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The methodology of ambient

01 October, 2020

One of the challenges that working in a niche genre brings is a noticeable lack of learning materials. While one can easily find numerous and effective tutorials for progressive house, trance, hip-hop and pop music, none of this is available for something like ambient, a genre with its own rules and production techniques.

One thing to quickly address is the term "ambient". It's a very broad term, with static drone on the one end and "sad piano music" on the other. I am aiming for the modern electronic variety. Usually beatless textures, an intermix of minimal and so-called "new age music": artists like Steve Roach, Harold Budd, Stars of the Lid, and basically what you would hear on Drone Zone.

This article is a very brief reference of the main techniques. I have been producing ambient for over 15 years now, and I would like to share some tips and tricks. Unfortunately, in many cases I had to figure these out by myself, so I hope this reference might help other ambient artists.

Contact me if you would like more detail on any of these.


Do not treat ambient drone as a bunch of notes

We live in a culture that mostly treats music as melodies, aesthetically pleasing combinations of notes. This approach kept me back for years. Basically, I tried playing melodies or improvising over chords, but what I got sounded nothing like those gorgeous pad waves that you hear from masters of the genre.

The trick is to treat what you do as sound manipulation, not note manipulation.

This means seeing notes and melodies as simply the initial sound source, which is then to be manipulated. Your music should involve a lot of sound manipulation and your thinking should be primarily in that direction. Only then you will begin getting the results that you hear from other electronic ambient artists.

To learn more about sound music vs note music, please watch this talk.


General melodic rules

Although ambient drone is primarily "sound music", or what I also call "sub-melodic music", it still uses notes. So, which notes/chords/scales should you use?

One of the hallmarks of ambient drone is its neutrality. Most ambient drone is neither major, nor minor in tone. This is achieved by either ommiting the triads or limiting oneself to a single chord. In case of the former, if you go for a C scale, you would play C, D, F, G, but not E or E#. This will keep the sound neutral.

Using more complex chords, like suspended chords, is also a good idea. A lot of really interesting ambient can be done by using a simple chord as a basis, but then adding a lot of notes in between at much lower volume. These quiet notes would collectively give the chord a textural feel.

Because you are likely to overlay different parts of the recording in order to achieve a texture, you need to make sure that your chord changes are not creating unpleasant combinations. A method to ensure that everything you play matches is to use a pentatonic scale. It creates both a neutral tone and also allows you to combine any notes of the scale with each other.

Adding in a bit of dissonance can also be very interesting, so sometimes try experimenting with adding an out-of-scale note to your generation process.


Methods of texture production

Taking a piece of melodic content and applying DSP to it creates a texture. Below is a list of methods to create textures. Note that the most interesting results occur when several of these techniques are chained together.


Mixing tricks

Ambient can be tricky to mix, because you are working with sounds that are slow and last longer. Therefore, any unwanted frequencies will become much more noticable. Resonating frequencies is a common problem.

My general philosophy is to fix problems as early in your process as possible. It's always easier to fix the source synth/sample, then it is to EQ everything after it was mixed together and amplified by those massive reverbs. My technique which I am calling with a clumsy name "Note taming" is based on that idea. And also less bass.

Ambient music is associated with contemplation, silence. This might veer you in the direction of trying to produce literally quiet music. But this is a mistake. The feeling of contemplation and silence is created through the type of sounds you are using, through the slowness of movement, not through the literal quietness of the mix!

If your mix does get quiet during production, which can happen for legitimate reasons, get into the habit of amplifying your mix early in the process, so that you can hear any imperfections that might creep in. It is common for a pad to sound perfect at low volumes, only to begin exhibiting problematic frequencies once amplified.

Below I list several methods that can help you improve your sound.