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By Oliver Macaulay on

‘An uncanny valley of sonic possibilities’: SOPHIE’s music and its legacy

Following SOPHIE’s tragic death in January 2021, we explore the world of SOPHIE’s music and marvel at the artist’s wild and distinctive way of manipulating soundwaves.
Image taken from SOPHIE’s album cover for Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (2018)

SOPHIE’s breakout track ‘BIPP’ was released in June 2013 and garnered the Scottish producer and DJ much-deserved critical acclaim, earning the top spot on XLR8R’s year-end tracks. Following the release of ‘BIPP’, SOPHIE’s avant-garde formula of ostensibly chaotic, yet meticulously designed, fizzes, pops and boings found their way into collaborations with chart-topping artists including Rihanna, Charli XCX and Madonna.

Laden with synthetic fizzes and bubbles, the DJ’s 2014 hit ‘Lemonade’ was even featured in a McDonalds advert the following year, offering a more mainstream outlet for the artist’s unique sound.

However, despite SOPHIE’s success, the identity of this pop revolutionary was shrouded in secrecy until 2017, prior to which SOPHIE’s face seldom appeared on promotional materials or in music videos. Akin to a musical Banksy, the artist’s creations swelled in popularity, influence and infamy while the identity of the artist was veiled in mystery and intrigue. Even at live sets, it was reported that SOPHIE would sport disguises—such as in an infamous 2014 boiler room set in which the DJ posed as a security guard and opted to send a drag performer into the DJ booth.

However, 2017 saw the release of the distinctly soft ballad ‘It’s Okay to Cry’, featuring SOPHIE’s vocals, face and raw vulnerability. This single was perceived by many as SOPHIE’s official coming out as a transgender woman, amid a flurry of speculation regarding the gender identity of the DJ.

‘It’s Okay to Cry’ was featured on SOPHIE’s Grammy-nominated 2017 album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, which was described by Rolling Stone as an ‘uncanny valley of sonic possibilities’, acknowledging just how astounding it is that the metallic clashes, wooshes and bangs of tracks like ‘Faceshopping’ are purely synthetic in nature. The song’s thought-provoking exploration of the themes of identity and consumerism are accompanied by a disorientating, albeit enchanting, music video, which captures the essence of SOPHIE’s bizarre and beguiling musical talent.

Often, contemporary electronic music utilises some form of sampling from existing tracks or is integrated with sounds from more ‘traditional’ musical instruments such as guitar, drums and pianos. SOPHIE’s decision to eschew samples entirely (aside from vocals) therefore presents us with a method of sound creation which is bold, daring and unique. Especially when we consider the resemblance that sounds heard in ‘Faceshopping’ and ‘Lemonade’ (among others) bear to ‘real-life’ materials and objects such as glass, metal, latex and bubbles. But how is it possible to generate these sounds synthetically?

As explained in the clip by Groove3 below, synthesisers use four main elementary waveforms as starting points: Sine Wave, Sawtooth, Square and Triangular. These waveforms serve as the ‘building blocks’ for electronic music synthesis and have their own distinctive sound, which can be altered and interwoven with each other to create a theoretically infinite array of soundscapes.

The Elektron Monomachine was SOPHIE’s synthesiser of choice, and with it the artist was able to delicately build and sculpt music from scratch, inspired by the rules of acoustic physics, yet bending the boundaries of music. SOPHIE’s own words from a 2014 interview with Billboard provide a fascinating insight into how these raw soundwaves can be used to create a distinctive miasma of sound inspired by the natural world.

“I synthesize all sounds except for vocals using raw waveforms and different synthesis methods as opposed to using samples. This means considering the physical properties of materials and how those inform the acoustic properties. For instance—why does a bubble have an ascending pitch when popped and why does metal clang when struck and what is this clanging sound in terms of pitch and timbre over time? How do I synthesize this? Perhaps after learning about these things it might be possible to create entirely new materials through synthesis.”

SOPHIE’s status as an icon, an artist and a maverick are most certainly deserved. The legacy left on the world of pop music, both from the DJ’s technical prowess in the field of acoustics and the unique subversion of the genre, will ensure that the music of SOPHIE will live on.

2 comments on “‘An uncanny valley of sonic possibilities’: SOPHIE’s music and its legacy

  1. Nice article but it would have been good to mention that subtractive synthesis has been used to emulate real world physical sounds since at least the 1960s, Suzanne Ciani’s Coke ident created in the 1970s would have been a good example. These kinds of production techniques have also been deployed in electronic music since at least the 1980s. All sorts of physical synthesis models have also be implemented both theoretically and in both software & analogue and digital hardware. Alexander Strong & Kevin Karplus work on string emulation is another great reference. Of course Sophie is a great producer and could write a catchy hook but the technical side of those production didn’t come from nowhere! context plz :3

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