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  • Ambient drone is both easy and difficult to create

    My favorite flavor of ambient music is the warm drone of artists like Hotel Neon, Stars of the Lid, Windy & Carl, Chihei Hatakeyama, Warmth, Blank Embrace, and others. It is also the most difficult style for me to emulate. This type of music is deceptively simple yet incredibly emotive. Often when I am creating an ambient piece, I try to challenge myself by incorporating music theory and adding more song-like melodies and chord progressions. I'm actually quite self-conscious about my musical abilities (or lack thereof) which is why I try to push my boundaries. It's been great practice and I think I've grown a lot creatively but what I truly want is to create something more abstract.

    It's kinda terrifying for me to write pure drone because it feels like I'm taking off the training wheels. At least music theory has structure, rules, and best practices that you can refer to if you're lost. With drone, it's almost entirely amorphous and subjective. That makes drone more approachable on the one hand, but quite difficult to master or even understand on the other. Anyone, regardless of musical talent, can write a drone piece but not everyone can write a good drone piece.

    Often my drone tracks feel lifeless and boring and my natural inclination is to add more layers and complexity. Sometimes this is a good idea, but I've also heard many artists who can be so expressive with a minimal approach. Sometimes less is more. What do you think about drone and atmospheric ambient music? How do you approach it? Or do you prefer writing ambient that is more melodic or structured?
    Last edited by dreamware; 08-12-2019, 05:00 PM.
    Bandcamp | Youtube | SoundCloud

  • #2
    Hi Todd

    Originally posted by dreamware View Post
    Anyone, regardless of musical talent, can write a drone piece
    I'm not so sure about that. For one thing, very view people, regardless of musical talent actually want to create a drone piece, so that takes them out of the equation straight away.

    but not everyone can write a good drone piece.
    Beauty is in the ear of the beholder.

    What might sound like a bad drone to one person may sound excellent to someone else.

    Often my drone tracks feel lifeless and boring and my natural inclination is to add more layers and complexity.
    Let others be the judge of that.

    I've not spent enough time catching up with your SoundCloud page... I should remedy that...

    but I've also heard many artists who can be so expressive with a minimal approach.
    Well, I would ask, how do we know what they are doing is "minimal?" Have they said as much in a blog or interview?

    Sometimes less is more.
    Sometimes.

    What do you think about drone and atmospheric ambient music?
    I personally enjoy both creating and listening to drone and atmospheric music. They are not necessarily the same... Drone and atmospheric.

    How do you approach it?
    For me it is more of a sound design process.

    Sometimes I may only have a couple of audio tracks and a couple of effects. But sometimes I may incorporate many layers and effects. One thing I do not do when I start a new drone project is decide whether it is going to be few or many elements, it just kind of grows, or stops growing. It depends on how it sounds and whether I am happy with it.

    Or do you prefer writing ambient that is more melodic or structured?
    One of the main reasons I turned my hand to drone and soundscape stuff is I felt held back by all the faff that comes with working out structures and melody. It's not that I can't do it, but I ain't that good.

    I guess I am rejoicing in the fact that I'm a crap musician but I am still able to create nice stuff (in my opinion) from time to time.


    I have been listening to some of your SoundCloud tracks while typing this and as far as I am concerned your creations are actually very good

    Bottom line is, keep creating.
    I may not post anything useful, but at least I do it often

    Bandcamp // SoundCloud // YouTube

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    • #3
      I agree with synkrotron.

      My process involves a lot of experimentation, and simply asking myself "Does this make it sound better? Or worse?". As you gain experience, you will learn what works well for you and you'll build up your own "toolbox" of tricks and techniques.

      Keep listening to those artists you enjoy. Keep creating. Don't get too frustrated if you can't replicate specific characteristics--yet. Focus instead on what you learned with each effort. (Sometimes it's more valuable to learn how to not do a thing...)
      remst8 - remst8.com

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      • #4
        Great thread.

        I think it requires maturity and a lot of confidence for an artist to restraining him/herself. It’s always easy and tempting to add more and more, often resulting in a muddy mess of sounds (or a mess of anything else if it is a different medium). As a drone maker (and lover!) and visual artist myself professionally, I always approach drone ambient creation like I am with photography or a any visual artwork, with focal points, a solid focus and a good composition that makes sense and is pleasing for the most part (as much as I can of course! Not saying it always works lol).

        For me, it is extremely liberating to not be attached to any traditional song structures, or melodies or tempo. It opens up a whole realm of possibilities, creation wise. But that doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want without having a point in mind, an idea to develop, a line to follow. The piece even if denuded of any typical structures still needs a frame in the composition. That can be very terrifying indeed for someone used to compose with structures that are more traditional. I also think this is exactly why drone music if not very accessible and can be difficult for most people, it is destabilising and it challenges the listener to get rid of all his acquired ideas about what ‘real’ music is.

        Generally speaking I believe minimalism is one of the pillar of drone music. So yes, it’s ultra cliché to say but still true, less is more.
        http://soundcloud.com/red-fog
        http://landofthedrones.blogspot.ca

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        • #5
          It took me years to make drones I'm satisfied with. It was a lot of trial and error, especially when working with Paulstretch. I usually record improvisations that do not sound like a drone by using one or two synth sounds and then I take half a minute up to a minute of that recording and stretch it out to about 30 minutes. Then I add effects and effects and effects. Initially I got inspired by this video


          and then I dound my own way.
          ahornberg.bandcamp.com
          soundcloud.com/ahornberg

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          • #6
            re your "Anyone, regardless of musical talent, can write a drone piece but not everyone can write a good drone piece." That's the same with anything - songs, tunes, riffs, breakfasts etc etc. In the end you have to decide to put stuff out for others or not - both are fine approaches. There is an old Sufi practice of being a "madman" in public for a while - when you realise that isn't the end of the world then you can get over being self conscious and just act in a fairly unmediated way without all the grief.

            I agree tho that making drones is difficult. I first came across live drone performances in the 70s - people playing a note on a synth and slowly opening and closing filters. I thought that was stupid - I was a teen music bigot into complexity then - but gradually complexity can turn in to a slowly changing almost steady state texture ie noise as max information. By the time Reich's Music for 18 musicians appeared (to me anyway) I had much broader tastes

            I like to have a fairly explicit idea to start with that will give me something to noodle about with. An example is this piece mower, Thursday. I wanted to bury my hydrophones in the lawn and then mow the lawn to see how that sounded (compared to the other ambient mowing recordings Ivé made over the years). Sounded good, so I put that recording in to RX7 and used the "extract hum" feature that is there to get rid of things like ground loop hum and so on. Except it also gives you the opportunity to just get the hum - and it learns the hum as it goes along so by just extracting the hum you get a changing set of harmonics that reinforce the dominant frequencies of the original. I use that and mix it in with the original, plus a bit of reverb (Blackhole) and EQ (ApQualizr2), maybe a bit of pitch shift. Mix and done https://greghooper2.bandcamp.com/track/mower-thursday
            Last edited by GregH; 08-13-2019, 05:44 PM.
            BANDCAMP https://greghooper2.bandcamp.com/

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            • #7
              Something you could try is transforming your approach to listening to your own work. Rather than get stuck thinking - this is shit etc, quickly move to Why is this shit? What does it need, what is lacking? That transforms the negative emotional experience into a more positive learning experience ie accept the piece doesn't work and ask yourself "What can I learn from this?" Sounds corny and wont always work, but is surprisingly effective.
              Also you can apply a similar approach to releasing work - put something out as a work in progress and ask specific questions of the audience - dont as k a general "what do you think?" or "Is this too boring?" but rather ask - how long does this hold your interest? or Is there enough variation in the pulse/texture/etc Much more likely to get useful feedback with targeted questions, and you are training yourself to accept that music is a lifelong activity with no endpoint - there is no point where you can say "ah, that's music, I can do all of it that is worth doing" But you can always ask yourself and others - what could I do better, what could I refine?
              The upshot with this approach is that even if a piece doesn't work and gets abandoned, it will always have some value as an experience in composition
              Last edited by GregH; 08-13-2019, 06:57 PM.
              BANDCAMP https://greghooper2.bandcamp.com/

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              • #8
                I enjoy reading everyone's perspective on this subject, thanks! Some very good points here, I'd like to respond to more but I'm heading to bed soon. I do want to quickly highlight GregH's last point:

                The upshot with this approach is that even if a piece doesn't work and gets abandoned, it will always have some value as an experience in composition
                I couldn't agree more. A while I posted a work in progress here on Ambient Online, and got some fairly targeted constructive criticism. I ended up abandoning the piece altogether but the learning experience made the entire process worthwhile. It changed how I wrote new songs and improved my overall creative workflow.

                So yes, drone music tends to be open-ended and subjective and that's what makes it kinda scary imo. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder as synkrotron says. Getting specific feedback from that beholder can grant you a different perspective. Listening critically to music I really enjoy helps too; I ask myself "What works in this piece? Why do I like it? How might I create a drone like that? etc" It gives me some ideas to work with, even if I don't end up sounding like the original track.

                Sometimes just playing around with my looper is enough. I like using a looper + effects chain because interesting drones may rise up organically. I frequently get surprising and unexpected results just by experimenting with different loops, and that gives me something to expand on. So I think it's also helpful to experiment, maybe even without a clear goal in mind, to find a good jumping off point that you might use in a drone piece.
                Last edited by dreamware; 08-13-2019, 11:46 PM.
                Bandcamp | Youtube | SoundCloud

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by synkrotron View Post
                  I have been listening to some of your SoundCloud tracks while typing this and as far as I am concerned your creations are actually very good

                  Bottom line is, keep creating.
                  Thank you very much for the kind words, Andy!

                  Bandcamp | Youtube | SoundCloud

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                  • #10
                    I'm like you in love with warm drones and artists that uses that.

                    I try to incorporate some simple melody in my pieces but the base is often drones.

                    One thing that i experienced is that I think it's easier to use some kind of instrument that is not "perfect" or static. For example a 80's kids casio keyobard or a melotron (or a good melotron plug-in) because the sounds in those instruments are more "shaky" and therefore more lively. So if you use those kind of instruments and put a lot of effects like reverb, delay or granular synthesis on it you already have a base sound that is kind of vibrant and more fluid and therefore your drone will be less dull.

                    I think the perfect drone is when it feels like nothing is happening but deep inside it's always evolving.
                    A lot like Wolfgang Voigts GAS-project; or at least his album Pop.
                    https://brugd.bandcamp.com/

                    https://soundcloud.com/brugd

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                    • #11
                      I've found over the years that the music I can make naturally & easily tends to be what people enjoy more. The harder I have to work on a piece, in a way the less good it is in the end. But I do think working on those pieces allows me to get more skills & more practice to make more things easier.

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Brugd View Post
                        One thing that i experienced is that I think it's easier to use some kind of instrument that is not "perfect" or static.
                        ...
                        I think the perfect drone is when it feels like nothing is happening but deep inside it's always evolving.
                        I agree with this. I will often use LFOs with long periods to very slowly modulate effects parameters, so there is a slow evolution of the sound even if the instrument is static.
                        remst8 - remst8.com

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by silberspy View Post
                          I've found over the years that the music I can make naturally & easily tends to be what people enjoy more. The harder I have to work on a piece, in a way the less good it is in the end. But I do think working on those pieces allows me to get more skills & more practice to make more things easier.
                          This is true for me too.
                          The pieces that is kind of easy and fast to to tends be the better ones.
                          But I lear a lot while doing the more difficult one that takes a lot of time to finish.

                          Originally posted by remst8 View Post

                          I agree with this. I will often use LFOs with long periods to very slowly modulate effects parameters, so there is a slow evolution of the sound even if the instrument is static.
                          Great tip.

                          https://brugd.bandcamp.com/

                          https://soundcloud.com/brugd

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                          • #14
                            Hi dreamware. I think your post is well written. It is concise and you express your thoughts and needs clearly. You don't go off on tangents or try to convey a simple thought with more words then is necessary. I think these points are also true with elements that are needed to conceive and develop a 'drone system' using 'blocks of elements' assembled together as a flow diagram.
                            Knowing and understanding your tools is very important. Using a keyboard only for MIDI input, I use a chainer/stacker such as Chainer to assemble my elements and flow directions.
                            Chainer/stacker standalones are good hosts for creating systems that don't need a seqr. When you want to use a MIDI step seqr plugin, Chainer doesn't channel MIDI like that unfortunately...so your DAW is the best host for MIDI generated sequencing. I can't directly speak on modular hardware and drone creation.

                            Other good input elements are, a random MIDI generator or a MIDI step seqr plugin FX. Some synths have good internal step seqrs. Choose an input method then choose the sound generator(s) you want to use. You'll want it to have a handy ADSR. Adjusting for a slow attack and a long release time in combination with more incoming MIDI notes then can be audibly sounded, will help to create intertwining notes that together become harmonies. These are the primary elements. (input / sound generator / ADSR) You can duplicate this triad over many midi tracks.

                            A synth with a modulation matrix and several LFOs will give you an 'internal' way to vary parameters over time.Using the DAW automation is also valuable for parameter modulations.
                            Using a looper (audio or MIDI) is a valuable effect tool. If your using a MIDI step seqr as the input device, these notes will loop at your input, so you can just work with that. An audio looper mixed into the audio chain somewhere gives an enormous amount of imaginative space. Maybe try a looper on the send / return buss?

                            You can look within the synth for the next group of elements (effects). Effects can be placed anywhere.
                            Multiple MIDI tracks of these elements and the use of send / return effects give you an endless machine for creating interesting drones.

                            I apologize for some of this sounding overly simplified. I don't mean to assume you aren't savvy to all this. I want this to be clear to all readers.

                            EDIT - and one last thing I forgot to mention but I feel is important and often overlooked is setting your DAW tempo to about 60bpm or less. Don't do ambient at 120bpm
                            Last edited by annode; 08-18-2019, 01:58 PM.
                            "The dumbest of people are the first to tell you."annodeMy Music
                            Check out my ambient radio show list @ recommended listening

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                            • #15
                              Hi dreamware. I think your post is well written. It is concise and you express your thoughts and needs clearly. You don't go off on tangents or try to convey a simple thought with more words then is necessary.
                              Thanks, Annode! I'm glad I was able to convey my point. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately but wanted to put into words.

                              Originally posted by annode View Post
                              Other good input elements are, a random MIDI generator or a MIDI step seqr plugin FX. Some synths have good internal step seqrs. Choose an input method then choose the sound generator(s) you want to use. You'll want it to have a handy ADSR. Adjusting for a slow attack and a long release time in combination with more incoming MIDI notes then can be audibly sounded, will help to create intertwining notes that together become harmonies. These are the primary elements. (input / sound generator / ADSR) You can duplicate this triad over many midi tracks.
                              I like this. I think I'll play around with this approach. Lately I've been experimenting with the Max for Live Probability Pack, which is included with Ableton Live 10. 've been using it as a way to create distinct generative melodies but I think it could be a great set of MIDI tools for creating something more drone-y as well.

                              A synth with a modulation matrix and several LFOs will give you an 'internal' way to vary parameters over time.Using the DAW automation is also valuable for parameter modulations.
                              Using a looper (audio or MIDI) is a valuable effect tool. If your using a MIDI step seqr as the input device, these notes will loop at your input, so you can just work with that. An audio looper mixed into the audio chain somewhere gives an enormous amount of imaginative space. Maybe try a looper on the send / return buss?
                              I've used both Ableton's audio looper and my Ditto X4 looper and I've found them to be great tools for drone. Using a looper on the send/return bus is a super interesting idea. Both Ableton's looper and the Ditto X4 have a decay parameter that fades out loops over time when you are doing sound-on-sound recording. I can see that yielding some cool results in conjunction with being on the return bus, allowing me to selectively loop parts of different tracks that fade out over time. Sounds like a good experiment.

                              I apologize for some of this sounding overly simplified. I don't mean to assume you aren't savvy to all this. I want this to be clear to all readers.
                              Not at all, that was a great write-up, thanks!
                              Last edited by dreamware; 08-22-2019, 02:44 PM.
                              Bandcamp | Youtube | SoundCloud

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