I love recording ambients. When I’m at a new place, I ALWAYS listen to how it sounds – preferably when it’s silent. Okay, it’s never *truly* silent – even when there are no noisy humans around (and even that could be an interesting ambient sound) there’s always some kind of sound.
For instance, when I started working at a bar, I noticed how it sounded when there wasn’t a party going on. No people. No music. Just the airconditioning, the fridges and some humming from appliances in the background when you turned them on.
Sometimes, you instantly have the perfect sound. Other times, it’s not really interesting on it’s own, or you need to layer some of your recordings for this or some other project.
It’s just like layering sandwich toppings, to be honest: cheese on it’s own is a bit boring, and neither does ham or ketchup. But when you combine all 3 flavours, you’re in for a nice lunch!
What do you need for ambient layering?
Seriously, there’s not much you need for layering sounds:
- Ambient loops with parts you like. And then I’m not talking beginning/middle/end, but low/medium/high frequencies.
- A sound editor that lets you cut sound files, and has a fade function and an equalizer. Audacity for example should work just fine. I use Logic Pro because I already have it.
- The ability to distinguish low sounds from high sounds.
So how do you layer ambients?
1 – Choosing your basis
Chances are there is a sound that’s more or less what you’re looking for. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s almost there! Let’s use that sound as our base layer.
Always make sure you work with the best quality audio possible. You can always reduce file size (and thus quality), but you can never add it.
Also, in this tutorial, the sound files you start out with, don’t necessarily need to be looping sounds. Just mak sure they are lengthy enough to loop them in the end.
2 – Listen
Play the sound and listen carefully. What is it you love in the sound? Is it the rumbling bass, or the screechy high parts? And what is your sound lacking?
3 – Search for complementing sounds
When you have decided what your base sound is lacking, go search for sounds that precisely fill in that need. Drag them into your sound editor and line them up with the beginning of your first layer.
4 – Some basic EQ-ing
Of course there are parts of your complementing sound layers you don’t need, or that clash with your original sound, for example more or different low frequencies. Put an equalizer (EQ) on each channel and use the high and low shelf functions to reduce some of these frequencies.
Sometimes you can be quite rigid and really cut out the entire bass or treble section, but more often than not, you have to be a bit more careful and just make them less loud.
5 – Choose your length
How long should your ambient loop be? More than 2 minutes is often unnecessary. Sometimes one of the sounds is a bit shorter. That’s okay, you can make a shorter loop. Cut your layered tracks all on exactly the same length.
6 – Loop it!
Okay, now this is a bit difficult to explain, so I made a little drawing for you, which makes it easier to understand. You have to cut off a section at the end and drag it to the beginning. (And don’t worry, for multiple layers it works exactly the same.)
First add fade outs to the cut off sections: loud at the beginning, staying loud, still staying loud, and then quickly but smoothly turning silent.
Then add fade ins to the original longer sections. Don’t let them stay (visually) linear, but let them have a little downward curve in the middle. The end of the longer section will remain untouched.
Now play your creation on loop mode and check if the end loops seamlessly into the beginning. If the beginning sounds like it is raising or declining in volume, fiddle a bit with the “dip” of the fade in section.