How Aphex Twin Created Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is 30 years old today. Widely regarded as one of the greatest electronic albums of all time, Aphex Twin’s debut album was released following a series of EPs and singles including Analogue Bubblebath and Digeridoo. SAW 85-92 was presented as a compilation album, with Richard bringing cassettes of his music to Belgian record label R&S to choose a selection of his songs going back to when he was aged 14. In reality, many of the songs were recent, and a few ‘SAW rejects’ made their way onto the cancelled Caustic Window LP that was eventually released via a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014.

For this article, I’ve explored and recreated the songs Ageispolis, Pulsewidth and Xtal. I used Arturia DX7 V to emulate Richard’s DX7 and DX100 sounds and the newly updated Arturia Prophet-5 V for all the other synth sounds, with my custom presets available to download for free at the end of the article.

aphex twin studio synth

Selected Ambient Gear

Selected Ambient Works 85-92 was made with a limited and relatively inexpensive setup. A 1993 Future Music interview with Richard reveals that he mainly used a Roland SH-101, a Korg MS-20 and Yamaha DX7 for his synth patches, running everything through an Alesis Quadraverb and mixing to standard cassettes.

Pictures and other interviews also show that he owned a Roland System-100, a Synthi A and a Yamaha DX100, which he sold presets for via mail order under the name ‘Lannerlog’.

He sequenced his synths using an Atari 520ST, a Korg SQ10 and DIY homemade sequencers. Although he hasn’t namedropped it in the interview, his drum samples are recognisable from the Roland R-8 drum machine, a sample-based drum machine that included an expansion with classic TR-808 samples.

selected ambient works gear
Richard around 1992. That's a Roland System 100 in front of him, an SH-101 behind him to the right and a Yamaha DX7 or DX100 to the left.

Ageispolis

The synth sound that opens Ageispolis is a short square wave pluck that is drenched in Quadraverb. The short decay time creates a percussive quality that combines nicely with the bright reverb sound to fill in the space between notes.

I used the new Arturia Prophet-5 V to recreate all the sounds in this article. For this patch, I started with a square wave from Oscillator 1, left the filter wide open and set the VCA decay time to 73ms with no sustain. This results in very short ‘plucky’ notes.

00:00
  • Dry Pluck 00:00
aphex ageispolis lead

The reverb comes from the Alesis Quadraverb, which was used on every track on SAW85-92. I replicated the sound with Valhalla VintageVerb, which is based on digital rack reverbs from the same era. I set the mix level to 26% and played with the onboard EQ and damping settings to create a brighter reverb sound with more high-end. Here’s my patch, with and without reverb:

00:00
  • Wet Pluck 00:00
aphex ageispolis reverb

The spacey chords put the ambient in Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and they mainly come from the Yamaha DX7 or DX11, which are the only polyphonic synths that Richard owned around this time. The synth patch in Ageispolis is Rom2A 08-STRINGS 5 with filtering and lots of reverb & delay. Richard mentioned in the Future Music interview that he had modded some of his digital devices with filters, and he may have added a filter to his DX7, as all the string pads on the album are processed with a filter. For Ageispolis, the filter is set to around 1.12 kHz.

I used Arturia DX7 V for my remake. The pad in Ageispolis is slightly out of tune, it’s flat by around 25 cents in relation to the bassline and melody. Richard might have adjusted his DX7’s master tuning to make it flatter, which would explain this. I replicated this using DX7 V’s global tuning knob at the top of the interface.

As well as reverb from Valhalla VintageVerb, I also used Ableton’s Delay device for additional ambience, as well as iZotope Ozone Imager 2 set to 50%. There is a fair bit of widening in Selected Ambient Works 85-92, though this was likely added during the mastering phase.

00:00
  • DX Pad Dry 00:00
  • DX Pad Reverb 00:00
  • DX Pad Filtered 00:00
aphex ageispolis dx7

The Ageispolis bass sound is a hollow, detuned triangle wave bass with a mellow sound. The bassline plays a flowing melodic line that also works as the song’s melody. Despite the mellow sound, it only has the drums and pads to compete with, so it easily cuts through the mix.

The bass patch uses two heavily detuned triangle waves. Arturia Prophet-5 V only has a triangle wave available in Oscillator 2, so I used this and set the synth to unison mode with 2 voices. I then controlled the amount of detuning with the unison detune knob, which I set to 1.07.

00:00
  • Ageispolis Bass 00:00
aphex ageispolis bass

The drums in Ageispolis come from the Roland R-8, a sample-based drum machine that had an optional TR-808 expansion card which Richard used. The R-8 was released in 1989, so it’s possible to date most of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 songs as having been recorded after 1989, despite the album title.

Some of the trademark drum techniques used on SAW85-92 include deep 808 kick drums which are sometimes sequenced to create basslines, hi-hat patterns including alternating open-closed sequences as well as fast triplet rolls and liberal use of percussion rhythms.

00:00
  • Drum Beat 1 00:00
  • Drum Beat 2 00:00
  • Drum Beat 3 00:00

The songs included on Selected Ambient Works 85-92 were originally recorded onto cassette, so are much darker and dirtier than the clean sound produced by DAWs and plugins. This is particularly audible in Ageispolis when the bassline is introduced at the 1:17 mark.

I used plugins on the master channel to replicate the noise and distortion of SAW 95-92, first using Soundtoys Decapitator with Drive around 3 to add light distortion. I then used XLN RC-20 Retro Color’s Cassette 1st Generation preset to add cassette-style noise and additional distortion. Listen to the results below and notice how different the clean and distorted versions sound.

00:00
  • Clean Mix 00:00
  • Tape Mix 00:00
aphex ageispolis master fx

Finally, here’s my full remake of Ageispolis, which is recreated from scratch and doesn’t use any samples from the original:

Pulsewidth

The bouncy synth stabs that open Pulsewidth were likely sampled using Richard’s Casio FZ-10M, similar to the sampled brass of Ptolemy and the grainy vocal chords of Xtal, covered later in this article. The Pulsewidth sample is a single minor 7th chord, which could have been sampled from one of Richard’s synths or lifted from another song. Forum users often cite Neutron 9000’s Butterfly Holocaust as a possible influence for Pulsewidth as they have the same chord progression, however the synth is too dark to be a direct sample.

Instead, I decided to remake the part using a live plugin synth. It doesn’t quite have the same sample repitching effect, but I think it sounds close enough. The reverb and delay actually contribute more to the sound than the basic synth patch.

My Prophet-5 V patch uses slightly detuned sawtooth and PWM waveforms with the filter cutoff set to 100Hz with keyboard tracking on. There’s envelope modulation with a decay time of 350ms for the filter and 490ms for the VCA. The delay is 1/8 synced ping-pong delay set to 29% wet and the reverb comes from Valhalla VintageVerb at 32% wet with the EQ and damping controls opened up for plenty of high-end.

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  • Stabs Dry 00:00
  • Stabs w/Delay 00:00
  • Stabs w/Reverb 00:00
aphex pulsewidth stabs

The chunky bass of Pulsewidth uses unison with detuned sawtooth waves to create a thick sound. The filter has high resonance, which gives it a distinctive nasal sound. My Prophet-5 V patch uses unison mode with detune amount set to 3.62 and resonance set to halfway.

The synths on Selected Ambient Works 85-92 tend to fade in and out instead of starting and stopping; I think Richard has his MIDI and CV sequences running continually and manually controls either the mix volume or the master volume of the hardware synth to bring them in and out of the song.

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  • Pulsewidth Bass 00:00
aphex pulsewidth bass

At the halfway point, the chords drop out and a melodic lead synth is introduced. This part comes from the Yamaha DX7 Rom2A 09-STRINGS 6 preset, which has faster envelopes than the previously used Strings 5 sound. As before, the DX7 sound has been run through a filter to roll off high-end; this time the filter is set to 720Hz. There’s also a lot of delay on this patch, which I recreated using two instances of Ableton Delay set to 1/8th notes and 375ms.

Note that Richard may have used a DX100 for these songs instead of a DX7. The DX100 has similar presets, but being a 4-operator synth instead of the DX7’s 6-operator, they will have a slightly different sound.

00:00
  • Pulsewidth DX7 00:00
aphex pulsewidth dx7

The drums in Pulsewidth are all from the Roland R-8, and are made up of a booming kick with no reverb, an opening and closing hi-hat pattern and a syncopated snare/rim rhythm.

00:00
  • Pulsewidth Drums 00:00

My Pulsewidth remake uses the same combination of Decapitator and XLN RC-20 Retro Color on the master channel that I used for the Ageispolis remake, which helps achieve the lo-fi cassette effect. Here’s my full remake of Aphex Twin’s Pulsewidth:

Xtal

Lastly, I couldn’t write about Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and not include the atmospheric opening track Xtal. This track displays Richard’s sampling prowess, with the main chords and vocal melody being sampled from a 1986 album of library music by Chappell called Atmospheric – Vocal. The track sampled in Xtal is Evil At Play by producer Steve Jeffries and singers Mary Carewe and Donald Grieg. Evil At Play features childlike voices over a Fender Rhodes backing with lots of delay.

The sample source was discovered in 2013 by YouTuber Ed Macfarlane and the chord sequence was discovered by SynaMax only last year, some 29 years after the release of Selected Ambient Works 85-92. The chord sequence has been processed with Quadraverb as well as EQ to cut the low end. I also added Ableton Redux to add some vintage sampler-style noise. Here’s the sequence:

00:00
  • Sample Dry 00:00
  • Sample Reverb 00:00
  • Sample EQ'd 00:00
aphex xtal sample 1
The vocal melody comes from chopped phrases from the Evil At Play sample. The backing Rhodes arpeggios are also part of the sample and add background texture. To recreate it, I used Ableton’s Simpler in Slice Mode, cutting and triggering the individual vocal phrases.
00:00
  • Xtal Vocal Sample 00:00
aphex xtal sample 2

The only synthesized sound on Xtal is the ethereal ambient chords introduced halfway. This synth patch is similar to the one in Ageispolis and again comes from the Rom2A 08-STRINGS 5 DX7 patch, but with the filter set to 800 Hz to darken the sound. Just like the Ageispolis pad, this has also been processed with delay, reverb and widening.

00:00
  • Strings Dry 00:00
  • Strings Reverb 00:00
  • Strings Filtered 00:00
aphex xtal dx7

The drums in Xtal are again from the Roland R-8, which is used for the booming 808 kick that is drenched in reverb, as well as the hi-hats and a syncopated snare pattern. The 808 snare can be heard during the short 2-bar break at 3:04, but for most of the song, it’s layered with a sampled snare from the Apache drum break, which has been repitched down by around 5 semitones.

There are two hi-hat patterns and two basslines that the 808 bass drum plays, and this helps differentiate the different sections of the song. The first hi-hat pattern is a straight closed-closed-open pattern, whereas the second pattern has more syncopation.

Likewise, the kick drum switches between a straight four-to-the-floor pattern that it plays at the beginning to a more syncopated line that plays when the Apache drum break is introduced. There’s no bass synth in Xtal, the kick drum does all the work.

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  • Xtal Drums 1 00:00
  • Xtal Drums 2 00:00

Finally, here’s my full remake of Aphex Twin’s Xtal, with all the sounds coming from the Evil at Play sample, Arturia DX7 V and various drum samples.

Aphex Twin Synth Presets

Thanks for reading! Hopefully this writeup and accompanying remakes have gone some way to demystifying Richard’s early work on Selected Ambient Works 85-92.

The custom Arturia Prophet-5 V presets are available to download for free below, and I’ve added onboard delay and reverb to the presets so you can use the sounds without worrying about external reverbs and delays, though you can always turn them off if you want to use VintageVerb. Note that these presets will not work on the older Arturia Prophet V3 plugin.

I’ve also written a companion article on Selected Ambient Works 85-92 for the folks at MusicRadar, which takes a broader overview of the album and includes a few clips from tracks not included here.

If you want to explore the sounds of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 even further then become a Patreon supporter, which gives you access to the Ableton Projects, MIDI files and multitrack stems from the three remakes featured in this article. I’ll also be sharing partial remakes of other SAW 85-92 songs on there in the upcoming weeks, so don’t miss out!

Header artwork by Makarxart

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Comments on How Aphex Twin Created Selected Ambient Works 85-92

10 thoughts on “How Aphex Twin Created <i>Selected Ambient Works 85-92</i>”

  1. Great job recreating these tracks! As a long-time fan of Richard’s work, it was fascinating to read this article and listen to your remakes. However, there are some thing I want to point out.

    1. I’m pretty sure that all the original parts which you recreated using DX7-V and the additional filter have attack on filter and probably on release too which gives them this “whiny” sound for a lack of a better word. I think the Ageispolis pad is key-tracked as well. So I don’t think it’s a static filter. Whether he had an additional homemade filter connected to his DX100 (I think DX100 was his main/only FM synth at the time), did some additional magic designing the synth presets or used another synth altogether, I do not know

    2. I think he applied chorus effect to the bassline on Pulsewidth. Doesn’t change much but I think it was a neat touch on the original

    3. Are you sure the bassline on Ageispolis is triangle wave? Couldn’t it be sine wave from his FM synth? It sounds more like a sine wave to me but I might be mistaken. Also while we’re talking about the Ageispolis bassline, what is going on with your remade version? It sounds like there are “drop-outs” in its sound which are caused by LFO, I assume? To my ears the original bassline doesn’t have that, it sounds pretty straightforward in that sense

    From what I understand, Richard had (at least) 3 synths at the time because the SAW 85-92 tracks generally have 3 melodic elements all working together. It’s generally agreed upon that 2 of them were SH-101 and DX100 but the 3rd one remains a mystery. Maybe there wasn’t actually the 3rd synth and it was substituted by his FZ-10M sampler. Maybe it was EMS Synthi A which he allegedly bought when he was 19. Maybe it was something else. If my assumption that the bassline on Ageispolis is made from sinewave is correct, then the third synth has to be polyphonic or at least paraphonic. (EMS Synthi A is monophonic, by the way). He could, of course, layer different melodies from the same synth together but that seems unlikely because a) we’re dealing with cassette tape here and it’s notoriously unreliable with layering stuff like that and b) it seems to go against Richard’s work ethos at the time – compose a track relatively quickly, record it live and move on to another one

    Sorry for such a long post, I’m just a huge AFX fanboy, haha. And, once again, fantastic recreations!

  2. Hello Dan, nice work as usual. What do you think of the new Arturia Prophet ? Any major improvement soundwise ? Thanks.

    1. Thanks! I haven’t had a chance to directly compare the filters, oscillators and envelopes between the old and new versions but the onboard effects and modulation sections are huge improvements.

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