It seems pointless trying to write an introduction that adds anything to the already behemoth legend status of electronic music pioneer that is Aphex Twin (or Richard D. James to his pals). There are few electronic artists that have come close to touching the sides of the imprint he has left on the music scene in the last thirty-odd years. I have waxed lyrical about him elsewhere on this blog, so if you don’t think this introduction is good enough, go and read the one I did for that.

Last time in these pages, we tackled Xtal from his must-have Selected Ambient Works 85–92. This time I want to look at Cliffs from the follow up double album Selected Ambient Works Vol. II from 1994. 👀

Upon purchasing this on CD back in the day (not 1994, probably early 2003 like the Johnny-come-lately that I am) I was perplexed by the lack of obvious track listing but soon came to know through various message boards this beautiful flotation tank accompaniment to be called Cliffs; the opening track from disc 1.

In fact I think I first heard this track in a Kid606 Tripple J mix, but that’s not quite as romantic.

Background

Selected Ambient Works Vol. II was allegedly inspired by lucid dreams, synaesthesia and all of the other ambient clichés that are now banal aphorisms regurgitated ad nauseam by anyone who’s played guitar in an open-tuning through a delay pedal while stoned.

The album has also survived trite comparisons to the likes of Eno and Satie by every music journalist under the sun (you may realise by now I am reading along with Wikipeida).

While it may not pack quite as much a punch as ’85-’92 in terms of pure hypnotic techno, originality and flow, it’s still an important benchmark in Aphex Twin’s career arc. I get more enjoyment out of listening to this compared to some of his more recent, difficult offerings seemingly designed to test even the most ardent defenders of his music lurking in chin-stroking music forums across the world.

Artist Kevin Martin, better known to some as The Bug, wrote on SAW II that it “breaks with all of ambient’s feel-good premises. Isolationism is ice-olationist, offering cold comfort. Instead of pseudopastoral peace, it evokes an uneasy silence: the uncanny calm before catastrophe, the deathly quiet of aftermath.” to which I have nothing to add because I don’t know what he’s on about. Frank Zappa once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, which I guess makes me someone who’s talking about dancing.

Richard himself has offered a slightly more concise synopsis saying it’s “like standing in a power station on acid”, which I cannot corroborate as I’ve never been in a power station.

I am positive the man himself has lambasted ambient music in various interviews since claiming it’s boring or something as equally contrarian but as a) a huge AFX fan and b) someone who also loves ambient music, I can’t entirely agree with him on all counts.

Cliff Hanger

The reason I want to look at this track is because not only did I serendipitously stumble across something pretty darn similar to the synth patch today but the track is so basic in form that I’ve spent more time on the write up than working it out.

There are large portions of this I can’t attempt as the nice guys at WhoSampled haven’t anorak-ed the sample sources just yet. In keeping with other Chord of the Day entries I’ll just look at the chords (duh) and the synth patch.

Let’s start with the chords. The whole track is a simple three chord progression played very loosely at around 48 bpm.

The chords are almost fragments of chords, barely outlining a sparse harmonic structure.

The first chord is an Eb and Ab, which is then transposed up a tone. These are a fourth apart but I am not drawing any connections to quartal harmony as this track is more likely intuitive than theoretical. The last chord is a Db and F.

The bass part is quite a bit further down in the mix, so it’s likely the synth is velocity sensitive or it’s been over-dubbed. The bass moves from an Eb to a Bb and then down to the Db, making the first and second chords not exactly a transposed version of one another.

Even notating this loose rhythmic figure is a bit spurious as there are no beats to anchor ourselves against.

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What I like about this progression is there isn’t a clear feeling of resolution, but the music is anything but tense or on-edge. It’s quite the opposite. I don’t think it would be fitting to try and crowbar any further analysis or meaning on this small collection of notes than I have done already so let’s move on to this synth part.

Synth You’ve Been Gone

It’s difficult to know exactly what Aphex Twin was using in this era for specific tracks but my guess would be one of the Yamaha DX series synths FM synths (DX9 or 100) or perhaps one of the Casio phase-distortion synths.

Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 22.11.19.jpgI stumbled across this while using Logic’s ES2 but nearly any old FM synth will do as it’s criminally easy to get close to it.

Ensure your FM synth is polyphonic with a minimum of six voices to get the amplitude envelope release correct.

In ES2, oscillator 1 can be frequency modulated by oscillator 2. Tune them closely together – I’ve opted for 4 cents apart but experiment yourself. Wider tunings will produce a faster beating between the oscillators.

Use an LFO to slowly modulate the amount of frequency modulation between not much and not much more, I settled on 2 Hz. Lastly add a healthy dose of attack and release to the amplitude envelope (Envelope 3 in ES2).

You can download the patch here. If you want to understand FM synthesis in more depth I’d recommend reading my getting started guide here.

That’s kind of it… there’s some light distortion elsewhere in the track which I can hazard a guess is just on the DAT machine. You can probably get close with some tape saturation or very light overdrive. Some Valhalla Shimmer can butter up even the most limp of sine wave pads too.

Sean Costello of Vahalla DSP has actually written about the SAW II era reverbs in this blog post. I’ll embed the best bits…

As far as early Aphex Twin reverbs, I’m going to guess Alesis, probably Quadraverb. I’ve seen live footage of Aphex Twin from 1993/1994, and a Quadraverb is prominently featured. Autechre made heavy use of the Quadraverb as well. The Quadraverb algorithms were based on allpass loops, or possibly parallel comb filters with embedded allpasses (Keith Barr suggested the latter in an email exchange I had with him, but he also said it was hard to recall the exact structure after all these years)…

…The new Dark Room mode in ValhallaRoom is another good choice for capturing these darker reverb sounds. It has NO high frequencies above 1/2 the sampling rate, and deliberately noisy delay modulation, so there is a lot of dark mojo in there. However, ValhallaShimmer is particularly well suited to ambient music, so if you have Shimmer, just follow the above recommendations as a starting point.

If you don’t have Valhalla Shimmer, some convolution reverbs will allow you to reduce the sample rate (Space Designer does, for example).

Like a Version

There are a few choice covers and remixes out there worth lending your ear to. There are probably 5 million unsolicited donk bootlegs on SoundCloud and some earnest folk covers on YouTube but these are the big hitters as far as I am concerned.

First off is Alarm Will Sound, a “20-member band committed to innovative performances and recordings of today’s music”.

Alarm Will Sound have recorded some fantastic pieces in their time (Reich’s The Desert Music being a favourite of mine) but their 2005 album Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin is certainly a highlight.

This nicely captures the thinly spread texture of the instrumentation on the original while building on the human performance of Cliffs.

While Cliffs is electronic it feels like an organism, with filters being shifted up and down, cascading asynchronous delays and that lovely vocal sample that no-one knows the origin of.

The CD includes this excellent remix by Dennis DeSantis. This really goes the other way and passes the performance through a cheese grater, reassembling it at the other end in a still very musical way.

Some IDM (yes we all hate that term, me included) remixes seem deliberately obtuse, trying to bury any remanence of the original track in a shroud of naval gazing studio trickery, lacking musicality, groove and sensibility, but this is far from that critismism.

Lastly in 1999 Warp released Warp10+3 Remixes, a double disc collection of some contemporary artists remixing some of the Sheffield label’s classic back catalog.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m overly into this remix by serial thumb piano abuser Four Tet. It’s good, but I don’t think it’s ever made it on to my iPod nano.

That’s it! There is criminally little music on display in this article but hopefully you can enjoy the patch in your own work. Comment and feedback welcomed! Enjoy.