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Gotta make an ambient/subtle score... halp.


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Hey, guys.

So, I've got a job for a game where I have to start learning more ambient music, and I am seeking advice, or articles/videos/forums for this genre of music (an ambient music community that I can get involved in would be great).

So, a little background on my knowledge. I've been producing music for a good number of years in many, many styles and in many different softwares. I actually know a great deal of synthesis/processing. I've produced heavy dance music like dnb/dubstep for a while, making all of my sounds from scratch. Proof of experience found here:


But as I'm finding out, synthesizing heavy basses and piercing leads are COMPLETELY different animals than synthesizing layered pads and rhythms. So, the style I'm currently looking to emulate is along the lines of a group called Ludique:


So, anything someone more experienced could tell me would be super helpful! Some example ideas of help:

-I know that there are certain conventions for heavy EDM that are standard: always have a sub bass under the midrange bass, carry the groove in the higher percussion and the pulse in the kick/snare, most action in the heavy basses will be under 5k and over 500. Even cliches like the wobble bass or vowel basses. All that, etc. Any conventions to keep in mind that are somewhat standard when working in ambient music?

-Any software that I should be aware of as really good? Anyone who makes dubstep will tell you that you should check out NI's Massive (don't argue this, not the point of the thread). So many dance producers swear by getting half their sound from FabFilter and Camel Audio plugins. Any synths or effects that will work wonders like this? (I'm hoping for something to learn to create with, not use presets, by the way). I have NI's Komplete and a couple Rob Papen synths - willing to look into others. I feel like Absynth is basically designed for this, but God does that synth scare the shit out of me; getting a grasp on FM synthesis was daunting enough.

-Any techniques that will work wonders on the genre? I'm kind of assuming that tons of reverb and delay on everything is a good start. Again, talking about other styles - House is basically built on a sidechained compressor on the basses to the kick, Neurofunk dnb is basically built around automating notch filters with large bandwidth and resonance. Any similar techniques to keep in mind for ambient music, or even just really helpful techniques?

-On the topic of reverb... I'm really ashamed to say this at this point in my music making, but I really have no f**king idea how to use it. Yes, I know what the parameters do, I just mean that I have no way to apply it - I just basically randomize settings (turn knobs) until I find something that I feel is passable (it's never great...). I feel like this is something I'll have to learn some conventions on if I ever want to produce decent ambient music.

-Given my background of heavy dance, heavy metal, and whatnot, it's REALLY hard for me to learn the subtlety and moderation needed for ambient music. I'm used to friggin 10:1 compressors and everything blasting through at 0db. Any steps to take or guidelines to follow to help me relearn the boundaries I should be using for more nuance-driven music?

Thanks for reading this. I wrote basically a novel only to try to make my points easier for you all to hit. Any of these specific questions are great, or any general topics that I didn't even touch are MORE than welcome. I'm pretty noobly at this type of music, and don't be afraid to give ANY advice because it might be unhelpful (it probably will be).

Thanks y'all.

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Absynth is probably the best ambient synth ever, to the point where I don't know what anyone would Absynth for otherwise. Zebra 2 and Z3ta have some great ambient stuff for this too.

For additional ambience, look up free SFX and play them at low notes with reverb and delay and have them build up the atmosphere. This takes a light touch, but thats a key component to it, at least in my experience.

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Hell shit fire, man - you could create ambient music with nothing but a single low pad note with reverb and delay. Like everything else, you don't want to overload it, but bass and the drone is usually a fundemental part of ambient music.

You're creating atmosphere with ambient music, so things that sound like a natural atmosphere with light melodies and movements and a beat is kinda what you're looking to do there.

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i'm no expert at this stuff, but i really like making ambient-influenced music and lately i've been working on soundscape stuff, so off the top of my head, here are a few things i've found helpful:

- reverb and delay are super important, like you said, but getting creative with these effects can make for some really cool results. make a signal chain that has a delay going into a reverb going into another delay with different settings, all going out to your main reverb send, or anything like that, and you'll get some cool results. same thing goes for using wet/dry ratios you would typically never bother with (like almost no dry signal). sometimes it sounds awful, but when it works, the right signal chain can make even something as simple as a few random drum hits add loads to a song's atmosphere.

- timestretching can get you some really nice results. paulstretch has gotten really popular lately (maybe to the point of being overused and too recognizable when it's used unaltered, so you might want to play it conservative with it), and it's free, which is awesome, but you can also get great sounds just by doing less drastic timestretching in your daw. try it on literally anything. i've made pad sounds out of my synthlines just by timestretching them, chopping them up, and adding some effects.

- reversed audio. this is one of my favorites at the moment, and it's gotten to the point where i bounce my midi stuff almost immediately after it's written so i can reverse it and start screwing around with it. sort of like paulstretch, if you use unaltered, reversed audio too much, it'll probably become obvious or even grating, but if you start cutting it up, rearranging it, glitching it, timestretching it, and whatever else, you can make some excellent sounds for all sorts of situations. i make a lot of pad sounds this way, and it can be a lot of fun to work with because different sounds react very differently when reversed, so it's always worth a shot.

- in general, just try out different effects (phaser, flanger, pitchshifter, whatever else) on anything and see what happens. i've developed a real liking for reversed drum sounds sent through long effects chains and then arranged sort of haphazardly throughout the piece, for example. because soundscapes can be constructed through sound manipulation that isn't necessarily pitched or musical, you have a ton of leeway to just try things out and see what sounds are created in the process.

- this is probably be obvious to you, but i guess it's worth mentioning anyway, just in case - with all these reverbs, delays, and other effects going on, it's important to make sure you're eq'ing stuff properly. however, it can also be fun to eq things for soundscape purposes - i've done what meteo mentioned before, for example, and played sfx samples in low octaves to get weird sounds, and then eq'd out everything below 200 and gotten some weird, cool results.

i guess the basic idea here is to just be open to all sorts of bizarre audio experimentation you may not have been interested in or able to use before. absynth is a killer synth (one that i've only barely scratched the surface of, unfortunately), and there are lots of other awesome synths out there, as well, but you might be surprised by how many incredibly usable sounds you can create just by manipulating basic synths and sounds with effects and audio editing.

edit: low-end stuff, i think, just depends on your taste and what kind of music you want to make. drone music often has an emphasis on bass, but the type of music you posted (which to me sort of sounds like a cross between idm and ambient) doesn't seem to focus on it anymore heavily than most other kinds of edm, although i only sampled a few tracks, so i could be wrong. it doesn't seem like you're interested in making straight up, soundscape-style ambient, at least as far as i can tell (please correct me if i'm wrong), so i think you'll find that most of your mixing habits, like keeping the low-end relatively clean, will work here.

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making decent ambient muzak is piss easy. easy to mix, easy to compose.

it's also potentially boring to make; you need to establish a kind of flow that focuses on finding sounds and gradual evolution rather than complex composition.

just play around with mellow sounds...going at ambient from a technical perspective seems stupid. it's a genre invented by deliberately 'amateur' people. explore different soundscapes and shit.

you need to learn to be musically unobtrusive without being boring. of course there's a technical perspective to that, but man, i expect you spent a good amount of time learning how to mix as much in your face as possible. that is the hard part, technically. NOT doing that isn't that hard at all.

i could never produce a 'commercial' sounding dnb/metal/whatever mix to save my life, but i was able to make decent sounding ambient a couple months after starting out. like, stuff that could be used in games. especially with all those showoff synth presets tending towards the ethereal.

i repeat, it's easy. you'll be fine ;)

as far as sound sources go, any fucking thing. oldschool ambient mostly featured heavily effected acoustic sounds, drowned in endless delay/reverb tails among countless other fx.

any synth with an adsr envelope is going to work for pad sounds.

there are synths greatly suited for ambient but in the end it doesn't matter one bit. it's all about slowly evolving sounds. you can get those sounds right from the synth or from the fx chain or from changing parameters on the fly, it doesn't matter.

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If I were you, I'd just decide whether I wanna do soft music, droney sound designs, or musical soundscaping. All of those could be called ambient, and all of those have been suggested in this thread under one name or another.

So lemme clarify those, as I see them. The first is all about soft sounds, which means you can use low-velocity and/or high-reverb piano, little arpeggios and ostinatos, soft jazz drum loops and whatever filtered rhythmic things you feel like using. Basically, it's normal music, it's just really soft. Brushes, not drumsticks. It can be soft and clear, or padded and muffled, or any combination thereof.

The second could just as well be random notes with the ethereal presets from almost any synth. It's slow evolving sound more than it's musical. As long as it's not obviously clashing, you could do almost anything here as long as there's no rhythm and no distinct notes. I mean, sure, you can throw in loops and stuff, but then you're combining it with the first.

The third is a bit of a compromise between the two, but in its own direction. You could have little melodies that appear occasionally, sometimes intersect. You could have rhythm if you wanted. It could be the equivalent of a jazz band in which nobody could agree when the beat is. It's basically creating environmental sound design, except it's musical. Pad it if you want to, let it swell into thick soundscapes or thin, minimal melodic plucking.

There's some thoughts that might give you some ideas.

btw, reverb can be summed up into three parameters: how big it sounds, for how long it sounds, and how clear it sounds. Big is of course room size and/or reflection time. Long is basically just the release of the reverb sound, which shouldn't need much explaining. Clear is whether the resulting sound will sound like foreground or background stuff in the company of other sounds, and the dry-wet ratio is probably the most important here tho diffusion also comes into play. Other parameters would be filtering that just let you shape the sound, where lows add mud, mids add body, and high add space. There might be a chorus in your reverb that further muffles and smoothens the wet signal. But they too are just part of how clear it sounds. Size, time, clarity.

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yeah, ambient is just a blanket term ofc. the first type of music you mention, i'd rather call that chillout or something, but it's not important.

OP could link to some soundtracks he considers ambient and good. that might help.

one basic definition of ambient is that it's meant to support an already existing ambience instead of creating an entirely new one. dunno how much truth is in that when you apply it to multimedia like games...a single monophonic drone can be either soothing or menacing, so the ambience and visuals can very definitely be twisted a lot.

i think what it mainly says is that ambient music isn't meant to be listened to. it's meant to be taken in with the rest of the surrounding. you're trying to make the listener NOT think about the music.

doing so ofc requires other sensibilities than making catchy tunes.

idk, learning by doing man. you can pick up tricks but it's like speaking a different language, and you need syntax for that.

still, it's a pretty easy language.

or maybe i just find it easy because my parents used to play ambient stuff at home all the time. i guess i just absorbed it.

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Here is a link for producing Chillout beats with lots of good hints:


I agree with everyone else in saying there are almost no rules to ambient music. Given that your best route to take is to incorporate sounds/techniques you are already familiar with.

1. Use lots of guitar amps on sounds.

2. Focus on old school Analog synth sounds in combination with GRANULAR synthesis.

2a. for granular synthesis (Kontakt, Absynth, Alchemy, Omnisphere, etc...)

3. Get creative with audio in your sequencer.

4. If you have Atmosphere or Omnisphere def start there.

5. No boomy kicks. (EQ out 50Hz) Let the bass instruments occupy the low frequencies. Also group the kick with the rest of the percussion and not the bass.

6. For compression stick to values below 4:1. I often don't go above 3:1 unless needed. The gain reduction should only be "blinking" like an eye.

7. For silky ambient reverb cut around 6 to 12db at 2000Hz. Also 8000Hz is a frequency that when boosted will make a sound feel like it is sitting on top of your head.

MOST IMPORTANT...EXPERIMENT. I've always found it useful to create tons of sound and material to work with. Just go crazy for a bit and give yourself a good palette to work with. Once you have that set you start arranging your new sonic textures.

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yeah granular is a good cue. someone mentioned paulstretch; if i'm not mistaken extreme time stretching algos and granular synthesis share some similarities.

granular is probably THE ambient/soundscape synthesis method if there is any. it's not like other forms of synthesis aren't used widely for the same purpose, but granular synthesis makes it very easy to come up with sounds suitable for ambient.

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I didn't hear field recording yet, so include that in your arsenal of noise making tools. Go out with a mic and record environmental sounds; by having them fade in softly from time to time you'll make the entire thing less synthetic (if you're using mostly synthetic sounds).

Study minimalism. You have a pattern that is repeated and subtle changes are introduced. However, since you're dealing with a different kind of listener you have to make sure it doesn't get grating.

Alchemy is a lot of bang for the buck. There's also a free player version if you just want the sounds first and the science later. It's got more useful material from the start than Absynth, IMHO. Even then, even Massive can make ambient noise well.

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