Drone, a subgenre of ambient, is an unflattering label for music. An annoying person drones on. Drones take intrusive photos or worse.
But “drone” makes sense. It really is what this music does. Moving slowly, almost imperceptibly. No drops or hooks. There is often no discernable tempo. When it’s done well, the listener can just be and focus fully on the sound.
My experience as a listener to drone music can be traced back to when I could have mostly been considered a metalhead (and metal still rules \m/). More specifically, the industrial, experimental leanings of Godflesh or the remix albums of Nine Inch Nails. The latter introduced me to Aphex Twin and later his Selected Ambient Works II album.
Presently, a few other artists I can think of that produce very good examples in this genre include Markus Guentner, Tim Hecker, BVDub, Rafael Anton Irisarri (particularly his “The Sight Below” project) and Chihei Hatakeyama.
So compelling was Guentner’s Soundcloud preview to his Theia album several years back, that I ordered the only vinyl record I’ve purchased in recent memory.
To me, 13 minutes of Theia’s first track Magnetar are not enough. The track seems to only be using two chords, but is nearly able to saturate my entire consciousness. Emotionally, it conveys a feeling of humble revelation in the presence of enormous energy; the listener being dwarfed by the size of planets and galaxies. The album’s namesake, Theia, is a hypothesized planet that smashed into the early solar system’s Earth forming the moon.
I can listen very closely to the sounds in Magnetar and new layers keep revealing themselves. There’s just so much going on for something moving so slowly. Notes in the lower registers are sustained without moving much, others are responsible for the slow movement between the two chords mentioned earlier. While at the top vaporous wisps and dry crackles indicate cosmic debris striking the hull of our spacecraft as it approaches the event horizon… I can’t help my imagination while listening to this.
Guentner, the others listed above and many more have an ability to summate layers of sound, filling in the entire frequency spectrum, while competently mixing everything. To me, this makes good drone music.
I’ve tried doing this myself. It's my nature to research the work of producers who seem to know what they’re doing before attempting my own experiments, but Markus et al have given me little to work with. For learning and creativity, I should be thankful for this. But I’d love to know how Magnetar was created!
Not all drone artists are cagey about their techniques. Look for “rbeny” on Youtube and you’ll find someone who is very open and happy to share how they’re arriving at their sounds. From what I've seen, he uses modular synths and other hardware with a mixture of generative sequencing and live interaction - good ol' knob twittling.
Much of Irisarri and Hatakeyama’s music is created using guitars and effects. Unlike rbeny, I believe they record live, real-time performances to which additional layers are added and effected to create the lush, dreamy results which I enjoy so much in their music.
I’ve also found that recording long passages of sounds from the real world brings life to an otherwise “in the box” process. Though I possess some hardware synths, the main instrument for my own drones has been the DAW. Bitwig in particular.
The centerpiece of most DAWs, the timeline, doesn’t always sit well with producing drone music. Rather than following a linear path, drone seems to occupy a “state”. A drone track starts in one state, and morphs through others. It may be my job to set the parameters and rules to define the shape and duration of those states.
Timelines are like a grid. It expects you to have some plan as to where things are headed. Ironically, Bitwig offers a tool called “the grid”, which doesn’t need a timeline at all. Bitwig's grid is like max/msp but far easier, in my experience. It's also like using a modular system, only without all the boutique hardware.
So this is a tool I’ve used to bring about drones and ambient music that doesn’t benefit from a timeline’s static road map. Below is a video recording of a fun competition where we were required to create something in the grid using only ten “squares”.
Bitwig has an especially strong set of options when it comes to sending generative, semi-random modulation signals to parameters in synths and effects. Above this is being done completely within the grid.
Individual software instruments can have their own set of modulators, and those instruments can be grouped with each group having a set of their own modulators. Then you can modulate those modulators… It can go on and on like this.
In my song Promise I did such a layering mixing 2 sampler instruments loaded with resampled chords. I think the chords were originally played back with a soft synth and effects. With a simple pair of notes harmonizing two of these sampled triads a fourth from one another, I could animate a number of instrument and effects properties creating a perpetual evolution of sonic variation. A third sampler in this group played back a field recording of wind who’s amplitude I used to modulate the gain levels of the other 2 samplers via a side chain modulator.
To add additional texture I recorded a couple of external sources. In one I played a percussive pattern tapping sticks against a tongue drum. For the other I plugged in an electric guitar and pick-scraped a string that was in key.
The final major element in Promise is the bass sound. For this I recorded myself playing 2 notes on a soft-synth switching between the two when it felt correct to do so. Like the tongue drum tapping, I didn’t listen to a click and ignored the tempo set in the DAW.
I found a pleasant vista near my house and shot enough high speed video to couple the track with a simple visualization. I find adding a visual element both satisfies my interest in videography and adds a fitting accompaniment to this music.