Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, an artists whose musical output is unparalleled in its almost obnoxious attitude, coupled with being truly beautiful, at moments humorous, other worldly and of a technical level oh-so-many producers aspire to grasp at. Pretentious kiss-ass intro over, Aphex Twin is still one of the most influential electronic artists there has ever been.
Perhaps better known for his scatty hyper active cuts like Flim or 4 or his sideways glance at hip hop music videos Windowlicker, James was churching out acid techno, jungle-like numbers and even ambient music long before the semi-coffee table success of the 2001 double album Drukqs.
It’s actually his ambient output I want to take a quick look at, in particular the lead track from his Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (released February ’92), Xtal. As with most of his music, he ascribes are barely legible consonant riddles name to it, so whilst I don’t know how it’s pronounced, most agree on ‘tal’ or possibly ‘crystal‘.
I have to say, despite individual sounds not being that difficult to emulate, the overall mix and balance of this was a nightmare, due to (in-part) Aphex Twin’s notorious ambiguity around customised equipment and largely down to the poor sonic quality of this track.
SAW 85-92 is claimed to have been digitised from home cassette tape, and whilst I am a big fan of this medium (out of nostalgia, not choice), it’s given so much midrange crunch to the mix, it was near impossible to accurately discern certain sounds. So with that in mind, this replay is an attempt at getting the vibe down, rather than an exact carbon copy. Let’s get cracking…
First thing’s first, let’s set our tempo to 114 bpm. The track starts with some 808-like hi-hats, so it seems only natural to start off with the drums. Although the drums are 808 in style they are likely to be from another Roland drum machine, the R-8. This had its own rudimentary sounds in it but in addition you could expand it with cards from other drum machines, such as the aforementioned 808 and another Roland classic the TR-909.
Live has some decent 808 sounds that come pre-packaged with the Drum Rack sampler, but I opted for some of my own. Adding the necessary hits to a new Drum Rack (kick, snare, open and closed hats, maraca and cymbal) I’ve tuned and processed them to try and match the original sound more closely.
Let’s start off with the kick drum. To add some extra bottom-end to this I layered it with an Operator instrument tuned to 52 Hz, adding Live’s Compressor and the Dynamic Tube using a tweaked Distortion Gate preset. The snare was fairly unremarkable, just using some pitch enveloping and an EQ to boost around 198 Hz.
I grouped the closed and open hi-hats together so they could share some processing. I’ve added Live’s Reverb with a healthy 2 seconds of Decay and an instance of TB Ferox. This is a tape simulator plug-in that has some handy features for dirty-ing up these hats. I’ve employed some low and high cut, added some compression, saturation and tape delay, giving it a warbling quality.
N.B All the TB stuff I’m using is demo quality, meaning it is free but preset saving is disabled.
Lastly there some maracas and cymbal, both fairly light on the processing with just a simple delay on the maracas (30 ms for the left channel and 75 ms for the right) and some reverb for cymbal.
All of the drums are routed into a Redux at 16 bit with a Downsample of 2. This helps age the samples a bit and add some grit. I’ve then added some compression and used a send-return for some extra reverb. I’ve opted for the free Voxengo OldSkoolVerb, as this sounds the closest to those early ’90s reverb units.
N.B There is some extra processing on these tracks, which I’ll come to later (see Tape it or Leave it).
There’s another drum loop that enters around the 59 second mark, this is a breakbeat sampled from Tommy Roe’s 1966 Sweet Pea (you can grab a wav of the loop here).
I’ve loaded the wav into Live and turned the warp off. I’ve then tuned it down a few semitones to more closely match our tempo. Now consolidate the file (cmd + j) and add the resulting loop to a Sampler instrument. I’ve then made four chops of the sample, the first kick, both snares and a little shuffle.
Program the loop like so. The second snare is off-beat, on the one four and the four-and (confusingly!).
Not much processing here, I’ve added some compression to toughen it up a bit (long attack short release, medium-to-high ratio, low threshold) and send it out to our same reverb return track.
*edit* Both WhoSampled and WATMM user EKT Plus have pointed out that there might be an Apache break in there, which is entirely possible. Some bongo-like sounds can be heard, so it could be layered or used exclusively.