Analysing composition in time: Astrix – Sahara (2018)

Most of the Youtube howto videos related to Psytrance deal with the making of genre specific sounds like kick and bass, lead or arpeggio and a lot of diverse fx sounds. After a while you have acquired one of the basic building blocks for the composition of such sounds, but the question of the distribution of these sounds on the timeline follows – the composition in time. If in a song in Pop and Rock the compositional building blocks are almost always the same through lyrics oriented parts like verse, bridge and chorus, we meet since House and Techno a free form – so also in Psytrance. And here lies the true art of composing: to captivate the listener and the dancers over a period of a few minutes before a DJ spans a wide arc by mixing all these tracks together to take them on a longer journey. Of course, these tracks can also stand for themselves, but they are usually part of a „sound continuum“ mixed together by a DJ and tied to one purpose – dance music for a club or an open-air festival.

So, how does composing exactly works in Psytrance? I would say that there is no universal recipe. It’s a game with the attention of the listener by skilfully stringing together flow and break, continuity and surprise, rise and fall. But to learn from the best artists on the scene, I chose the title Sahara from Astrix to take a closer look. For Astrix no further introduction is required here, because with his album Eye to Eye (2002) he catapulted himself to the foremost front of the Psytrance top acts and has not relinquished this position since. And so, of course, due to the countless live performances and the experienced response to his tracks, he was able to adapt and optimize the form of his pieces again and again. So, first things first. Let’s listen to the track.

Due to the fact that nowadays Psytrance is usually composed in pattern and loops with a digital audio workstation like Steinberg Cubase, Logic Pro or Ableton Live (and others) it helps to reimport the audio file back into such a program to have a better overview of the piece.

Stereo wave in a DAW with form parts

If you zoom to the end of the track, you can see that at a speed of 145 bpm, the track has 320 bars at a total length of 8:48 min whereby the intro already has an epic length of 1:46 min. – respectively 64 bars. This one inevitably reminds with its chord progression of Pink Floyds Shine on you crazy little Diamonds, with which already a nice recourse to one of the roots of Psytrance – Psychedelic Rock – has succeeded. Some genre typical fx sounds are heard before a nice sampled violin melody gives the intro a world music character. A synth arpeggio line fades in before we get down to business on bar 65.

Now 16 bars of scene A (bar 65 – 81) follows (Why I call individual structural elements a scene can be found in the glossary). The foundation of kick and bass play driving 16th notes and the arpeggio from the intro is accompanied by a second one. On every third count of every second bar you can hear a finger cymbal. After the first eight bars downlifter fx sounds already prepare for the first break.

During break 1 (bar 81 – 89), kick and bass are continued with increasing high-pass filter for six bars accompanied by scream samples and uplifting sound fx, before two bars of a vocal passage sample and a drum flam transferrs to the next scene B. The continuation of one or more elements (here: kick and bass) of the previous part into the next, serves to connect both.

Like scene A scene B (bar 89 -105) has a lenght of 16 bars. Kick and bass stays the same, but additional offbeat hihats and snare drive the track forward. While the main character – the arpeggio – in scene A rather generates a flow of sound, the staccato chords played in scene B create a nice contrast to the first scene, bringing variety. After four bars some long synth sounds appear before a downlifter prepares the next break 2 (bar 105 – 109) of four bars. The staccato chords continue.

The next twentyfour bars could be seen as scene B‘ (109 – 133), because the formative figure of chords played staccato is continued. The offbeat hihat is more open and louder and another arpeggio slowly fades in accompanied by some fx sounds. The last four bars are trimmed by a highpass filter. If we had a vertical contrast with scene A and B, the layering of staccato sounds and arpeggios leads to a horizontal contrast.

A previously unheard rhythmic acid-synth pattern leads through the twelve-bar break 3 (bar 133 – 145) and gets an additional layer by a traditional Bulgarian women’s choir. With the cut-off filter opening wider and wider, the acid-synth pattern is repeated for another twelve bars within scene C (bar 145 – 157). Additional spoken vocals can be heard. The last four bars of the part are high-pass filtered again.

In designing the next two scenes, Astrix again uses the technique of contrasting. While in scene D (bar 157 – 172) a flow is created by means of a continuous arpeggio figure. This flow is again broken with individually distributed sounds in scene E (bar 174 – 190). And again a contrast takes place through a fade in of another arpeggio. Both parts are almost equally long. Scene D has 15 bars and Scene E has 16, separated by the two-bar vocal sample (break 4, bar 172 – 174) we already know from break 1.

The following break 5 (bar 190 – 240) spans 50 bars and can be divided into three subparts. After the abrupt reduction of kick and bass, it seems as if the track simply fades out, but this leads to a complete dissolution of the rhthm due to the overlay of the metre-less midle east string instrument sample playing (bar 190 – 210). Then a long riser builds up (bar 210 – 233) consisting of a new arpeggio, low-pass filtered kick, snare drum and some fx sound to end in the legendary quote by Timothy Leary. A delay effect provides the transition by steadily repeating the last two words „drop out“ and inserting them in as an element in the next part.

In a larger context, the following two scenes could be seen as a compromised reduced repetition of the first three scenes (scene A, B and B‘). However, because no other elements are repeated except the kick and bass, scene F (bar 240 – 260) can be declared as independent. The next scene (bar 260 – 284) is a repetition of scene B‘, because not only the striking staccato string chords, but also the contrasting arpeggio comes into play here again and also the lenght of 24 bars stays the same.

I regard the remaining bars as Outro (bar 284 – 219), which was divided into three subparts. Unfortunately I could not find out what the spoken columns of numbers 540540616109014 mean.

All in all a wonderful composition that simply has everything. The length of the scenes and breaks are very different and variable and follow a musical flow. Before completely new figures are introduced, existing ones are viewed in a different light by contrasting them. This allows the producer to be economical with the material. The transition from one part to the next takes place with convincing continuity. By setting reference points (vocal sample during two breaks, repetition of a beginning part at the end), the piece is tied together very well. Last but not least, Astrix can be credited with a successful selection of samples that give the piece a nice touch of world music. With a reference to Pink Floyd and Timothy Leary, he clearly positions his music within the psychedelic culture.

Roots of Progressive Psytrance: Magnetrixx

With my article 20 Years of Progressive Psytrance last year I already gave an introduction into the history of Progressive Psytrance, which I will continue this year with a text about an important producer of the development phase. Wherever there is something to read about the origin of Progressive Psytrance, of course Atmos is referred to. From the German point of view Stefan Lewin or better known as Magnetrixx should not be left unmentioned. With his three albums Trittschall (2001), Phase Shift (2003) and Wired (2005) he had a significant influence on this subgenre during its genesis. I am a really lucky mushroom (as the German psyfraggle would say :), because I was able to get in touch with Stefan and he took the time to answer my questions e.g. what actually happened to this exceptional talent after leaving the Psytrance scene and many more.

„Imagination is more important than knowledge“ (Einstein). This quote applies only too well to Stefan Lewin, who didn`t need a profound musical nor an electrotechnical education to achieve a considerable success not only with the creation of his music, but also today with the production of electronic musical instruments. There was never a lack of musical inspiration, because all the other family members played classical or jazzy music on their home piano. But as a child of the eighties it was almost impossible to escape the electronic sounds of Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode or Jean Michel Jarre, which Stefan interpreted on the piano as well as his favorite classic composers Chopin, Schubert, Rachmaninoff or Liszt.

Just as strong as his multifaceted musical interest was his passion for electronic tinkering and physical processes. Stefan was particularly fascinated by magnetism (I then found it superfluous to ask him how he later came to his stage name). The X in the name of Psytrance artists was then copied in the following years by an infinite number of people (But who am I going to tell? :) Unfortunately, his passions were held back by the lack of availability of electronic music equipment or electronic components at all, because Stefan lived in the eastern part of Berlin. If one had no relations to West Germany, with whose help here and there various goods were smuggled to East Germany, then most citizens of East Germany only had unhindered access to electronic (consumer) goods after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

A wonderful craft curiosity from Stefan Lewin: A sequencer in a paint bucket that drives his Korg MS-20

Like Ananda Shanti Das, Magnetrixx also started composing music with a nerdy tracker program and then worked with the most popular digital audio workstations like Fruity Loops, Cubase, Reason and Ableton Live. Continuous sound sources over the years have been Native Instruments Reaktor and a Korg MS-20, which sounds he recorded for further cutting and processing, underlining his passion for tinkering respectively composing sound. Stefan pointed to his deep interest in granular synthesis which can be found in many of his tracks – consecutive microscopic snippets of human origin.

The statement of Magnetrixx that Psytrance was well known to him since the end of the nineties with the labels Dragonfly, Flying Rhino or Tip Records extends my thesis that Progressive Trance was a further development of Trance in general as well of Psytrance, because this style had been established for years and escaped the „underground“ in 1995 at the latest. I’ll try to put it this way: The Psytrance listeners had experienced the psychedelic power in the already existing style extensively and recognized the potential in the new one. And many who were fascinated by Psytrance in a certain way, but for whom the sometimes quite fast and shrill music was still somewhat incomprehensible, were convinced by the slower and more minimalistic approach, whose melodic and harmonic turns were already best known. And so it is Progressive Psytrance! Meanwhile, also through the exchange with Stefan, I have come to the conclusion that the term Progressive was a bad choice, because one always tries to interpret this term musically in one way or another – and fails.

Recently I read something from the author Mason Curry, who examined the habits of great creative personalities. One of the points was: They didn’t have too many parties. And so did Stefan. He was at the parties and festivals where he was booked as Magnetrixx. He liked to be on stage as a live act, enjoyed to travel around the globe and to get to know different people, but he much preferred the time making music in the studio – to the point where everyone played the same sound. And if any sound is somewhat successful, then every organizer wants to have this sound on his party, even if it is not available in high quality in sufficient quantity. Normally this process heralds the end of a hype, but it should only really take off with Vini Vici in 2015, after Armin van Buuren played one of their tracks in his radio show.

When everyone wants one thing and screams „Here“ loudly because fame and money lure, one or the other turns away and prefers to do something else. With the return to analog sounds in electronic music, Stefan started to tinker again to realize his very own ideas, just as he had done with Reaktor in the digital realm before. Together with his business partner Martin, he founded his company Audiophile Circuits League in 2017, which manufactures its own Eurorack modules for modular systems. Their „System 1“, a lavishly equipped modular stereo synthesizer, has consistently received excellent reviews in the music press. If you don’t feel like working night shifts on weekends anymore and Russian hacker sites offer all your tracks for free download, this is certainly an excellent perspective.

Finally, I’d like to introduce you to my favourite Magnetrixx track (beware! taste is always subjective!) which combines many of the features that make it a Magnetrixx track. It has a few hooklines that simply have a high recognition value. A dense and sometimes „wobbly“ groove through many percussion instruments and – I love this crystal clear chord fanned out upwards :)

I would like to thank Stefan Lewin so much for his time and wish him only the best for his new profession. Hope me meet sometime!