Listen to any commercially-made song and you’ll notice it’s full. I mean that literally – the frequency spectrum is filled out and, even in a track where there are minimal elements, it still sounds complete. Now think about your own efforts. Chances are, at some point in your producing career, you’ve created a track that just doesn’t quite sound complete. In other words, it’s missing something. It feels empty at certain points, and even if it was mixed well, your song still lacks something. If only you knew what was missing…
Enter atmosphere and ambience. As producers, our job is to ensure a full, complete, finished product. At early stages in the journey, an incomplete sound is mistaken for not enough elements. You might think there should be more going on. More drums or more synth lines perhaps. But when you add these elements, they muddy up the song and it starts to sound like crap. The clarity and brilliance that once existed now has disappeared.
If you find yourself relating, then the answer is found in creating atmosphere and ambience. Knowing is only half of it, though. Just how does one create ambience in a track? How do you set up an environment or atmosphere? How can you build a living, breathing world for your music? This can be a hard nut to crack, considering your entire world will exist for only 5-10 minutes (depending on your genre). The goal is to create a dynamic, evolving, breathing world that you can layer behind your elements. For example, when the break arrives, and everything gives way to just a simple kick-and-bass combo, you need to make sure suddenly things don’t seem empty and vacant.
I know the struggle for attaining atmosphere and ambience quite well. That’s why I’ve put together a list of solutions for creating a backdrop for your tracks. These have all helped me at one point or another, and depending on the style of music you’re creating, they should help you too!
Here are some links for readily accessible atmospheric sounds.
NASA’s Sound Library – They’ve got everything from the Shuttle program and the International Space Station to sound clips from the Mercury program in the early 1960’s.
FreeSound.org – This site contains a huge collection of audio recordings and samples. As the name suggests, they’re completely free. You can find practically anything on here, from machines to revving engines to vocals!
Creating Your Own Ambience
Can’t find what you’re looking for? Create your own noises. Below are some ideas to get you started on making some of your own atmospheric effects.
- Vinyl Sounds – Use a vinyl emulation plugin. Ableton has one called Vinyl Distortion. Similarly, Izotope has a free plugin called Vinyl. You could also sample a record from your collection.
- Tape Effects – Again, there are plugins for this. You could try the Waves’ plugin called Kramer Master Tape. Alternatively, try the plugin PSP Vintage Warmer. A third option is to watch this video about recreating tape effects in Ableton modeled after the method Boards Of Canada used. I find the video to be very informative about creating a tape machine right in your DAW.
- Noises – A more common option is to apply some noise in the background of your songs. You can use a synth with a noise generator or simply a recording of white, pink or brown noise. Experiment by running the noise through a filter, phaser, flanger, or some other effect until you’re satisfied with the results. Then just lower the channel fader until your noise sits comfortably in the background.
- Field Recordings – This is a great option. Whether you’ve got an actual field recorder or just an ordinary iPhone, you can go out into the world and record the sounds you observe all around you. Record them and import them into your DAW.
- Pads and Synths – You could also take certain airy pad or synth sounds and mess with them until they sit softly in the background. Try adding a hi-pass filter all the way up to 15kHz. Or, add a long reverb tail to your pad and set the dry level to 0% so the original sound is muted and all you get is the reverb.
- Time Stretching – Here’s a unique approach. Take an audio sample and time-stretch it. For example, a 30-second recording becomes a 30-minute recording. That by itself will sound like a very atmospheric noise, and you can then add reverb or a delay to it.
Once you’ve got some atmospheric effects, you can mess around even further by side-chaining your background noises to your drums or some other instrument.