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Using Ambient Techniques For Composing

by
This post is part of a series called Songwriting & Composing: From Inspiration to Execution.
10 Cures For A Songwriting Slump
From Composing to Recording - Producing an Album with a Band

"In modern recording one of the biggest problems is that you're in a world of endless possibilities. So I try to close down possibilities early on. I limit choices. I confine people to a small area of maneuver. There's a reason that guitar players invariably produce more interesting music than synthesizer players: you can go through the options on a guitar in about a minute, after that you have to start making aesthetic and stylistic decisions. This computer can contain a thousand synths, each with a thousand sounds. I try to provide constraints for people."
- Brian Eno

Flickr Image by Eptin


Introduction

I've been thinking a lot lately about limitations and possibilities in relation to composing. Using computers and software packages such as Logic, Cubase, Sonar, or Reason, our musical possibilities are nearly endless. Even so, I often find myself sitting in front of my workstation, clicking through hundreds of synth or sampler presets rather than actually writing music.

The great ambient and minimalist composers of our time clearly understand the potential pitfalls of our nearly limitless options. Their solution is to attempt to create with less - to create a complete musical world in any given moment, but to do so under a specific set of rules or restrictions. Those rules and restrictions can vary widely from composer to composer, but fortunately for us, using any one of their techniques can be helpful for nearly any style of music.

In this tutorial, we'll examine a few simple techniques you can use when composing music - whether ambient, minimalist, or even rock or pop. Any artist can benefit from learning these techniques, and applying them to get through writer's block, to challenge their creativity in new ways, or to simply refine and practice their various skills.


Limit Your Choices

As Brian Eno noted in the quote above, limiting choices can be a quick and easy way to force a new perspective on composing. By reducing possibilities, you necessitate thinking within a smaller area. When you're confined to a smaller set of possibilities, you must examine all the unconscious choices you might normally make when writing a given track.

Flickr image by bredgur

One powerful way to impose limits is to change your composing software. For example, for some of my new tunes, I'm using GarageBand - not because I think it is necessarily the best tool for the job, but rather because it already presents me with a more limited set of choices as far as sound creation and manipulation is concerned. While Logic is my primary DAW, the vast array of features and sonic possibilities can sometimes be an embarrassment of riches. Using GarageBand here requires that I make choices about performing, recording, editing and processing, within a different, smaller set of possibilities.

So - limiting our software is one means of limiting our choices. Here are a few other ways we can limit our choices that might ultimately serve our compositional goals.

  • Limit Software Choices - Use a simpler DAW, use only MIDI, use only audio, or compose an entire tune using only one softsynth.
  • Limit Post-Processing - Don't use any form of compression, EQ or other mastering techniques to finalize your song. Get the mix sounding great while you're composing and leave it at that.
  • Limit Harmonic and Melodic Content - Try limiting your song to only a few chords, or a few simple melodic phrases. Remember that you still need to keep the music engaging - if not interesting - for the listener!
  • Limit Rhythmic Content - Try composing a tune with no discernible meter or tempo. Or try composing in a new time signature such as 7/8 or 5/4.
  • Limit Form - Try working with a more simple or a more complex musical form - something other than your usual ABBA song form, etc.

As you begin to experiment with techniques like these, you'll find many of them are uncomfortable and simply don't feel 'right' for your composing style. This is a good thing! That discomfort means that you are beginning to develop musical-muscles you've not used before. When we've been lazy and not exercised in awhile, we find our muscles and joints tend to resist (or protest) when we finally decide to go out for a run. Just so, our musical fitness is limited to the muscles we use or don't use - so workout using the full range of your capabilities. I guarantee you'll be surprised by the results.


Go Organic

With the ease and power of our DAWs, softsynths, and samplers, many of us get stuck in the land of the synthetic. A powerful way of breathing new life into our musical compositions is to require that we 'go organic' and use more (or exclusively) organic sounds.

Flickr image by Secret Tenerife

Incorporating organic sounds can mean a lot of different things, so let's look at some possibilities.

  • Replace Synth Tracks With Acoustic Tracks - Replace one or more of your existing tracks with acoustic renditions of the same. Where there once might have been a monophonic lead synth, instead use a clarinet or flute or vocal. Once you've recorded it, use post-processing to reshape it and mold it to fit your track.
  • Use Found Sounds - We've seen a few tutorials already (like this one) on how field recordings or found sounds can help you create a unique and one-of-a-kind palette for your music. Spend some time recording sounds from your home, neighborhood, or city - and seek to find new ways to incorporate these sounds into your music.
  • Organic As Waveform - For the more advanced sampling geeks out there you might consider sampling some organic sounds, and then editing your sounds down to smaller waveform chunks - even as small as a single cycle. From there, you can load these waveforms into your sampler of choice and create new instruments.
  • Go All In - When was the last time you simply started making noise on everything around you and recording? Set up a microphone in the middle of your room, put on some headphones, and start recording. Then, begin 'playing' your room. When you come to some kind of logical conclusion, stop recording, arm a new track and repeat. You can begin to create some really unique soundscapes this way that can lead to new sample sets, new rhythm tracks, or with some clever post-processing, ambient pads or beds.
  • Use A Band Aid - Adapt one of your all-electronic tracks into an all-acoustic track. Invite over some of your musically talented friends, buy them lunch and beer, and spend the day recording and arranging your tune on nothing but acoustic instruments. This can be an amazingly fun and liberating process for the musician who normally works solo, in a small room, with only electronics... Like me.

Play With Contrast

Sometimes, musicians can be intimidated by their own power of expression. Case in point: when was the last time you made a REALLY loud, explosive, harsh or grating song? Alternatively, if you're in a speed-metal or a hardcore artist of some kind, when was the last time you made a REALLY mellow, chill track?

Flickr image by aussiegall

You might say to yourself, "I make the kind of music I make, and I'm not interested in making something different." Again - consider this as a form of 'practice', much like playing scales or learning new rhythms - and a means of flexing your musical muscles. learn to play with contrast, within a song, and with songs on the whole.

With techniques like this, it is important not to get caught up in the aesthetic - don't worry too much about how the final product sounds or if anyone will like it. This is a practice - so take it as such. Play with extreme contrasts in volume, in texture and timbre. Compose a song where every track uses some form of heavy distortion. Alternatively, compose a track where every sound has a drawn out and soft attack. Then experiment with juxtaposing those two elements within the same song.

One of my favorite examples of this technique is used to great effect by Peter Gabriel in his song 'Darkness' from the 'Up' album. Note how dramatic the shift is from intro to verse - soft, muted arpeggio, followed by harsh distorted guitar. This technique repeats in the contrast from verse to chorus and bridge.


Stillness and Motion

Trees, while generally not considered a 'mobile' thing, are rarely still. There is an inherent contrast between the looming solidity of a tree trunk, and the subtle wavering of the limbs, branches and leaves.

Flickr image by Lincolnian (Brian)

As composers, one of our most powerful allies in affecting emotion in our listeners is the power of dynamics. On the surface level, dynamics can simply refer to the apparent loudness or softness of a particular musical element. More generally, however, dynamics refer to the inherent stillness or motion within a given piece. This encompasses not only volume changes, but also tempo, attack, sustain, and the changes of a given element over time.

There are a vast number of ways we can play with motion and stillness in a song, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Automation - Experiment with automation of panning, volume, EQ and effects parameters over long periods of time.
  • Create Static - Experiment with the creation of static tracks - tracks that repeat, unchanged for long periods of time. These contrast well with the other tracks that might be changing around them.
  • Be Like The Trees - Okay, I couldn't think of a better way to describe this, but the idea here is that you have a relatively simple, subtle 'base' for your song. Then, you create a number of 'branch, limb and leaves' tracks that will move and flutter around that base track.

An excellent example of this technique can be found in Steve Roach's 'Fossil and Fern'.


Defy Expectation

Some styles of music thrive on setting up and delivering on musical expectation. For example, House and Trance music are especially effective in clubs and raves because they telegraph musical buildups and breakdowns to the listener. In this way, the listener has a certain expectation and they are rewarded when that expectation comes to pass, creating a kind of 'shared experience' as their dancing matches the music.

Flickr image by K. Kendall

Sometimes, however, it is just as powerful to disrupt expectations in our music because it can cause the listener to sit up and take notice. Here are a few ways you can defy expectation in your music.

  • Change Form - As noted above, experiment with placing verses, choruses, or bridges where you don't necessarily expect them.
  • Change Chords - Use careful placement of chords to disrupt normal cadences to create tension and release. Here's a great tutorial on cadences.
  • Replace Instruments - If you have a particular melodic or harmonic line, consider replacing the instrumentation for that line in one part of your song. For example, if your guitar has a harmony or rhythm part during the first verse, pass that part over to a piano during the second verse.
  • Don't Give Them What They Want (at least not yet) - If you're creating electronic music and working buildups and breakdowns, consider stretching them out to twice their normal length. Alternatively, once you've gone through a breakdown, don't go through a buildup - just go straight back to the full mix, etc.

Conclusion

These techniques should be, first and foremost, considered 'exercises'. Think of them as weightlifting or calisthenics for your music. The end results from these practices may not necessarily always be the best musical choice for your final compositions. However, having an understanding of these techniques, and using them selectively to limit the endless possibilities you are faced with as a composer, can only aid you in your quest to write great music.

I hope this tutorial has been helpful, and that you'll take a few of these ideas and use them in your own work. If you do, I'd love to know how they worked for you - please let me know in the comments!

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