Recreating the Synths of Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works II"

Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II turns 25 today. The album was a departure from Selected Ambient Works 85–92 in that it is largely beatless, dropping much of the techno stylings of its predecessor. SAW II delves into dark ambient territory, with eerie soundscapes, drones, and repeating loops that approach the 10-minute mark. Most of the tracks were never given official names, and are instead commonly referred to by unofficial names based on pictures from the album's artwork. Selected Ambient Works Volume II has gone on to be highly influential to electronic and ambient musicians alike.

As with much of Richard D. James' earlier work, the exact gear and samples used are shrouded in some degree of mystery. An Oberheim Matrix-1000 is commonly rumoured to be the main synth on SAW II, mostly based on similarities to its presets. A Yamaha CS-5 was also present during the album's recording, as James wrote the liner notes to the album directly on the actual synth, which was later sold at auction.

The good news is that the core synth sounds are actually relatively simple, and can be created on any analog-style polyphonic synthesiser. For this article, I'll use Arturia Prophet V, a software emulation of the 1978 classic Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, a versatile go-to synth.

James' Yamaha CS-5, inscribed with Saw II's liner notes, which sold at a Spheremusic auction.
Selected Ambient Effects

Production-wise, the album has a warm, saturated sound, and you can hear some tracks begin to distort at points (like "Lichen"). Some of the songs are also slightly flatter than concert pitch, hinting that the album may have been recorded to tape, with several songs being slowed down after recording. Recording to tape machines is still popular, with tape's lo-fi character being a welcome alternative to digital recording.

There are also plenty of tape emulation plugins for those wanting to bring some of the character of tape into the DAW workflow. To help emulate SAW II's vibe, I'll use Soundtoys EchoBoy, an analog echo processor that can also be used as a tape emulator, a chorus effect, and an overdrive.

EQ cuts to the bass-end and dark reverbs are also a big part of the sound. For dark reverb, simply EQ the high-end of the reverb signal to as low as 4,000Hz, reducing much of the brightness present in digital reverbs.

#1, "Cliffs"

Selected Ambient Works Volume II opens with "Cliff," a droning ambient track that is highly representative of the two hours of material that follows. To create the main synth pad, start with a single sawtooth oscillator, close the filter all the way, and set resonance to the 10 o'clock mark.

Set the filter envelope amount to 11 o'clock, which will now open up the filter dependent on the envelope settings below it. Set the envelopes of both the filter and amplifier with an attack time of around 600-900ms, full sustain, and a release time of around 4,000-6,000ms.

These long attack and release times allow the notes to flow into each other, creating long trails suitable for ambient music.

Cliffs Prophet-V

The recreated patch in the video below has been run through two instances of Soundtoys EchoBoy.

The first is a simple 200ms single-echo delay using the EchoPlex style. The second instance is acting as a tape emulator, and is last in the effects chain. Simply set delay time and feedback to minimum and mix level to maximum, then play around with different styles to see how it affects the signal—I chose the "Cheap Tape" style.

Be aware that the width setting in the tweak panel can affect the stereo image, so pull it to the middle to keep it the same or all the way to the minimum setting to make the track mono.

Aphex Twin SAW II EchoPlex-Style Delay Preset for Soundtoys EchoBoy
Aphex Twin SAW II EchoPlex-Style Delay Preset for Soundtoys EchoBoy

The plucking patch that is introduced toward the end of the song is an interesting patch, and you can hear James tweak the filter as it plays the arpeggio lines.

To create the patch, use slightly detuned saw-tri waves, such as those found in Arturia Mini V, and set the envelopes with no sustain and a decay time of 450ms. Now run the track through a synced delay set to repeat everything a beat later to create a cascading effect.

#3, "Rhubarb"

"Rhubarb" is a fan favourite from SAW II, and it explores similar ambient drone territory to that heard on "Cliffs." The rhythmically shapeless piece is based around a beautiful-sounding chord progression that is repeated throughout the entire song, without getting repetitive.

The "Rhubarb" synth patch has a simple single-sawtooth patch similar to the one we created for "Cliffs," but with some subtle modulation.

Using Arturia Prophet V again, create another single-sawtooth oscillator patch with a long attack/release filter. Go to the wheel-mod section and activate the filter button, which will now allow us to modulate the filter with an LFO, setting the amount of modulation with the mod-wheel.

In the LFO section, set rate to 2.94Hz and the shape to triangle, and then raise the mod wheel slightly, to a value of around 0.05. This will subtly open and close the filter over time, adding small, evolving changes to the timbre.

Finish the patch by adding a tiny bit of noise (8 o'clock is a good setting), which will add some grit to the sound.

#5, "Grass"

For the haunting synth in "Grass," this time use two detuned square-wave oscillators. Set their PW knobs to 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock, and raise the fine tuning of oscillator B to 22%—making it sound almost dissonant.

There is also a strong vibrato effect that causes the pitch of the synth track to slowly rise and fall, adding to the surreal nature of the track. You can do this in the wheel-mod section again, but rather than activating the filter button, instead press the buttons for freq A and B—the pitches of both oscillators. Set the LFO rate to a slow 0.19Hz and the mod wheel's amount to 0.10.

If you decide to incorporate this patch into your own songs, you may find turning the mod-wheel helps it sound more in tune with other layers.

#13, "Blue Calx"

"Blue Calx" uses a similar ambient pad to the previous tracks, only placed over an industrial- sounding beat reminiscent of SAW II's predecessor, Selected Ambient Works 85–92.

Start with the two detuned square waves from the previous patch. In "Blue Calx," the original track sounds like it may have been run through a chorus effect. Arturia Prophet V has a great-sounding chorus built-in (as do most of the Arturia V Collection synths), but if you're following along using another synth, then there are plenty of other options.

First off, your DAW probably comes with a pretty good native chorus effect. For some free options, check out Acon Digital Multiply Chorus or TAL-Chorus-LX. EchoBoy, which we've previously used as a delay and tape emulator, can also be used as a chorus effect, including being able to emulate the Boss CE-1 guitar pedal.

#20, "Lichen"

I'll end the article on "Lichen," a soothing ambient piece and my personal favourite from the album. Here, James uses several layers of synths to emulate horn instruments, giving the track an orchestral atmosphere.

The first layer is a synth flute and can be created by combining pulse and triangle waves with some breathy envelope modulation. Set up the oscillators with the square wave's PW knob set to 9 o'clock and no detune on oscillator B's triangle wave. Set the cutoff and envelope knobs to 9 o'clock and 11 o'clock, respectively.

Set the filter attack time to 80ms to emulate the breathy attack stage of a blown flute, and set the amplifiers release time to over 3,000ms to get the note trails to lead into each other.

ShimmerVerb

Process the track with plenty of delay and a dark reverb. I used Valhalla DSP's ShimmerVerb on a low mix level to add some ethereal background shimmer.

The second layer plays deep chords, reminiscent of a brass section.

For this patch, use sawtooth/triangle oscillator combination, and set the filter up with cutoff and resonance just above the 9 o'clock mark. Don't apply and envelope modulation to the filter and use long attack and release times in the amplifier envelope to create trailing ambient atmospheres.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out the free patches download for Arturia Prophet V and Mini V below. I also included patches for "Radiator," a highly resonant patch, and "Stone in Focus," a patch that just needs a bit of overdrive to sound great. I've dialled in Prophet V's onboard delay for all the presets, but if you want to use a post-processing delay (like EchoBoy), just turn off the synth's delay and add your own.


About the Author: Dan Carr runs Reverb Machine, a website dedicated to exploring "the wonders of synthesizers and music production." Check out his site for more breakdowns of popular artists' use of synths and unique recording techniques. Above, you can download the Arturia software synth patches used to recreate Gorillaz's tones—and the Ableton Live sessions for each track.

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