Recreating ‘Unholy’ by Sam Smith & Kim Petras
Learn how to make ‘Unholy’ by Sam Smith and Kim Petras in Soundation — the easy-to-use online music studio.
‘Unholy’ is a dark and seductive track that mixes hyperpop and trap elements with a choir singing Gregorian chants. The blend of traditional and modern sounds as well as the use of Phrygian scales is a breath of fresh air in the pop landscape. We recreated the song to teach you how you can get similar sounds in Soundation.
Drums and percussion
The tempo of ‘Unholy’ is 131 BPM. The drums and percussion have a snappy and distorted hyperpop sound. Use the “Unholy” Beatmaker kit that we put together.
The kick plays a bouncy pattern while the clap is played on the third of every bar. Glass and metal percussion are added for more character and accents. The hi-hats come in for the second chorus playing a lower pitch on the downbeats and a higher pitch on the syncopated notes. Right before the chorus, there is a high-pitched snare and ticking clock sounds as a build-up.
There are two bass sounds in the track. One of them is a short, plucky synth made with detuned sawtooth waveforms, which is included in the “Unholy” Beatmaker kit. The second bass sound is a slightly distorted sub-bass with legato glide. We used Europa to make it.
Both bass sounds mainly peddle between the notes C# and D in a similar pattern to the kick. However, the sub-bass plays longer notes with some melodic fills here and there.
With a minimal composition, it’s important to keep the listeners’ interest. They succeeded in doing this partly by using ear candy. Which are brief sounds sprinkled here and there to grab your attention and make it sound fresh.
In the first verse, there is a part with a small break when we expect a curse word. But instead, the word is creatively censored with a bell. This bell sound is included in the Beatmaker kit.
Soon after there is a rising noise effect. We recreated it with the Noiser instrument that generates white noise. The white noise goes through a lowpass filter with the cutoff automated. The added tremolo effect makes the noise stutter rhythmically.
Right before the chorus, there’s a string fill playing a descending C# Phrygian dominant scale, doubled up in octaves. The string sound in Soundation comes from the SAM-1, using the “String ensemble” preset. The sound is paired up with a highpass filter to thin out the tone and reverb to give it more space.
The biggest wow factor of the song is arguably the Gregorian chants choir. Nothing beats the real thing, but you can get a choir sound in Soundation by using the GM-2 virtual instrument. We used the “Aah choir” preset. Add some reverb to make it more realistic and an equalizer and filter to make the tone brighter and cleaner to fit a modern pop song.
The choir is playing the same melody as the lead vocal in different octaves together with some added harmonies.
The key of ‘Unholy’ is C# but it’s switching between the Phrygian and Phrygian dominant scales. These scales give the song its specific color and emotion. Phrygian is a common mode for Gregorian chants and Phrygian dominant is used a lot in middle eastern music.
- C# Phrygian
- C# Phrygian dominant
Being able to use the bass notes C# and D is also thanks to these scales. Having a note 1 semitone above the root doesn’t often occur naturally in other scales. This creates a dark and ominous feeling that you can hear in horror movies like Jaws.
It all connects beautifully with the sounds and the theme of the song. The traditional scales and sounds mixed with the modern sounds and songwriting as well as the horror association truly make it sound unholy.