#Musicproduction: Atmosphere- Why It Is So ImportantIn music, atmosphere often means many things. Maybe you're sitting at your laptop and thinking, “I would like an atmospheric sound.” Well, that might mean something ambient like Brian Eno to one person, or a kind of stratospheric post-rock like Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor to another. Or perhaps you want your music to transport listeners into another place, whether that place be real or imagined.
Creating an atmosphere can be about coping with positive and negative spaces. That's, the way you fill out the sound, or leave open spaces within it. Radiohead is very proficient at this. They know when to pack a song segment with melody and noise, and when to allow it breathe. A lot of it has related to the instruments used, the melodies, beats, and other sonic and songwriting elements.
As you can see, there are numerous approaches for creating or even just thinking about atmosphere in music. Here are a couple of approaches to carrying it out, whether it's layering sounds, creating alien soundscapes, collaging and sequencing different elements, or perhaps being inspired by something like an abandoned factory building.
Layering soundsWith the 2013 album Immunity, UK-based producer and musician Jon Hopkins created a recording rich in various atmosphere. Across eight tracks, Hopkins created sounds both rhythmic and tonal. A good album from start to complete, the song Abandon Window is among the record's most moving tracks, transporting the listeners to vistas that are both melancholic and hopeful.
Hopkins'genius on this track, much like ambient forefather Brian Eno—with whom he's worked—could be the blending of piano and synthesized textures. The piano's notes, spare though they're, create a sort of rhythm, drenched in reverb. Around this framework Hopkins weaves gorgeous electronic sounds that sound sometimes like a jet airplane, weather systems, low-level static, and even waves and underwater sounds. Hopkins has said that the song was written in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
If you wish to do something with your washes of sounds, that are both distinctive but build toward a monumental whole, you may need a few various kinds of instruments, whether that's hardware, software, analogue and digital, or some combination. And you'll probably need to do some sampling of, say, underwater environments, and then heavily affect many of these sounds.
Sinister SoundsAs part of Micachu and the Shapes, Mica Levi records and performs experimental pop with a post-punk edge. But while her pop sensibilities are strong, Levi also studied composition at Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, and wrote the score for Jonathan Glazer's dark, psychedelic science fiction film Under the Skin.The movie follows an extraterrestrial being who lures men with their deaths in a dark liquid substance, ahead of the being adopts human emotions herself.
Levi's score, using its collection of atonal drones and ambient synthesizers, has an alien quality that matches the film. The music, especially the song titled Lipstick to Void, is a superb way to consider atmosphere. There is nothing particularly alluring concerning the song—it abrasive, unsettling, and relentless. But Levi's atmospherics are also hypnotizing.
To produce this sort of sound, it's perhaps beneficial to throw percussion right out the window. What rhythm remains is sparse and minimal, and set to a really low tempo. This will free you up to work well with guitars, other stringed instruments like violins, synthesizers, samples, and even found audio as sound generators. From there, assist different tunings and play with various combinations of notes, and then run it all through Trash 2's distortions and filters, and even Digital Delay, to give the sounds and drones abrasive, yet hypnotic qualities.
Dense Atmospheres, Collage SoundsCollaged, experimental sounds that evoke various atmospheres go way back. Pierre Schaeffer was the early pioneer, but German experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (who recorded at Schaeffer's Paris studio in 1952) helped bring these experimental sounds to the mainstream; especially once the Beatles began experimenting with tape loops in the mid-to-late 1960s.
A modern electronic producer who makes really dynamic sound collages, both chaotic and beautiful, is Oneohtrix Point Never (aka, Daniel Lopatin). On his 2013 album Replica, in addition to on on other releases, Lopatin samples voices and sounds from YouTube and other sources, then cuts, pastes, and otherwise warps them into distorted sonic kaleidoscopes.
Like Schaeffer and Stockhausen before him, Lopatin creates dense atmospheres of collaged sound, turbocharged with the manic energy made possible by digital music software.
To approach atmosphere this way, consider various sound sources: your personal tunes, found sound, samples, anything really. Have them sampled into software like Ableton Live or another DAW, or into an item of kit as an Elektron Octatrack or Akai MPC sampler and sequencer, and begin arranging them in chromatic mode or as one-shot samples. For something such as Oneohtrix Point Never's tonalities, Trash 2 will be incredibly useful. The many components of the track could be tell you Trash 2 either before or after sampling, or during both processes.