Both Michael Scott Dawson and Claire Rousay have distinct approaches to producing free-form, highly expressive ambient music.
Using tape loops and processed guitar, Dawson’s Music For Listening uses elements of chance and improvisation to create flowing, meditative pieces. Rousay’s new record, Everything Is Already Perfect, layers a variety of sound sources over carefully selected field recordings, resulting in something both highly personal and surprisingly abstract.
As part of our recent editorial dive into ambient music production, we asked the two composers to give us insight into their own creative process and offer some advice for those looking to find their own voice in ambient music. .
1. How to start a track
“When I start a new project, I usually assign myself parameters to work within. I’ll choose an approximate duration, a key, as well as an emotion in which I want the track to exist. recording, these parameters change. Anyway, I prefer to start with some basic guidelines. Once these parameters are in place, I decide on a field recording or a sample that captures the emotion that I’m trying to convey. Once that’s been selected, the rest of the composition and production seems to flow much more smoothly than it would without those settings.
2. How to know when a song is finished
“I stop working on something once it starts to sound bad. If I feel like a piece isn’t finished but it’s started to sound bad, I put it aside until I wanted to work on it again. So many people insist on making the perfect record or “everything has its place” in music. I don’t think that way. My recorded work tends to be lo -fi, partially free, and prioritizes conveying emotion over sonic perfection I decide things are over when listening to the recording touches me in an emotional way.
3. How to maintain momentum in longer pieces
“Whenever I work on longer pieces, I try to center the track around a single theme. This theme can be some sort of musical motif or an abstract emotion or feeling that I want to convey. Working on longer pieces of music is easier for me when I have a single melody or theme. This way I have something to properly measure each contribution. Everything in the piece then refers to a single idea.
4. How I tackle writer’s block
“I actively try to avoid writer’s block by following a daily check-in routine during times when I’m not traveling. I try to record something new every day, usually before 12:00. It could be anything (a field recording outside my house, a demo idea for a longer track, a short piece of electronic music, etc.). 90% of these recordings never leave my hard drive. It suits me well because it’s the daily ritual of creating something new that I pursue after all.
5. How I communicate my ideas
“I have certain techniques that help me communicate my ideas better than other techniques. I don’t place much importance on having my own sound and I absolutely don’t believe in having a singular sound. I think identifying too closely with a specific sound or style can be dangerous to the creative process. Some of the techniques or sounds I like to communicate with include voice to text, automatic tuning, field recordings with minimal activity, and multitrack/layer piano.
Michael Scott Dawson
1. Give yourself the freedom to experiment
“There is an inevitable debate that often arises alongside the mere mention of mood, whether certain processes have more artistic value than others. If you Google ambient production tips, you’ll often find remarks from some sage or other grunt that all you have to do is put a ton of reverb and delay on your guitar.
“While I suppose this may be accurate advice to some extent, it is frustrating and reductive both for the curious musician wishing to explore the genre and for the genre itself. Whether you wish to compose austere works and minimalist or create a shimmering wall of sound, I encourage you to take the time to explore and find sounds that resonate with you. Accept creating a lot of waste in the process. One of the most basic things we should do as human beings is to encourage and support others in their creativity.”
2. Adopt everything you have to work with
“Don’t dwell on all the equipment you would like to have. Background music is intertwined with technology, from recording software to the constant output stream of boutique pedals or the constant evolution of mind-blowing modules for modular synths, but it is certainly not imperative to have the last of everything to create something meaningful.
“At the heart of it all, a piano is a piece of technology. We now take for granted what it was meant to do, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t endless possibilities of things it could do yet. I’m pretty confident that with enough tinkering and heart, you could create a truly beautiful record with just your phone and the sound of your neighbor’s wind chimes.
3. Try different loyalty qualities
“Try different ways to juxtapose these elements. I guess it’s like when you see a photo of a Kardashian wearing a pair of thousand dollar shoes with a Slayer tee. If you’re creating entirely in a digital workspace, explore ways to generate a variety of sonic qualities. Try EQing a synth pad down to a tinny, high sizzle or using tape emulation plugins to overdrive or jitter tracks. If you’re working with analog or hybrid instrumentation, try recording with anything you can find, from tape recorders to answering machines.
“I’m always interested in exploiting (or celebrating) the flaws and shortcomings of older technologies. Pull an old VCR out of the basement and record some audio on that dusty VHS tape of Friends episodes you saved for some reason. On my record I had made vocal notes on my phone of acoustic guitar ideas that I liked, but in the end there was a quality to those recordings that I preferred to my efforts to properly mic the guitar , so that’s what I ended up using in the mixes.
4. Let some things live on the sidelines
“Whether you’re working with a software synthesizer or running a guitar through stereo reverb, the default will be hard panning in both speakers. Although it sounds big and spacious, try to tuck them in slightly and leave some space around the periphery of your mix for textural elements or sounds coming in and out of your track. Having these tracks sitting all the way L or R is really going to create a sense for listeners that things are expanding and/or expanding and contracting slightly.
“Speaking of stereo tracks, explore the stereo field and look for balance. Recording everything in full stereo will sound great until it doesn’t anymore… Once you step away a bit (literally and figuratively) from your mix, you’ll probably find you’ve got a cloudy mess. Keep a few tracks in mono and find a nice place for them to live in one speaker or the other. This will bring much more clarity and depth. I also like to automate some panning on one or two subtle elements to make them oscillate side by side between other sounds and create a feeling of movement in the headphones.
5. Take time to listen to the world
“I find that environmental sounds are not only a constant source of inspiration, but they directly influence my palette of tones and textures. Consider how pleasant sounds travel the world, whether it’s the punchy rumble of a distant train passing or the muffled rhythm of a broom sweeping a sidewalk. How could you create similar sounds in your own songs?
“Also consider incorporating field recordings into the music. When I made my first record, I had finished all the instrumentation and found myself noticing environmental sounds that I thought would feel comfortable in songs, so I captured recordings on the field afterwards. With my new record, it started with a field recording and the musical elements were then created and arranged around them.