Interested in how an ambient track gets put together?  Here’s but a small glimpse at what’s involved in creating this intricate and beautiful music.

Note: You can listen to (and download!) my currently available tracks for free at Last.fm, and as a torrent.

Just one more thing before we start: I use Reason 5, an Oxygen 49 MIDI controller (formerly, I used a first edition Axiom 25), and Audio Technica ATH-AD700 headphones (their wide soundstage makes texture placement super easy).  That’s it.  One of these days, I’ll get around to buying a good program for mastering, but for now, Reason is Good Enough®.

Despite the simplistic nature of the music, Ambient production is far more complicated than most people realize, requiring a surgical touch and extreme attention to detail.  Here’s some of what goes into putting a track together.

Textures

Textures can be as simple as a single synth patch, or can be a complicated mixture of different synths and samples.  I find that frequency overlap, regarded as a sworn enemy of musicians, is actually your best friend when it comes to making fully-realized textures.  By combining different synths and samples which share similar frequencies, you’re able to “inject” certain sounds into others.  With some practice and patience, this allows you to remove aspects of certain sounds that you don’t like or want, while combining the leftovers to create a seamless texture that will sound like a single “instrument”.  Adjusting the EQ, compression, and volume of each layer dictates which frequencies will overlap, and also where on the soundstage the layer appears.  Obtaining this balance can be extremely frustrating at first, but once you get it, it’s just like riding a bicycle.

There are a few steps to doing this. Once your “foundation” is established,  start slowly overlapping it with other sounds. Here’s an illustration, which depicts a two-layer texture utilizing frequency overlap:

The difference in size between the two "sounds" indicates their relative volume and position to each other. The location of the "injected" sound relative to the "main" sound indicates where the two sounds overlap in the frequency range.

Once you have the “foundation” portion of the texture and its “support” bits set up, it’s time to put in the “walls”.  These are sounds that are placed between the “foundation” and the “supports”, and typically overlap an entire portion of the main sound.  It’s imperative the overall shape of the sound remains the same during this process; we’re doing nothing more than trying to give the texture a more varied personality.  Here’s a visual example of what I mean:

Notice how the "injected" sound is now completely enveloped by the "main" sound.

As you can see, the “main” sound remains mostly intact, with a small portion of its frequency entirely displaced by another sound.  Note that, as previously mentioned, we have kept the size and shape of the overall texture the same.  Once you get the foundation, the supports, and the walls up, it’s time for the roof…those little nitty gritty bits that you can sometimes barely hear (or, to continue the analogy, barely see), but are absolutely essential to maintaining the overall structure.  Put it all together, and you have a finished texture:

The red box symbolizes the "foundation" texture, while the other differently colored boxes symbolize the "injected" layers of sound. Once again, the difference in size between the "sounds" indicates their relative volume and "location" to each other. The location of the "injected" sound relative to the "main" sound indicates where in the frequency range they overlap. The closer to the top of the "main" sound, the more "up front" it is in the overall texture. The closer to the bottom, the more it's "pushed down" or "back".

The more layers a texture has, the more complicated and difficult it becomes to manage.  As you can imagine, once you start mixing 6, 7, 8, or more layers in a single texture, it becomes extremely challenging.  Some layers in a texture are almost completely hidden within the frequency range of the “main” sound, rendering them almost invisible to the brain…yet they still cause the inner ear to vibrate slightly differently, which helps dictate how the music physically feels.

Location on the soundstage

Not only do you overlap frequencies to create textures, but you need to differentiate between each texture present at any given time.  By “pushing back”, “pushing up”, or “pushing down” certain textures, you change not only the mood of a song, but you can completely change the visuals it will give the listener.  If you’ve ever watched Bob Ross paint, then you likely have a good idea of what I mean by “pushing back”.  In case you never did, here’s one of his famous paintings to (ahem) illustrate my point:

Pay particular attention to the different locations and sizes of the trees.  Notice how the trees up front ”push” the grass “back” slightly?  What about how that little lake “pushes back” the small trees behind it?  And how those trees at the base of the mountain “push” the mountain even further into the background?  That’s exactly the kind of thing I mean with texture placement on the soundstage.  In other words, if this painting’s canvas is your soundstage, then the variations in the depth of field for each tree, rock, grassy hill, and mountain would be the different locations for your textures.  Some of them you want up front: bold, detailed, beautiful.  Others, you want in the back: a foundation for the whole track, providing an anchor point for the ears (or, in the case of a painting, the eyes.)  Then, you have everything in the middle, which helps prevent it from looking like a white canvas with some trees painted on it :)

Of course, it wouldn’t be a challenge if there wasn’t something ELSE to worry about at this point: what happens when the frequencies of a layer in one texture overlap layers in a completely different texture?  That’s a good question!  The answer, thankfully, is simple: think of each one of your textures as the different colors of paint in the picture.  So long as you put the right combination of textures “next” to each other, they create a happy little painting :)

Next time you’re quick to say an ambient track is slow, stupid, and too simple, think about everything it takes to make one sound good.

Inspiration

My inspiration comes from three different places:

1.  Other people’s music, such as Kyle Bobby Dunn and Redshift.
2. From images in my head or images that I see in real life.  I try to think about how the image “sounds”, then set about recreating it.  A mild case of synesthesia would go a long way in helping this process…
3.  Random screwing around.  Many of the “support” sounds I use to fill out a track are created by randomly fiddling with knobs and configurations.  This is where using Reason comes in handy: sometimes, changing around the wiring in the virtual rack produces CRAZY stuff that would otherwise be nigh impossible with a different software-based DAW.

Naturally, there are some other places I look to for inspiration, but I’m not going to give away ALL my tricks :)

Conclusion

I hope some of these tips help you out in your own production of ambient tunes…or at least they’ve given you some newfound insight into how complicated this stuff is!  As I said previously, everything I’ve released to the public is available for free on Last.fm.  If you’ve made some ambient tracks, please share them with us in the comments; we’d love to hear them!  For further help, I very highly recommend you check out Future Producers…lots of great people on there.