mu:zines Blog

Home -> Blog -> Display Blog

Sound Diving #2 - Take On Me

by Ben @ mu:zines | 24th Sep 2021


This "Sound Diving" occasional series will dig deep into some of my favourite songs from my formative years, trying to uncover the sounds and techniques used, what fascinated me about them and why they worked.

When I was young and learning about music, I'd often try to recreate songs I liked on my limited equipment, but I didn't really understand the details of what I was hearing - I'd usually be working out by ear how to play the notes of the latest hits' synth riffs, and that's about all I could do on my little Casio. During the first half of the 80s the UK Charts were full of synth music, and this was what I found new and interesting.

I'll be looking at some of these classic tracks and deconstructing, analysing and recreating some of these, in the hope of learning the secrets that still fascinate me today!




"Take On Me", released in late 1985, was a massive hit at the time - no doubt in part to that video. I always liked the song, and while it would have been the main synth riff that I would be learning to play, I loved the "sound" of the song. It starts with a drum track which is driving and punchy, then some nice synths come in, and of course that bass sound. It's not a "heavy" track, the mix is quite "light", and this made it stand out from other records of the time. The drums sound fabulous - the snare sound in particular - and a recent opportunity to get into the multitracks gave me the chance uncover some answers into why the track sounds the way it does.

Please note: This is a deep dive and a long read - there's a lot to cover!


Recording & Gear



We are fortunate to know quite a few details about the history of Take On Me from Richard Buskin's excellent 2011 Sound On Sound article, where he gets a lot of detail from producer Alan Tarney, and engineer Gerry Kitchingham (who also did the final mix). I'll be excerpting from this article a fair bit.

The song has a complicated history, and a few attempts were made at recording (and releasing!) it (see the "Evolution of 'Take On Me'" box below to hear all the various versions from initial demos through to the final version), but it's the final Tarney/Kitchingham 1985 version we all know that I'm concerned with here.

The gear used was primarily Tarney's:

"When they came to RG Jones, my equipment was already there," adds Tarney. "This included a [Roland] Juno 60 that provided the song's main theme and which I still use, as well as a UMI computer system that a friend of mine put together, and which Vince Clark also used. That's what I used to drive the instruments, and there was a LinnDrum that Pål programmed."

"Mags was an excellent keyboard player. I remember them in the control room playing their [PPG] Wave keyboards and it was fantastic hearing them play at the same time. They were so energetic. A lot of the stuff that I needed to control came through the Juno and a [Yamaha] DX7, but then they played the Waves together and that's where the magic seemed to come from. It was a very atmospheric, live recording."

This gave me a head start as to what was used on the track. There are no other significant instruments mentioned, so anyone that suggests different synths were used, including the instruments used on the various previous versions, are not backed up by evidence, unless the multitracks throw up anything that can't be reproduced with those pieces of gear.

Hmm... LinnDrum eh? The drums sound *way* better to me than the typical Linn drum tracks of the time I'm familiar with - as I said, I always had a particular fancy to that snare, and the drums have this 8th note between the kick and snare around beats 1 and 3 that really drive the pattern forward. My fascination for the sound of this song begins, as the song does, with the drums - so let's start there.

Note: Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, I'm not able to post excerpts or upload original material under copyright, which means you won't be able to directly hear what I'm referring to. I will be putting up some audio examples of my recreations which you can compare with the original release version though.



Drums



So turning to the multitracks we have two mono drum machine tracks, which are both easily identifiable as LinnDrum parts. We then have a "Percussion" track, and then two tracks for a stereo "Snare".

The first drum machine track seems to be carrying the bulk of the drum programming you hear on the track, including the kick, snare, hihats and cymbals, and the various drum fills and so on (the drum programming is quite inventive in places, and Pål's excellent drum programming is remarked on a few times in the SOS article). It's at a stonking 169bpm(!) - although they bump the tempo by +0.5 bpm for the final verse to keep the energy up, and as neither the LinnDrum nor the UMI 2B sequencer support programmed tempo changes, they likely did this in the SMPTE sync box clocking the machines from the Studer tape machine.

As well as progressively building in intensity over the course of the track - the end choruses have all the hihats, tambourines and crash cymbals you could ask for - this drum part has some interesting details. The low-pitched snare on beat 3 gives the kick an extra texture - mixed low it's almost like a bit of a reverb on that kick, and gives some half-time beat cues to the listener in case they were freaked out by the quick tempo! Here's a recreation of a few patterns and fills from that part using standard LinnDrum sounds:


On the recorded track though, there are a couple of extra things to note. Firstly, the snare is definitely not the standard factory LinnDrum snare. It's much higher pitched, and if you pitched up the standard snare to match it would be far too short.

Gerry: "You could get different quality chips for the Linn, and Alan would sometimes lift the lid, pull out the chips and put in some better ones that he could afford to buy. 'Take On Me' had a fairly standard Linn snare sound and I just remember compressing it quite heavily to get a very slappy feel."

So, the snare on that drum machine track is coming from the Linn, but it looks like it's a different sound chip to the factory LinnDrum sound. A mystery! Also, the drums seem to be much tighter and snappier that you'd expect coming straight from the machine, leading me to think it's been processed (likely compressed) while recording it to tape. The snare in particular sounds really good - but not yet like it does in the final mix. I'll come back to this track shortly.

The second drum machine track is bit of an oddity. It's essentially the same as the first track, nearly all the programming and fills are the same as the first track, but with the Linn sidestick in place of the snare (all Prince-like - you know the sound). You can't really hear the sidestick in the final mix, and this track is not the second of a stereo pair with the first track - there's a slight delay between the parts, and it sounds odd if you try to pan 1 and 2 each side. Here's some demos of the second drum on it's own, and then combined as a fake stereo pair with the first part:


So I'm not sure what's up with this part - perhaps it was an alternate track where they thought they might want to drop in the sidestick in place of the snare? Or perhaps it was a previous iteration of a guide drum track, that they used before they found a snare drum sound they liked and continued to refine the drum programming.

And rather than this track being delayed, perhaps the main drum track is advanced slightly before the beat? Sure enough, when we compare this "late" sidestick drum part with the rigidly quantised bass part, it's absolutely in time with the bass - so we now know the main drum track has been brought forward by 7ms. Everything else, including the other drum parts, runs "late" to this. Suspecting this might be an error, I checked it alongside the final mix and indeed, this drum track is too early - so it's likely an error somewhere along the line in preparing the files and about 7ms of the beginning of that track has been truncated.

The third drum track, called "Percussion" is interesting. It sounds like a vintage preset drum machine from the 70s - you know the ones with a few presets like "cha-cha-cha" to accompany the organ player. This is the part that's doing that in-between 8th note "chugging" that drives the main drums along so nicely, and it's not a part that was in any of the previous recorded versions of the song. On it's own, it sounds terribly cheesy, but in the mix it's fabulous and really adds some magic. This diverted my attention to a trawl through my various sample libraries of every obscure vintage drum machine known to man, both in terms of the character of the sounds, and any similar preset drum patterns - but although I could find things with a similar-ish sound character, I couldn't find a match, and certainly not a pattern preset match. To hear it clearly in the final mix, it's most exposed in the break down in the middle where the rest of the drums drop out. A second mystery!

Ok, moving on - next we have two tracks making a stereo snare track. This sounds great, and has a lovely short stereo reverb baked in to the recording (hence the need for two tracks - the right side is also delayed slightly for a wider sound):-

Gerry: "...in this case, because 'Take On Me' was relatively lightweight, all of the instruments were DI'd, and then we had a few effects of various kinds to go through, whether these were produced by my outboard gear or Alan's. This included a Lexicon 224 [reverb] for the vocal, as well as an AMS [delay] that enabled us to sample snare sounds and combine them with the Linn Drum sounds for more realism."

Using sampling delays - the AMS in particular - as samplers to replace things like snare drums was quite common back when you perhaps didn't have the budget to hire in a Fairlight or Emulator, and you already had an AMS available in the rack, which was standard equipment in decently equipped studios.

Take On Me audio parts. Some different track sections have been split out into new tracks, like the remains of the guide drum tracks.
(Click image for higher resolution version)




"Helpfully, there are more clues to be found on the multitracks..."


The Mystery Snare


Let's get back to this mystery snare in the main drum machine track. It's super tight sounding with a really defined attack, and it almost sounds too good to be a standard Linn sample, which were often quite dark and grungey due to the quality limitations of sampling at the time - but we know it's on the Linndrum track, so we know that it did come from the Linn. We also know that Tarney had alternate sound chips on that session, otherwise it probably wouldn't have been mentioned in the article.

(On some drum machines in the early 80s, you could open the lid, and replace the individual chips that had the various drum sounds encoded on them, to let you use different sounds. This was an advantage over less flexible drum machines of the time which were permanently stuck with the set of sounds that they came with.)

Helpfully, there are more clues to be found on the multitracks.

On some of the synth tracks, towards the end, after the song has ended, there are some more drum machine parts. It looks to me like these were probably the remains of the original guide drums they put down - nearly 6 minutes' worth, to make sure they didn't run out - and they then recorded over those tracks as they built up the production - but as those synth parts only last for the four minutes or so of the song, they leave the previously recorded guide drum parts exposed at the end for a couple of minutes.

Gerry: "After laying down the stereo guide drums, other guides were recorded, including Morten's vocal, and then we started to look at everything a little bit closer."

These drum parts have the same basic Linn pattern, but are just simple one bar loops with no fills - and even better - they seem to have no processing on them - or at least, they sound a bit more vanilla than the regular drum track. So in these tracks, we can hear the snare that was used dry, as it came out of the Linn and got printed to tape. Comparing these dry guide drums with the main drum machine track, we can indeed hear the snare in particular has been compressed to sound tighter than it normally does - a common application of using compressors to change the character of drum sounds. We're starting to see how skilled engineers can shape fairly plain sounds into something rather more special during the course of making a hit record!

Here's a rough example of the differences, again just using standard LinnDrum sounds for now, six bars of straight out of the machine sounds, and then with some tape and SSL channel compression to tighten them up - listen to the attack of the snare in particular, how the compression makes them "tighter" and "punchier":


Ok - so we can now hear the dry unprocessed snare, and I'm keen to find the source of this sample, as it's a key part of why the track sounds so good, and a snare sound that's up in my all-time favourites (if it's possible to have a list of favourite snare sounds - audio nerds, eh?!)

The Wonderful World of Chips


Examples of replacement Linn sound chips

This led me onto a deep dive into the world of replacement LinnDrum chips. Now, I figured that with the popularity and ubiquity of the Linn LM1 and LinnDrum in popular music of the 80s, there would be copious amounts of documentation available online of all the available sound chips, along with audio samples, and probably drum machine sample libraries full of those sounds.

Surprisingly to me, there was none of that available that I could find. So I started to search around, of course trawling my own mu:zines archives, and also reach out to some of my smart synth nerd friends (Hi!) to see what I could turn up. Hunting High and Low, indeed.

Firstly, Linn had a library of replacement sound chips that you could buy, for between about $20-$40 per chip (one chip typically stored one sound, though sometimes longer sounds could be spread over multiple chips). They also had a service where you could send them recordings of your own sounds, and they would encode them on custom chips for your machine.

I was also aware of DigiDrums (who later became Digidesign and developed Sound Tools, the precursor to Pro Tools), another US-based third-party company who started by making a few sets of replacement drum soundchips for the Emu Drumulator (and later, for other machines including the Linn) - some of which were also used on famous records.

It was also possible to make your own custom chips - you could get a "Prommer" or other sampler/chip burner, and record/encode your own samples onto blank chips. I thought it was unlikely Tarney was making his own custom chips, but not impossible - and if the mystery snare was something custom made, then the source was likely to remain a permanent mystery.

The full Linn chip library
(Paolo@synthmania)
(Click image for higher resolution version)

Another angle came from the UK - in the mu:zines archives I found a few references to Syco selling replacement Linn and Drumulator sound chips. Syco were the London-based UK distributor and exclusive seller of pretty much all the super high-end stuff - if you were an elite famous producer or artist, and you wanted a Fairlight, Yamaha DX1, Kurzweil K250, Linn 9000 or other fabulously expensive piece of gear - you went to Syco - by appointment only, of course! I wondered whether Syco had their own custom chip library, as Alan Tarney would likely have got any extra LinnDrum chips from a UK source.

Kendall Wrightson, who was part of the team there at the time (you've probably seen that video with him filmed at Syco), confirmed to me that they didn't make any custom chips and they basically imported and sold the official Linn replacement chips, as well as the DigiDrums Drumulator chips - with the "Rock Drums" set being by far the most popular (used very prominently on Tears For Fears' Shout record).

So, the official Linn library was really where I needed to start looking through for alternate sounds, as I wasn't aware of any other companies selling custom soundchips. At least that narrowed the search somewhat!

I reached out to another Linn owner and notable synth historian, Paolo from Synthmania, who was super helpful in looking through his available Linn materials. In particular, he had documentation of the full Linn sound chip library, so I had a definitive list of all the sound chips they did. You've got to love the $20 "Silent chip"! He also had the original Linn demo tape, which had demos of the LinnDrum, and example recordings of all the individual sounds Linn offered.

I went through the demo recordings of the available snares - all 37 of them - multiple times, but couldn't find an obvious match. It wasn't helped by the original recording being quite poor quality. However, after many other searches through sample libraries and other online sources gave no results, I decided to go back through the Linn demos one last time.

The sound of 8-bit silence - for just $20!

What I hadn't realised was just how bad the original recordings on that Linn demo tape were - it was a cassette copy, but the audio was lacking in frequency response, and was rather distorted so the transients were all smeared in that horrible cassette tape over-modulated way. And when I realised just how distorted the sources were, I made more careful comparisons to the dry mystery snare, trying to see past the differences in "shape" of the sound, and the altered frequency response - and I found a match! The tone colour, and the pitch seemed to match.

To check my findings I took the dry mystery snare from the multitracks, and attempted to rough it up with compression, distortion, EQ and cassette emulations, and I could indeed make it sound pretty much like the Linn demo cassette recording.

The source had been found, and I'm super happy to have identified it!

The Mystery Snare is... [er... snare drum roll!] "Snare 7", from the Linn chip library.

(Ok, I guess the discovery doesn't sound all that dramatic, but I'd searched quite hard for this, it's not easily available and it answers a very long-standing question for me about the source of the snare sound. In my quest to definitely answer these type of things, this scores as a big win for me!)

Or so I thought... (and this was to be one of the things that held up publication of this article.)



"...this was to be one of the things that held up publication of this article."


After various approaches trying to source an independent "Snare 7" chip or recording of it (which was a rat hole in itself!) so I could hear a clean sample of it and compare it to the multitrack, I finally obtained one... and instead of the confirmation I hoped for, I began to doubt my findings.

Certainly the pitch was about right, and quite unique because actually few of the Linn snares have a highish tuning - high-pitched snares weren't really that fashionable then! But while tonally it was sort of there, the shape of it - the attack and release, and the high frequencies on the release gave it a quite different feel - much more "squishy" than I'd expect. And comparing this dry "Snare 7" directly to the multitrack showed them to be quite a way off.

Perhaps I was wrong and this wasn't the sample after all? I was dejected - a problem I thought I'd solved seemed to be looking inconclusive after all. I put the project down for some time due to my lack of forward progress and the need to pay attention to other committments.

In the process of coming back and getting this article ready for publication, I needed to finally make a decision on this snare sound, rewrite my conclusions appropriately, and move on - if the snare sound was to remain a mystery, so be it. So I dived back down and had another look.

I went through all the Linn sounds again, looking for matches, and once more, only Snare 7 seemed to be anywhere near close. But it wasn't super close to that dry sound on the multitrack. Maybe that "dry" sound wasn't actually unprocessed at all - maybe, even as a guide track, the machine was going through the SSL desk, with the separate outputs coming up on individual channels, and the engineer had indeed routinely used some SSL EQ and compression on the way to tape to modify the drum sound character?

So again, limiting myself to the same kinds of tools I knew they were using at the time, I took my dry sample, and used only some tape processing and my favourite SSL 4000E channel strip plugin, and tried to see whether I could get that sound from the multitrack - and after an hour of tweaking and trying various approaches, giving up, trying again, rinse and repeat - I got sufficiently close to the source to confirm to myself my earlier result - so if it wasn't a custom chip, I'm pretty sure this was the Linn sample used - or at least, it's the by far the closest chip I can find that gets that sound - nothing else in the Linn library, or from other compatible drum machines gets even close. Key here was some tape saturation, the use of a fast SSL gate to quite aggressively close the longer squishy release down, the SSL compressor to make the snare punchier in the attack, and then I used a little SSL EQ mainly in the lower and upper mids to get close to the recorded snare. I'm not exactly there, but I'm pretty happy with the result.

So it seems even the "dry" guide recording wasn't that dry, after all! It just goes to show how tricky working backwards from a final sound to the original source can be.

When they printed the main drum track with the more detailed programming, they'd tweaked the drum compression to make the snare sound even tighter still. As they were recording a composite drum track rather than a track each for individual drums, they would have wanted to get as much character into the printed drum track as possible, as it wouldn't be possible to separately process the sounds from this track after it was recorded. So the various drum channels would have been processed in the desk and mixed together into this one mono drum track.

And again, my "dry" processed sample gets this extra-compressed sound pretty well to my ear. I'm happy - and a bit relieved, to be honest!



"It just goes to show how tricky working backwards from a final sound to the original source can be."


The AMS/Reverb Snare


Armed with the knowledge of the process I'd gone through with the main snare, I took another look at the AMS-triggered stereo reverb snare. I originally thought this was the same sound as the main mystery snare, pitched down a little, and that this would be easy to verify. It became quickly apparent that it wasn't the same snare, and I had to go through a similar process again to identify it.

(With these early drum machines, when you tune a sample up, the sample gets shorter, and with short samples to begin with - memory was expensive back then - it becomes quite obvious when a sound has been tuned up beyond a small amount. And similarly, when a sample was tuned lower, it gets longer, but also it loses the high frequencies as all the sample frequencies are shifted downward. This snare was lower pitched than the main snare, but still had a lot of high end pumped into the reverb, so in that way I knew it wasn't just the main sample pitched down, but was in fact a separate sample.)

After much searching, comparing and recreating, which is difficult because I was trying to compare a dry sample with a compressed and EQ'd (and reverbed!) version, this one seems to be Linn's Snare 2 from their chip library - a more natural-sounding, lower pitched snare for more beef, compressed through the desk and run through a reverb - probably the aforementioned 224 - then sampled into the AMS, and triggered.

This snare is pitched up slightly from it's factory tuning (about a semitone), but in order to match the recorded sound as close as I could, rather than pitching it up and running it through reverb, I found a better match by sampling it at the regular pitch with a slightly longer reverb than required, then pitching up the combined snare + reverb sample - it shortens up the reverb, but moves the tail resonances to be more in line with the recorded version. I wonder if they did this on the original session - slightly pitched the AMS triggered snare + reverb sample up a semitone? Also, there is a slight delay between the left and right side which widens the reverb effect, probably also done in the AMS delay while triggering the sample - this pushes the snare reverb out to the sides of the stereo image, leaving the hard smack in the centre of the mix.

The combination of the higher pitched snare with a fast attack in the main drum track, and this second, stereo, reverbed slightly lower pitched snare filling out the body and tail of the sound, comprises the snare in the mix - although it doesn't sound quite like the finished mix yet!

The control room at RG Jones (1997)


In The Mix


So we know that the drum track itself was compressed a bit (or at least the snare), but when we mix that with the reverbed stereo snare, it doesn't quite sound like the final mix.

Gerry: "'Take On Me' had a fairly standard Linn snare sound and I just remember compressing it quite heavily to get a very slappy feel."

Ok, so lets think about the compression. Looking at the RG Jones studio pic from around that time (looking at some of the gear, it's a later pic from the 90s, but still retains much of the signature gear referenced in the SOS article), we get some extra clues to the gear that was in the studio. We can see the Lexicon 224X reverb up in the top of the rack (and it's LARC remote-control unit on the desk) and a couple of AMS units - one underneath the 224 (which looks like a DM2-20 Tape Phase Simulator), and the DMX 15-80S digital delay in the lower rack at the front, which would have been used for sampling the snare (and all the delay and thickening effects). We can also see a couple of 1176 compressors, another studio staple, and so the likely source of compression on those drums parts was probably either those 1176's, or the channel compressors in the SSL desk itself.

I tried both to see how close I could get, and the SSL's E-series channel compressors seemed again to be the obvious solution - a nice aggressive smack, coupled with some overall SSL bus compression (also pretty much a standard on SSL-mixed records) seemed to work great - here's a dry pass, and then a compressed pass of the example drum patterns:-



There's one last detail about the snare, which is in the sections of the chorus where the drums go half time (an arrangement detail carried over from the demo). There's a nice stereo flam on the snares for emphasis (two hits in quick succession in the place of one, when a drummer hits the drum with both sticks but not quite at the same time). The flam itself isn't on the multitrack, and was presumably a mix decision done by adding in a short delay on just those snare hits - and the stereo width of those flams suggests this. This is a great arrangement touch as the bass leaves a hole for those snare hits, and the flams reinforce them for impact. The exact same trick was used on the snare in Pet Shop Boy's West End Girls, just before the first verse.


Gerry also notes about the drums:

"At the same time, while the quality of the Linn's snare, toms and kick drum was quite good, its cymbal sounds were a bit crappy — no high end. So Pål overdubbed real cymbals and possibly some hi‑hat in the studio, to add some clarity and get more of a live feel."

I could find no evidence of any real cymbals or hi-hats on the multitracks, and nor could I hear anything other than Linn cymbals in the final released mix. There are some very quantised LinnDrum crashes, hats and tambourines as part of the drum track but that's it. It's possible that Gerry was misremembering here and was perhaps thinking about a different session for a different track:

Gerry: "It was because everything went so well with 'Take On Me' that we then almost immediately worked on 'The Sun Always Shines On TV'. I'm pretty sure it was within the same week."

Up until now I had assumed that this main mono drum track was the source of the drums in the mix - after all, this was the drum track on the multitracks, so it would make sense. However, that isn't quite the full story. The SOS article mentions that in the mix process they ran the drums live from the drum machine to save on tape tracks. This would let them be able to mix and process the drums individually, in stereo, and perhaps they just printed a final mono mix of the drums back to one track for archiving purposes - or more likely, this mono track was just a guide drum track to use for convenience while recording. And listening to the final mix, we can confirm they must have done this, because on the multitrack, we only have that one mono mix of all the main drum parts, but in the final mix, we can hear the hihats move from center to left, the tambourine is panned to the right, and so on - a stereo drum mix.

Interestingly, that means it wouldn't be possible to remix this song directly from the multitracks alone, as there is no way to "recover" that stereo drum mix, without painstakingly resampling the individual drums from the track, isolating them, and then triggering them from a sampler - or having, or recreating, the original drum programs and sounds used. A strange choice, when they actually did have a second track available to record to - they could have overwritten both the main guide track and the unused sidestick drum track, and at least preserved the final stereo mix of the drums.

And this would have been useful, because they were clearly tweaking the drums right up to the final mix, as there are some extra drum parts in the mix that aren't in the printed drum tracks - one of my favourite little details is a shaker (on the right) just before each of the snare flams in the half-speed part of the chorus, which gives a kind of "whiplash" effect. Given how beefy the snare is in the mix, it's really tough to match how it sounds, and there's no guarantee of course that they didn't make further changes to the live drum sounds in the final mix - possibly even tuning it down or running it through the AMS slap/doubler for texture, in conjunction with the recorded AMS snare. The kick also seems tuned down in the final mix too, so it's not a stretch to imagine these kind of tweaks going on until they were happy with the overall mix.

It's great though that we have this record of the drum sounds and drum programs that we can listen to in isolation - without that, it wouldn't have been possible to find the source of the snare used - but they clearly don't tell the whole story.

A fun exercise for the reader might be to look at the 12" version of this track, which was presumably done in a later session, to see whether the 12" was assembled from the multitrack, edited from the final mix, or whether they did get the sequencer and drum machine back out for the new version. Let me know what you think!


Ok, at this point, the only element we haven't identified is this pesky vintage drum machine loop "Percussion" track. This was bugging me, because it didn't make sense on a number of levels. Alan Tarney took his modern production gear into the studio to make the tracks - why would he also bring an old, cheesy vintage drum machine and set it up as part of that rig? Would it really be something the studio had lying around in a gear closet somewhere? How would you even sync it up to the BBC/UMI sequencer? Those old preset drum machines often didn't have sync inputs or anything like that. It probably wasn't something sampled into the AMS because the loop changes with an extra accent every fourth bar, which is probably too long to practically sample. More Linn chip sounds? Hmm, it wasn't exactly common for people to spend a couple of thousand pounds on a drum machine only to put terribly cheap-sounding replacement drum chips in it, but I guess it's possible. But the pieces didn't fit, at this point.

And that percussion track really makes a big difference in the drum track, for all it's simplicity.

Let's leave this a mystery for the moment, and turn to the instrumental parts.


The Guitars



Take On Me is really 90% synths/drums, and 9% vocals, but there are some guitars, so let's take a quick look at this before we get all synthy.

There's one guitar track, consisting of two main parts. The first is an acoustic guitar part playing in the choruses, which is strummed pretty hard - I guess they were really trying to inject some energy for these parts. It's quite boxy sounding, and it's also out of tune on the lower strings (which might be because it's being hit so hard). In the mix, you mostly only hear the top end so what's going on below is less of a problem. By the sound of it, it's open chords playing G, D/F#, Em, C etc with a capo on the second fret.

In the final verse, there's also an electric guitar part on this track too (track sharing was common back in the days where you had a fixed set of tracks available to use) - it's a muted, "thunky", harmonic rhythmic electric part, which "ghosts" the arpeggiated synth part and works quite well to change things up and add something new for extra sonic interest for the last verse.


Getting Synthy



There's around 8 main synth parts in the song, many of them double-tracked, with some track sharing to make the most use of the 23 tracks available. Let's start with the easy one - the bass, which is that DX7 ROM E.Bass 1 preset that everyone was using in the eighties. Interestingly, comparing this to pristine digital plugin DX7 emulations, the version on the multitrack is a little softer sounding, as if it's been rounded off and the upper frequencies rolled off slightly - probably a result of using the hardware synth plus recording it to tape, rather than a result of deliberate EQ. The bass part is sequenced and hard quantised to 8th notes, and all the notes are at maximum velocity (which on the DX7 means 100, not 127, for reasons of Yamaha misunderstanding the early MIDI spec), and as a result, the effect is a hard, driving bass, with no dynamic variation - the effect is a bit like if it was a DX7 sample sequenced in Page R on a Fairlight.

The beautiful PPG Wave 2.2/2.3, responsible for much of the signature sound of "Take On Me"


Main Chords


The first synth part you hear in the intro after the drums have started comes from this main chord track. Like many of the synth tracks, this part consists of multiple synth layers. In fact, considering just how many pads and synth parts there are, it's amazing the mix still manages to feel light and not swamped under huge thick synth layers.

Anyway - those first few notes come from the PPG Wave - I've not been able to find out whether it was a 2.2 or a 2.3 model they had (they're playing one on the video to 'The Sun Always Shines On TV' but I couldn't make out which version it was). The main difference that would concern us here is that the early 2.2 models didn't have MIDI, whereas the later 2.2 models and the 2.3 do - so if the Wave was being sequenced from the computer at all, it was probably a 2.3 or at least a later model 2.2.

Alan: "Both Pål and Mags were very good instrumentalists — Mags was an excellent keyboard player. I remember them in the control room playing their [PPG] Wave keyboards and it was fantastic hearing them play at the same time. They were so energetic. A lot of the stuff that I needed to control came through the Juno and a [Yamaha] DX7, but then they played the Waves together and that's where the magic seemed to come from. It was a very atmospheric, live recording."

The PPG more than any other synth really gives the synth flavours on display here - pretty much all the high, synthy/belly stuff comes from the PPG. It has a glorious, Germanic, metallic quality which is quite unique to that synth - it's a character I really like.

There are two tracks of this part, intended to be panned left and right for stereo, but they are two different mono passes - the exact played notes differ, and often there are different chord inversions played on each of the two tracks - this is good musicianship and tasteful arrangement.

Of the two layered synths in each track, one is playing the root notes and lower chordal parts - this lower synth pad is clearly heard in the intro, and the other is playing the more bell-like synth chords and high notes, so between the chordal parts they cover quite a range and are the main chordal components in the song.

In the verse both of these tracks switch to a simple warm analog pad, before going into the full layers of everything for the chorus. It looks like they actually did some punching in to record or patch-up the different parts, as in a few transition places between verses and chorus there are some small glitches (and not identically between tracks) where they've dropped into record mode to record, or re-record, the next section.

Unlike a synth like the DX7, the more physical controls a synth has, and therefore the more directly manipulatable a synth is, the likelihood that unmodified preset patches were used in a production drops significantly. Even if a part began with a patch that was called up from the synth's memory, the ease of which it can be changed means that synth players were very likely to modify the sound in the recording session to suit the track. And so we find that this main PPG synth sound isn't just a simple preset that comes in the Wave 2.2 or 2.3 preset banks.

It's not too difficult to get into the ballpark of recreating this sound, but it is hard to get the tone of it exactly. To explain why (synth digression number 1), let's take a quick look at how synths work. Typically, the tone of a synth sound originates from it's sound source - the oscillators. On a simple analog synth, you typically have two oscillators that play together for every note, and there's usually a choice from a few simple waveforms - saw, square/pulse, triangle/sine and so on - and each of these has quite a strong, recognisable sonic signature. There are some other more complex features that many synths can offer, but in simple terms, the choice of waveforms is fairly limited, and there are only so many combinations to try - probably less than ten. The upshot of which is that you can generally get close to an analog synth tone when you know what the fundamental waveforms sound like, how the oscillators relate to one another, and what the filter is doing.

The PPG Wave though is a digital/analog hybrid synth, and it's (digital) oscillators have a "super power". Instead of just choosing a simple saw/square/etc waveform for each of the two oscillators (though you can do that too), you choose a "Wavetable", which is basically a list of 64 different digital waveforms, and each oscillator can be set to use any one of those waveforms from that list. (It can also do some swanky things like actually moving through multiple waveforms in that list while it's playing).

This means that if you're trying to nail down the tone of a PPG Wave 2.x patch, you have potentially 30 Wavetables x 64 Waves (Osc1) x 64 waves (Osc2) - something like 120,000+ possibilities. And each can sound quite different. (And as many of the patches used are dual-layer sounds, thats 120,000 x 120,000... nearly 15Billion possibilities!)

I did try all... no, I'd be lying if I said I tried them exhaustively! But I did spend quite a while going through the wavetables and sweeping around to see how close I could get. I've got pretty close with many different combinations, but haven't got something I could confidently yet say is a good match. Here's where I'm at, though this version doesn't really have the correct digital/belly PPG character of the original part:


Given what we discovered with the drum tracks, we also have to bear in mind that what we hear on the recorded synth tracks is likely again to have been passed through the desk, and may well have been tweaked with EQ to help the layers not overwhelm the mix so much.

Another detail - on the left track, the vibrato in the higher PPG sound is at a medium speed, and on the right track, it's at a slower speed. They were definitely using synth programmer tricks to make the parts as thick and wide as possible, which suggests a pretty good degree of synthesis and arrangement competence here - especially considering they only took a day to program and record the whole track, vocals and all - they were still sweating the small details. Classy.

One interesting thing to note about this PPG part - it voice steals like crazy. Synth digression number two: synths usually have a fixed number of "voices" (simultaneous notes) that you can play at once. The PPG has 8 voices, which means you can play up to 8 notes at once (with each of those 8 voices using two oscillators). If you have sounds with a long release (notes that linger for a while after you play them), as you play new notes, you'll run out of free, available voices as previous notes are still actively ringing out. In this case, the synth will kill an older sounding note in order to be able to fulfill the request to play the new note, making the reasonable assumption that the note you're playing now should take priority over one you played a few seconds ago...

Now, I like synth sounds with long releases, and I hate voice stealing, when notes are cut off prematurely - one of the great things about modern digital synths is that you don't have the same voicing limitations as when dealing with analog hardware, so voice stealing to a large degree becomes a thing of the past.

However, the voice stealing really works in this instance to keep the chordal tracks clean and to avoid cluttering up the synth parts with long trailing notes hanging over from older chords. It sounds like the PPG is cutting off voices after four sounding notes, suggesting the synth is layering two different patches in double mode to thicken it up still further (which cuts the eight available voices in half, as each played note now uses two voices). The PPG factory presets do include both A and B sounds for layering (and stereo), which gives four voices on the PPG, so this is likely how it was being used much of the time.

Okay, well that's just one of the three synth parts from this track. The next part comes in the intro when the main riff appears - the glassy high PPG chords from the previous sound are supplemented underneath with a thicker, richer lower smooth pad sound. Difficult to definitively ID this one - it could just as easily be from a second PPG (the above quote implies they were playing two Waves live), or from the Juno 60. It's probably the PPG as the band were more familiar with the synths they owned, as opposed to Alan's equipment - and the Juno 60 turns up elsewhere on this track as we shall see. There are sections where one part drops out and you get a clearer impression of the other part.

Additional note: I was aware that someone on VSE had said he once asked Magne what synths he used on Take On Me, to which he said it was the PPG, DX7 and Prophet 5 (no mention of the Juno 60 used on Tarney's session). I'm not super confident about this information, given how many times they recorded the song with different gear and producers, and other factors, like omitting the Juno 60, which is such a key part of the song - and that's why I didn't mention this in my initial publication of this blog.

However, it is absolutely possible that instead of two PPG's that Tarney and Kitchingham mention multiple times in the SOS article, they might be mistaken and one of the synths - the second synth playing the lower part - could instead be the Prophet 5. (Or Magne could be mistaken and said the Prophet 5 when he meant the Juno 60, which would be more in keeping with the other published information.)

The sound is a fairly generic warm pad and thus is not easily attributable directly to one instrument or the other, and this sound isn't sequenced and so doesn't require MIDI, which the P5 wouldn't have anyway. So I thought I'd had better make an additional note here to mention this possibility. There isn't anything on the multitracks that really screamed P5 at me though, and it's a synth I don't really like very much, so I'm quite familiar with it's general character. If this second synth *was* a P5, it was probably only used for the lower secondary pad sound in the intro and choruses. So it could be either, and I'm not in position to confirm or refute who's memories are the more accurate! I tend to favour the published information than someone on the internet, but quite frankly, either could be true.

Then it all drops out to the verse, leaving just a simple soft pad sound. At first I thought this was the Juno, but it's more likely to be the PPG again. And sure enough, running through the 2.3 Factory presets, we find patch 93 "PPG Wave 46 A" (& B for a dual-layer) is this exact soft pad sound, with some very slightly tweaked filter and envelope settings to make it 'speak' a little more softly.

(As a bonus discovery, I realised this sound is one I particularly like in another favourite song of mine, too...)

This patch isn't in the 2.2 presets, so this is another clue that would suggest they had at least a PPG Wave 2.3 - and that it had at least some of the factory patches still in it.

On closer listening though, this also seems to have another simple smooth synth pad sound layered with it, while still having four active voices sounding, so instead of the A & B layers for that dual preset, I think one of the layers was changed (or edited) for a different sound, rather than being a second variation layer of the soft trumpet attack of the main patch. This sound seems to be coming from just one PPG - we get a clue of this because although the transition from the chorus to the verse in verses 2 and 3 is abrupt due to what looks like punching in the verses, the transition into the first verse leaves the main glassy PPG chords from PPG 1 ringing out to decay naturally while the softpad takes over underneath from the second PPG.


Going into the chorus there's a one bar string part lead in, which to me is definitely the Juno 60. I modified the factory "Strings 1" patch very slightly, used Chorus II mode, and it seems to be pretty much the exact sound.

And as we hit the chorus proper we get the full monty of layers - the glassy PPG on top, the lower synth pad from the other PPG (or Prophet 5), and the higher strings from the Juno 60.


How can there be three parts going in the chorus, you ask, if the two synth players were playing and recording the parts live? Well, it's possible that they played the parts "live" into the sequencer first, before recording them to tape - if both PPG's had MIDI of course. (The UMI, running on the 48K BBC did have limited memory though.) Or, they could have played the PPG parts live, and just had the Juno 60 string part triggered by the sequencer - and there is another tiny piece of evidence to support this. In the Juno 60 string part in the lead in to the second chorus, there is actually a small passing note which sounds like they hit the wrong key before finding the right one - and this "wrong note" is identical in both separate tracks. It wouldn't be like this if it was an accidental fumble in one of the live parts, so it's evidence that this string part was identically played on both passes, and therefore was triggered by the sequencer (fumble and all!)

Many of you reading this might now be thinking - "hang on... the Juno 60 isn't a MIDI synth either, how could that be sequenced?" I also had that same thought, and I'll come back to this further on...


Magne and the Juno 60 (from The Making of Take On Me, Part 1, YouTube)


Main Riff


So, this is the part that synth nerds traditionally discuss the most. "Mags uses this synth live", "They're playing this synth in the video or Top of The Pops", "I can make this sound on my synth so that's what they must have used" and "I read they used this synth recording the song" (without realising how many different times they recorded this song) - on and on the speculation seems to go.

What we do "officially" know is the gear used from the SOS article, and this recollection from Gerry:-

"One of the things they did almost right away was to get the main riff sound with the Juno 60. He and the boys would experiment and go through sounds until they liked something, and then it would be a case of programming it, sometimes combining more than one sound by way of the MIDI'd synthesizers."

This has led many people to think this sound is just the Juno 60.

Another likely contributory factor is that this synth riff is quite iconic, and you can pretty much dial up any broadly similar bright plucky synth sound, play the 'Take On Me' riff, and most people will instantly recognise it.

Let's see what the multitracks tell us.

Firstly, like many of the other important elements, we have here two tracks of the same part, panned left and right. Analysing the timing of the notes we can see they are in absolutely rigid quantised time, so this part was clearly sequenced and not played live to tape. If the Juno 60 is involved here, it was therefore being sequenced, so presumably there must have been a MIDI -> DCB adaptor so the MIDI sequencer could control the Juno 60 - most likely the only option at the time was the Roland MD-8 interface. Given that Alan Tarney's production rig was the BBC/UMI system, a DX7 and a Juno 60 (and LinnDrum), I think we can assume his Juno 60 was playable via MIDI, otherwise he'd only have the DX7 available to be sequenced, limiting his flexibility.

Alan: "This included a [Roland] Juno 60 that provided the song's main theme and which I still use, as well as a UMI computer system that a friend of mine put together, and which Vince Clark also used. That's what I used to drive the instruments, and there was a LinnDrum that Pål programmed."

Alan: "A lot of the stuff that I needed to control came through the Juno and a [Yamaha] DX7, but then they played the Waves together and that's where the magic seemed to come from."

Ok, so the main riff again is a layer of parts, and we need to decode what we are hearing to break them up into their constituent parts. Firstly, if we go to the last note of the riff as it ends, we can hear the last note trail for about a bar, and this is a giveaway it's clearly a variation of the PPG bell/synth sound with the slow wavering vibrato that has been used elsewhere in the track. As this note trails for a bar or more, it has a long release time, but this doesn't clutter up the riff, showing once again we have the PPG in a layer mode where the notes' long releases are cut off by subsequent notes. Once you can hear this, you can hear it throughout the riff quite easily.

So, we've definitely got the PPG in the mix as part of the main riff sound. (And this should also mean the PPG - at least one of them - was sequenced via MIDI in this case.)

Magne and the Juno 60 (from The Making of Take On Me, Part 1, YouTube)

The next clue we get is in the middle breakdown section - here the riff plays for four bars until the drums kick in and the riff continues, but for that breakdown there's a layer removed from the riff for those four bars, which then returns when the drums kick in. This is a bouncy "pluck" sound - on the left track it's an octave down from the right, and this part sounds very analog & Juno-like to me. It's also quite thick and has a more pronounced stereo effect than the other parts, which I'd attribute to two tracks of the Juno's famous thick internal chorus (the more a similar part differs between the left and right tracks, the "wider" and thicker it will seem).

Remember, these parts, though sequenced, are printed to the multitrack together in one pass each - so there can only be a maximum combination of instrument layers of one (or two) PPG parts, one Juno 60 part, and one DX7 part (neither the Juno or DX7 are multitimbral, so they can only play one sound at a time - although the PPG's can provide multiple sounds at once).

Let's take a closer look at the section in the breakdown and see what we can hear.

In addition to the high PPG part, there is a glitchy attack part which sounds a bit like a fast filter or even pitch envelope "blip" - a common synth programming technique used to get a more pronounced attack on a brass sound or similar voice. There's also a lighter octave down note, so I think indeed there are two PPG sounds making up the high part (I don't think it's a DX7 sound) - either layered in one PPG synth, or two playing at once, in addition to the Juno part.

Gerry: "Of course, because a lot of the track was programmed, there were times when Alan was busy creating a bass part or whatever with the boys and I'd be waiting for them to build things up from there. One of the things they did almost right away was to get the main riff sound with the Juno 60. He and the boys would experiment and go through sounds until they liked something, and then it would be a case of programming it, sometimes combining more than one sound by way of the MIDI'd synthesizers."

So I think I can identify the Juno part and recreate something close, and the PPG bell part is a work in progress, and while I haven't "got" it yet I can get in the ballpark on that. As the parts were recorded together and we can't isolate them, we may never know the exact ingredients, but I can try to recreate what we know, and see if we're lacking in anyway that would suggest we need another part...


While we've been looking at this sound, let's go back to the original demo (which inspired Tarney to "recreate" for this version) and see what they did there. Interestingly, the main riff is intact, but it's just the PPG bell sound - none of the pluckiness that the Juno contributes in the final version. So it's likely that when recording the riff, the band probably pulled up the sound they were using previously for the part, or something similar, and layered it up to make it sound thicker and more defined. This gives us the opportunity to only hear that initial PPG part and thus help get closer to it in the recreations - and the demo does indeed seem to be a PPG Preset layer - a layer of the last two patches in the preset bank - "PPG Wave 063 A+B".

The bottom line is it looks very much to me like the main signature riff is the combination of the PPG & Juno 60. While the Juno 60 may have started the riff off in the studio, and it contributes some weight, bounce, attack and meat in the midrange, the PPG bell layer is an important element in the overall texture and makes it a more glossy, shimmering texture which catches the ear - it's effectively a very similar sound to the initial demo. Without that high PPG part, the riff won't sound like the record.



Bells & FX


There are two tracks of hi bells - again, a PPG metallic synth/bell sound, similar to the main chords high PPG sound, with four notes that climb at the end of the choruses. Again, it's two passes of the same sound, and interestingly, the notes on both passes are absolutely tight - there's no way it's played this tight by hand, so this must be sequenced - another piece of evidence for at least one of the PPGs having MIDI. (Perhaps we'll find a part with two PPG's being driven from the sequencer to tell us they both had MIDI...)

Also, the long note tails are again cut off, suggesting a mono mode or layer is at work here, and again it keeps the tails for becoming messy. I didn't find a matching preset for this, but made some minor modifications to the existing PPG sounds I was using for other parts, and got in the ballpark.


This bell sound is also combined with a string part in the middle eight section - the string part is the same Juno 60 string sound as used in the choruses. I used the modified factory "Strings 1" patch I made earlier and it's almost indistinguishable from the recorded part.

There's an echoey arpeggiated effect or motif that starts in the middle eight. It's a plucky, sequenced/arpeggiated sound which fades in and out of a reverb wash and has a large delay/echo on it, likely from the AMS - the effects are printed onto the two hi bell tracks in stereo. The sound could probably come from any of the synths, but from the sound I'd guess this is the Juno 60, with a plucky sound similar to the main riff pluck the Juno is already doing - and it must be either sequenced from the BBC, or it might possibly be using it's internal arpeggiator.

I edited the 27 "Guitar" preset in the Juno 60 and got a plucky tone pretty close to the part, and programmed in a looping four note descending sequence, with lots of delay. To recreate the middle section, it's a bit of a science experiment to automate it into a lush reverb, panning around the stereo field, and automating the delay and reverb level etc.

After the middle eight and intro refrain, this sequence repeats a few times in the close of the song but this time the sequence rises by a full tone every couple of repeats until a longer fall, like this:


This pitch change rise could have been programmed into the sequencer, played live with the arpeggiator, or had the pitch changed on the AMS delay on the fly perhaps. In any case, to me this isn't as effective as the earlier parts without the transposition coming out of the reverb, and in the final mix it's fairly low - in fact, I'd never consciously noticed it before, but once you know it's there, it's fairly easy to hear.

Lastly for these tracks there's a single mono white noise rising swoosh sound in the middle eight leading to the breakdown riff. It sounds too beefy to be the DX7 so I checked the Juno 60, and it has a preset called "Surf", a white noise sound, which with some filter tweakage seems to be a good tonal match - so my guess on this is that they quickly modified this patch to give a rising swoosh effect - or just dialled it up manually. It has a slightly flangey/chorusey quality, so they probably ran it through the AMS on the way to tape. Very few sounds have been tracked totally dry - they liked to commit a sound to tape, and this was more common when studios didn't have a huge amount of effects units to use in the final mix.

Flute & Synth/Guitar


The flute and arpeggiated tracks work together in the verses to provide an interlocking rhythmic framework - the flute is the simpler part, almost a repeated ostinato phrase that arpeggiates over the chords, and the "guitar" part is a harsher spikier sound playing arpeggiated versions of the verse chords. Both parts were present in the original demo, albeit with different sounds, again showing how close Tarney's production was trying to replicate the arrangement of that initial demo (although not all the synth parts survived intact).

Both of these parts seemed to me to be sequenced DX7 parts. The flute is Preset ROM-24 Flute 1. While it's only a simple, single part, it's actually recorded in stereo on two tracks, which at first seemed a little strange. Listening to it though, it actually has a sense of stereo motion and it pans left and right slowly, to give some timbral interest - it's subtle, and the levels of each track aren't changing much, but they drift in and out of phase between mono and wide - probably some kind of autopan and thickening setting on the delay unit to give a little extra space and motion in the verses where the mix is a little sparser.

The second arpeggiated "guitar" part underneath was a little harder to lock down, which gives me an opportunity to make a digression on tracking down synth sounds. Synth digression number three...



The DX7


The DX7 was ubiquitous on many productions through the mid-eighties, and it was also well-known for being difficult (or impossible!) to program (let's not get into why here, this blog is long enough as it is!) but the practical reality is, if you were a producer bringing keyboards into a session, you probably had a DX7 as it was fashionable and in demand, and you probably had a bunch of sounds, likely on cartridges, because the small amount of presets it came with were very overused, fairly generic in nature and not that flexible. Cartridges were about the only way to quickly expand your available sound palette without having to rig up a home computer and faff around with cassettes or MIDI System Exclusive transfers.

So, if you're hunting sounds that seem to come from the DX7, the first thing you do is look through the ROM presets to see if it was one of those sounds - because every DX7 has those. (In this case, the bass sound, and the above flute sound are both in the ROM preset bank that comes in every DX7).

If the sound you're looking for isn't there, then you start looking through the extra official Yamaha DX7 voice library cartridges, because a bunch of those are the first thing a jobbing producer is going to invest in from their Yamaha dealer to expand their DX7's sound palette - because they for sure won't be developing their own sounds, or probably even know anyone that is!

(Extra tip: If you do find a patch on a particular cartridge, then you can more reliably say "Ok, they seemed to have this cartridge available to them" so you can focus your search on cartridges you've deduced they presumably had on the session.)

If you still don't find a match there, then you can expand your search outward to the popular third-party companies offering cartridges of DX7 sounds.

There is a further level of search I might also try if I get this far without finding what I'm looking for. For anyone that's used a DX7 for more than just playing Whitney Houston covers, you'll no doubt know there is a quick way of generating some extra sound possibilities - it's almost like a "cheat" to randomly generate or explore new voices. Let's say you have a plucky sequence going in the studio which you like, but perhaps you want to explore some other tones and timbres - if you go into Edit mode, you can toggle operators on and off (which changes how each operator contributes to make the final sound) or, better still, you can flip through the algorithms, which are the different ways the 6 operators are combined. You can just increment or decrement the current algorithm setting (a number from 1 to 32) and just see how the sound changes as a result of combining the operators with their current settings differently. Hence with very little time & effort, you can do some limited "programming" to get some tonal options or variations of the current patch.

Now, in this modern age of plugin emulations and internet distribution, almost everything is available which is great if you're looking for something specific, but the sheer amount of sounds made for the popular synths out there is rather overwhelming. In the case of the DX7, I had already saved out all the available sysex banks to individual Logic presets for Dexed (a plugin that emulates the DX7) so I could search the whole library by name and by bank or category and so on (that was a major undertaking!) to make it quicker to find particular patches - but even so, my DX7 library has nearly 120,000 patches!

So, if it's a trumpet sound you're after, you can do a bunch of name searches on "trumpet", "trmpt", "brass", "brs" and so on and quickly step through them to track down a match. But when you have a synth sound that you can't easily describe in words - like the arpeggiated sound we're looking for, it's a bit tricker.

The arpeg sound is synthy, but it's plucky, is string-like in the context of a guitar, or harp or even into banjo territory, is percussive like a koto - but I have no idea what to call it. In any case, it's clearly a DX7 part, has a guitar-like attack, and a reverberant sustained sinewave-ish tail which is very typical of many of the DX7 plucked string sounds. It's one track, and therefore initially I thought it must be one single sound.

I spent a bunch of time looking for this patch, but didn't find an exact match. I've come close, but again, it's nice to try and find the actual source if that's possible. And while it's possible Tarney's DX7 was full of edited custom patches, again it's less likely than those voices just being existing presets from somewhere.

Without finding an exact patch in the obvious candidates as well as a deeper search, I went back to the main DX7 presets, and had another look at the ROM 1A "23 Koto" patch, which again has some similar characteristics to the recorded patch, despite being more "mallety" than "synthy". I flipped through the algorithms which didn't bring me much closer, so in the end I modified the stock Koto patch - made it less koto-ey, a bit more synthy and bitey, shortened a few envelopes and changed a few levels - fairly minor edits. I also needed to play the part in octaves, to get both the synth spikiness and the higher tails, and the end result isn't too far off. So yes, maybe they were digging into editing the DX7 in the session...

...until, looking for another sound, I actually stumbled upon a result that makes more sense - and doesn't require any DX7 editing! Going through the factory PPG Wave 2.3 presets, I found PPG Wave 014 A+B which sounded suspiciously like the spitty/bitey synth part in that sound. Dropping the decay down a little and with a few minor tweaks we get the spitty attack sound, and if we then layer the DX7 on the straight, regular Koto preset, we get basically a much closer composite sound (the original has a bit more of an attack, but was close enough for purposes of this blog). So, this seems to be a sequenced combination of the PPG and the DX7 Koto, layered and printed down to one mono track.


And during my search for this sound, something interesting happened. Let's have a listen again to that "guitar" part, which is playing arpeggios over the verse chords - Bm, E, A, D - in roughly the middle of the keyboard.

As I was flipping through DX7 patches looking for the right sound, playing this part, I flipped onto another patch, and my ears instantly came alive and my brain went "Whoa!" in that weird way where the subconscious has realised something important just happened, slightly before the rest of the brain has had a chance to catch up. Have a listen as I switch from the Koto patch to the patch in question:


This is exactly the mystery vintage drum machine loop I've been looking for! There was no "vintage drum machine" - it was our old friend the DX7 all along, which answers the mystery of where this part came from!



"There was no 'vintage drum machine' - it was our old friend the *DX7* all along."


This patch is ROM2B "22 B.DRM-SNAR" (or ROM4B "15 B.DRM-SNAR" - it's the same patch, just also on a different cartridge), and the percussion sound is interesting - it's a bass drum + snare sound, where on the lower part of the keyboard you get a kick drum, and on the upper part you get a snare, but in the middle, you get a gradual transition between the two, and this is exactly where the "guitar" sequence sits, by chance, to give this drum loop effect. You even get the extra snare accent in bar four on the last high note, which is more "snare-sounding" the higher the note gets. As the DX7 is not noted for it's realism in terms of contemporary drum sounds, you get that slight hokey/cheesy naff percussion thing, that on it's own sounds pretty terrible - but in the context of the track here, it's inspired!

I was really happy to answer this mystery by accident (I love these kinds of accidental discoveries!) Now, I'd guess that it's likely that what happened to me here, probably also happened to the band in the exact same way on the recording session - they were flipping through DX7 presets while playing the sequenced "guitar" part and drums, looking for a good sound to use, they flipped onto that percussion patch, and went "Oh, that's interesting!" and promptly printed it to tape. For the whole four minutes - it never stops!

Gerry: "He and the boys would experiment and go through sounds until they liked something, and then it would be a case of programming it, sometimes combining more than one sound by way of the MIDI'd synthesizers."

It was only after I'd discovered this that I made the connection between the rhythm of the arpeggiated part, and the rhythm of the percussion loop - they are of course exactly the same - it's the exact same notes playing different sounds - but my brain hadn't realised the significance of that until now. So this is the chugging/knocking rhythmic part that while subtle, is a really important ingredient of the drum track, and was our last puzzle piece to find regarding the drums! Now we know what it was, how it likely came about by accident, and why it wasn't something that came from the original demo.

Let's have a listen to the significant effect this small part has on the drive of the rhythm track when it's there, and when it's removed:


While the source of this sound is obvious when you hear it, when comparing it to the multitrack we can again see that this doesn't seem like the DX7 was tracked dry to tape - it seems to have been processed, so has a different character to the dry DX7 part. It's been compressed to bring out the attack, and EQ'd, and in particular the low end knocking frequencies on the bass drum are very hard to recreate exactly - once again, I spent a long time with the SSL EQ to try and get in the ballpark, and again could get close but couldn't nail it exactly (that seems to be running theme - it's why it's very hard to really recreate these things exactly!).

Furthermore, on close listening it seems this part has a very slight delay "slap" to it - it sounds like it's been doubled through a delay by 5ms of so, and dialling this in also helps exaggerate the low end knock as it gets a little resonant down there with small delay times. (It's also possible that the DX7 was running through the AMS generating a wide stereo signal, ie with one side delayed a little, but then was collapsed to mono on recording it down to one track, which would give a similar result.)

Synth Noodles


And that leaves us one final synth part, which I always liked - it's a little simple brass solo lead part right at the end in the final fadeout of the song, just before a really nice "skip" drum snare fill - it one of those little interesting parts in the fade out that I liked to hear more of, and to hear it properly rather than it being buried in the fade. And yes, this part was also present at the end of the original demo, though somewhat more prominently.

In the mix, they left it to the fade out and it plays twice, but on the multitracks, it's a sequenced repeated figure that constantly repeats seven times (these tracks continue for about a minute after the final mix has ended). I certainly got my wish to be able to hear it more! At the end, the MIDI loop plays to the end which has a little bit of extra half-hearted playing that wasn't used as the song was over!

So, on listening to this solo'd, it's a really, nasty, horrible cheap brass sound - so I instantly thought it was from the DX7! It does a weird harmonic thing as you play different notes and frequencies phase cancel out. In any case, I went back to the usual DX7 preset search procedure (see above!) and although I found a few close matches, it wasn't conclusive until I found the Yamaha cartridge patch VRC-102(B) 26 - BRASS EN.3 that matched both tonally, and with the correct attack, and also does that weird harmonic thing that sounds like a broken synthesizer when you play multiple notes. Awful sound - but totally works!

But, as we're starting to see in this production, there's almost no synth parts that aren't a layer of multiple sounds. Even this track actually consists of two parts - the DX7 brass sound, and also a simpler analog-style synth brass sound with a bunch of vibrato. I quickly initialised a new sound on the PPG Wave and with some very minor tweaks had something that does the job just fine. It could have just as easily been the Juno 60 on the record - the sound is so simple it can be done by more or less any polysynth, so it would be difficult to know exactly which it was.

Vocals



Ok, having got this far, the last remaining tracks are for vocals. I'm not going to dwell too much here, there are two tracks for each of the three main vocal parts, and they sound glorious - particularly the washes of angelic "aahs" that feature in the chorus.

Gerry: "For the backing vocals, I sang with all three guys into the same mic".

There's no doubt that Morten's voice is pretty incredible. There's two main vocal tracks and there are some parts and phrases that weren't used in the mix, and bits where he sings along to the backing track before his actual vocal comes in, does some mouth drumming, and even a cute little surprised belch - maybe he did the vocals after a hearty lunch! Fun!

With a two and a half octave range on the vocal part, this is not a song to pick at a Karaoke night - it's a hard one to pull off!



"There's a fine line between a demo and a record, but it's a crucial difference."
Alan Tarney


Summing Up



So what did I learn from all this? Well, as I stated at the beginning, my fascination for this track began with the drums, and I finally have a good handle on them now - the recipe of how that fabulous snare was made and shaped, and what that driving eighth-note pulse was that propels the beat forward, and possibly even how that idea came about.

I've seen how a relatively mundane LinnDrum drum pattern can be morphed into something that sounds great, distinctive and certainly hit-worthy. In fact, they were presumably so pleased with the way the drums sounded that the team decided to open the beginning of a three minute hit pop song with four bars of just those drums as the first thing you hear - and it still manages to be an instantly recognisable intro!

And I still smile at the thought that such a cool, fundamental part of the drum track is actually that cheesy DX7 preset! Much like some other classic instruments, good engineers over the years have worked hard to make these things sound great in the mix - no small task in many cases!

I've been able to look at many of the little keyboard parts I liked, and analyse the source components to the best that my ears can manage. It's fairly clear that the only instruments used on the record were the PPG Wave, the DX7, and the Juno 60, with the LinnDrum doing the drums. There was nothing else on the multitracks I could see that would require some different instrument to achieve, and that corresponds faithfully to the information in the SOS article on the recording of the track.

I've been surprised at how there are no synth parts that aren't doubled, layered, thickened, chorused or stacked in the track. The one or two simple mono parts, like the white noise swoosh and the percussion loop, still seem to have some doubling or chorusing on them to make them just that little bit bigger. Even the bass part is chorused in the mix! I'd guess that this practice of thickening and doubling of the instruments came from Tarney, in order to make the sound more impressive and more like a record - and in fact the band mentions that Tarney did try to make all the sounds bigger and more impressive in the "Making Of" YouTube video for the song.

This track really has the strong signature of the PPG Wave - the chords, bells and high synth motifs were always really attractive to me, and those parts could not easily be replaced by any other synth and maintain the same feel. It's a kind of cold, mysterious vibe that gives some weight and interest to an otherwise lightweight, super-fast pop song.

This character, and it's contributions to many records I love is one of the reasons why the PPG Wave is my second favourite classic synth. It's a kind of quirky, unreliable beast that's not easy to tame, and I'm not so much a fan of it's glitchiness and quirks, but the digital wavetable oscillators and analog filter combination makes it really easy to produce a wide range of colours far beyond the more simple subtractive analog synths of the time. That, and it's blue, of course. Blue synths are cool.

There were a few things that massively helped me in identifying or approximating the PPG sounds used. Firstly, I tend to save out presets from synth plugins as presets in Logic, so I can more easily step through, organise and search for sounds in a consistent manner, regardless of the features any particular plugin supports. Waldorf's excellent PPG Wave 3.V plugin comes with all the PPG Wave individual presets, but only as single layer patches, which limits how good it can sound out of the box. When you use a dual-layer of the A patch and the corresponding B patch, and spread them in stereo, it sounds way better - the preset patches were designed to be used this way. And because I had automated saving out the stereo layered versions of the preset patches I could quickly step through those easily - a great timesaver.

Also, I map the control of my plugins in a consistent way, and in the case of the oscillator controls on the PPG, I have knobs to select the wavetable used, the waveforms for Osc1 and Osc2, the sub-oscillator mode and so on, so when I'm looking for tonal matches, I can do it easily and systematically by sweeping around using multiple hardware controls while playing, just like on the real synth. Doing this onscreen by mouse control is just tedious and painful.

While I would have liked to have got closer to the actual PPG sounds used, this was always going to be a tall order, and from time to time I'll probably continue to search and refine those sounds to home in on where they are. I wonder if Mags' still has his PPG Wave and those original patches saved somewhere, or if those sounds used are lost to him too?

Oh - and I've learned to embrace voice stealing! I've definitely re-assessed some of my opinions about this, and while I do think in most cases it's a quite unattractive-sounding behaviour, I have to admit that there are some positives to it too, and the many synth parts in the track are good examples of this, given the density of the synth layers...

...and despite my feeling that the mix was always a "light"-sounding one, the density of synth layers present was quite surprising to me - the chorus has three complete sets of bass root note + chords from three different instruments (and two of those are dual-mode layered sounds), double-tracked, as well as guitar, and those fabulous backing vocal washes... and yet Gerry Kitchingham's skill at mixing those elements without swamping the mix is clear, albeit no doubt helped by the general good arrangement and sound choices made, which always makes the mix process less challenging.

Speaking of the good arrangement, I'd like to reiterate that this song took two days to go from nothing to a finished mix. They came in on day one with nothing other than perhaps their synths and a few sound programs, and a copy of their Rendezvous demo, built the arrangement out from scratch, programmed the sequencer and all the drum parts, chose and experimented with sounds, recorded all the parts, doubled them, recorded the different guitar parts, backing vocals, and lead vocals, all on day one. This is the benefit of going in to the studio with a well-rehearsed good arrangement and knowing what you are doing, being excited about how it's shaping up, and playing off that energy to achieve good results quickly without getting bogged down into micro-detail.

The engineering and production is all the more evident when you look at how much effects processing was being done to most sounds on the way to tape, and then processed again for the final mix. They had the forethought to think about the context of that sound in the arrangement, and how best to augment it at the time of recording, and creatively use delays, chorus, thickening, layering and compression, commit those things to tape and move on. This is quite different to today's more common working practices of never committing anything you can't undo and making all those decisions at the back end of the process during mixing. There's actually surprisingly little evidence of regular echo-type delay effects in the mix - the ambiences are all from the reverb unit, with the AMS delay mostly being used for it's doubling/thickening capabilities, both to tape and again in the final mix, rather than straight echoes - the only really long echo is recorded to tape on the swirling arpeggiated FX sequences in the middle eight and on the end of the track.

And I guess I regarded - certainly like many people of the time - A-ha as yet another good-looking, lightweight pop band. "For all their teenybopper image, A‑ha were three fantastic musicians," Kitchingham notes, and on reflection I have to agree. The level of detail, maturity, and care taken with the drum programming, synth arrangements and voicing, and of course Morten's vocal chops, says to me that these guys really knew what they were doing even at that young age. I mean of course, it's "just" pop music and is not hugely musically challenging as such, but even so, you've got to recognise that they weren't just phoning it in and getting everything done for them by their producer.

The band must have been super happy with the outcome of their first recording experience with Alan Tarney - a hit single that kick-started their tremendous pop success - as they stuck by him all the way through their first three albums and the most successful stage of their career. Interestingly, during that period, the other artists Tarney was producing were Cliff Richard, David Cassidy and Leo Sayer - how's that for pop cred!

Closing



So how did I do? I'm pretty happy with my findings, particularly on the drums as it was a long-time curiosity for me as to how they got that drum sound. I'll very likely use some of the techniques they used here in my own tracks - whenever there's a chance to observe and deconstruct skilled work I regard it as a learning opportunity!

I wonder if that particular LinnDrum and it's box of chips is sitting in a flight-case in some storage unit somewhere, and if the snare chip really is "Snare 7", or whether it was actually something completely different? Or maybe someone out there - or perhaps it's still in Tarney's possession - has the actual 'Take On Me' LinnDrum in their collection? It would be great to find out for sure!

As for the synths, while it's fairly straightforward to find things like DX7 presets used, for analog synths where they weren't using presets, the best we can do is approximate. That main opening PPG sound is a really important part of the track, and while I've been able to refine it and get closer during those process, I haven't been able to nail it just yet - my closest attempt is still a little too smooth and not digital/belly enough - if I make any further progress on that, I will update this blog at a later date.

The process of matching synth sounds on a record is challenging because most people try to emulate what they hear in the mix, on their synth, without quite realising that they are not hearing the sound as made by the synth, but after it's been treated and processed and EQ'd and compressed and mixed - and sometimes these treatments can take the sound quite far from what was originally recorded. Being able to hear the tracks as recorded to tape is a big help, as although in many cases these have also been processed to tape, it's usually easier to extract more detail about the source sounds. But reconstructions in this case are two fold - firstly, I had to match the sounds the first time to the recorded tracks, but having done that, then match them a second time to how they ultimately sound in the final mix (at least the mastered version) - the main riff and the drums in particular, sound quite different in the mix to the recorded tracks. The main riff is quite heavily EQ'ed to bring out the mids a lot more than the raw synth recordings would otherwise suggest, for example.

In some of the more difficult cases of matching the recorded tracks, I'm sure I could have got closer tonally to the recorded parts if I "cheated" and used other tools available to me, like more sophisticated EQ's and so on, but my goal was never to do a perfect sounding recreation, the goal was to understand those sounds and recordings, and to use similar tools that they were using to inform that understanding. And while I could come pretty close to the snares recorded on tape, I couldn't really come close to the final drum sound in the mix, so perhaps there's still some secrets in there that will remain undiscovered for now!

So, the demos and mockups are really to demonstrate my findings, rather than to claim any sort of accuracy to the final record. I always find it very hard to recreate someone else's mix anyway, at least without working on it endlessly in ever more detail, and that really isn't the purpose of this blog series. It would be interesting to find out whether I can even approach that final mix using the original multitracks directly... I suspect it would be nearly as hard as doing it from scratch!

So take the following mockup with that in mind...

Hear for yourself: This is my all-original shortened arrangement mockup of "Take On Me".
(Intro -> Riff -> Verse -> Chorus to fade)




A Final Note



Why deconstruct a piece of popular art to it's constituent parts? How useful is it? I can certainly see the argument that some people may find doing this kind of pulling apart of the work can ruin the magic of the final piece - rather like knowing how the magic trick is done can spoil it for people.

For me, it's not like that all. Knowing how the trick is done in no way diminishes the trick for me. If anything, it makes me appreciate it all the more. Even if the "gimmick" is something simple and perhaps even a bit of a cheat, then it just makes me admire the skill of the design, construction and execution of the performance, and the misdirection that makes the gimmick work.

For me, a piece of music truly becomes a piece of art the moment it transcends the sum of it's constituent parts. When it's no longer just some sequences of synth sounds and drums and chord progressions, or a bunch of sounds, but in combination, in purpose, and also often by some ineffable "magic", becomes something greater - a meaningful work that evokes and communicates some emotion in the listener.

Looking closely at those parts doesn't really impinge upon, or reduce the final product for me, but it does give me insight and ideas into some of what went on to make that final product. I learn a lot from doing this, and it makes me understand and appreciate it more deeply. In this way, it has value for me, and I hope, anyone reading along that made it this far!

The next time you hear the song, try listening out for some of the details I've raised here, and hopefully, like me, you'll appreciate it's quality all the more!

Thanks for reading!



Thanks to Paolo from SynthMania.com and Kendall Wrightson for help with the LinnDrum search, and Theo at GreatSynthesizers.com for the use of his fabulous PPG Wave images.



The Evolution of 'Take On Me'

You can hear the various iterations from the initial demos onwards which were released on the "Hunting High and Low (30th Anniversary Edition)" album.

> Hunting High and Low (30th Anniversary Edition)
The full remastered album with bonus extras (Spotify)



'Take On Me' versions - Listen (Spotify):


> Lesson One (Demo) (1982)
Autumn '82 Demo, recorded outside the UK


> Take On Me (Rendezvous Demo) (1983)
Recorded in Rendezvous, SE London, April '83, with John Ratcliff

> Take On Me (Eel Pie) (1984)
The first version recorded at Eel Pie, April '84, with Neil Mansfield. This recording is not available.


> Take On Me (Eel Pie) (1984)
The second version recorded at Eel Pie, June '84, Mansfield/Neil King re-record.
First single release (the "blue" video version - YouTube).


> Take On Me (Remix) (1984)
'84 12" Single remix of the Mansfield/Neil King re-recorded version by John Ratcliff


> Take On Me (1985)
Alan Tarney's version, Gerry Kitchingham engineered.


> Take On Me - 12" (1985)
12" version


> Take On Me - Instrumental (1985)
Instrumental version without lead vocals, but with backing vocals.


> Take On Me - Video version (1985)
Slightly longer version of the 1985 single for the full video, with an edited ending without drums




Explore further:
> Classic Tracks - A-ha 'Take On Me' (Sound On Sound)
> The Making of Take On Me (Part 1, YouTube)
> Cult Heroes - Alan Tarney (The Guardian)
> Alan Tarney (Wikipedia)
> The History of RG Jones (RGJones.co.uk)

More on the instruments:
> PPG Wave 2 and other instruments (mu:zines)
> PPG Wave 2 (GreatSynthesizers.com)
> Yamaha DX7 (mu:zines)
> Yamaha DX7II (mu:zines)
> Roland Juno 60 (mu:zines)
> Linn LinnDrum (mu:zines)
> BBC UMI Software Sequencer (mu:zines)

More in this series:
> Sound Diving #1 - West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys)




Back to blog list





mu:zines Blog
- Sound Diving #2 - Take On Me


    Sep 2021

- Sound Diving #1 - West End Girls


    ...with East End voices | Sep 2021

- Sound On Sound


    Another milestone | Jul 2021

- Five!


    Mar 2021

Blog entries from 2020...

- From Print To Screen


    Part 6 - OCR Part 1a - Contents & Metadata | Apr 2020

- Welcome to The Mix


    Feb 2020

Blog entries from 2019...

- Guest Blog #1: Chris Jenkins


    Dec 2019

- More Patchwork


    Synth Patches - The Return | Dec 2019

- From Print To Screen


    Part 5 - Outputting the Scans to Use | Nov 2019

- Notator HD


    *Almost* the first DAW... | Oct 2019

- Now We Are Three


    ...and Three New Things (Polyphony, Ads, & Stats) | Mar 2019

- From Print To Screen


    Part 4 - Processing the Scans | Jan 2019

Follow mu:zines on Twitter: @mu_zines
for updates and other bits and pieces

Please Contribute to mu:zines by supplying magazines, scanning or donating funds. Thanks!

Monetary donations go towards site running costs, and the occasional coffee for me if there's anything left over!
muzines_logo_02

Small Print

Terms of usePrivacy