You are here

Sound Design For Ambient Music

Creative Pitch
Published November 2018
By Paul White

You don’t have to play synths or ‘real’ instruments to make music: embrace the experimental, and you could use almost anything...

I’ve produced tracks in many different genres over the years, but when making my own music one of my favourite styles is what I call ‘ambient’. Being honest, I don’t know if that’s the perfect description for what I make — ‘ambient’ can mean different things to different people. But online distribution forces me to put my music into a category, and while there are elements of chillout and electronica in my music, it doesn’t fit those genres neatly, and neither does it feature the sort of rhythms you’d find in trance or EDM. And who wants to get bundled in with New Age?!

Whatever we call it, it’s a style that features lots of sound-design elements, some based on musical sources, others more from found sounds, such as mechanical noises and spoken word. I aim to conjure up a chilled overall feel, and this often turns out to be a fine balancing act, as there must be enough happening to hold the listener’s attention, but not so much as to break the mood of the piece.

Cydonia Collective's Stasis album.The style inspires me to explore my DAW’s editing tools and my sound-mangling plug-ins and gadgets in a way that more structured forms typically don’t, and as this sound-design approach could be used to benefit other genres — and because the reception my demonstration to a packed audience at last year’s New York AES suggests the style might be more popular than I’d initially thought — I decided to explain my approach here.

To accompany the article, I’ve provided a set of audio files (see sidebar at the right) taken from my AES seminar. These include before and after examples of the techniques I discuss here, as well as a mix of a short tune created specifically to showcase the processes I discuss. For more examples, check out the Bandcamp page of my current collaboration with musician Mark Soden, which goes under the name of the Cydonia Collective — all of the techniques covered here can be heard on both our debut album Stasis and our recently released follow-up Lost Horizon ( So have a listen, and if the sounds and textures appeal to you, read on to discover how it’s done...

The Germ Of Inspiration

Brian Eno is famously keen on embracing the unintentional, and I totally understand where he’s coming from. Rather than first write a song and...

You are reading one of the locked subscriber-only articles from our latest 5 issues.

You've only read 10% of this article, so to continue reading...

Option 1: Buy and download this single SOS article in Adobe PDF format

  • Buy this article now and immediately download the PDF file to your computer.
  • Single article PDFs look identical to the printed magazine layouts (but exclude advertisements).
  • Note: Some shorter articles don't always have a PDF version.

Option 2: Buy the Full Issue PDF **NEW**

  • From the January 2018 edition onwards, it is possible to buy a Full Issue PDF 'replica magazine' (with adverts) for the price of a handful of single PDF articles, and instantly download it. More info...

Option 3: Buy a Digital subscription from our shopstore

  • A Digital sub can be bought from our online ShopStore and used immediately, or contact our Subs staff to discuss an upgrade price to add Digital access to your existing Print subscription.
Published November 2018