Ambient music is a popular genre of atmospheric music, loved for its soothing, emotional and relaxing effects. Ambient sounds are enriched with abstract noises, texture and subtle melodies. So, it’s no surprise that many producers want to learn how to create ambient music.
With loose structures and lack of pronounced beats, producing ambient music seems easy. That is, until you try it yourself.
Whilst the components of ambient music production are often minimal, the details certainly aren’t. Ambient music productions are rich with sonic details, with unique layering and mixing techniques that blend each sound into an immersive soundscape.
This can be a bit of a challenge, especially for beginners. We’ve put together 7 tips for creating ambient music. These include production, mixing and processing techniques, as well as tips around the best ambient music tools.
What is ambient music?
Ambient music is a genre of music that focuses largely on atmosphere, tone and mood. In contrast to many other genres, ambient music rarely features a persistent beat. It is sometimes described as atmospheric music, mostly because ambient instrumentals are designed to create a sonic atmosphere.
There are many forms that ambient music can take, but one thing that they all have in common is the use of expressive sound design, panning, reverb and texture.
You can get an idea of the types of sounds used in ambient music in this Spotify playlist: Ambient Essentials.
How to make ambient music
Ambient music might sound simple, but producing it is not always that straightforward. As a genre of music that focuses on atmosphere and tone, ambient music production comes with the difficulty of creating unique, rich sound environments - with no beat or vocals to hide behind.
Here are some simple steps to help you produce quality ambient music.
1. Define the mood
Start by deciding on the kind of mood you want to create with your ambient track. There are so many types and approaches to ambient music that it’s useful to define your direction from the very beginning.
Listen to different ambient tracks for inspiration. You’ll find that ambient music comes in a variety of flavours. So ask yourself, what kind of ambient music do you want to produce?
One method that can help you decide on the mood of your ambient track is to visualise a space where your track would exist. For a genre that’s all about atmosphere, this can really help you imagine how your track might sound in context. Will it set the atmosphere for a relaxed rainy day? A sad film? Or something otherworldly?
Visuals and sounds go hand in hand, so this is a great method to help you start planning your approach to ambient music production.
2. Choose your chords
Once you’ve decided on the mood of your track, it’s time to start bringing it to life with the chord progression to match. If you are familiar with how chords and scales work, start trialling different progressions until you find a combination that you are happy with.
For producers who are less familiar with chord progressions, chord generators are a really useful way to discover chord progressions for your music.
Your chords will give you the right foundations to build texture, atmosphere and melody when producing the rest of your ambient track.
Consonant vs dissonant chords
Broadly speaking, chords can be consonant or dissonant. Each of these types can create a different effect in mood, and can add an interesting edge to your ambient music.
Consonant chords - notes that sound ‘good’ together and are used more conventionally, such as middle C and G.
Dissonant chords - notes that sound more jarring together, such as middle C and C sharp.
3. Layer sounds
One of the most common ambient music production techniques is layering. Layering instruments, audio and texture tracks gives the sound a fuller and more complete atmosphere.
A common technique in ambient music production involves gradually introducing each layer one by one. This is often done by slowly increasing the amplitude, or slowly lifting a low pass EQ filter using automation.
Layering is used by ambient artists such as Grouper. In this track, “Moon is Sharp”, you’ll hear the many different subtle layers introduce themselves one after another. These are layered so intricately that it’s almost hard to notice, with different chords, textural noises, vocal harmonies and synths threading together to create a full ambient environment. Listen to the track here:
Which sounds should I layer?
Ambient music production is flexible and creative. When choosing which sounds to layer in your mix, it completely depends on what sounds right together.
Though, if you’re not sure where to start, here are some useful sources for different ambient sounds.
To make ambient music, you’ll need the right VST (Virtual Studio Technology) instruments to create synth, pad, and atmospheric sounds. Some of the most common ambient VSTs include:
- Absynth 5 - Native Instruments
- Omnisphere 2 - Spectrasonics
- Ethereal Earth - Native Instruments
- Auras - Slate and Ash
- Iris 2 - iZotope
Check out our full list of the best ambient VSTs here.
Another great way to add texture is with field recordings. This essentially includes any everyday sounds that occur around us, sometimes referred to as foley sounds. You can source field recordings yourself, or source these from online sound libraries such as:
4. Add texture
Texture can really bring an ambient track to life, transforming a dull and clean mix into something warm and atmospheric. Ambient music producers will spend a lot of time focusing on sound texture. It makes sense, as a lot of ambient tracks rely on texture to sound more unique.
You can create texture through a variety of sound design and mixing methods. The easiest way to create texture is with VST effects, which let you modulate sounds in endless ways. Common texture-based VSTs include audio saturation, distortion, delay, chorus, reverb and flanger plugins.
There are also VST plugins specifically designed to add textural sounds, such as dust, vinyl crackle, mechanical noise, tape noise, nature environments and more. This includes VSTs like Textures by Clark Audio. Adding white noise is also a great way to fill the sonic space in your ambient mix.
Granular synthesis is a sound design method that lends itself perfectly to ambient music production. This technique splits audio into tiny fragments, each becoming around 1ms to 100ms long. The fragments are then rearranged and replayed at different amplitudes and frequencies, creating a unique sound energy and atmosphere.
Sound stretching is a simple but extremely effective way to introduce more texture into your ambient music. Ambient music is normally slow paced, so stretching out audio samples can work really well in your mix and result in a grittier texture.
Stretching sounds to longer extremes can generate some unexpected and unique sounds. Many ambient music producers clip these sounds and incorporate them as textures within the mix. All you have to do is drag out the audio file in your DAW until it is stretched to a suitable length. Then, play the track back and listen for any interesting sounds.
5. Add reverb and delay
Reverb and delay are probably the most obvious aspects of ambient music production. The genre is famous for its long, drawn out sounds and ethereal soundscapes, which is where reverb and delay can help.
Processing an instrument with reverb can be the perfect way to create atmosphere in your ambient track. This will bleed the sound out into the surrounding atmosphere, adding space and depth. Using the right amount of reverb will also help blend sounds together.
You can think of reverb like a watercolour painting. The more water you add to the canvas, the more the paint and colours will blend together. Though, too much water will reduce the depth and detail. Reverb in ambient music production is exactly the same, so go easy.
Similarly, delay lends itself perfectly to ambient music production. Like reverb, delay will also help fill the sonic space with richer atmospheric sounds, though delay can also help introduce subtle rhythmic elements to your track.
6. Reverse sounds
Reversed sounds work perfectly in ambient music. Whether you’re reversing a sound to create a more musical layer, or a texture layer - reversed sounds will often work in your favour with interesting results.
The great thing about reversed sounds is that they maintain their textural properties while contributing to the track’s melodic structure. Reversed sounds can often generate long fade-ins, especially when clipping the end of the original unreversed sample, where the sound is fading out.
If a certain sound in your ambient mix just doesn’t sound right, try reversing it to see if this makes it sound better.
7. Use soft dynamics
Ambient music production is all about soft and subtle details. To soften the sounds in your ambient mix, use soft sound dynamics. Focus on shaping softer sound envelopes, easing each sound with slow attack and release times.
This will help reduce the contrast between sounds and make each sound layer less jarring.
Soft attack - use long attack times to gently ease sounds in. Long attack times are usually around 250ms or longer.
Soft release - use longer release times to ease sounds out more gradually.
What instruments are used to create ambient music?
Ambient music producers use a range of instruments and tools to create ambient tracks and soundscapes. With the right processing, almost any instrument can be modulated into an ambient sound. You’ll commonly find acoustic instruments used in ambient music productions, often processed with heavy reverb and delay.
Whether you’re looking to create clean and digital sounding ambient music, or grittier, textured soundscapes, VSTs are a versatile option when producing ambient sounds.
To conclude, there is no one concrete way to make ambient music. The genre lends itself well to creativity, and ambient producers should feel open minded when creating new sonic spaces.
That being said, there are still several tried and tested ambient music production techniques that will help you create better ambient sounds. From layering, adding texture, using reverb, to incorporating soft dynamics, there are many approaches to experiment with.
Ambient Tapes and Textures
The ambient sample pack from Pitchbends
Ambient Tapes and Textures is designed to give you full creative flow with a collection of unique ambient sounds. 340 samples, processed with ambient texture in mind. Get creative with ambient loops, chords, one shots and textures, all in one sample pack.