(Image: Casey Horner)
Listening to contemporary ambient music I notice that much of it is constructed from broad washes of sound, or what could be called tonal drones. Drones are sustained pitches that establish a mood, not a direction; they conjure a stasis, not forward movement. For many electronic music producers working in ambient’s orbit, a common way to make a drone is to engulf a tone in a sea of reverb. There’s a reason why the reverb’s Mix amount knob is labeled as a “wet/dry” control: with enough reverb a tone’s beginning and end blur into an oceanic unity, a continuous hum.
I enjoy some music built upon such spacious drones, but only when they make deliberate perceptual demands on my listening, rather than mere endurance demands. For the producer, being deliberate requires constructing the music that enacts evolving attentional shifts rather than stays in a single place. An ever-present problem with drones is that they induce a lazy listening. Of course, some listeners want exactly this: to use music as a backdrop for chilling out.
Instead of tonal drones, I prefer chords that keep morphing into new constellations of themselves. These tonal evolutions make for active rather than passive musical textures, keeping my interest through the trajectories of their component pitches, as the notes dovetail around one another, leaving traces of their consonance and dissonance filigree, like the luminous dust of shooting stars. In terms of production practice, one way to create tonal evolutions is to generate an initial chord progression and then use it to seed other musical material–from chord progressions and melodies to drones and rhythms. Improvising chords or a melody on a keyboard (or other instrument) is a useful starting point because there’s multiple elements of uncertainty baked into the process:
How long will you improvise for–four bars or sixty, 30 seconds or 5 minutes? What will the tempo be? Will you repeat motives you discover along the way, or continue onto ever-new phrases? Will you incorporate a lot of space between the notes, or aim for denser constructions? Will you play with a large or small dynamic range? Will your mistakes be left as they are, or corrected after the fact? Once you have an improvised a chord progression or a melodic line you have a tremendous amount of seed material to play with. Put another way: no matter how paltry you feel it might be, treat your captured MIDI or audio as gold. From here, consider six ideas for how to proceed.
Listen to the improvisation to find the good bits. It may be the case that somewhere in your improvisation there’s a gem of a chord sequence or melody that stands out, or stands on its own. Find this gem and copy its MIDI for use elsewhere, or render it to audio so you can play with that further.
Consider the entire improvisation as the track-to-be’s structure. The unique ebb and flow of your performance could be an interesting way to structure a track. You may have implicitly delineated sections and an arrangement that just need to be fleshed out.
Derive other parts from the improvisation. There’s accompanying chords, bass lines, and bits and bobs latent in your improvisation. To start, copy the MIDI for the entire improvisation to other tracks. For example, a chord sequence can become a bass part if you pitch it down and mute all but one of the notes in each chord. Or a melody line might be traced in the sequence’s highest-pitched notes.
Generate permutations of your improvisation. Play with your performance’s copied MIDI parts. Individual notes and chords can be pitched up or down, repeated, deleted, inverted, stretched out, or compressed. Practice permutation-making until it’s an inevitable part of your workflow.
Record/resample your entire improvisation to audio. While MIDI is useful because it’s easily edited and can generate a thousand different sounds, audio is useful because it’s infinitely morphable. In a DAW, audio files can be processed in extreme ways, bringing the sound you began with far from its starting point. Plus, working with audio commits you to the MIDI you rendered: now there’s no going back to edit those MIDI notes.
Use your audio to generate new MIDI. One you have audio files of your original MIDI performance, you can use this audio to generate new MIDI. This audio-to-MIDI translation process is not perfect, which makes it fascinating: for example, the DAW often “hears” phantom pitches and out of key tones that aren’t in the audio, yet adds them in. You can use this new, not-quite-perfect MIDI file (derived from an audio file that was derived from your original MIDI) to seed other sounds.
In sum, these six techniques are useful for generating tonal evolutions as the basis of an active rather than passive ambient music.