A Study of Ambient Drone Music

I like ambient drone music and would like to expand my expertise in making such music, so I’ve begun a study of some of what I consider the best ambient drone-type of music. This will be an ongoing collecting of information and you are welcome to check back when it has been updated.

Last updated: 19-January-2022

Below are the candidates I’ve selected for study and what I have learned so far.

It turns out that I really like the lower frequency tones in this type of music. The higher tones of noise and environmental field recordings offset the low tones nicely. This steers me toward the Warmth and Stars of the Lid types of music production. Also, AES Dana has low tones that I like.

Stars of the Lid / A Winged Victory for the Sullen / Adam Wiltzie

In various interviews, some of the techniques can be found.

Take this one where Adam Wiltzie is interviewed: https://www.musicradar.com/news/a-winged-victory-for-the-sullen-if-i-cant-fall-asleep-to-a-piece-of-music-ive-written-it-doesnt-make-the-record

  • Mindset:
    • “The music has to pass this creative test whereby if something in my brain shuts off then I know I’m getting somewhere.”
    • “Since the beginning I’ve always had this philosophy that if I can’t fall asleep to a piece of music I’ve written it doesn’t make the record.”
    • “I also try not to second-guess myself and stick to my initial feelings. Time has a funny way of changing a piece of music you’ve worked on, so I’ve become a little insane about note-taking to specifically remind myself to come back to the initial feeling I believed in and keep going in a particular direction.”
  • Difficulty:
    • “Maybe I’m a little biased but I don’t think people realise how hard it is to make ambient drone music and do it well. When you’re dealing with very minimal structures or instrumentation it’s so obvious when something’s not working, whereas when you pile on a bunch of instruments it’s easier to disguise imperfections.”
  • Recording / Reverb:
    • “… some of the orchestrated parts were recorded in a famous studio in Budapest where Jóhann Jóhannsson recorded Sicario. The Hungarian players there are really good, so I chose them to do the choir parts and some of the orchestration.”
    • [interviewer], “…a history of recording in remote spaces with natural reverb…”
    • “…we chose really specific spaces that had a reverberation; for example, a church across the street from my studio or a piano in a studio that has a really specific sound.”
    • Note: In various Stars of the Lid interviews, it was said that they favor recording of Hungarian orchestras for their lower cost and fine performances.
  • Instruments/Effects
    • “I’ve definitely acquired a lot of keyboards over the years, but we tend to go through this re-amping process using different mics until we spit out this thing that sort of sounds like a Juno meets Prophet-5 meets Jupiter-8. We find ourselves making Kontakt patches out of that, so there’s nothing on the record that’s very pure except for maybe some Moog Voyager bass stuff.”
    • “I prefer using simple keyboards like the Moog.”
    • “Even the piano we used is a pitched sample we created from a real piano. We’d like to release that as a sample someday as we’ve been working on it for a while now.”
    • [interviewer] “So you’re basically creating your own Kontakt sample libraries?” [Wiltzie] “Absolutely.”
    • “…guitar-synth drone throughout the entire Invisible Cities soundtrack that’s actually a Prophet-5/Juno running through a two-inch tape loop…”
    • “There’s definitely some slowed down cello and solo viola samples that I recorded in the studio to write with so I could have a mock-up to take to Budapest.”
    • How layered are the tracks on this album?” “Five or six tracks might be the most on any of them. The orchestrated tracks may have more because we used a Decca Tree, outriggers and a lot more mics that we ended up stereo bussing. Other than that, they’re typically accompanied by just a drum and piano track.”
    • “…the 736-5 preamp.”
    • “…we did use an old Binson Echorec tape delay a lot on this record as we love running sounds through things that provide an element of tape flutter.”
    • “GRM is like a French society for musique concrète – people who like to sprinkle baking soda on magnetic tape and record it. They’ve created their own set of plugins called GRM Tools and we’ve used them for a while to create texture within our acoustic mixes because they really don’t sound like anything else. They’re not cheap but I would highly recommend them.”
    • FabFilter is a pretty basic EQ plugin that we’ve been using, but Francesco prefers to use a bunch of different passive EQs that are good for boosting the highs and mids and are really soft-sounding.”
    • Cheap rackmount reverbs like the Quadraverb.
    • A Digitech delay.

In another interview, more is said:

  • “Live9 is hosting a bunch of software from Flux, GRM, Native Instruments, Madrona Labs, Izotope, FabFilter, Akai, Audio Spillage, Little Endian, SoundGuru; Steinberg, U-He, Sugar Bytes, you name it.”
  • “…I like to create sounds and music with all kinds of synthesis methods like, granular synthesis, FM, additive synthesis, resynthesis at example. I like to play with Native Instruments Absynth’s Granular OSC’s and Robert Henkes Granulator II, inspiring. It is quite interesting to use samples from field recordings in that software. It is like using a microscope, looking into the tonal, molecular structure of sounds and build something new out of those molecules. I like Little Endians Spectrumworx very much. It is a kind of a modular toolbox for spectral editing. You can add modules to pitch, filter, bend, delay, mangle the sound in a very special way. I love to use delays, FabFilter’s Timeless2 is a great piece of software as like U-He’s MFM2. Absolutely great would be a software version of the Technos Acxel Resynthesizer (http://www.synthtopia.com/content/2007/06/26/technos-acxel-resynthesizer/) I’ve been in contact Pierre Guilmette asking him for a new version of this fantastic instrument but I’m afraid that it will never happen, unfortunately.”

So, in effect, this is the kind of process maybe:

  1. Loops. Tape loops.
  2. Slowed.
  3. Cello and Viola. Guitar.
  4. Kontakt – mixing instruments to make new and unique patches.
  5. Moog Voyager, Juno, Prophet-5, Jupiter-8, modulars.
  6. Modified, pitched piano, sampled into Kontakt.
  7. Binson Echorec B2 tape delay with varispeed (assumingly to get those slow drones), tape flutter.
  8. Alesis MidiVerb 4 reverb.
  9. Ina GRM Tools on acoustic mixes (not sure which of the GRM Tools).
  10. EQ with FabFilter and passive EQs boosting highs and mids, and are soft-sounding. ACQUA – Aquamarine4 by Acustica for the vintage passive EQ recreation.
  11. NI Absynth, U-he MFM, Sugar Bytes products as well.

Warmth / Agustin Mena / SVLBRD

Agustin Mena (of Warmth and SVLBRD, and owner of the Archives and Faint labels) creates some of the deepest most moving drone music.

  • He lived in Valenciana, Valencia, Spain on the Mediterranean coast.
  • In hardware he used an old Moog, an Access Virus, a Minilogue and some other synths (SH-01A, others) .
  • In software he used plugins, especially Reaktor and Kontakt .
  • An arpeggiator is mentioned in Instagram.
  • Because his music is in the lower tones, he uses field recordings to add brightness as a compliment to the lows . He says, “For me, they are more of a complement. I tend to use very low tones, very low frequencies, it is the spectrum that I found more interesting and it’s easy for my music to sound brightless. Field recordings fill that space in the high frequencies, so they have a technical role, but of course they also add some life to the music.”
  • Main influences have been artists such as Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, James Holden and Border Community .
  • It appears that he works mainly with sound sample files in Ableton from his Instagram (see below).
  • He says, “I improvise with some pads, some piano notes or whatever and then I manipulate them until I find something that is interesting to me and I can keep working adding layers.”

Hotel Neon / Andrew Tasselmyer, Michael Tasselmyer and Steven Kemner

Hotel Neon produces some of the nicest and smooth shimmering drone sounds that I have heard.

  • In interviews, they have mentioned the use of guitars that feature prominently in all of their music.
  • Guitar experimentalism is the main source of these micro sounds, which in some cases are buried deep within the track to be uncovered, rewarding listeners who pay attention.”
  • They said they made their “own sample library of bowed guitar sounds.”
  • They have also said they “return most often to the Soundtoys suite.”
  • MicroKorg synth.
  • Various guitars and basses.
  • VSTs powered by Kontakt.
  • Altiverb and Toraverb for reverbs.

Pallette

I like the musicality of the drone-type of music that they produce.

I found a short interview but not a lot of additional information.


AES Dana / Vincent Villuis

I think what stands out for me with the AES Dana works is the deep bass mixed with the higher tones. The bass gives it depth while the higher pitches keep it grounded. This is the reverse of what a lot of music is based upon – grounded bass with expansive higher tones.

He masters his own music and I like that.

In an interview he gave some insights:

Composition:

  • “… I always compose by fragments, a day, a night when inspiration is there. I like to build a song really “fast”, distance myself from it and then take more time to paint the details, the sub-harmonics, to develop the story and to mix what I want exactly.”

Production Advice:

  • “Just some general advice: know your machines/software well. Don’t use presets or samples already digested. Build your own sound painting tablet….Take time to define all your one shots and categorize them. Don’t hesitate to freeze multi layers in same time: create impact, pads with for example several pads. Synchronize acoustic impacts with pure digital stuff and the grain will find a new dimension. Be dirty, experimental but organized at the same time : )”

Tim Hecker

He has made a lot of drone-type music that is of a higher, almost tin-like quality. While it is not always my favorite, it is definitely intriguing how it can work as many layers.