Lessons From Making Ambient Loops From Ambient Tails


One of the most enjoyable parts of music production is making ambient loops from ambient tails of sounds. I begin doing this several months after a piece is already underway, with its main sounds and parts somewhat set into place. To make an ambient loop, I look for those moments between or just after the attack points of chords or any sound. For instance, if something hits on beats 1 and 3, I listen to what’s happening between those two points. Since many of my (non-drum) sounds have sustain to them, or if not, some kind of resonant reverb tail attached to them to make them sustain more, there’s often a lot going on between their attack points. This going on adds atmosphere that is felt as much as heard, yet is usually lost in the full mix.

I solo a track and move the loop brace around the spaces where nothing is playing but sounds are still sounding, and turn up the volume on the monitors. Using a loop brace is key because you need to know how this little snippet of sound sounds on infinite loop—specifically whether or not it can seamlessly fold back upon itself in a way that makes its repetition enchanting rather than annoying. You know you’ve found a good ambient loop candidate when it sounds inevitable—when it has the smooth flow of a juggler tossing three balls in an endless cascading arc. As soon as I’ve found something interesting, I stop my search. I could go on but that’s unnecessary. Next, I set up another audio track upon which to record this looping ambient loop. I record it for a bit, then I go back to trim and copy it, so that I have say, 30-60 seconds of continuous sound. 

Now I want to know how this new ambient loop sounds against other parts of the music that are already in place, so I solo various parts along with it, making note of what sounds good. I also move the loop to various positions along the time of the music. What would it sound like at the beginning? Or the middle? Or the end? Even though I don’t need to figure out answers to these questions now, I do as much as I can in the next few minutes because it feels urgent to do so. The sense of urgency comes from recognizing the fleetingness of the composing moment and the importance of running with the momentum of my discovery to figure out what to do with it. So I drag the loop all over the place, auditioning its sound quickly and randomly in different combinations with other sounds. The right move is what sounds best.

Along the way, I might simultaneously tinker with the loop’s sound, boosting its highs and mids to hear how that sounds. This means that as I’m moving the loop around I’m also making notes of how its EQ’d sound articulates differently. As with many things, it’s striking how a tiny shift in articulation can change how the music speaks. 

The first lesson from making ambient loops from the ambient tails of sounds is that I sometimes like listening to the loops more than I like the music from which they derive! The loops sound familiar (after all, they’re based on music I’ve already composed) but also strange in the best possible way of I don’t recognize the author of this sound. Feeling like ghostly presences extracted from the music’s more obvious audibles, the loops sound more ambiguous to me and therefore more compelling. Even though I know how I made them, I can’t figure out the structure of their sound. The sound shows me that the rest of my music is still a little obvious—it’s not wonder I don’t like it as much.

A second lesson from making loops concerns rhythm: an effective rhythm solves a lot of musical problems. An effective rhythm is a rhythm that loops well without showing its seams. In doing so it creates groove, forward motion, form (a repeating rhythm creates its own form), and also achieves a mystery that repeats but never fully reveals. An effective loop reveals its own inherent rhythms over time—little details you didn’t realize were in there.     

A third lesson is that I could do much, much more with playing with what I already have. Perhaps the mistake I often make is thinking that the Important Composing part of making music happened in its initial stages, when I sweated over capturing improvisations and devising crafted parts. To use an obvious example, I might have played a chord sequence so that it ends on some kind of cadence and thus its logic was totally clear. But as useful as such a chord progression can be to move the music along, it’s not having the last word. In electronic music production, Important Composing moments are widely (and wildly) dispersed across one’s workflow. Each time I play with what I already have, I realize how much more I’m missing. Maybe the structure I want will be derived from that little section in the middle, or from the sound of that ambient looped reverb tail? 

This leads to a final lesson from making loops, which is realizing that my workflow is leading me down a path that’s quite different than I thought it would be. One scenario that could play out is: all the work I did to create a robust musical form—e.g. a piece that has a clear beginning, middle and end, with parts that fit with one another harmonically, rhythmically, and timbrally in sensible ways—was only a starting point. 

Maybe the task now is to melt all of these sounds down into something else.       

Friday Freestyle: A Miscellany Of Ten Things I’m Thinking About


A thoughtful electronic music tutorial by Mr. Bill about sound design. In it, Bill introduces an interesting idea he calls “Idea Jams.”

• Something that Gary Vaynerchek said: “I’m obsessed with micro-failures.”

• The Tour De France has begun. Not a lot happens in any given stage, but the repetition and the rhythm, the stunning scenery, and Phil Leggett’s commentary make it perfectly ambient TV.

More TV: 1980s music is appearing in investment ads. When you hear an older song that you know, it’s hard not feel as if yet another song has sold itself out to the company that bought its rights. But still you watch. One song I recognized was “Birds Fly” by The Icicle Works, a British rock band named after the short story “The Day the Icicle Works closed” by Frederik Pohl.

“Birds Fly” soundtracks a Fidelity ad about wealth management. The voiceover keeps talking reassuringly about wealth—“a wealth of information…a wealth of opportunities”—and we see a prosperous family at home somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, with the parents rather self-indulgently contemplating how well off they are and then confirming their situation as they talk with their Fidelity broker who shows them pie charts on an iPad indicating that they have a million in assets. (Gentle head nods all around.) Meanwhile, the opening to the The Icicle Works’ two-chord song keeps repeating, and in doing so lends the ad a subtle tinge of desperation and anxiety mixed with reassurance. But I always liked those spiraling flanged guitars and the melodic bassline of that song, because they sounded, in a pre-Internet era, hopeful, like a sonic promise that today (certainly not in retirement’s future) something cool could happen. In the ad though, we never get to the lyrics of the cathartic chorus—the chorus of a song that sent this otherwise one-hit wonder band briefly onto the top 40 charts in North America:

We are we are we are we’re just children
Finding our way around indecision
We are we are we are rather helpless
Changes forever

Whisper to a scream.

Maybe the ad works because some viewers recognize themselves in those parents as the still rather helpless children finding their way around their indecisions?

• Not inspiration, but iteration. (Still thinking about Ken Kocienda’s great book).

• While reading Martyn Phillips imaginative article, “Exploring Potential of the Mix” (in Mixing Music) I learned about Edward de Bono’s book, Six Thinking Hats.

• A remarkable song by Thom Yorke called “Dawn Chorus” that shows the power of pacing and restraint coupled with slithery sound design. His keyboard playing is deceivingly austere, and his vocal melody span just two pitches–two!–used to devastating effect.

• Jeff Wall’s calibrated and staged photographs.


• What role does the concept of the pivot or pivoting play in creative work?

• Sometimes it’s best to not say anything further.

The Music Speaks Up

The music keeps reminding you
that you don’t know it well enough,
that you’re not paying attention
to what it needs.

You’re not listening.
You’re hearing what you hope I should be, 
rather than what I am.

The music is tight but not right,
filled out but not filled in,
descriptive but not imaginative.

Listen to what I am 
to hear what I could be.