Into The Ambient
Following on from my Irregular-Polyrhythmic exercise, I was inspired to delve into the world of Ambient music and see what it had to offer, both as a consumer and creator.
The Life Of Brian
Brian Eno is a name you come across often when growing up and studying music in the UK. He's somewhat of British institution as far as his contributions to music and the wider arts are concerned. Aside from being a highly acclaimed producer, having worked with some of Rock music's top brass, he's also considered the Godfather of Ambient music (although to his own admission, it already existed, he just gave it a name!).
It began in the 1970s when an unwell Eno was bedridden. A visitor put on a record for him to listen to before she left him to rest. The music was too quiet and he found it frustrating as he couldn't get out of bed to turn it up. The record was a selection of works for the Harp. He lay listening to the rain outside, hearing the occasional pluck of a harp dynamically cut through the din of drizzling rain. After a while, he is said to have found the experience profoundly moving and once at full health, he set about looking to recreate this experience in the studio.
Working with mostly synthesisers and piano, he set about making Ambient 1: Music For Airports, widely regarded as the first musical work to formally be classified as Ambient music.
I began my Ambient-listening journey here, and worked my way through the subsequent three albums (all together, Ambient 1 through 4). Whilst not an exhaustive catalogue, I felt this would be a good start and should point me in the right direction for when I set about making some Ambient music. I won't go into great depth on these albums, suffice to say, I was bowled over. I found myself very smitten with this form of music and sought out a lot more artists and albums for future listening.
So What Is Ambient Music?
Eno himself describes Ambient music as needing to:
"accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting"
"Many levels of listening attention" I felt summed up my experience of the four albums I listened to. I could have them on while I did other things, such as the washing up or responding to emails; scenarios in which I'm not really paying attention to what I'm hearing, however they're subconsciously helping frame my state of mind into that of calmness. However, when listened to with close attention there is a richness to the compositions that is emotionally and intellectually rewarding. I.e. it really is as "ignorable as it is interesting".
After a little more research and listening to some other ambient works by artists such as Hiroshi Yoshimura, Takashi Kokubo and Haruomi Hosono, I found that there are no apparent rules for tone or sound design in the genre. Ambient music has a rich variety of instruments and sound sources from conventional, classical instruments through to synthesised and sampled sounds, sometimes pieced together in a Musique Concreté fashion. Furthermore, the synthesis found in the genre is highly sophisticated. Ambient music of the 1990s especially would often utilise additive and granular synthesis much more than conventional pop and electronic dance music genres might typically use.
Common musical elements were mostly in the dynamics. I noticed minimal use of abrupt dynamic change, with a preference towards transients with slow attack times. Instruments with fast attack times (such as plucked or hammer/mallet sounds) seem to have been engineered in such as way as to play-down the significance of the attack of a note (or chord); I suspect through the use of compression with very fast attack times and softening the upper-harmonics with EQ (possibly even dynamic EQ processing).
Lastly, I noticed that it is common for Ambient composers to give an overarching theme to a body of Ambient work. A good example of this is Eno's Ambient 4: On Land on which there are eight pieces, each inspired by time spent in the country side. In their own, unique way, this allows a body of Ambient works to tell a story through musical tone and atmosphere, as opposed to lyrics or overt musical techniques and structures.
My main takeaways from what I'd learned about Ambient music:
Establish a story, scene or scenario to thematically link multiple works together
Any and all sound sources are fair game - no limitations there!
Make it musically interesting - modes, complex chords, rhythmic variation, arrhythmic, key modulations, etc
Make it subtle and evolutionary in nature (both musically and tonally)
Utilise slow-attacking sounds such as drones and synthesiser pads
Soften the brightness of fast-attack sounds such as plucks
Less is more!
My Ambient Project Part 1 - A Complete Change in Creative Culture!
As with Pianos and Irregular-Polyrhythmic Play, I planned to give myself four evenings to make four pieces of music. This idea went out the window on day one as I was hit with what this project truly represented.
Life is busy! The day-job, the commute, household chores, family commitments, maintaining all things OSC, etc. Furthermore, add to that intellectual stimulus unlike anything the human race has ever known: music, video-games, films, TV, podcasts and more, all on demand plus social media, social networks, almost every news item feeling like it's from a fictional TV show... I could go on.
In the last three or four years, my music has become evermore complicated, intricate and high-energy. I'm now confident that this is a reflection of my lifestyle. From the moment I wake up, to the moment I sit down in the evening to work on music (around 8pm) I'm rushing around! Therefore, when I sit down to create music, the franticness of my day-to-day life all comes out in the form of controlled, high-intensity, fairly complicated and densely arranged music. Sure, it's mostly upbeat, lighthearted and fun music (reflective of my natural demeanour), but it's intense and busy nonetheless.
Ambient music is none of this, and I was naive to think (having never made Ambient music before) that I could make one piece of Ambient music a day for four days (especially in my current head-space). Ambient music requires stepping back from the immediate, something that didn't come as easily as I expected. My initial attempts were medium-tempo and complicated. My mind was racing with ideas of extra things to add to the arrangements and things were not Ambient. Frankly speaking, they were rubbish! I wasn't thinking in an Ambient way. I needed a psychological/ethological reset!
My Ambient Project Part 2 - Let's Start Over With a Theme
I decided to start over with a theme (which I should have done initially, as outlined in my bullet points above). Nature and the cosmos are both common themes throughout Ambient music, so I didn't want to tackle those, as I thought it too clichéd. They're also very grand in scope and I wanted something smaller and more personalised for my first Ambient project.
Being a Sci-Fi fanboy, I've always had a fascination with the idea of artificial intelligence and the blurred lines between when an artificially intelligent robot ought to be treated with the same respects and liberties as a human. Thinking along the lines of creatively expressing a robot in an emotional context, I browsed Deviantart for pictures of robots in interesting scenarios to serve as stimulus. I came across this piece titled Forgotten by an artist named Zary.
I wrote down my thoughts and impressions on this artwork:
The robot is half buried suggesting it predates the forest (i.e. the forest has grown up around it)
No human has come for it, as per the title of the piece - do humans still exist?
The light on its antenna is still on, meaning the robot is operational and has been waiting all this time - potentially a very sad prospect
Is the robot artificially intelligent? Does it sense loneliness and/or abandonment?
After a little thought, I penned a scenario that would become the basis of my Ambient project:
Built long ago to serve its creators,
It no longer has a purpose
Its program understands it is now without purpose
Its program understands the passing of time
Its program understands it is alone
Its program can not compute why
It awaits further instruction...
I now had my context; my stimulus. I decided the four pieces of music would:
Set a scene with something about the forest, perhaps alluding to time
Place the robot and nature together as the central focus
Address the Robot's awareness of loneliness
Low on power, the Robot decides to shut down, giving up on being rescued
Track 1 - The Forest Didn't Used To Be Here
Designed to set the scene of our story: a Robot is abandoned or forgotten, and a forest grows around it, reflecting the length of time the Robot has been waiting.
I began with a low-pitched drone containing lots of oscillator detune and "analogue feel" (an option on the Roland Jupiter-50 to emulate analogue synthesiser tuning nuance). The drone plays the same note throughout the whole piece to reflect the constance of time. Delicate synth-bell tones play intermittent extended chords over the the drone to reflect the changes that take place around it over time; the movement of animals and foliage; the light flickering through the leaves, etc.
I coupled the bass drone with a layer of white noise that had subtle filter modulation and panning effects. There is a heightened resonance to the filter creating the illusion of an almost dissonant note at times, gently emanating from the noise; intended to reflect the semi-randomness of nature and evolution.
Lastly, to reflect the wooden aspect of the forest environment, I sparsely added some FM synthesised marimba-like wooden sounds.
I felt the mood fitted with the forest in the picture, but representation of the Robot was lacking.
Using the MIDI Effects in Logic Pro, I stacked a randomised arpeggiator, with a note randomiser and a transposer to give me a constant stream of random notes from the key of E-Flat (excluding the 4th note of the scale - to make it simpler-sounding and pretty). I used this to randomly trigger a basic sine-wave sound, representing the Robot making soft "bleep" and "bloop" noises.
Leaving this running constantly sounded frantic and terrible! I needed a way to make it random and very sporadic, so as to only appear occasionally (and most importantly, at random). Talking through the project with my good friend and fellow Synthwave producer 24:7, he suggested getting some audio of speech or something similar and using that to trigger a noise-gate on the random sine-wave sounds.
On his suggestion, I grabbed some water drop sounds from the Internet, placed them on a track with no audio-output and used that to trigger a noise-gate on my random sine-waves. This completely transformed the piece and gave it a strong, cohesive tie to the core theme. The ambience and music reflect the atmosphere and light of sun through the leaves of the forest, with the occasional "bleep-bloop" representing the random noises coming from the Robot as it computes what it observes.
The end result is a fairly peaceful, calm passage of music that I believe works as invisible background music, but that if listened to on closer inspection contains some pleasing chord extensions and harmonic interest (with the resonant white noise). Furthermore, the stereo effects give it a wide spacial interest and the random, but harmonically appropriate "bleeps" and "bloops" accidentally fall at interesting moments lending the subtlest of melodic intricacies in timing.
It's not earth shattering or revolutionary, but a very satisfying first attempt at making something Ambient. In total the piece took two evening (about 6-7 hours) to put together. Much time spent designing and shaping tonal colour, as well as stereo image.
Track 2 - Talking With The Birds
In this piece, with no humans to interact with, the Robot is attempting to communicate with the other species around it, primarily birds; as they, like humans appear to the Robot to continually communicate to one another through noises expressed from the mouth.
This track is technically simpler, with only three channels of audible sound.
Having created a dreamy synth pad (the teal coloured region above), I programmed it to gradually open and close its filter, meaning that over the duration of the piece, the chords grow and recede in emphasis and upper-harmonic detail. You can see the waveform becomes more detailed throughout the piece, only to become simpler again towards the end. As the upper-harmonic content grows, the chords are joined by a simple flute-like synth patch that suggests at, but never fully delivers on a melody.
Once again, I added randomised "bleeps" and "bloops" in the same way as I did the previous piece. This time however, I wanted the Robot to sound as if it was attempting to communicate with the birdsong in the trees around it. I therefore downloaded ambient bird song audio and used that to trigger the noise-gate on the random sine-wave channel. This gave a more bird-like chirping quality to the "bleeps" and "bloops" of the Robot.
Like the previous piece, I feel this piece also works as a nonintrusive (ignorable) background ambiance, however there's a sophistication in the chord sequence that when examined should provide satisfactory degrees of tension and release. Furthermore, the top line being played as slowly as it is (and in staccato), I feel creates the illusion of the melody both being present and also slightly intangible, which I believe lends a degree of interest and sophistication that isn't wholly apparent on passive listening.
Track 3 - It Calls Out, But Nobody Comes
Now we're getting into the emotionally heavy part of this Ambient project. The Robot is calling out a repeated phrase, perhaps an SOS of sorts, but nobody comes to rescue it. Musically, it's probably the most sophisticated of this whole project.
I first designed a very melancholy and tense chord progression, and like the previous track, automated the synth's filter to gradually open and close, creating a single swell and recede across the piece. I layered two lush and slightly mournful synth pads for the main body of the harmonic content.
I crafted the top-line melody by using a Roland D-50 style wavetable bell with pitched delays, meaning the melody is very simple, but the delays add an arpeggiated element to the melodic line. Using EQ to soften the harsh brilliance of the bell-tone I also sent it to the reverb bus Pre-Fader, with hardly any source signal in the main mix, just the reverb. This both softened it tonally and placed it very deep in the three-dimensional space of the mix.
I used the same technique as before to generate the "Bleeps" and "Bloops", however, I isolated a single phrase and looped that, to represent the Robot's repeated calling out (it's SOS).
The track was lacking some textural interest at this point. I decided to use Logic Pro's in-build synth Alchemy which has Granular functions, as this was a synthesis technique I'd not yet used on this project. Wanting something piano-like, but still synthesised, I found a very nice tone called "Antarctic Sun", which, with a little tinkering and adjustment worked nicely. I mirrored the chord progression of the pads with this patch.
Sticking with Alchemy, I also found a patch aptly named "Iron Forest" which contained granular layers utilising samples of a Sand Rabab and a Zither, blended with a sine-wave and nondescript vocal sample simply titled "Ah1". With some adjustments made to individual part layers, this made for a fascinating bass drone that sets the piece off with understated tension and atmosphere. You might interpret it as the sound of the inner working of the Robot, but that's not explicitly what it's designed for, it's mostly just an atmospheric device that can be interpreted however the listener sees fit.
On the whole, I am very satisfied with this piece as I feel it's my best attempt yet at being ambient whilst still conveying complexity and nuance in the composition and arrangement.
Track 4 - Shutdown Procedure
This is the emotional climax of the project. The Robot, knowing it's power cell is close to running out, is finally giving up waiting for someone (whilst paradoxically knowing nobody will ever come) and is initiating its shutdown procedure.
My aim for this piece is to execute the emotional weight and gravitas that underpins the sadness of this Robot's existence; sophisticated enough to carry out its protocol and await further instruction whilst paradoxically also sophisticated enough to know that no further instruction is coming. Sophisticated enough to feel sad and alone, but not sophisticated enough to understand why or know what to do with itself.
The chord arrangement is long and evolving. It teases at resolve (with the plagal cadence) around variants of the 4th chord for a long time before resolving to the minor 6, with melody stressing the 7th and 9th, to really hit home those emotive moments.
As before, the chords are performed on mournful pads with evolving filters. A further pad is added as the piece evolves, helping build a gentle crescendo. The lead melody is performed with the same synth pad as the main chords progression, providing coherent tonal colour.
I took a different approach to the "bleeps" and "bloops" this time, creating two different tones, as if one is the Robot's conscience communication and the other is its operating system dialogue. I manually programmed the notes, as opposed randomly generating them to ensure I could place them at exactly the points I wanted around the other parts of the arrangement.
I also added a sad R2-D2 style 5-semitone downward pitch-bend right before the melodic punchline for extra emotive impact. A sad, weepy, resigned robotic sigh of sorts.
With the musical components in place, it was lacking texture. I created a drone on the Jupiter-50 that, like the first track, had an almost dissonant note that would periodically emerge with a gentle swell only to recede again. This drone had a very machine-like quality, similar to an air-conditioner or small generator and was very fitting for the context. It creates the illusion of it being what the Robot sounds like.
As the musical components fades away at the end, I left the drone in the mix and allowed the sound to finish on its own (as opposed to fade out). The last moments of the piece are just the drone and the mournful pad swells fading away like the last breaths of the Robot (not that robots breathe) as its shutdown procedure runs its course. We're left with a moment of just the drone before the silence.
This piece took about 4 evenings to put together (about 12-14 hours), mainly due to it unintentionally running up to nearly 15 minutes in length. Almost every idea I tested took upward of twenty minutes, so progress was slow, but very rewarding. This is my favourite piece of the project as I feel I have achieved in creating something that's ambient but that also has significant emotional weight (given the context).
I've learned that I really enjoy listening to Ambient music and will endeavour to listen to more. However, more significantly, I realise that I love making Ambient music and will do more in the future.
I've always considered my music a therapy of sorts; an emotional release to the fast-paced, daily rigours of life; I've learned that my music often actually reflects the fast-paced, daily rigours of life in both complexity and energy. So whilst it is still and an emotional release, it also doubles down on the complexity of life; my music being technically complex and thus demanding much thought, time and concentration.
Switching my creative process upside down to one of quiet contemplation and generally working at a slower pace, to serve a slower theme has given me new ideas, perspectives and motivations, not just to create Ambient music, but more broadly speaking, it has recharged my creative batteries without me having to stop creating. This is a very significant discovery to have made about myself and I'm therefore very glad that I decided to tackle this subject.
The Finished EP - Programmed To Feel
In honour of the sad Robot, I've named this Ambient EP "Programmed To Feel". If you want to listen and/or download it, you can do so here. Kindly, Zary let me use her image as the cover art for which I'm incredibly grateful, as it completes the story being told by the music.
I appreciate this was a rather long read, so thank you for your time and as always, I hope my experiments and musical adventures can influence and spur you on to try new and different things; to challenge yourself and learn things about your own creative processes, as I've done here. And, as always, by all means share your experiments and creative endeavours as it's always fascinating to read/hear about other peoples' approach to making music.
All the best and may your music making be calm and relaxing ;-)