Mastering the craft of composing ambient music is quite a bit more difficult than you may expect. For a genre that sounds so simple and minimalistic, there are many considerations a composer must remember.
It is a common mistake to oversimplify the music and create something far too uninteresting and dull. On the other hand, it is just as easy to write something so busy and dense that it can hardly be called “ambient” at all.
With this complete beginner’s guide, you can be well on your way to creating high-quality, atmospheric sonic landscapes.
What is Ambient Music?
The term was coined by Brian Eno in the 1970s — the most notable ambient composer. It is a musical genre that favors immersive atmospheres over musical structure and melody.
Ambient music is unobtrusive, calming, and contemplative; it encourages mental focus without being overly distracting. It is about the tone and quality of each individual sound and the space between each note — a form of sonic world-building.
The History of Ambient Music
Although there were precursors to ambient music as early as 1900, the genre didn’t truly develop until the 1960s and 1970s.
With the increased popularity of the synthesizer and a growing movement towards minimalism in music, artists began to experiment wildly within the electronic music scene.
British composer Brian Eno was inspired by these new sounds to create his album Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978). The album went on to influence multiple generations of aspiring musicians and is still widely accepted as the greatest ambient record of all time.
Getting Started – Listen
The logical first step to writing ambient music of your own is to introduce yourself to the masters of the genre. Listen, listen, listen. When you think you’re done, listen again.
Pay attention to what the music is doing and what it is not doing. Try to pick apart the individual elements and consider how each part fits together.
To start, this is a brief list of some of the most prolific ambient music composers:
- Brian Eno
- Harold Budd
- William Basinski
- The KLF
- Joanna Brouk
- Tim Hecker
- Aphex Twin
- Stars of the Lid
- Pauline Oliveros
What You Need to Make Ambient Music
The beauty of creating ambient music in the modern world is that it really doesn’t require a lot of equipment. Some people run their guitars through stacked delay and reverb pedals.
Other layer synthesizers with heavily processed field recordings. Whether you have access to a fully-fledged recording studio or you simply make music on a laptop in your bedroom, it’s not about the gear you use but rather how you use it.
Here’s a brief list of some basic tools to get you started writing and recording high-quality ambient productions:
- Audio interface
- Midi keyboard
- Decent studio headphones or monitors
- Any DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
Read also: Best Ambient VST Plugins
What Sounds Do You Use?
There are no definite rules to what sounds you can and can’t use. As a general rule, stick to soft and soothing sounds.
Avoid any sound that is edgy, aggressive, shrill, piercing, or plucky. If a sound is too abrasive, consider rolling off the top frequencies with an EQ or dial back the attack on the ADSR envelope.
Soundscapes and textures
These are background sounds that set the overall mood. They lack any harmonic quality and are often field recordings of rain, wind, and waves. Alternatively, sometimes synthesizers are altered to sound like one of these things.
Usually, one low bass note that sustains for a long period of time, perhaps throughout the entire piece. Sometimes referred to as a “pedal note”.
Soft chords or note clusters that hold for long periods of time, forming a harmonic landscape.
Most DAWs include a good selection of virtual instruments that are more than capable of creating usable ambient sounds. Logic users have Alchemy, while Pro Tools users can explore Xpand2 and its vast library of presets.
What about Percussion?
There is hardly any use of percussion and drums in ambient music. When rhythms or ostinatos are used, it is quite light, if anything a slow pulse, and often not using a percussive instrument. Occasionally, percussion instruments can be incorporated as a textural elements, such as rain sticks, cymbal swells, and wind chimes.
How to Make Soundscapes
Soundscapes are atmospheric and are a great tool for transporting your listeners into an imagined space.
Real recordings of natural sounds like fire, rain, and wind are essentially white noise with a wide frequency range — perfect for filling out your ambient track. There is a bounty of these sounds widely available, and usually for free!
- Grab your mic, laptop, portable recorder, or even your phone, and head out into nature to capture your own unique samples.
- Go to Freesound.org and explore a massive library of royalty-free field recordings that you can download and add directly to your track.
- Take a trip to your local record shop or thrift store and browse for some lost gems of bizarre and interesting sounds that you can sample and manipulate.
Consider taking a small snippet of a sample, running it through an extra-long delay or reverb, and creating a completely original texture to layer into your mix.
Ambient Music Theory
The key to producing effective ambient music is creating a musical environment that completely surrounds the listener. If you have experience composing in other musical genres, it can be tricky to grasp this concept.
Ambient music often lacks any recognizable melodies, repeating rhythms, lyrics, or standard song structures. It can be tough to know where to begin.
First, you must consider how you will be recording the music. Some choose to simply hit record and improvise an entire track in one take. Others opt to multitrack one layer at a time. You may take a calculated approach and manually compose each chord, note by note.
A great place to start could be creating a drone and stretching it across the entire duration of the piece. Then layer different pads, soundscapes, and textures that fade in and out over the top of the sustaining bass note.
In many cases, ambient pieces lack any form of melody. When melodies are utilized, they are simple, slow, and often very repetitive.
Avoid writing short melodies or hooks. There shouldn’t be too much movement in the track, as it will detract from the atmospheric vibe.
In general, you should stick to consonant chords, particularly when that chord is sustained for a long time.
Think major, minor, 7th, and 9th chords. Suspended chords are also quite common in the genre, and are great for adding a melancholic, pensive mood to your track.
Try using chords that share common notes with each other. Gradually change one note at a time, as one chord morphs into the next. This smooth voice leading will create a consistent flow to your music, as it gracefully evolves in a natural way.
If music theory is not your forte, start by researching some common chord progressions and stretching them across long periods of time.
Try playing the chords backward, or randomizing the order of the progression. This will give you a great starting place for the harmonic template of your track.
Tempos are almost always slow. Think 50-80 bpm and adjust to taste. You must exercise great patience and allow the music to breathe. Don’t rush to get to the next note, rather let that note hang for a while.
Experiment with minor BPM changes throughout your track These subtle variations will create a subconscious sense of motion, even when the rest of the music is static.
Remember, the goal is to create music that is generally warm, pleasant, and serene, so the dynamics should be relatively soft. In written music, this will be in the ppp to mp zone. In MIDI, you will most often be keeping your velocities below 64.
Be careful to not have drastic dynamic changes or accents!
Nothing should “jump out” at the listener. Keep dynamic contrast minimal, in order to maintain the tranquil sonic landscape that you have created.
Other Compositional Considerations
Improvisation is your friend. Allow yourself to react naturally to the music. Sometimes, spontaneity is the best pathway out of a creative slump.
Automation is vital. Gradually adjust various parameters of the instruments, synths, and effects to prevent the music from becoming stagnant.
Apply the same principle to rolling a set of dice. Brian Eno often introduces software randomization to his pieces. He would create a repetitive loop but develop a set of rules, for example, 14% of notes are randomly generated, 41% of notes are transposed up or down an octave.
You may need to make some adjustments to keep things sounding consonant, but the results may take your music in a direction you would have never considered otherwise.
Mixing Ambient Music
How your ambient music sounds is equally as important as the composition itself. What’s the point of a beautifully consonant chord progression if your synth sounds like a chainsaw — right?
When people talk about “warmth” in music, they are usually referring to the 250-500 Hz range. A lot of ambient music favors these frequencies. This is where most of your drones and pads will live.
A common practice in most genres is to cut some of these muddy frequencies. With ambient music, you will need to reverse this logic and accentuate it when needed.
“Presence” usually refers to the 1500-3000 Hz range on your equalizer. It is often known for adding bite and clarity to the mix to make the track stand out. This is actually counterintuitive to the purpose of ambient music. You will find yourself dialing back this frequency when necessary.
The “shine” and “sizzle” of music exist within the 5k-20k spectrum. As with most aspects of mixing, this range will need to be adjusted to taste.
If the music sounds too energetic or bright, try adding a low-pass filter or shelf. If the music lacks air and shimmer, try boosting this frequency area.
Feel free to take a heavy-handed approach when it comes to reverb. In most popular styles of music, it is standard practice to be careful with mixing with reverb, particularly in the lower frequencies.
In ambient music, sonic clarity is not as important, and the music is so slow that excessive reverb often adds to the power and weight of the track.
Experiment with using reverb as an extension of your instrument. Take a short fragment of a sample and smatter it with a long, lush reverb tail to create new atmospheric textures.
To achieve the soft and ethereal reverb sound, try dialing back the dry signal and turning up the wet signal. This can easily be achieved with the wet/dry knob on your reverb plugin, or by balancing the pre-fader send and return levels.
Using delay and reverb in tandem is a powerful approach to making effective ambient music. Take this one step further and consider stacking multiple delay effects in succession.
Begin with short delay times and gradually add longer and longer delays. You don’t want the repeats to land on each other and create phase issues.
Fill the spaces in between the notes to create that iconic “washy” sound. Use high feedback settings and experiment with sounds that warp, wobble, deteriorate, and flutter to add more depth to your mix.
Ever notice how the best pieces of ambient music seem to shift, morph, and move around you subtly?
Utilizing and manipulating the panoramic space of your mix is extremely important in adding size and width to your music.
Add stereo width to dull mono samples with an imaging plugin like the iZotope Ozone Imager (which just so happens to be available for free!)
One last word of advice: put yourself in the listener’s shoes. When you are done writing, step away, let the music loop, and make a note of general observations about your track. Is it too dense or too thin? Too busy or too bland? Too fast or too slow? Then revise and repeat.
As is the case with any genre of music, these rules are simply a starting point. Learn the rules and then break them. Experimentation is key to separating your artistic voice from the masses and developing your own unique sonic palette.