18th June 2013
Lives for gear
The ultimate Goa Trance technique thread!
Inspired by the French House thread, and with interest from several other people, here's a thread for all things Goa related.
The who in the what?
Goa trance, for the uninitiated, is what happened when industrial and dance music collided with the hippie scene in India and they dropped acid together, giving birth to a lovely musical child with fast syncopated beats, trippy synth sounds, and a strong South Asian influence on melody and percussion. Over time the music evolved into Psychedelic trance, with a greater emphasis on weird noises and driving bass and a bit less emphasis on melody. Of course, I can't possibly sum up two complex musical genres in only 50 words, so I invite you to explore the resources listed below if you're new to the genre(s).
Meantime, there's quite a lot of people here on GS who like Goa, so let's help each other out! I don't want to get bogged down in religious arguments about whether a particular track is Goa or Psy, or whether you must use this or that synth, or whether you should be ITB or OTB. Whatever works...that said, the fastest route to the Goa 'sound' is to run a bunch of 90s hardware through a mixing desk and a bunch of effects, since that's how it was made in the first place.
I'll throw out some general know-how to get the discussion started, that's a bit biased towards the 90s style of production when the music first became a cohesive and popular genre. Also, it doesn't pretend to be complete or definitive - feel free to disagree or add more information! I'm going to just say 'Goa' a lot because it's tedious to keep writing 'Goa (or psychedelic or progressive or....).' Gear that's linked to particular artists is based on things they said to me in person at one point in time.
Finally I don't mean this to come across as any sort of proper tutorial, it's over-detailed on some topics and lacking in others...I just tried to pick out some ideas that are handy but that don't get discussed as often as 'how to write a great bassline' or 'what's the best F/X unit'...please contradict, expand, and add as you see fit!
Maybe more than any other dance music genre, Goa is all about doing crazy things with synths and sound effects, so pretty much any gear or music software can be used as long as it sounds interesting - the weirder the better! However, there are several classic pieces of gear that are used so much that you should be familiar with their sound, even if you don't want them or can't afford them. In no particular order...
TR-909: the kick is found on a ton of records, the snare and open hihat even more so, to the point of being cliche. With so many sounds going on you need something that will cut through the mix. Likewise the 606 and 707 are pretty popular in this genre; the 808 somewhat less.
TB-303: almost all Goa tracks have a 303 or something similar, and a lot of them have two. Unlike some other genres, the acid lines often sit farther back in the mix rather than always being in the lead.
SH-101: has provided any number of bass sounds, particularly with a lightly filtered square wave. Also a great source for kicks with the resonance all the way up and the filter cutoff all the way down and a fast envelope - cleaner than the TR-909 kick. Absolutely key to the X-dream sound, especially the first two albums.
Juno-106: yet another Roland box that's good for bass as well as lush chords. If you like Astral Projection, you need to get yourself a Juno.
Nord Lead 1 or 2: Versatile and fairly affordable, loved by many for leads and its harsh FM timbres, also handy for chords and pads thanks to 12 notes of polyphony. Favorite synth of GMS.
Kurzweil K2000 and successors: given the low prices these go for nowadays, maybe this should be your first synth if you want to get into making Goa. Used heavily by Simon Posford on the first Hallucinogen album, Twisted. Although it's a ROMpler it's super-programmable, and it usually comes with a bunch of disks letting you recreate sounds of classic analogs - which may not be that accurate, but still sound great.
Ensoniq DP/4: Poor man's Eventide, a really great FX unit with particularly tasty flangers, choruses and so on.
MIDI sequencer: if you work OTB then you need rock-solid MIDI, which your DAW probably does not provide. Consider a hardware sequencer like a Yamaha RM1x or an Elektron box or an MPC...it doesn't matter too much which one you use I think, but if you're trying to sequence with a computer then record your tracks one at a time, or buy a sync box, or get ready to cry a lot as your tight groove dissolves into sludge.
There's no formula to do a Goa or Psy track (this is a lie; the formula is here but don't tell anyone). However they do tend to have certain things in common, and because the idea is to a) make people dance and b) take them on a 7-8 minute psychedelic journey, there are certain conventions that will help your music play well with others.
Tempo: the sweet spot is 135-145 BPM. Much slower and it starts to feel Housey or Chill (aka 'Sloa'), much faster and it starts to feel tweakey plus the percussion and melodic space gets crowded. 'Dark' and 'Core' subgenres tend to be faster, but if the audience isn't expecting that sort of vibe it'll scare them off the dancefloor.
Tonality: you can work in any scale, in theory, but in practice a lot of Goa is Modal - sticking within a single scale and eschewing conventional harmonic modulation. Instead of the song being built around a chord progression which is supported by the bass and ornamented with a lead melody, the bassline stays pretty solidly rooted and the musical elements define the scale around it.
The most common mode is Phrygian. A mode is defined by the intervals between the notes, and for Phrygian those intervals are 1, 2, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2 - these are the number of semitones between each note. If you start on C that means your scale is C C# D# F G G# A# C, or alternatively C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C. Or if you want to make life easy, start on E and just play the white keys!
Why does this mode work? Basically, count the spaces between the notes. Most popular music has a gap of two semitones between the root note and the next on, eg C and D. In the Phrygian mode the second and 6th notes are only one semitone above the root and 5th, which sounds somewhat dissonant and 'weird'. It's like you took the C major scale and turned it upside down, which makes it sound unreal and otherwordly, and also emphasizes the bass.
In order to bring this out strongly in your music, you'll use the root note most often, and emphasize the second, third and seventh notes of the scale a lot, instead of the emphasis on the fourth and fifth in rock and pop (not that you should neglect those notes, they still matter).
This is not the only scale - there are several other possible scales from Arabic, Middle Eastern and Gypsy musical traditions (which I hope others will discuss!) that sound suitable for this sort of music, but Phrygian is very very common because it is the vertical 'mirror image' of the major scale. Some people say that this makes it the 'real' minor scale, but whatever you think it definitely sounds different. As well as Goa & Psy, the other place you hear Phrygian (or its variant, Phrygian dominant) a lot is in heavy metal music - which is not my cup of tea at all, but you can learn quite a bit from metalheads if you are patient and don't tell them that you are going to use the knowledge for techno
Here's a pdf collection of musical scales that's handy to have if you can read music. If you can't, Wikipedia has a good article on modes with audio examples and showing every note in every mode.
Rhythm: 90%+ of Goa is four-on-the-floor beats with strong syncopation - boom-cha-boom-cha music. So that means a nice tight kick on the 1st, 5th, 9th and 13th steps of each bar, an open hi-hat (probably from a 909) on the 3rd, 7th, 11th and 15th steps, and a tight snare on the 5th and 13th steps, aka the 2nd and the 4th beats...like about a million other techno tunes.
This is your basic rhythm, and the more complex your sounds get the more you'll want to emphasize it so that the listeners don't lose track of the beat. On the other hand you don't want to overemphasize it or the track starts to sound boring or in your face, more suitable for hardcore techno. You want the kick going most of the time, the snare about half -2/3 of the time, the hats 1/3 - half the time. Obviously these aren't hard and fast rules; just a guideline so that your track doesn't feel too heavy-handed or repetitive. You want other percussion going, and a lot of other rhythms; if you only write around the basic beat it'll get boring fast. But you don't want too much going on in the percussion either or it gets tiring to dance to. Think of how a drummer in a rock band has 2 arms and 2 legs, and maybe someone else playing along on congas or some other hand drum. Your notes need space!
Breakdowns: unlike House or some other genres, you want a good amount of rhythmic variety in goa. You want a little skip somewhere in the music every 2 bars/8 beats, and some sort of more obvious fill about every 8 bars - usually provided by a snare. You'll probably want one long (16 or even 32 bar) breakdown in the middle of the track to give people a rest and explore some weird sounds, and kick rols and builds are common, especially in more old school Goa (but don't overdo them).
My rule of thumb is to put about the same number of kicks into rolls and builds as you take out in breakdowns. Suppose you start out with 4 beats in every bar for the whole tune; that would be exhausting, so you give it a rest in the middle for 16 bars. Instead of just deleting them, redistribute those 64 beats to other places in rolls, turnarounds and so on. I don't actually sit there and count things out, but it's a handy way to think about how to keep the track balanced.
Swing: a matter of taste. Lots of great tracks are written in straight time and it will make your track easier to mix for DJs. On the other hand you can get much groovier with 8th and 16th note swing. I hope someone else will chime in with advice on this because I am not too good at this sort of thing so I usually write in straight time
Other rhythm thoughts: the #1 effect in just about every goa track is a delay, and most of the time it's a 3/16th delay, same as in Dub. Unless you are deliberately trying to Do Something Different, you always want a 3/16 delay with a bit of feedback going in your mix path, and sending percussion and melodic elements into it will give you a lot of extra rhythmic depth. Whenever you write a rhythm line (on a drum or synth sound), at least try feeding it into the delay. If it gets too messy too fast, then maybe you don't need as many notes. Apart from the kick and the bass, pretty much anything else is fair game for being fed to the delay at some point in the track so you should always test how that sounds as you're writing.
Likewise, if you feel that your track is banging but something is missing, maybe that something is space. It's very easy to fill up a track too fast, especially if you start out making a fat bass and then throwing arpeggiators on top. I find that a bias towards 6 or 10 notes in each musical phrase helps keep things balanced.
Mixing and sounds
'How I make my track sound like X', 'how do I get Y sound', and 'How should I mix Z' are such common topics on GS that I've avoided writing any production tips here. If you want to make goa you pretty much have to enjoy programming your own synth patches and exploring mixing basics like EQ, compression, stereo placement, etc. I'm not saying it shouldn't be discussed in this thread, but since Goa is often quite musically dense the techniques are basically the same as for rock, pop, classical etc - your sounds have to get on with each other and be in proportion, rather than everything being turned up to 11.
Ishkur's Guide to electronic music is always helpful, and also always loud - watch your speakers! Psynews has an excellent introductory history article and is also has a lot production tips and tricks in the forums, but the community there seems to have dried up a bit and the quality of information is pretty shallow.
YouTube user PowerOfGoaTrance has uploaded hundreds of complete albums including many obscurities - an invaluable resource. And of course you can find (almost) any individual track on YouTube these days.
Youtube videos are inevitable, but please try not to post too many in one message or just because you think it's a great track - as I've found the hard way, it can make GS pages very slow to load on some browsers.
Ektoplazm is a great portal for free psytrance as well as being a netlabel. A lot of old-school goa/psy artists have uploaded new or remastered work there, because the music is hosted in wav and lossless codecs like FLAC as well as MP3.
The academic music world has started to take an interest in goa/psy trance, resulting in some books and theses. Unfortunately, a lot of musicology these days is about the sociology of music and is rooted in Marxist critical theory, while telling the reader little or nothing about how the music is put together. This is especially a problem in American scholarship. Global Tribe: Technology, Spirituality and Psytrance is an example of this, albeit a well-written and interesting one. The history and cultural context of music is important, but it won't help you write a good tune. The author also hosts an academic journal called Dancecult, which is good if you like that sort of thing but will seem insufferably pretentious if you don't.
This master's thesis addresses the development of Goa/Psy in Finland and while it's obviously focused on the Scandinavian 'forest' style it goes deeper into the music theory end of things than most papers.
I would love to add more academic-quality resources on composition and music theory as applied to techno, trance etc., so if you know any please mention them here.