Welcome to the world of ambient music production, where we paint sonic canvases with emotions borrowed from far-off galaxies. At Transmission Samples, we're diving headfirst into the art of crafting ambient tunes that go beyond the ordinary, with the ability to evoke profound emotions in your listeners.
In this journey, we'll unlock the power of reverb and delay to create vast, immersive soundscapes. We'll explore the subtle art of varying velocity, breathing life into your compositions with nuanced dynamics. And, we'll shatter the confines of hard quantization while embracing a human touch with MIDI. So, I'm here to give you techniques, tips, and ideas to help you produce ambient music that encourages your listeners to come back for more.
Ambient music software and tools
The Digital Canvas: Your DAW
Your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is the heart of your setup. A DAW is where you compose, edit, arrange, mix, and master your music, it is your studio in a computer. Most modern DAWs will include the tools to create or design sounds. DAWs such as Ableton Live, Logic Pro, FL Studio, Cubase, and Reaper are great.
MIDI – MIDI is what you would use to create the composition, it is your creative playground within the DAW. This is where you would map out chord progressions, basslines, and melodic or harmonizing parts. It is data only so doesn’t have a sound until routed to a virtual synthesizer or sampler. Basic music theory knowledge, with an understanding of Keys and scales, is a must when dealing with a MIDI composition. We have many superb pre-made ambient MIDI packs that can be used to compose your own tracks, as well as educate you on how to compose ambient music. For an ambient composition, I would recommend making use of velocity, pitch bend, and swing functions, without this the MIDI part can sound very robotic, which can be good with some styles of music but generally not very good at conveying human emotions.
Virtual synthesizers– The MIDI composition is routed to a Virtual Synthesizer, or sampler, which is used to create the sound. where you can design the actual sound. Synthesizers will be included in your DAW and will do the job, however, the VST market also offers synthesizers and samples renowned for their ethereal qualities. Omnisphere, Serum, and Kontakt are extremely popular choices. Look for soft pads, dreamy plucks, and evolving textures to weave your sonic tapestry.
Synthesizer types typically used for ambient sound design include;
Subtractive Synthesizers – Subtractive synths are great for designing bass sounds, plucks, and melodic leads. They can also be used for chord progressions using Pads, Strings, sine waves or electric keys Rhodes and Wurlitzer-style electric piano vintage charm is perfect for soulful, jazzy vibes.
FM synthesis – FM synthesis is extremely powerful although it can be very complicated when designing your own sounds from scratch. It is perfect for harmonically rich sounds, which is great when designing Spacey and mysterious abstract textures. They are also suited to re-creating natural world sounds such as wind or water-style sounds.
Granular – Granular works by taking snippets of samples and can produce some amazing out-of-this-world sounds and textures. Personally, I love to use Reaktor's granular plugins for Time-Stretched Ambient pads and glitchy rhythmical tones. Pad Shop which comes with Cubase is also a great granular synth solely designed for creating chord progressions and ethereal pads
Rompler – A Rompler is essentially a very powerful sampler that works using multi-samples of different instruments. Typically, the instrument will be recorded many times throughout the instrument's tonal range and at varying velocities. This allows a producer to play the samples like an instrument using a MIDI keyboard or the piano roll within the DAW. With the correct MIDI input, you can easily convince listeners that the part was a recorded performance from real-world instruments.
Wavetable Synthesis - This type of synthesis is extremely flexible for creating a huge range of sounds for any production. The popularity of Wavetable synthesis has increased over the last 8 years with the release of Serum and especially Vital, who allows you to download the basic package for free.
Audio FX VST’s
In ambient music production, the choice of effects (VST plugins) plays a pivotal role in shaping the mood, texture, and spatial depth of your soundscape. You can get very creative here, however, these are some FX VSTs often used by ambient producers:
Reverb Plugins: Ambient music thrives on spaciousness, and reverb is a go-to effect. VSTs like Valhalla Room, Eventide Blackhole, and FabFilter Pro-R are renowned for their lush, immersive reverb.
Delay Plugins: Delays add a sense of time and dimension to your sounds. VSTs like Soundtoys Echoboy, Strymon Volante, and Waves H-Delay offer a wide range of delay effects.
Modulation Plugins: Modulation adds movement and complexity to ambient sounds. VSTs such as LFO Tool, Cableguys ShaperBox, and Xfer Records Serum are great for this. Precise tonal shaping and filtering can be achieved with EQ plugins like FabFilter Pro-Q and filter plugins like iZotope Iris 2
Saturation and Distortion Plugins: These add warmth and character. Try VSTs like Soundtoys Decapitator, FabFilter Saturn, and iZotope Trash for subtle to extreme coloration.
Pitch and Time Manipulation Plugins: Altering pitch and time can create surreal effects. VSTs like Soundtoys Little AlterBoy and iZotope Stutter Edit can be highly creative.
Recording ambient sounds
Field recordings from the natural environment work great with Ambient production, this can be anything such as the sound of a storm, wind blowing, the sea, metallic bells, or the distant sound of a crowd. The possibilities are endless. Personally, I have had great success using a portable recorder such as any of the collections made by Zoom. However, a laptop, a USB-powered audio interface, and a condenser microphone will work equally well for recording natural ambient sounds. A dynamic microphone is a better choice for recording louder impact sounds.
The music industry has a huge selection of sample packs that contain pre-composed musical performances, multi-track compositions FX, and ambient tones to speed up workflow and gain access to sounds performed, recorded, or synthesized by experts in the industry using high-grade equipment and acoustic environments. I would recommend anything by Freak Music or Cloudy samples, such as this Ambient sample pack (Luna by cloudy samples) which also contains MIDI and Spire Presets. They also have great Ambient Samples here, and an Ambient drum sample pack.
Ambient Composition tips
I like to start a track with Chord Progressions and develop my melodic and arrangement ideas from there. Not everyone does it this way and there is no right or wrong way to start, so I would encourage you to experiment and find a workflow that works best for you.
Here are some composition tips and examples which I’m hoping will give you some tips and directions when composing your own ambient music. If you need a better understanding of music theory, then our music theory for producers blog will give you the basic understanding to tackle this.
1. Chords, Harmonies and Melodic composition;
- Experiment with chord progressions that evolve musically throughout your track. In your DAW piano roll, try crafting a progression that moves through several related chords, adding extensions like 7ths, 9ths 11ths, and 13ths to create harmonic richness. This adds sophistication and dimension beyond simple triads. Let the chords tell a story that unfolds over time.
-Incorporate modal interchange, transitioning between different scales and modes within a composition. For example, shift from the serene Aeolian mode to the exotic Phrygian mode to evoke contrasting emotions. Brian Eno's 'An Ending (Ascent)' seamlessly modulates between modes, telling a melodic story.
- Explore unconventional scales beyond major and minor. Pentatonic and harmonic minor scales can evoke mystical, dreamlike moods. Tycho incorporates melodic elements of Japanese scales coupled with evocative percussion on tracks like 'Japan', transporting the listener.
- Use silence effectively to create anticipation and tension. Well-placed pauses allow melodies to shine before arriving at a peak moment.
- Elevate melodic phrasing with techniques like slides, bends, and portamento to add expressiveness and human feeling. Guitarist Christian Löffler is a great example, you will hear of melodic slides on 'Mare', imbuing an emotional quality.
- Focus on smooth voice leading or chord inversions. When progressing from one chord to the next, ensure common tones resolve intuitively, creating fluidity. Re-arrange the notes to create bass and melodic patterns from the chords, as illustrated below;
This is theEmbracing Simplicity chord progression. Its a chord progression using mostly Maj7th chords in root position. The chord progression is - Cmaj7 - Gmaj7 - Am7 - Fmaj7
This is the same chord progression using different voicings and humanized velocity and swing. The bass notes no longer jump up and down in large ranges, and the melody is more defined.
Ambient chord progressions
Embracing Simplicity (Ambient): As above
Chord Progression: Cmaj7 - Gmaj7 - Am7 - Fmaj7
This progression has a gentle and soothing quality, perfect for creating a serene ambient atmosphere, as demonstrated above.
Mystical Modulation (Ambient):
Chord Progression: Dm - Bb - C - F
Add some reverb and slow modulation to create a mystical and dreamy ambiance.
Floating Through the Clouds (Downtempo):
Chord Progression: Em7 - Am7 - Cmaj7 - Gmaj7
This progression has a weightless quality, making it suitable for laid-back downtempo tracks.
Chilled Jazz (Downtempo):
Chord Progression: Fm7 - Bb7 - Ebmaj7 - Abmaj7
Incorporating jazzier chords can add sophistication and a relaxed vibe to your downtempo piece.
Ethereal E-minor (Ambient):
Chord Progression: Em - D - C - G
Use arpeggios and ambient textures to create a sense of ethereal beauty.
Hypnotic Minor (Downtempo):
Chord Progression: Am - G - Dm - E
This progression has a hypnotic quality, perfect for creating a mesmerizing groove in downtempo music.
Tension and Release (Ambient):
Chord Progression: Bm - G - D - A
Experiment with subtle modulation to create tension and release in your ambient piece.
Downtempo Dream (Downtempo):
Chord Progression: Cmaj7 - Am7 - Fmaj7 - G7
Add some soft pads and gentle percussion to enhance the dreamy downtempo vibe.
Ambient Suspense (Ambient):
Chord Progression: F#m - C#m - B - E
This progression can create a sense of suspense and anticipation in your ambient composition.
Chilled Arpeggios (Downtempo):
Chord Progression: Dmaj7 - Aadd9 - Bm7 - F#m7
Incorporate arpeggios and slow-moving synth textures for a chilled downtempo feel.
To emphasizethe importance of voicing, I'll demonstrateit a second time using the chilled arpeggio chord progression.
This is the Chilled Arpeggios chord progression with the chords in root position;
This is the same chord progression using an arpeggiated, or slow strummed technique. As you can see, I've voiced the chords to descend giving a much smoother progression.
Crafting Compelling Arrangements
The arrangement is extremely important as it is normally the reason the listener will go back and listen again, waiting for the build-ups or break down waiting with anticipation for their favorite part. It is also important for the final mix and master. A well-arranged track is easy to mix; problematic mixes normally stem from a badly arranged track or bad sound choices. Here are some hints and ideas to have in mind when arranging your music.
- Start with a Concept: Before diving in, have a clear concept or story in mind. It could be a mood, a place, or an emotion you want to convey through your music. This will guide your arrangement.
- Riff introduction and variation; Use hints of your main riff or motive before bringing it into the song. Variations of the main riff or motive used at different points throughout the track can help the listener understand the concept of the song.
- Establish a Soundscape: Begin with a strong foundation of textures, drones, or pads. This sets the tone and creates a sonic environment for your listeners to inhabit.
- Introduce new elements over time; gradually build up the arrangement by introducing new instruments or sounds every 16 bars, This creates a sense of progression and builds anticipation throughout the track
- Automate the dynamics; Use different velocity values at different parts of the track depending on how impactful you want the instrument at that point. Automate the volume of the instrument's channel to keep the listener interested and maintain different energy levels throughout. When a band plays a song the guitarist or vocalist will not sing with the same intensity throughout the track as this would be boring. Try and incorporate that way of thinking into your own production.
- Shape peak moments; by layering more instruments at emotionally high points and increasing reverb/delay sends to widen the stereo image. Pull these elements back during quieter passages leaving reverb and delay tails to cross-fade between sections.
- Modulation and Movement: Use modulation effects like slow phasers, choruses, or auto-panners to create gentle movement in your sounds. This keeps the listener engaged and helps you to tell the story. Ambient music often evolves slowly. Gradually introduce subtle changes in sound, texture, or dynamics to maintain interest without abrupt shifts.
- Don't be afraid of silence. It's just as important as sound in ambient music. Let the listener breathe and process what they've heard.
- Emotional Buildup: Aim for an emotional buildup as your track progresses. Whether it's a sense of awe, tranquility, or melancholy, let your arrangement intensify that emotion.
- Endings: Decide how you want to conclude your piece. A gentle fade-out, a sudden stop, or a gradual dissolution can all be effective, depending on the mood you've created.
- Using a guide track: If you have been influenced by a song, or you know a song that is similar to yours, listen to it and take note of the dynamics and song changes throughout. How did they introduce the instruments? How many bars until the next instrument comes in? How do the ideas evolve?
Layering and Texturing
- Curate a diverse palette of instruments and textures to create a rich sonic canvas. Blend pads, guitars, vocal atmospheres. The Orb seamlessly blends synths, guitars, and found sounds on Ambient classics like 'Little Fluffy Clouds'.
- Pan elements wide left/right or dual pan hard left and right to create space in the stereo field. Widen pads and atmospheric elements with imaging plugins like choruses. Careful panning and panning modulation give songs a new mix dimension.
- Add LFOs, filters, or effects automation to introduce movement and transformation over time. For example, modulate a pad's filter cutoff with an LFO to make it slowly swell and breathe.
- Introduce Foley sounds like the sound of the sea, distant trains, or rainy streets.
- Creatively EQ and Filters to reduce or increase the brightness of various instruments as well as helping layered instruments glue together.
- Use FX like reverb and delay on a separate pre-fade bus, this allows you to introduce the sound texture to the song without hearing the instrument. The instrument can then be brought in or out of the song throughout the arrangement and the reverb and delay can be automated as its own entity.
Infusing Live Instrumentation
- Record acoustic instruments like guitar or piano, focusing on expressive, nuanced playing to inject humanity. Convey emotion through phrasing, dynamics, and articulation.
- Experiment with microphone placement and types to find the optimal sound. For example, use a condenser mic up close on a grand piano to capture intricate detail. Blend multiple mics at different distances for depth.
Sculpting with Effects and Processing
- Add reverbs and delays, tweaking settings like decay time and delay amount to define the space and dimension of your track. Use effects like plate or hall reverbs to place instruments into dreamy, expansive spaces saturated with ambiance
- Use modulation plugins like Chorus, Flanger, or Phaser to create organic, evolving movement in your synth and guitar parts. Dial these in subtly to build a hypnotic texture.
- Sidechain compress pads and synths to your kick drum track to add rhythmic interplay. The synths will 'pump' and breathe around the kick hits, providing forward momentum.
Ambient Mixing and Mastering
- Pan elements thoughtfully and EQ judiciously to create balance and clarity across the frequency spectrum. Give each part its own space to shine through.
- Use groups and bus processing like compression or EQ to gel layers like drums. This unifies them as one cohesive element.
- In mastering, use EQ and multiband compression transparently to enhance the overall mix. Brighten overly dark tracks or reduce harsh highs. Aim for punchy yet airy clarity
- Reference your mix against comparable styles for perspective. Listen on different systems to ensure your track translates to the real world. Make final tweaks to compete sonically.
The techniques outlined in this guide will give you tools to craft mesmerizing ambiance. By harnessing the power of reverb and delay, varying velocity, and steering clear of hard quantization, you're not just creating sounds – you're weaving stories that resonate with humans.
Ambient music is a journey into the uncharted territories of emotion and atmosphere. So, don't be afraid to experiment, and to keep exploring to develop your unique sound.