Boards of Canada are a personal favorite band of mine and I have studied their music with the aim of learning how they achieved their distinctive sound.
Here are what I have learned so far (I will continue to add to this page as I learn more).
Last updated: 20-Mar-2018.
It may seem a bit unorganized, but this is a work in progress and as much of a reference for me as it is for you. I just would like to share everything I learn with you in case you have the same interest. So excuse the organization, please. I’ll try to organize it a bit better as I go along.
They listen to their own music and sounds over and over again to get the feel of a tune before continuing with it. It has to hook them before they continue making a full song out of it.
They place memory triggers in their music that evoke a feeling or mood. Some of these can be the old recordings or sounds they frequently sprinkle and interweave into their songs.
They say they are not recreating a mood of what was but rather creating a fictitious history that brings out feelings. They incorporate sounds of what is influencing them at the time also.
Geodaddi had complex messages and symbolism in the music. Campfire Headphase was a guitar-based album. Tomorrow’s Harvest has been described as a palindrome because the songs can be reversed and sound good as well as having an up-down type of palindromic progressions in them.
They made their sounds using recording equipment such as old tape machines. The sounds are dirtied with noise and other artifacts of the recording process. The hiss, dropout, wow, and flutter of tape can be heard throughout their music in the leads and background sounds.
Their sound is similar to old films by the National Film Board of Canada. Pete Standing Alone is the name of one of the films and the name of one of Boards of Canada’s songs. Link: https://www.nfb.ca/playlists/pete-standing-alone-trilogy/viewing/standing_alone/
Alan Clavier’s music is similar. Maybe he was an inspiration to BoC.
It is used in many of the old Parks Canada commercials:
Numbers stations may also have been sampled. They are on a YouTube playlist below.
One of their songs, “Buckie High,” refers to the intoxicating “high” gotten from a wine called “Buckfast” that is high in alcohol content. See an article here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/buckfast-scotland and the video below:
Old film and television clips can be heard sporadically in their songs creating an atmosphere. In many cases, this atmospheric sound is not just a track in the background but is attached to every note played as you can hear the background repeating with the successive notes. This is done by using a sampler and I verified that by using a sampler and it sounds the same. They said they spend a lot of time sampling sounds of music they play and other noises by using samplers.
Here is my collection of BoC-related videos on a YouTube playlist. The videos in here either are the sampled sounds or remind me of the sounds of Boards of Canada:
PBS shows such as Sesame Street are sampled. Also, samples from old TV commercials can sometimes be heard.
Who Sampled has a listing of samples with links to YouTube videos of the sampled: https://www.whosampled.com/Boards-of-Canada/
Sounds are said to be layered, meaning that there are multiple sounds on top of each other on a given track. This was done originally by recording on a tape player then recording the playback on another tape recorder, and repeating this process over and over. I don’t hear a lot of layering in their music. Yes, there are sounds in the background, but I don’t hear the synths, for example, layered in all cases. I would characterize the layers as this:
- Background sounds
- Noise and hiss
- Vintage synths
- Sometimes two synths on top of each other on a per-note basis.
- Sometimes there are layers in the synths of different sounds.
- Sometimes there is noticeable distortion and tape-like effects.
- Percussion sometimes layered.
These would be the layers I hear in their music.
The sounds are samples of actual sounds.
Main riffs and tunes are simple and are usually only 5-7 notes repeated over and over. They use simple chord progressions and melodies.
A word about effects and how I employ them – my methodology:
- Apply an effect where it would be in the real world.
- Add a parametric equalizer (I use Fabfilter Q) first. Control the level going into the instrument chain and also the busses.
- Apply in-instrument effects next. This includes chorus.
- Reverb is next and usually early in the instrument chain because it is a product of the room where a real instrument would be recorded. Or, if it is a group of synths, then only in the synth bus.
- Distortion and amplifier effects next. These would be what the instrument is plugged into. Or, again, only on the bus if it is warranted for all instruments. Keep in mind that effects that distort or saturate (including tape effects) may need to get a certain input level before they work. Read up on each to know how to use them.
- Recording features such as cassette, sampler, and noise where they would enter in the equipment that recorded the sound.
- Additional equalization of a special nature to give character to the sound. I use SieQ for this.
- Compression toward the end.
- Limiting on the master only.
That’s my general way. Specifics and detail later.
I keep the first item in mind always: Apply the effects where they would be in the real world.
That is really all you need to know and the rest is just easy from that point.
Chorus and Reverb
Chorus is used a lot. Reverb also. TAL has a good chorus and reverb that are free and approximate well the BoC sound. This is because they are based on vintage equipment.
- TAL Reverb 4 – based on the reverb in the TAL Sampler that is based in part on the SH-101 hardware.
- TAL Chorus LX – based on the chorus of the TAL U-NO-LX that is based on the Juno60 hardware.
Pitch / Tuning
Pitch seems to be detuned. Not sure of the amount. I’m a proponent of A=432 Hz instead of the usual A=440. This is -32 cents detuning in FL Studio. I believe this makes music sound better.
Old synthesizers were often a bit out of tune. This is what chorus is anyway – the slight detuning of instruments played in parallel.
Cassettes and Tape Saturation
A lot of the music has a bit of a wobble to it like it was recorded on a cassette. In U-he’s Satin, I made a cassette preset. It has no companding or noise reduction, but the tape speed is set to a compact cassette’s speed by turning the Speed i.p.s. knob all the way down. I place this cassette tape simulation on the synths bus after the sampler (Decimort or RC-20) as if the synth sounds were first sampled and then copied onto tape.
It would be possible to use only RC-20 here because it too can simulate tape and I could feasibly have both sampler and tape simulation in one. I rather like Satin however so it is a toss up for me and often depends on CPU load.
I’d like to have RC-20 on a per-instrument basis so that different instruments would have different amounts of color.
I use a different instance of Satin on my master with a preset I made to give tape saturation and companding like the Dolby HX Pro noise reduction method that I like.
Also, the tape effect is sometimes very noticeable in BoC music. For this, I made what I call a VHS tape preset in Satin. RC-20 can also do this and I have a preset for that one also.
There’s an old trick used by recording engineers to get a brighter sound. Not sure if BoC used this, but I made a Satin preset for that as well.
I think Satin can offer a lot of versatility in getting the BoC sound and this can be done in the delay section of Satin. I made some presets for getting that Boards of Canada sound out of chorus and reverb effects made using the tape delay in Satin.
Boards of Canada definitely used samplers in obtaining their sounds. I would imagine they used the samplers on both their synths and drums.
I’ve used two strategies to get the sampler sound using Decimort2 by D16 Group and RC-20 Retro Color by XLN Audio:
- Separate instances of Decimort or RC-20 Retro Color on the synth bus and the drum bus.
- One instance of Decimort or RC-20 on the master bus.
When applying Decimort to the master bus as the only instance in a track, I choose the MPC60. The MPC60 is a 1988 Akai sampler and the settings for it are shown below. (I changed the name to “Akai” for myself because I made the pre-amp offset the output so the level does not change as the signal goes through it.) This is a sampler that is used today still. We know Boards of Canada used Akai S1000, S2000, and S3200 samplers. To replicate these, I would change the 12 of the resolution on the MPC60 to 16 as they were 16-bit samplers. Where the MPC60 was a 40 kHz, the ones used by Boards of Canada were 22 kHz to 44.1 kHz, so this as shown is in that range, but for those others, you could experiment with something between 22 kHz and 44.1 kHz.
When applying Decimort only to drums, I choose the SP-1200 (12-bit) that is an emulation of a 1987 E-mu SP-1200 that was known for sampling drums. It has a gritty sound as it is limited to 26.04 kHz. It was used on drums in the 80’s and 90’s. I like this one the best for drums.
If using on the synths bus, I choose the Emulator that is a simulation of the E-mu Emulator that was a 1981-83 sampler known for sampling keyboards. Another good choice may be the Emax versions (LoFi and HiFi) that are simulations of the next generation Emulator.
There’s a lot more that can be done with the Decimort samplers to get specific sounds and I may try these on individual synth channels for specific sounds on a per track basis.
XLN Audio RC-20 Retro Color
RC-20 is a great plugin for simulating tape, room, and samplers. I think it is more useful than the Decimort plugin because it has a more noticable effect. It can replicate the repeated taping of sounds as it would be in the way BoC reportedly taped over and over.
For replicating a sampler, the plugin has a factory setting that works well for that. It is called “sampler” or something similar in different versions. It uses the digital control to reduce bits (bit crushing).
Beats per minute range from 70’s to low 100’s.
- 85 bpm = Dayvan Cowboy.
- 75 bpm = Left Side Drive.
- 105 bpm = Satellite Anthem Icarus.
- 74 bpm = 1969.
They say “As for our percussion, it’s never just a drum machine or a sample, we put a lot of real live drumming or percussion in there, woven into the rhythm tracks, and it brings a bit of chaos into the sound that you just can’t achieve any other way.”
Drums are crunchy but not EDM-type. They have a great groove feel. I sliced the drums out of some of their songs and replicated in my own style using Nerve. BoC uses real drums for a variability that they believe cannot be replicated with machines.
It is probably the pattern of the drums that make them interesting also. In addition to the groove that is obtainable only by a drummer or simulated using a drum machine with swing, like Nerve’s. I used one of the lazy drummer types of presets in Nerve’s swing setting and about a quarter turn.
They may be samples taken from other recordings. Check whosampled.com for a listing.
I do not hear a lot of layering in the drums. Not drums on top of drums. Rather I hear the drums ran through the Akai samplers (S1000 or S3200) they are reportedly using. They also supposedly may use a Roland VP9000 sampler, but it, like most other information, cannot be confirmed.
These samplers impart a noise and saturation. The drums seem to be samples of real drums. They are resampled into the Akai. I hear some clipping from the Akai. Also, I hear some desk distortion like from a Mackie console desk mixer. There is a warmth that the desk distortion gives it. It is from the 80’s or 90’s like the samplers.
Possibly they also use tape for distortion, but the desk distortion and the Akai sampler distortion come through more. For tape, either Satin or RC-20 can give this sound. For the sampler distortion emulation, a bit crusher with the added noise like the RC-20 can do this, but if possible a true sampler emulation like the TAL-Sampler would be better. It has a resampler built into it. You can add jitter, hiss, and saturation effects in TAL-Sampler that are remarkably similar to the real hardware samplers. As much as I like Nerve, it may be worth my time to map some samples into the TAL-Sampler instead.
Desk distortion can be had with the SoundToys Decapitator plugin. The “E” profile in Decapitator is modeled on a desk or console-type distortion.
Summary on how to get BoC drums (substitute your own equipment if you like):
- Use samples from real drums, played by Xfer Nerve or TAL-Sampler.
- Add sampler distortion and bit crush using RC-20 after Nerve. Or, do it all in TAL-Sampler (previous step). Use the Emu II DAC type in TAL-Sampler to get that 80’s hardware sampler sound and saturation. Add hiss and jitter as needed. Set the SR (sample rate) to 27kHz. Tune the offset knob to get a good hardware emulation that sounds pleasing to you.
- Put in the desk distortion with Decapitator next. Use the “E” profile and some gentle distortion to taste.
- Finally, do the tape distortion. You can do this in the second step using RC-20 and not have to do it here at the end. Or, use Satin in the master bus to get the tape saturation on all tracks. I think the latter way is better, but it is up to you.
Here is how my experiment with this went:
- I used Xfer Nerve and the Chris Cowie drum expansion pack.
- I chose a preset named CC_Firstkill. It had a 4 bar pattern associated with it.
- Drum instrument channel effects were as follows:
- -11 to -10 dB max coming in from Nerve.
- EQ for drums was not special. A 2 dB dip at 135 Hz and a +1 dB at 80 Hz. Plus the standard smooth roll-off low-cut below 30 Hz.
- Decapitator adding drum fatness.
- A transient processor.
- Flat EQ out adjusting the level to -10 dB out to the drum bus.
- Drum bus effects were as follows:
- -10 dB max coming in from the drum channel.
- Vinyl Strip on my own vintage drum setting. This is where the magic lies, I believe. In a future post, I’ll either update this one to show the settings or make a new post. Or, I’ll just link to the setting preset. But, in the meantime, message me if you want this or any other item. I’m very happy to provide exactly what I am doing.
- SieQ equalizer to give the air to the drums.
- Presswerk compressor to give just a gentle compression.
- Flat EQ out for adjusting the level to the master.
You can see a video I made with the drums I am describing above, on Vimeo (see video below). The synths (2) are TAL-Bassline-101 (SH-101 emulation) and TAL-U-NO-LX (Juno 60 emulation). Both synths are very BoC-like, don’t you think?
Here is what the pattern looks like:
Definitely, the pattern makes some sense and has the BoC vibe to it, but I tried other patterns and the drums still sound like BoC very well. So it is not the pattern that holds all of the magic. The drumkit itself has the right sounds.
Here is what Nerve looks like:
The more I listen to it, I think it is the drumkit that has the right sounds in it. I will be dissecting it further and be checking the individual sounds for their unique signature.
Notice that central horizontal line of numbers in Nerve. That is a loop that is sliced into pieces. I listened to the loop more closely in the Wav file (named FKLP.wav) and the punchiness it has is central to the sound. I hope to do more on that later.
Synthesizers sound like vintage synths such as SH-101, Juno, etc. They mention a “secret weapon” but it is unknown.
Yamaha AN1X was supposedly used because it is blue and has about the profile of one of their synths see in a photo of them playing live. Emulations of this don’t sound anything like BoC. This is probably wrong. That synth may be a different one like the SH-101 that also came in a blue color.
Roland SH-101 is also used. The LuSH-101 virtual synth by D16 and the Bassline 101 by TAL are both virtual synth (vst) replicas of the SH-101. Diva by U-He and Serum by Xfer can also be used to recreate the synth sounds of BoC but is not very effective. The SH-101 straight out of the LuSH-101 does not sound like BoC. Using the TAL Bassline 101 has a better effect and sounds similar. I can get exact sounds of BoC from the TAL Bassline 101 emulation of a Roland SH-101. I suggest if you concentrate efforts on any synth, it should be this one.
Here are some videos of the presets I made:
Find out more in the blog post I wrote about these.
The CS-70M was said to be used on their Tomorrow’s Harvest release and was said by their label to be their “trademark” synth. KX PolyM CSE is an emulation of the CS-70M. It has 6 voices of polyphony – same as the Crumar Trilogy mentioned below. With two oscillators it has 12 VCOs total – also the same as the Crumar (see below). The CS-80 was an improved synth that came later and a good emulation can be the ME-80 plugin.
Although it is only rumored to be used, a Crumar synth was identified as the synth they used in a concert by one guy who said their logo covered the Crumar logo. This synth was reportedly misidentified as a Yamaha CS-80 when in fact it may have been a Crumar.
I tried out the Crumar synth emulation of the Trilogy synth via Kontakt and it definitely has the BoC synth sound to it. So, I believe the Crumar synth could be a large part of the BoC sound or it is so similar to the CS-70M (see above) that it sounds like it. Either way, I would believe 6 voice polyphony and 2 oscillators are the correct assessment for the sound of BoC.
But the CS-70M definitely sounds like BoC also.
But, the Yamaha CS-80 does sound a lot like BoC too. I tried the emulation Esper Noir for Kontakt and it has the BoC sound. Also, the ME-80 works great and does not rely on samples. It definitely has the Vangelis sound and can replicate the Bladerunner soundtrack near flawlessly. It is a CS-80 emulation. But the CS-80 is expensive and it is hard to believe that Boards of Canada had one of these.
You can emulate a bit of BoC on other synths, but they are just not exactly the same. The TAL-U-NO-LX is a great approximation of the Juno 60 but it is just a bit off of what you hear on a BoC tune. The TAL name “U-NO” sounds like “Juno”, and “LX” is the Roman numeral for “60” – hence the “Juno60.”
Tape-like distortions like digital noise (bit crushing), amp overdrive (tube), dual tracking, wow/flutter, and ambient room noise are parts of their sound also. These are easily replicated by U-he Satin for tape saturation and XLN Audio’s Retro Color and D16’s Decimort2 (maybe the best at this). See also under drums above. Here is a link to a good article about the basics of getting vintage sound from synths through processing: How to Make Synths Sound More Vintage
Using the TAL-Sampler and inputting some SH-101 sounds gives the closest sound to BoC’s as I have come across to date. The TAL-Sampler base ROM settings in the sample boxes are sampled from a hardware SH-101 (sine, saw, rectangle, noise, pulse). Presets work well too as it is the vintage sampled sound that really sounds like BoC.
The synth plugins I would recommend are (not really in any order):
Truly Vintage Synths and VST Plugins
- Roland SH-101 – Get the TAL Bassline 101 synth vst plugin (the paid one – not the free one). This synth is the bass synth to have. It can be made to have exactly the Boards of Canada sound. I’ve made the bass and lead for Roygbiv and they are dead on. See my other page (referenced above) for more.
- Roland Juno 60 – The Juno 6 is almost the same as the 60, but get the 60 if you can. Do not get the Juno 106 unless you have to – it has a weaker sound than the 6 and 60. Get the TAL U-NO-LX synth vst plugin (the paid one – not the free one). The Jupiter 60 sound is in most of the Boards of Canada’s works somewhere. It is the next best to having the SH-101.
- U-he’s Diva – This synth can emulate a lot of the others. It is a CPU hog though. It has the ability to mimic Moog’s Minimoog, Roland’s Jupiter 6, Jupiter 8, Alpha Juno and Juno 60, and Korg’s MS20. These can all sound like the Boards of Canada sound.
- Samplers – Various samplers were used by Boards of Canada. Mostly Akai models. That does not matter as much as the sound you get from sampling.
- Replicate this sound on any synth vst by using Vinyl Strip by Audiothing, D16’s Decimort2, or RC-20 Retro Color by XLN Audio. The Vinyl strip is easier on your CPU and seems to work the best to get vintage drum sounds. Decimort2 replicates samplers nearly exactly. I would use this one.
- Replicate any vintage synth sounds by using the SH-101-based TAL Sampler vst plugin (the paid version) and having the correct input of sampled sounds. The base oscillator for the TAL Sampler is the SH-101, so even at its core, it sounds like Boards of Canada. But get it some samples to play, and you can run the built-in sampler that imparts the sampled sound to it. Now you are even closer or dead on to the Boards of Canada sound. They used samplers and this thing can replicate that.
- Yamaha CS-70m – The CS-70m had a different sound than the CS-80. Boards of Canada may have used the CS-70m. It may have been their “secret weapon.” It is worth having and the easiest way to get this sound in a vst plugin is the Kx-PolyM-CSE. It is free.
- Yamaha CS-80 – The CS-80 is iconic for the Vangelis and Blade Runner Soundtrack sounds. The synth itself was so costly that it is not believed that Boards of Canada used it. However, a good emulation of it is the ME-80 vst plugin by Memory Moon. In Kontakt instruments, the Esper Noir by UnEarthed Sampling has an excellent sound.
- Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 – This iconic synth was known for its string sounds. The later versions (6 and 600) were not as well-liked as the original 5. While Boards of Canada may not have used this synth, it is still an iconic sound from their era of musical rendering. A great vst plugin for this synth is the Memory Moon Messiah. In Kontakt instruments, I have found a Prophet 600 emulation via the Autodafe Prophet 600.
- Moog Memorymoog – The Moog sound is undeniable and this was their last synth made back in 1982 before the company went bankrupt. This synth is like having 6 Minimoogs in one so get this one if you can instead of the Minimoog. Memory Moon makes a great emulation in a vst plugin called Memorymoon.
- Crumar Trilogy – A Crumar synth was rumored to be one that Boards of Canada used. It was probably not the Trilogy, but this synth has the essence of the Crumar sound. It does sound a lot like some Boards of Canada sounds. I have not found a vst plugin but in Kontakt, the instrument The Sounds of the Trilogy by Synth Magic is a great representation of the Trilogy.
- Roland Jupiter 8 – Unique sounds come from this synthesizer. It was not known to be used by Boards of Canada, but it is worth trying out just for the sounds it produces. Jupiter 6 is good as well. A good implementation of a Jupiter in a Kontakt instrument is the Mini-Jupe by Rhythmic Robot.
Summary of Synthesis for Boards of Canada
- Vintage Synthesizers
- Low-rate free-running LFOs on Voices
- Very Slow LFO Pitch Modulation (Tape-like)
- Detuned Voices
- Tape Saturation
- Sampler Glitches and Ambience
- Background Noise
- Desk (Console) Distortion and Warmth
Synth Sound Reconstructions
I have attempted to recreate some of the BOC sounds on various plugin synths. Below you will find the settings I am currently experimenting with for each one. Click on each photo to enlarge if needed.
To get the lead in Roygbiv on the Bassline 101, start with the bass shown above, then change the range to 2 instead of 16 where it is shown now. Add some portamento and decrease the noise. This is the lead on Roygbiv.
Red lines and numbers are the approximate settings. These should be a starting point for experimentation.
Intro, 2 bars, no drums. Lead synth melody and then the main melody 2+ bars with drums. Lead, drums, main melody, plus bass line follows. Some higher-pitched instruments added in sporadically. Usually about 4 main instruments at the most.
Simple melodies with few notes. Repeat often.
Deconstructing some of their songs, I find
- An Eagle In Your Mind – F-sharp, Minor, 96 bpm
- Aquarius – F, Major, 84 bpm
- Cold Earth – A, Minor, 67 bpm
- Come to Dust – D-sharp, Minor, 60 bpm
- Corsair – B-flat, Minor, 94 bpm
- Dayvan Cowboy – E, Major, 165 bpm (?)
- Everything You Do Is A Balloon – A, Locrian, 90 bpm
- Hey Saturday Sun – C-sharp, Minor, 125 bpm
- In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country – A, Minor, 98 bpm
- Julie and Candy – F, Mixolydian, 72 bpm
- Music is Math – F-sharp, Minor, 99 bpm
- New Seeds – B-flat, Minor, 113 bpm
- Nothing Is Real – C, Minor, 91 bpm
- Roygbiv – A, Mixolydian, 83 bpm
- Skyliner – A-flat, Major, 97 bpm
- The Devil Is In The Details – D-flat, Major, 104 bpm
As far as the song structure, I am not sure what each song follows, but I would say it is more of an AAA, AABA, but each with a C or D on the end as the outro. The outros are generally way different in many cases. In some, there is just fading off of the main tune, but in most, there is a completely different tune at the very end of each song.
Go check these for more: