How To Make Ambient Music: 10 Top Tips

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  • Post last modified:January 30, 2023
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How do you make ambient music?

To answer the question, I spoke to composer and producer Robert Logan.

Aside from his solo releases, the London-based, Scottish-Hungarian producer has co-produced soundtracks for a number of films and documentaries, including the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Darkside (2007), and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2013).

His ambient releases include his 2008 album under the alias Sense Project, and collaborative ambient albums Second Nature and Biosonic (2016) with the ambient pioneer Steve Roach.

In the interview, we cover topics including software, field recordings, harmony, rhythm, variation, and the purpose of ambient music. Let’s jump in.

What recording software do you need to make ambient music?

You can start making ambient music with any recording software, even free software like Cakewalk by Bandlab. For ambient music, you don’t need anything specific really. You just need something that can record audio and load the tools to manipulate audio.

If you want to pay for something, Reaper is only $60. I really believe it doesn’t matter what you have or use for this genre.

What instruments or other gear do you need to make ambient music?

You can begin with any simple cheap synthesizer that allows for sound creation and pleases your ear – and/or an ability to record sounds with a microphone or a field recorder. From that point on you have the raw materials to create any kind of atmosphere you can think of.

You probably should pay attention to the reverb you use. With many reverbs you can change the room size, the density, the decay, and all kinds of other parameters to get different textural feelings, and no rules really apply. You can use and abuse reverb and any other DSP (effects plugin) as you see fit.

So all you need is a laptop, and a simple audio interface and sequencing software. If you Google ‘VST effects’ you can download many different reverbs, delays, granular effects, filters, and all kinds of cool tools for free. Along with ideas and inspiration, that’s all you need. And lots of time and patience.

Watch: Robert Logan – Live Ambient Improvisation #1

Can you use any audio to make ambient music?

You can make ambient music from any source material. You can either come at it with an atmosphere you already know you want to evoke. Or you can experiment with editing sounds, and through discovery, find a new atmosphere that you like. Or a mixture of both, action and reaction.

You can say take a recording that you took on the subway, load it into your sequencer, and play with it until you discover a beautiful atmosphere that pleases you. It doesn’t matter how you create. Follow whatever fulfils curiosity and gives you the most joy; that leads to more interesting results.

Ambient music emphasises tone and atmosphere, and what it does is unlike other music, because it can reward passive and active listening equally.

The objective is to make an aural world or a sound atmosphere. It should almost smell – like incense. It should fill the room with a sense of space, and transport or displace you to somewhere else.

How do you use field recordings in ambient music?

Field recordings and analogue sources are useful because they bring an element of unpredictability and subtle variation to the picture. So if your ambient piece is formed of very heavily edited synth textures and you place field recordings of, say, a meadow or a city, a landscape or a refrigerator even, and then edit those, it creates a sense of continual background change and alter or deepen the aural picture.

You can leave them as edited or unedited – whatever you want. But you have to be wary that if it’s a very particular kind of place it will change the texture of the overall piece. And certain field recordings will evoke different histories. So if you’ve got birdsong it will trigger certain feelings and cultural associations. You can manipulate the field recording towards the unique purpose of the piece – edit them to make them more undefinable.

How do you introduce variation into ambient compositions?

Use your intuition and keep playing it back. As soon as it loses its potency or stops shifting you to somewhere else, you can introduce a new element to continue that sense of journey.

It all depends on all the variables of the piece. For example, I did one piece that was based on my fascination with black holes. Certain overt shifts in audio will ruin that sense of deep space and the impression of journeying into a black whole I was trying to evoke. Too many blatant movements in sound would lose the overwhelming sense of the singular phenomena that’s sucking everything into it (Editor’s note – the track is called ‘Music for a Black Hole’ – unreleased).

You could make an amazing dark ambient track by recording a refrigerator at M&S or Tesco and once it’s in your hands, and divorced from its initial commercial purposes, you can slice and cut and stretch and apply processing to those sounds until they create a really overwhelming sense of foreboding, or better still, otherness.

On the other hand you might want to explore more interior places, more abstract emotional states or subconscious feelings, and here it might be easier to introduce more established kinds of variation. A black hole is an example of a sound world that is quite hard to do.

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Is melody important in ambient music?

Those of us with traditional musical training or less familiarity with the openness of the genre might get nervous when making ambient music and feel the need to throw in some clear melodic aspect. But if you have any foreground elements, it’s very possible you’ll lose perspective on that blanket soundbed which is actually taking people to a place, and which perhaps distinguishes ambient music from other forms of music. 

If you choose to deliberately not include traditional notions of harmony and melody, then if people are open, their minds will automatically snap to a different way of listening. New kinds of hearing and feeling are the aim. That being said, I’d never say ‘never’ to melody – it’s context dependent.

Watch: Robert Logan – Live Ambient Improvisation #2

Is harmony important in ambient music?

A good reference point there is throat singing – I could listen to a throat singing drone and not get bored because of the rich harmonic content. When you listen to throat singing, your brain is paying attention to the frequency make-up of the drone, and you’re not so concerned with western ideals of harmonic motion. It’s more about a drone opening a space for imaginings, wanderings, and creating a thick atmosphere. 

The ambient artist Steve Roach told me he used to listen to Vaughan Williams and he would hone into just a few chords in ‘The Lark Ascending.’ And rather than follow the trajectory of the original piece, he would try and draw out a longer atmosphere from a few harmonic movements in that piece – so you can really focus in on all the nuances and all the possible sonic pathways of a few chordal changes.

In my view, it should be dissonant enough to evoke interest and prick your ears up and feel like ‘this is taking me to an exciting and challenging place.’ But not so busy that you lose sight of the atmospheric purpose of the ambient music you’re making.

What is the purpose of ambient music?

It’s essentially to give an experience like where you’re dreaming without sleeping – a deep trip without the drugs. Unless people want to add drugs, but that’s up to them! It’s essentially to evoke a tangible sense of otherness – through sound – a feeling that wasn’t there before. It will drop you into a film that hasn’t been written yet. It can be highly activating and relaxing at the same time, depending on the level of listening.

Ambient music emphasises tone and atmosphere, and what it does is unlike other music, because it can reward passive and active listening equally. You can leave it on passively and it will still do powerful things in a different way to muzak or pop songs playing in a clothes shop. It has more potency than that. So it’s very effective as an endless background. 

I’m really into the idea of spaces in-between. A lot of music fails to capture large parts of life that are ‘in-between.’

But it also rewards active listening in the way it puts you in a flow state. Erik Satie expressed this idea in his ‘Furniture Music,’ and then Brian Eno articulated it more clearly later when he said it can be ‘as ignorable as it is interesting.’

People who can dismiss it as new age and noodly and easy to make, but they’re missing the point of how effective it can be and what can go into it.

How do you make ‘dark’ ambient music?

I don’t really adhere to labels in that way, but you can approach dark ambient music in the same way as any ambient music, except you may want to focus on more minimal movements, and you can allow for more dissonance. 

You could make an amazing dark ambient track by recording a refrigerator at M&S or Tesco and once it’s in your hands, and divorced from its initial commercial purposes, you can slice and cut and stretch and apply processing to those sounds until they create a really overwhelming sense of foreboding, or better still, otherness.

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With that sound you can create a mystery world, a world alien to our own, a cold, infinite, expansive place. I think the words dark ambient imply one of the most exciting areas of music to be involved in, because it’s a place so different to what music has been to this point. We can carve out the sounds of the blackest ends of the universe. It can be completely detached from the earth and can give a sense of worlds we haven’t discovered yet which operate by completely different views.

Watch: Robert Logan – ‘Outer Darkness’ – Live

What other ways can dark ambient music be used?

Alternatively, dark ambient music can point inwards, and be a means to great emotional catharsis where you confront the void and the existential crises you might face of not knowing – not knowing what conscientiousness is, what meaning is – by facing a sound that encompasses all that mystery and turmoil.

Dark ambient music also helps you explore in music those spaces in-between. I’m really into the idea of spaces in-between. A lot of music fails to capture large parts of life that are ‘in-between.’

A great example is the experience of driving in the city at night, and it’s raining and street lights are swishing past and there’s no one around and the light blurs through the water droplets. And it’s this really unusual non-specific feeling that’s very potent. And I can find hardly any music that captures the subtly of it, the depth of it, the fact that it can be really overwhelming even though it’s very simple. 

Dark ambient captures those spaces that aren’t often explored,  and that people might mistakenly call mundane, but are actually full of atmosphere and pregnant with possibility.

It’s almost like writing a novel – a good novel shouldn’t feel like it’s got too much baggage. It keeps you engaged, and even though it’s often minimal and atmospheric, you need to think in terms of broad brush strokes as well as the details. The details are important. There’s no atmosphere if you don’t pay attention to the details. But if there’s no control over the wider structure, it wont do all that ambient music can do.

What is the role of rhythm in ambient music?

Even drone based music and even the most textural ambient music still has rhythm – you need to understand those sweeping glacial heartbeats! The way textures swell, even if it’s in terms of many minutes, you still have to pay attention to the rhythmic feeling that’s evoked in ambient music.

It’s almost like writing a novel – a good novel shouldn’t feel like it’s got too much baggage. It keeps you engaged, and even though it’s often minimal and atmospheric, you need to think in terms of broad brush strokes as well as the details.

With ambient music, you want to let it play and not have some element in the foreground that demands your attention in the same way it does in conventional music. As soon as it becomes rhythmically didactic, or too close to conventional music, you can lose some of the things that ambient music is about. But in a more subtle way, there’s a rhythm. Like breathing, or some kind of pulse that keeps your mind activated.

How do you make sure ambient music has rhythm? 

You could have one texture that has fairly minimal changes, fairly static, and against it you have faster moving textures, like wheels within wheels, all interacting and speaking to one another. Even if you’re looking at a singular drone, you have to pay attention to subtle fluctuations in the frequencies – they make the difference between a good drone and a dull drone!

It’s all about how the frequencies evolve and hold together. Even when dealing with one long droning texture, there’s an inherent sense of rhythm and an aspect of constant tension and release we can pay attention to and manipulate. If the piece is in a constant state of harmonic tension that can be good, but you need to be able to manage the ingredients. A hovering musical lack of resolution can be strangely energising.

It’s like looking at a landscape you’re sweeping past on a train. If most other music is like hearing a story, ambient music is like letting scenery pass by in a blur. A series of scenes, as you’d see and feel through an open train window. There’s less of an linear narrative as in more traditional music. It’s a medicinal, potent incense-like background atmosphere.


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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Zoltánné Erdélyi

    Gratulálok Robert További sok siket kívánok

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