Aphex Twin’s debut album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, was released 30 years ago today.
A landmark release in electronic music’s history, the album compiled 13 tracks made by Richard D. James over the seven years preceding its release, beginning when he was aged only 14.
The record’s unique sound fused serene ambient pads and atmospheric synth melodies with techno-inspired drum patterns, resulting in a hybrid style of ambient techno that was as mesmerizing as it was propulsive. Labeled ‘intelligent dance music’, or IDM, by fans and critics (a term James himself dismissed) the album has since been named as an influence by countless other electronic artists.
Although James undoubtedly now owns an envious collection of synthesizers and recording gear, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 was produced at the beginning of his career, using a more limited selection of kit. A 1993 interview with Future Music revealed that his set-up was based around a Korg MS-20, a Roland SH-101 and a Yamaha DX7. James also used a Casio FZ-10M sampler with custom filters, estimating that he used it on 80% of his songs.
The album was sequenced using an Atari 520ST computer and a Korg SQ-10, along with custom-built DIY sequencers. James likely also used the onboard sequencers on the Roland SH-101, while using CV and MIDI to keep different devices in sync. He’s said that his tracks are “99% sequenced”, with only the synth strings parts occasionally played by hand.
To achieve the uniquely grainy reverb sounds that characterise the record’s sound, James made use of the Alesis Quadraverb, a rack-mounted digital reverb from 1988. In a 2014 interview with Noyzelab, James mentioned that the Quadraverb was “used on all tracks on SAW85-92” and praised its “dark and muddy” sound, along with “nice arrangement of subtle pitch shifting, delays into reverbs”. All of the tracks on SAW were recorded to cassette, which imbued them with a noisy, lo-fi sound, and audible distortion.
SAW is full of dark, spacious synth pads. These usually outline the song's chord progression, and the song “I” consists of only a pad run through a heavy amount of reverb. These ambient pads were likely recorded with the Yamaha DX-100 or DX7, as these were the only polyphonic synths James mentioned owning at the time. He likely used the DX strings patches, as they have long attack and release times as well as mellow, sine-like oscillator sounds.
Bass sounds are a fundamental part of SAW85-92, with a mixture of mellow riffs, acid synths, and flowing melodic basslines present. One recurring sound is a dark sawtooth synth with a high resonant filter at a low position, which creates a dull, bass heavy sound with little high-end. It also has a soft attack, which prevents it from sounding too plucky. You can hear this prominently in “We Are the Music Makers” and “Tha”.
Elsewhere, “Green Calx” and “Ptolemy” feature a more resonant sound associated with acid music. These synth patches are created by setting the filter resonance to medium or high settings and using the envelope filter with a quick decay time and no sustain. “Plotemy” has a medium amount of envelope and resonance, whereas “Green Calx” has much more of both.
Although lead synths aren’t often in the foreground of SAW, two memorable melodic parts can be found in the gliding lead in “Schottkey 7th Path” and the short, melodic plucks that open “Ageispolis”. These were likely recorded on the Roland SH-101, a revered analog monophonic synth from 1982. There are plenty of software emulations of the SH-101, including TAL-BassLine-101, D16 LuSH-101 and the new Softube Model 82.
The main synth heard “Schottkey 7th Path” is a monophonic patch using a single sawtooth wave, with the filter set at around 60% open and a very fast glide time. The “Ageispolis” patch can be recreated using a square wave oscillator, with the filter wide open. There’s a very short decay time on the VCA envelope, and no sustain. Both synths would have been run through plenty of Quadraverb, though we’ve used Valhalla VintageVerb as a replacement on these clips.
Yamaha DX synthesizers can be heard clearly in the rhodes-style comping in “We Are The Music Makers” and the melody of the album closer, “Actium”, both of which use the DX7’s infamous '11 E.PIANO 1' preset. We recreated these parts using the Arturia DX7 V software plugin, though the free synth Dexed also features the preset. The DX7 is velocity-sensitive, so sequencing lower velocities will result in softer sounding notes.
Album opener “Xtal” features a vocal sample from “Evil At Play”, a piece of library music recorded in 1986. The song’s grainy chords are also sampled from “Evil At Play”, which was discovered by YouTuber SynaMax last year, 19 years after the song’s release.
The sounds were likely sampled on Richard’s Casio FZ-10M, a rack-mount version of the FZ-1 that allows the user to save and load sounds via floppy disk. Elsewhere on SAW, there are several movie samples buried in the mix. A sample from RoboCop can be heard in “Green Calx”, appearing at 3:56, and a sample of dialogue from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory can be heard in “We Are the Music Makers”.
SAW was initially recorded to cassettes, which were given to James’ friends before being recorded to DAT tapes for the final versions you hear on the album. As such, the tracks have a high level of background noise, a muddy sound and audible distortion at points.
If you want to recreate this lo-fi aesthetic yourself, you could record the master from your DAW to cassette, then re-record the cassette back into your DAW. If you don’t have a cassette player handy or fancy more flexibility, plugins are also an option - there’s plenty of decent tape emulation plugins out there that can produce a good imitation of this kind of sound.
All the audio clips in this article were processed through Soundtoys Decapitator and XLN Retro Color 2 on the master channel, to add distortion, saturation and tape artifacts.
Most of SAW's drums sound like they come from the Roland TR-808, however Aphex Twin didn’t own a TR-808 at the time this album was produced - instead he used a Roland R-8 with an 808 expansion card. There are many instances when the bass drum and hi-hats are repitched, which wasn’t possible using the original 808.
A booming four-to-the-floor 808 kick is one of the album’s main fixtures, it can be heard drenched in Quadraverb in "Xtal" and without reverb in "Pulsewidth". There’s also a signature hi-hat pattern consisting of two closed and one open hi-hats that appears in both songs.
James is an adept sequencer, and uses a meticulously programmed fast triplet hi-hat roll in both "Ageispolis" and "Heliosphan".
James also used the Roland R-8 sequencer to repitch the 808 kick to create basslines in tracks like "Ageispolis" and "Xtal". 808 basslines are commonly heard in techno and house music, and can easily be recreated by loading a sample of an 808 kick into your DAW sampler and programming basslines in the piano roll.
The snare from the historic “Apache” drum break also appears to have been a favourite of Aphex Twin’s, as he used it on both “Heliosphan", and on ”Xtal”, repitched 5 semitones lower. You can also hear repitched 808 basslines and plenty of hi-hat programming tricks in this “Xtal” beat.