Atmospheric Sound Design
Tips and tools for rethinking the ‘background’ of your track
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.