At­mo­spheric Sound De­sign

Tips and tools for re­think­ing the ‘back­ground’ of your track

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

When we make mu­sic, it’s tempt­ing to sim­ply think about each new track we add as a new sound and there­fore a new piece in a jig­saw. But, rel­a­tively speak­ing, jig­saws are flat, al­most two-di­men­sional en­ti­ties, whereas mixes are not. From hard left to hard right, they of­fer a hor­i­zon­tal frame and from sub bass to shim­mer­ing tre­ble, they pro­vide a ver­ti­cal one. But through thought­ful use of re­verb, care­fully cho­sen vol­ume, a re­duced tim­bral foot­print, in­creased stereo width and any num­ber of other tech­niques, we have the ca­pac­ity to set sounds ‘back’ in a mix, to create a never-end­ing ar­ray of beds, at­mos­pheres, drones and tex­tures. This fea­ture is all about cel­e­brat­ing those back­ground noises, the can­vasses on which we paint the more fore­ground el­e­ments of a mix.

What­ever mu­sic you make, there’s plenty to con­sider over the next few pages. We’ll en­cour­age you to create new tex­tures from found sounds, ma­nip­u­late ex­ist­ing tex­tures us­ing plug­ins de­signed to make sounds evolve and how to see ‘noise’ as some­thing to be en­cour­aged rather than erad­i­cated. Let’s get started.

The sound of the sounds

Close your eyes and think of the sound of a piano. How does it sound? Be­fore you re­ply ‘Well, it sounds like a piano’, roll your eyes and turn the page, con­sider the ques­tion again. Does the piano you’re imag­in­ing sound like the dusty, noise-heavy piano Jon Hop­kins recorded for Aban­don

Win­dow? Or does it sound like a con­cert grand made by Stein­way or Bösendor­fer, with its player des­per­ately try­ing to chan­nel the spirit of Rach­mani­noff as he or she pow­ers through a con­certo? Per­haps the piano you have in mind is a Felt model, as favoured by com­posers like Óla­fur Ar­nalds, or maybe you have a spe­cific soft­ware piano in mind, like NI’s The Grandeur, Spec­tra­son­ics’ Keyscape or Sound­iron’s Emo­tional Piano. What’s quickly be­com­ing clear is that the word ‘piano’ no longer means one thing. In­stead, this in­stru­ment is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of so many other in­stru­ment types, in that we com­posers now have a chance not only to pick a spe­cific in­stru­ment but also a chance to se­lect its mood, flavour or at­mos­phere. And with that choice comes a chance to make more in­ter­est­ing mu­si­cal de­ci­sions.

You could call this con­cept ‘the sound of the sounds’; we now have a mil­lion dif­fer­ent sonic colours to choose from, even when we’ve picked the type of in­stru­ment we want to use. All of which means we’re in the en­vi­able po­si­tion not only to de­sign ‘stand­out’ sounds which oc­cupy the fore­ground of our lis­ten­ers’ at­ten­tion but also to spend as long con­cen­trat­ing on sounds which might oc­cupy the more hazy, dis­tant back­ground. For this fea­ture, we’ll fo­cus on de­sign­ing in­di­vid­ual sounds, sonic treat­ments and sound­scapes which keep the can­vasses of our tracks wide, tall, tex­tured and de­tailed.

There are many ex­am­ples to demon­strate the tech­niques we’re look­ing at but the al­ready-men­tioned Jon Hop­kins is a mas­ter of such tex­tures and we’ll put some of his ap­proaches un­der the mi­cro­scope. Equally, we’ll look at the sorts of sounds favoured by techno artists like Daniel Av­ery, as well as film com­posers like Hans Zim­mer and even the dystopian sound­scapes of pro­duc­ers such as Burial. What these artists share is a de­sire to en­sure that re­peated lis­ten­ing to tracks and al­bums con­stantly throws up new, un­ex­pected gems as the fuzzy, dis­tant, back­ground sounds on which these tracks are founded re­veal their se­crets. We’ll dis­cover that that move­ment is cen­tral to many of the tech­niques we’ll ex­per­i­ment with.

Equally, we’ll ex­plore our con­cept of ‘noise’ and how dust, arte­facts and im­per­fec­tions can of­ten have the ef­fect of en­hanc­ing a track. Where these sounds come from is up to you; you can make them in synths, record through mi­cro­phones or you can ma­nip­u­late them in post­pro­duc­tion; as ever, study­ing all of these tech­niques will only make your sound de­sign skills more de­vel­oped and your tracks more cre­ative.

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