arpeggio, the melody was very specifically written with the delay in mind. When you hear the part before delay you can tell that there’s a lot of stop and start in the melody. But then once the delay kicks in, you can hear that the pauses in the melody actually let the delayed parts play out in the gaps. Always keep in mind your effects when writing for synths!
- Because clearly the delay isn’t enough to make the sound take up space, I then put the delayed signal through a medium-size reverb to let it all soak up the atmosphere. I was careful to not make it too big, because the delay already takes up so much space as it is. It just needed to sit back in the mix a bit, since the synth already cuts through so much.
- Finally, I tweaked the high-end of the EQ a bit so it doesn’t get too muddied up by the delay & reverb.
The second lead in the final section of Resurrections is way more chill, and has less complexity to it, so let’s wind down with this one.
- The first oscillator in this lead is a pure sine wave, clean and simple. The whole synth is set to monophonic with a bit of glide so that it’s a nice little pure & smooth sound.
- The second oscillator is another sine wave, pitched up an octave (remember how many semi-tones? it’s 12!). It’s also slightly less loud than the first, so it doesn’t overpower the main octave.
- Added together, you get a nice little lead that’s slightly more complex than just one simple sine wave.
- Get that BIG reverb on there. Just let it soak in how big that space is.
- Finally, widen up the sound with some chorus. We’re done!
Okay synths are cool, what else is there?
Piano, mostly! There’s some drums & samples in there, which aren’t as fun to talk about, but here: have an isolated piano stem from the chase sequence of Resurrections. This is one of the only piano parts I didn’t play live because, jeez, it’s really fast and hard. I’m not that good a pianist, sorry.
So what’s the take-away from all this?
Synths are cool! You can make a TON of sounds from all of these fun little building blocks. Adding together different types of oscillators, adding effects, processing them in different ways… It’s a lot of work, but I could do it for hours, and still make something that sounds different than what I did for Celeste. Chiptune music is awesome. Hell, I wrote a whole album full of it. But I wanted to at least clarify some on what I feel is the main distinction between calling something chiptune music, and identifying it as using electronic instruments in some way that may or may not originate from chips.
So, hopefully you know a little more about how I write music, create synth patches, and… y’know hey check out the full soundtrack if there’s some off chance you haven’t heard it yet?? Happy holidays, or happy any time of year if you’re reading this after the holidays.