British singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer James Blake is an enigma amongst pop artists. His music inhabits the fringes of experimental electronic music. It’s a world of glitchy downtempo beats and distorted piano ballads. Despite an unconventional sound, Blake has worked with a myriad of superstars. These include Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Travis Scott, Frank Ocean, and Bon Iver.
Blake rose to prominence with a series of electronic EPs between 2009-2010. These gained traction on BBC radio. However, it was his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” that catapulted him to international success.
After four successful full-lengths and many collaborations, Blake has solidified his musical identity. His production style has several influences. Still, one constant is his affinity for juxtaposing synthesizers and electronic textures with his natural voice and acoustic instruments.
Using Roland Cloud array of synths and sounds, let’s recreate a James Blake-style track. One essential element of many of Blake’s compositions is a distinct piano part. To that end, to replicate Blake’s style, I started a track with Roland Concerto’s Tera Piano. I played a simple two-chord riff with a bass ostinato.
Creating Beautiful Minimalism
Many of Blake’s songs revolve around simple repeating harmonic figures. He develops these figures texturally. On songs like “The Wilhelm Scream,” Blake uses the guitar to augment his brooding synth pads. For this beat, I added a guitar line using Tera Guitar and then I manipulated the sound with the built-in effects.
In Blake’s earlier work he preferred glitchy minimalist drums. However, as he evolved, he expanded his sound. Blake even incorporated trap-style programming through collaborations with Metro Boomin and Travis Scott. For this reason, in an attempt to amalgamate both styles, I used a preset TR-808 groove. First, I chopped it up and reversed it in certain sections. As the song developed, I layered the original drums with a trap-inspired TR-808 groove.
After establishing the basic structure of the track, I used the SH-101 ’80s bell sound for melodic accents. Next, I added the JUPITER-8 Ba-Bass preset for a nice sub-bass. Blake likes to juxtapose soft sections of minimal instrumentation with heavy bass and synth patches. In light of this, the JUPITER-8 is a great all-around synth. When adjusting the portamento knob on a bass sound, you get a nice glide and bend sound. The tone is perfect for modern sub bass lines.
As I further developed this track, I replaced the main piano part with a synth string pad provided by the JX-3P. Blake is a fan of gospel harmony. As a result, I created a progression with some diminished and first inversion chords: Gm6, Ab diminished, Am, D/F add 9. In addition, Blake enjoys creating loopable chord progressions. At the same time, these progressions retain a sense of momentum. This harmonic technique allows him to add density to the song and build to an energetic climax.
As the layers grew in intensity, I returned to the original piano part—reinforced with the JX-3P. Next, I gradually decreased the tempo, removing other instruments until only the string pad remained.
I automated the brilliance knob on JX-3P to bring out some of the upper harmonics of the sound towards the very end of the song. Roland Cloud Legendary instruments have parameters that match their analog counterparts. These allow the same depth of experimentation when it comes to modifying patches. Let’s listen to what I was able to come up with.
Breaking Down a James Blake-Type Beat
This track is one way to approach James Blake’s production techniques. A diverse and multifaceted artist, Blake is constantly evolving. I recommend using Roland Cloud instruments to explore your creative pathways. Check out this summary of Blake’s production techniques, as well as the instruments and patches I used to make this track.
James Blake Production Elements
- Glitchy drums
- Vocal Chops
- Big synth (sawtooth) patches
- R&B/Gospel harmony
- Manipulated acoustic piano
- Repeating musical themes (bass ostinatos, vocal loops, looping one or two chords)
- Brooding slower tempos that build in intensity and textural density
- Occasional trap-inspired drums and sub bass
- Acoustic instruments juxtaposed with electronic textures
Roland Cloud Instruments Used
- TR-808 (preset 12 & 20)
- JX-3P (String 1)
- Roland Concerto (Tera Piano, Tera Guitar)
- Tera Piano (Dark Classical)
- Tera Guitar (Intimate)
- JUPITER-8 (BA-Bass)
- SH-101 (‘80s Bell)