It's time to tune in and turn off with the third part in my series on musical genres - because this time, I'm delving into the world of Ambient music production. Flying low under the radar of mainstream music tastes, Ambient is a style with a long history, rich with experimentation and subtlety.
In this piece, I'm going to pick out five essential characteristics of Ambient, and show you how to perfect them in your own music!
1. Long Live Timbre!
Tone and timbre are really important in Ambient music. These stylistic traits are arguably more important in this music than the typically salient rhythm, harmony and melody characteristics. Sounds in Ambient are sculpted over longer time scales, with spectral envelopes of synthesiser parts carrying a similar function to melody in more usual genres. Slow builds, arching filter sweeps and fluttering embellishments take the place of interlocking pitches and rhythms here.
Brian Eno once said that Ambient music "is intended to induce calm and a space to think" - it should have enough detail that you can actively listen to it without getting bored, but not so much that you can't ignore it whilst it's playing.
A lot of Ambient's power comes from the way in which layers are used. We're more used to different layers (or instruments, or DAW tracks) working in call and response, tension or time-separated opposition, and those layers being quite different in terms of tone - bass, chords, drums. In Ambient, the layers work together synchronously - blending together to create more homogenised soundscapes. So instead of a bass line, we're more likely to have a deep drone, with the colours in its harmonics being emphasised gradually using filtering or resonators.
That's not to say that Ambient music is entirely monochrome, however - behind the slower synth drones and contours, it's quite common to hear subtle noise-based elements, such as granular synthesis (grain clouds), filtered noise washes and field recordings providing some contrast.
3. Tempo (Or The Lack Of It)
Ambient music in its purest forms doesn't have a detectable tempo. Things happen in the music quite irregularly, and sparsely - there may be a flutter from a noise generator passed through a tremolo, before being filtered to move it up or down in the spectrum, once a synthesiser part builds to the end of a crescendo or a pitch contour. So instead of being organised around a rhythmic backbone, the musical parts may grow and die away according to their own timbral development, leaving space behind when they go which can be filled with new parts and textures.
Hybridised forms of Ambient, such as Illbient or Ambient House, do contain rhythmic elements, however. These are generally at a tempo a tad slower than in their non-Ambient incarnations: in the mid-high 80s for Illbient (an Ambient/ hip hop crossover) and the low 120s for Ambient House.
Ambient pieces are sometimes on a scale approaching epic - with tracks lasting for half an hour or more! Needless to say, it would be quite hard to sustain a verse/ chorus form over this duration. Rather, Ambient music tends to go through gradated sections, which bleed into each other over a common thread, such as a drone. The gradual fading in and out of different parts, colours - this is what gives Ambient its shape. The clearly demarcated sectional boundaries of more rhythmic music gives way to smoother transitions, often developing in an arc shape.
Ambient elevates the spatial characteristics of music, too. Space can be more than just the stereo stage (the space between your speakers) or a reverb setting: it can be surround sound (front and back, as well as left and right), as well as pitch or spectral space (the distance between a low note and a high note, or a band-passed sound and a broadband sound). The way in which different layers can be treated differently in space, and the interplays created in doing so, are another important part of Ambient music. Try thinking about how the space, or dead air of silence, is filled and emptied over time, rather than what happens after a certain number of repetitions, and you'll be well on the way to mastering the art of Ambient loveliness!