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: 22-February-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 various message boards and equipboard.com, the live setup for Stars of the Lid (SOTL) has included these instruments:

  • Moog System 55 synth
  • TTSH synth emulating ARP 2600
  • Pedals used by Adam Wiltzie: Strymon Flint, Electro Harmonix C9 Organ Machine, Alesis Nanoverb, Boss RC-2 Loop Station, TC Electronic Flashback 2 Delay, TC Electronic Ditto Looper, EarthQuaker Devices Afterneath, Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus
  • Pedals used by Brian McBride: Ernie Ball Volume Pedal, Electro-Harmonix XO Germanium OD, Catalinbread Belle Epoch, Boss PS-6 Harmonist, TC Electronic Ditto X2, Line 6 Verbzilla, Death by Audio Reverberation Machine, Earthquaker Devices Arpanoid, Electro-Harmonix B9 Organ Machine, and Strymon Blue Sky

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.

Emulations:

The U-he ACE synth emulates an ARP 2600 and most of a Moog System 55 – both of which have been used by Stars of the Lid.

I could use ACE to make a patch that sounded remarkably similar to SOTL’s music:

Also, knowing that they employed Hungarian orchestras and Julia Kent on cello in their North American live shows, I could use cellos in Kontakt to also get close to their sound:


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.


Rafael Anton Irisarri / The Sight Below / Black Knoll Studio Mastering

With his own style of ambient drone/loop music, the polished nature of his recordings cannot be dismissed as they are mixed and mastered well.

He is open about his techniques in most cases and has mentioned several good points on his process and ambient music in general. I think his views about ambient music are very well thought out and solid.

Interview with XLR8R:

  • “Ambient is a deceptively simple style of music. On the surface, it seems like anyone can do it at home.”
  • “It’s not so much about the individual elements—the sound quality of the recording, the performance of the musician, or the musicality of the piece itself—but rather the sum of all those parts working in tandem with the concept behind the piece of music.”
  • “Making ambient music requires an entire different set of listening skills—deep listening, as coined by the late great Pauline Oliveros. It’s about focusing on areas most people don’t, and bringing those areas to the forefront, and the recording process (tracking, mixing, mastering) itself is as important as the musical notes or sounds in the composition.”
  • “I liken the process of ambient music to stand-up comedy: it’s one thing to tell jokes to a couple of drunken friends at a party and another to build an entire routine that works with a crowd at a comedy club. With ambient, it takes a lot of time to find your own sound and learn to communicate complex ideas in a musical language that is minimalistic and shy by nature.”
  • “Learning music theory will not only expand your vocabulary but it will also help you understand why some of the music you love works in the way it does and hits you in a certain way. It will help you understand at a deeper level what makes that song you love so great. In no uncertain terms, it’s a valuable use of your time.”
  • “One of the most effective ways to work, I find, is to build all your sound sources first—whether individual sounds, samples, or short or long loops. Create the building blocks to which you’ll start your workflow, much in the way an architect does their craft. I have amassed many hours of field recordings, for example, hydrophone recordings of water, many forest walks, birds, things like that. I can use those as the foundation of some ideas.”
  • “Of course, there are times when you build a cool sound on a synth and immediately come up with a musical idea because of it. When this happens, I just go with the flow. Ultimately, inspiration is more important than the X or Y method of writing.”
  • One little trick I love to do whenever I’m writing is to take a field recording and map the sounds’ transients to MIDI notes in Ableton Live and experiment with the naturally-occurring rhythmic patterns of a field recording, utilizing those as the rhythmic foundation.” (You can do this in almost any DAW.)
  • Another thing I do is find a field recording with a tonal element (for instance, the drone created in the bathroom of a train cart) and load that into a sampler, utilizing it as the sound source, then running it through different elements like filters and effect units.”
  • “A lot of the time in the studio my job is spent just managing the results of hours of improvisation.”
  • “There is nothing more frustrating than arriving at the most beautiful loop you’ve ever heard and realizing you’re not set up to record it, which means it’ll be lost forever. Make a habit of being prepared to record and hitting “record” before you start doing any improvisation. I feel that whenever I’m improvising, lots of unexpected things can happen; music leaves your brain and goes to certain places, and sometimes you just have to set up the machines and let the experiment run its course. Sometimes it is just a matter of sitting back and letting the sound unfold on its own.”
  • “Speaking of improvising: last year when I was working on Peripeteia, I was messing around with an instrument called Metaphysical Function on Native Instruments’ Reaktor.”
  • “Always question whether you really need X piece of equipment to make music.”
  • Don’t automatically throw an EQ, compressor, limiter, or an effect on every channel. Listen to the actual sounds and utilize different tools, like a frequency analyzer or stereometer, for example, to see what actually needs to be addressed. Be selective. Do you really need a high-pass or low-pass filter?”
  • “One of the very first things I do when I’m starting to work on a mix, either for another artist or myself after creating stems, is to move faders and find a balance just using faders only, no other adjustments. I listen to my initial balance to hear which things stick out, which things clash, and what feels good. If some areas sound cluttered, sometimes it could be as simple as muting a channel or as complex as changing the arrangement of a part so that it works better musically, and thus will naturally fit better without touching a single EQ.”
  • Varispeed is your best friend.”
  • “Whenever I work on a piece of music, I’ll move around things until I find the “right” key, which in essence to me is the one that gives me the nicest tone. I’ve gone as far as changing the key of a song in a live setting based on how the sub-bass is reacting in a particular room. With all that said: enter varispeed.”
  • “Varispeed is a feature of tape-based audio recorders that allows for both the tempo and pitch of a recording to be raised or lowered through the use of a pitch or speed control on the recorder. It is also emulated digitally in many DAWs.”
  • “For ambient music, it is amazing how a little bit of pitch-shifting can make a sound or loop ten times more interesting. One of my favorite tricks in the studio when I’m working on ambient music is to make a loop in real-time with different effect pedals and hardware, record it, then varispeed down the entire recording by a few intervals. Everything feels so much sludgier and syrupy as a result.”
  • “Adding reverb to a track does not make it ambient. This is important to remember. I’ve done quite a few tracks with very little to no reverb on them.”
  • “Ambient is not about the actual effects used but about the atmosphere and feeling one can create with whatever tools at one’s disposal. Reverb is not a shortcut, even if it appears that way. Let’s not forget that.”

Interview with NI:

  • “Part of what makes “ambient” sound so interesting to me is its timeless quality.”
  • “To me ambient sounds are never about a particular tool, technique or process. It’s more about the feeling it evokes and what you can creatively achieve with any particular sound, how you use it in the context of a musical piece or incorporate it into a live performance.”
  • My sound design process starts with inspiration from a source – it could be something as simple as a field recording.”
  • “Upon my return to Black Knoll in New York, these field recordings became the basis for sound designs. I’d experiment with feeding a field recording into Metaphysical Function [part of the REAKTOR factory library] and spent many hours creating new environments with it, recording all the different improvisations, building a library of sounds (which became the source material for my 2019 album Solastalgia).”
  • Before I start composing, I build the sounds, which are inspired by a particular subject matter.”
  • “Some of the more “composed” ambient, I’d have a click track and sync the looper to a specific tempo and will follow it accurately as I play and loop myself playing motifs. Or I would take a sample of something and figure out the BPM, then figure out how it changes after I’ve processed it (by varispeeding it for example).”
  • “Other times, for more amorphous pieces, the random interactions between two loops that go in and out of sync…”
  • “On my Peripeteia album there are layers I built using FM8, for example, as a source. I’d apply the same logic and run the sound card output into guitar pedals like distortion boxes and modulation units.”
  • “Be inspired. Followed by: be true to yourself. Create something that works for you. By this I mean: what may work for X person might not necessarily work for another. There are many great tips on sampling on the internet but all of it is irrelevant If you can’t come up with something interesting. Something that is unique and specific to you and your circumstances.”