Matt Howlett

Matt Howlett

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How To Make Psytrance


This long weekend, I've been trying to build up a basic repertoire of techniques for producing music with a focus on psytrance. To do that, I've been binge-watching Glitch's (youtube, soundcloud, facebook, twitter) tutorials, following along in Ableton (not Cubase!) and writing summaries of what I've been learning in the hope that this will help future Matt - and possibly other people - recall / act on the information more easily.

I've given each video I've watched a rating out of 10, which represents how useful it was to me. This is equal to some sort of a combination of how often I think I'll want to use the information contained in the video and how familiar I already was with the material. If I didn't really find a video useful for some reason (it's widely known, not relevant enough, didn't think the technique was useful enough), I didn't write a summary.

How To Be Productive

Most important thing every music producer needs to know 6/10

Finish tracks! To achieve that:

  • Bounce out audio frequently - craft your song brick by brick, don't try to make the entire pyramid all at once.
    • Should YOU Be Rendering to Audio provides more commentary. Tip: In Ableton you can save the originals as clips so you can go back if you really need to (get best of both worlds).
  • Three stages: 1. Create sounds/clips 2. Pre-mix (arrange), 3. Final mix.
  • Write down problems in your tracks as you go rather than solve them immediately. When you get to the final mix, work through this list ticking things off.

Structure / Transitions

Drops and Builds #3 10/10

  • Starts with a 16 bar main loop:
    • The loop has an empty bar the end (break), except for the lead synth.
    • There's also no percs or bass in the last beat of every 8th bar. Instead, he has a 1/32 repeated faded in kick (which he removes in places later).
  • Part 1: build-up
    • Makes a copy of the loop and places it immediately before the main one.
    • Removes the primary open hihats from the perc group. Replaces with a closed hihat loop, which is lower intensity.
    • Moves the lead synth (an audio clip) onto another track. Brings it in slowly by automating a low pass filter.
    • Removes bass entirely from the 8 bars before drop.
    • Kick Build-up: 4 bars normal. 4 bars double frequency. Additionally, in last 4 bars adds another kick at double frequency offset by one 1/16th. Fades this in to bring it to full volume by end of section (over 3 bars, last bar is empty).
    • Automates a high-pass filter on the kick-group up (kick becomes clicky at end) over the last 8 bar section. Make sure to turn the filter off when not in use.
    • Makes exactly the same effect for the snare as the kick, but uses a sampler and midi instead of working with audio. Renders to audio (makes it easier to re-use), and fades in the first 4 bars. Groups this in a SFX group, not perc group.
    • Adds a bunch of off-the-shelf risers to the SFX group. Some finish with 1 bar to go, some finish immediately before drop.
    • Automates down the volume of the perc group leading up to the drop - fades it right out. Effect is: percs slowly get replaced by snare build up.
    • Creates a tom pattern in the empty bar with same rhythm as lead that will come in. Layers in bongos as well (same rhythm). Cuts up a tribal type loop, and fits to rhythm as well.
    • In last beat of the now not-so-empty 'empty' bar, lays out eight 1/32 kicks at reduced volume. Bounces this out then fades in.
  • Part 2: breakdown
    • Makes a copy of his 16 bar loop and places it immediately after the main one.
    • Replaces main lead (which covers all 16 bars) with a variation of it.
    • Removes atmospheres.
    • Starts breakdown process in last 4 bars of section. Removes percs. All that's left here now is kick, bass and main lead.
    • Automates a bandpass filter up over the last 4 bars applying to kick & bass only (note: recall that last bar is free from kick and bass).
    • Chops last bar of synth audio and places it on a new track. Cuts that down to 2 bars and applies color copy delay in a fancy way creating very long tail delay.
    • Places a further 8 bars of kick and bass at the end of the arrangement.
  • Part 3: unstructured approach:
    • Uses LoopMash 2 (built in cubase function) to jumble up different parts of the track. Jumbles together rendered audio of: 1. kick and bass. 2. perc. 3. main synth. Ableton (max for live) has Buffer Shuffler, which reportedly can do the same thing.
    • Records output of a whole bunch of random tweaking, chops into bar length clips then places these in the breaks.
    • On some of them, automates a rising bandpass filter to provide some variation throughout the track.

Arrangement Idea - Why I don't use the MARKER track 8/10

  • Add the audio of an existing track (reference track) to your project.
  • Create one or more "sketch" tracks next to the reference track that outline the progression of the song.
    • Top track could be the sections, e.g.: Intro, Kick and Bass, Breakdown, Build Up, Full On.
    • The second could map out energy of the percussion. Stronger colors -> more energy.
    • Third could map out the synths and SFX.

Drops and Builds #1 7/10

  • Starts out with a drop section of length 16 bars.
  • Moves it along to about 3 minutes (bar 97).
  • Duplicates it backwards, leaving a complete 16 bar block open (then changes this to 32 bars - wants breakdown section followed by buildup section).
  • From the section before the breakdown, removes some of the main percussion elements and some of the synths (including arp). Also removes the arp from the main drop.
  • Copies the synths from the first section into the breakdown section.
  • Bounces out a kick + bass + perc loop, and proposes three things to do with this at the beginning of the breakdown:
    1. Takes two bars. Tapers off end, rebounces. Puts 1/4 dot delay on it.
    2. Filters out (low pass filter, automates cutoff down).
    3. Filters out (high pass filter, automates cutoff up).
  • Final structure for start of each section is. 1. low pass filter out. 2. delay. 3. delay. 4. low pass filter in.
  • Makes an atmosphere over breakdown and buildup from same notes as arp using a serum preset.
  • Leaves one bar empty before drop.
  • Adds 'splash' sound to beginning of drop. Uses a clap + big reverb.
  • Adds an 'epic' lead to the empty bar. Adds an 'answer' to it later on in the drop. Automates the filter of this sound.
  • Renders out lead to audio, so he can cut off delay tail when he wants. Also useful for glitch effects.

Drops and Builds #2 7/10

  • Covers two effects:
    1. Retriggering the kick, building up to 'infinity' (i.e. the frequency between kicks becomes an audible sound).
      • Creates 52 bars of kick drum and pitch shifts up 16 semitones non-linearly, using a rising envelope (uses in-built Cubase functionality).
      • Repeats this step a number of times.
      • Ableton doesn't have this capability as far as I can tell. I was able to achieve something similar using an approach similar to that described here.
        • Put the kick in a sampler.
        • Enable the sampler envelope. Use that to control Loop Length, setting magnitude to 100 and decay time of the envelope to about 40.8s.
        • Bounce this out.
        • Use the envelope section on the clip view to automate the transposition modulation. Use the complex pro warp mode.
    2. Use a delay plugin for a similar effect.
      • Works well with vocals.
      • Set feedback to ~100%.
      • Automate the delay time.
      • Put a limiter after the delay as mistakes are loud!

Synth Sounds / Arps / Riffs

Hypnoise Style 'Spectral Morphing' Synth Sounds - Creating Psytrance 10/10

  • In Serum, use chaos oscillator 1 (in the global settings section) to modulate the wavetable position (full range) of main oscillator 1. Check the BPM Sync, and S&H (sample and hold) options. Set the BPM to 1/16.
  • Use the AlienSpectral, Gremlin, Monster 3, Reesey Mess or Squelchy FM 1 wavetable.
  • Render out 8 bars of audio, chop into 2 beat blocks, and select the nicest sounding ones. Fade in / fade out a bit to avoid clicks.
  • Arrange these every 2 bars, placed to end just before the start of the following bar.
  • Librally apply delay (1/4 dotted). U-He Color Copy is awesome for this.

How to Make Ajja Style Gated Leads 10/10

  • Uses Xfer LFO Tool to make 6 related gating rhythms. I ended up using CableGuys Volume Shaper for this and the lesson was I should probably get LFO Tool instead. I also have Polyverse Gatekeeper, but it can't flick between envelopes in a mutual exclusive way AFAICT.
  • Part 1
    • Uses a sin wave from the Basic Shapes wavetable. Tip: Can edit the wave table, select morph crossfade to enable interpolation between shapes.
    • Uses ICanHasKick wavetable for osc B as FM input to osc A.
    • Records audio of all the above in action.
    • Puts some (long tail) delay on the recorded audio.
    • Cuts into 2 beat clips, places 2 bars appart.
    • After 16 bars, places clips 1 bar appart. When not making a tutorial, says he usually varies this up even more.
  • Part 2
    • Uses a saw wave for osc A.
    • Selects sine wave from LFO basic shapes. Unselects BPM and Anch.
    • Use LFO to control osc A coarse pitch and Band 24 Filter frequency. Inverts the Band24 automation, which made it sound better.
    • Renders to audio as in part 1
    • Arranges clips so as to 'answer' clips from part 1.
    • Remember to clean up tails of the clips to avoid clicks!

Creating a Squelch and Sequencing it! 9/10

  • Staple across genres "saw wave squelch".
  • In Serum, use a basic saw wave. Connect the one LFO (set mode to env and have an envelope type shape) or envelope to the sound coarse pitch and filter cutoff. Use the Band 24 filter.
  • A variation is to set LFO to trig mode and have sequence of steps (use shift key to draw). Can set grid size to 1/16th as well to help put in a rapid glitch effect.
  • Use distortion and compression to bring out the grit in the sound.
  • Use delay. Put after compression so tails aren't compressed.
  • Can use unison to fill out sound if track is otherwise bare.
  • Automate filter cutoff.

WAIO Style Leads and Transitions 9/10

  • Describes a technique for creating something similar to long tail delay but doing this by hand, allowing for more controlled/sophisticated variation.
  • First, makes an arp in Spire:
    • Makes the arp control note pitch by selecting 'step' mode.
    • In the sequence, uses 0, 10, 12, 13 semitones and some holds.
    • Applies two filters. Notes that env2 applies to filter cutoff by default, turns down the amplitude of it. Uses 'tube3' shaper - is his favorite setting. Adds a bit of chorus, reverb, x-comp and EQ (removes lows).
  • Bounces down to audio.
  • Chops this audio every 3 beats. Cuts each segments down to 3/16ths in size, then duplicates 4 times to fill in the 3 beat length. Cool!
  • Adds a filter, and tapers it off, which causes it to sound a bit like long tail delay.
  • Retains the original midi, using it before the audio section. Puts both in a group track, applies color copy delay to group. Structure of arrangement is:
    • 8 bars original midi (build up)
    • 4 breakdown (chopped 3/16ths audio, filter rising)
    • 8 bars drop (chopped 3/16ths audio, filter tapered like delay effect).

What are Polyrhythms How to make them 6/10

  • Create a sequence with a prime number of notes (say 11).
  • Create a step sequence of a different prime number of notes (say 7). Assign this to the oscillator amplitude.
  • Duplicate the track, adjust some things (including the number of steps).
  • The result is a very non-repetitive interesting sequence.
  • Spire is a good plugin to do this in, as it has the requisite features.

u-He Colour Copy - New Delay Plugin! Quick Introduction 6/10

  • Long tail delay is used very often in psytrance. This plugin gives you a tremendous amount of flexibility for interesting tails - he loves it.
  • I put this in the Sounds section because the value of this plugin is more in sound creation than the mix.

Spire Psy-Trance Mega-Pack - Vol. 1 Patch Bank 5/10

Top 5 FREE VST Plugins You Need To Have in 2018 5/10

Granular FX Atmospheres - Adding Texture! 4/10

  • Create atmospheres that work with your track well by deriving them from sounds already in your track.
  • Uses texture-synthesizer in VCV rack (free) which is a granular reverb.
  • Uses Mid/Side EQ. Cuts low end more from mid channel than side, which makes the atmosphere sound a lot wider.
  • Uses LFO tool to create a pumping vibe (frequency set to 1/4 beats).

Kick and Bass

A Few Progressive Psytrance Bass Tips & Tricks 5/10

  • Creates a standard psy-bass in Serum. Uses two envelopes on the cutoff, one longer than the other to create extra plucky sound. Adds some soft-clip distortion.
  • Has LFO tool on for 'side-chain' effect throughout.
  • Variation 1: 3/16th rest, 1/16th note, 1/8th rest, 18/th note, repeated.
  • Variation 2: Turns on legato and mono and portamento. Legato means that the envelope doesn't re-trigger in the case of overlap. Portamento creates a glide. The baseline midi has notes on the off beat, with the addition of another note 1 octave higher on the last 1/16th of the bar.
  • Variation 3: Start bar off with 1/16th rest, then 1/32 * 6. then standard 2x 1/16th.
  • Variation 4: On another track, turn off the filter and start the bar with 8x 1/32th.
  • Variation 5: chop all the variations up, and interleave creatively.

Bass Basics 4/10

  • A psytrance bass is created by applying an envelope with a short decay to the filter cutoff.
  • Serum initializes osc phase rand to full! Should set it back to zero.
  • Serum initializes filter resonance to ~10%! Should set it back to zero.
  • Envelopes are limited to 5 parameters whereas LFOs are defined by arbitrary shapes. You can make an LFO act as highly configurable envelope by selecting env mode.


Better Rolling Hihats 8/10

  • Puts closed hihat on the off beat.
  • Makes a copy shifted by 1/16th. Dampens the envelope of these samples a lot. Shifts to one semitone lower.
  • Suggests using this variation in the drop to increase energy level.

'Digital' drum sounds for Psytrance 6/10

  • Covers how to create plucky + distorted + blip sounds.
  • Use env 2 to control coarse pitch of osc 1 (full range) and env 1 to control volume of osc 1. Both relatively small delay.
  • Cycle through Spectral sounds + wavetables to find something drum-like.
  • He doesn't say this, but put rand phase on osc 1 to 0.
  • Turn noise oscillator on, select misc attack sound, and enable one-shot mode.
  • Add compression so sounds produced are more uniform.
  • Describes a cool trick with delay - turns BPM off, and link on. Uses high feedback, and low delay to get the 'boing' sound.
  • Renders to audio, drags into a sampler.
  • In the follow on tutorial Simple Drums Rhythm Sequencing Trick!, he inputs a rhythm by hand, then halves the time (that's the trick).

Sneaky Hi-hat Technique 5/10

  • Put bunch of closed hihat samples in a sampler.
  • Trigger at random on 1/16th interval.
  • Render to audio.
  • Choose the best 1 or 2 bar segment and repeat that to give repetative rhythm that's needed for dance music.
  • Adds some EQ to cut out lows.
  • Uses LFO Tool to add a little side chain to create movement.
  • Adds in open hihat (off beat).

Tristan Style Psychedelic Drums with Serum 4/10

  • The noise osc in Serum allows you to use your own samples! He loads up a bongo sample.
  • In the matrix screen, sets NoteOn Rand1 -> Noise Pitch. Sets modulation type to bipolar.
  • He sets up a flange filter and controls cutoff and resonance with note velocity, but for me this created results that were too tonal and I turned it off.
  • Ping-pong delay - 1/8 dotted == "my favorite".
  • Record a rhythm.

Mastering / Mixing

Wider - Does it Work 8/10

  • Free plugin from Polyerse (Infected Mushroom).
  • If you sum the output down to mono, it's the same sound as before the plugin. Usually, widening techniques have problems with mono compatibility or phasing issues. Wider doesn't have these issues.

Producing with a Master Chain - Right or Wrong 4/10

  • Survey: "Who produces their tracks while running a limiter / maximizer on the master channel? Essentially writing and live mixing the song at your projected final loudness level". Differing opinions among experts. Many people do.
  • Another rule of thumb (noted but not discussed): Always compress your bass.

More Inspiration

  • Liquid Soul Style Dreamy Melodies - Does a long tail reverb of a single note in a melody to get a lead-in atmosphere. Place same midi clip every 4 bars but cuts it down to: 3 notes, 4 notes, 3 notes, 6 notes (full melody).
  • Gritty FM Lead - Infected Mushroom Style - This is the main lead in the demo track he builds over many videos. The interesting thing here is mapping the pitch bend control to the B osc semi (which is used to FM modulate osc A).
  • Multisampled Bass Patches in UVI Falcon - Falcon is a sampler, he likes it. Creates a multi-sample patch for a bass. Advantage is tighter sound. Other people recommend this as well I've noticed.