There's a fine line that separates a spacious, atmospheric track from one that's washed out, overly wide, unintelligible, and otherwise unlistenable. Keeping that in mind, then how does one go about creating huge-sounding mixes with truckloads of space, atmosphere, and ambience?
As with most aspects of the recording arts, experimentation will uncover a great many unique sounds. That said, there are certain tips and tricks that almost every engineer or producer makes use of.
In this post, we'll explore seven concepts that you can employ — right now — to add ambience and atmosphere to your tracks.
Less is More
Especially if you're working on a busy mix, there's only so much space to go around — the sonic spotlight is only so big. Thus, if everything is up front and center, then nothing is up front and center — everything is just louder.
That's why it's important to decide which elements will be the focus of your mix and which elements will be the supporting elements in your mix. Choose what you want to highlight, then move everything else out of the way.
This concept applies to delay, reverb, and other spatial effects as well the tracks themselves. If you try to make everything sound huge and ambient, then nothing will sound huge and ambient — just really far away.
In many cases, lead vocals and instruments, bass, and drums will be the focal points of your mix; therefore, you'll want to keep those particular elements up front and in your face. Supporting instruments, such as synth pads and auxiliary percussion, are excellent candidates for heavy reverb processing.
Moreover, don't neglect the power of dynamics — everything doesn't have to be running on all cylinders all the time. Without volume variations (a chorus or drop with more energy than the rest of the song, for example), everything will sound the same, with nothing to grab your audience's ear.
The same also applies to reverb and ambient effects. Without dry elements to contrast with the reverb-drenched elements, everything will have an identical sound, with nothing standing out to attract your audience's attention.
Add Periodic Ambient Sounds
If you're working with a dry-sounding arrangement, and none of its primary elements sound right with heavy reverb processing, try adding short ornamental elements to your mix. Then apply heavy reverb to those elements.
For example, add a reverb-drenched tambourine to a sparse vocal/piano arrangement. Or add a delay-soaked orchestra hit to an electronic arrangement.
A variation on this theme is to use your DAW's automation to apply heavy ambient processing to short, periodic sections of a track (for example, add delay or reverb to a single word in a vocal line), then let the effect's tail fade out. This will create a beautiful sense of space without burying the entire track in echo.
Add Stereo Width to Your Tracks
Reverb and delay affect the front-to-back portion of the sound field, and that's what we tend to focus on when trying to add ambience and atmosphere to our tracks. That said, stereo width — the left-to-right portion of the sound field — is equally as important if you want to create huge-sounding productions.
You generally don't want to spread your mix's primary elements too wide, as this can lessen their impact and intelligibility. Pads, drones, and textures, on the other hand, stand up to the ultra-wide treatment beautifully.
Want a truly massive sound? Try crafting three textural layers and having them play the same part in unison. Then, leave one panned center while you pan the remaining two tracks wide.
Need more movement? Try autopanning the second two tracks from left to right, synchronized to the tempo of your session.
Add Groove Shadows
Searching for a way to add ambient depth to a drum loop without washing it out? If so, try placing a secondary, rhythmically contrasting loop underneath your main drum loop.
Keep your main drum loop dry, submerge the secondary track with a 100% wet reverb, then balance the two as you would with a reverb's wet/dry mix control. Finally, instantiate a compressor plug-in on the reverb channel, set its sidechain input to the primary drum loop, then dial in the compressor until you achieve a musical-sounding ducking effect.
Want to take it even further? Try printing the reverb to an audio track for creative slicing and dicing!
Add Rhythmic Textures
Adding sustained textural elements — vinyl crackle, tape hiss, or other non-pitched sounds — to your drum loops is a great way to make them "pop." That said, using a static texture can often sound more like unwanted background noise than like an interactive part of your track.
To rectify this and really make your drum loop stand out, use your drum loop (or your grouped drum tracks) as a sidechain for a compressor plug-in instantiated on the textural sound track. This will cause the volume of the textural sound to mirror the rise and fall of the drums, thereby gluing them together in a synergistic way.
A fun variation of this technique is to chop the sustained textural sound, in time with your drum loop, and leaving gaps during the silence between beats. You could also create a complementary groove shadow from your edited region as well.
Add Modulation or Pitch Effects
If you're working with a static, dull-sounding pad, drone, or sustaining synth texture, try livening it up with a modulation or pitch effect. It's amazing how much width, movement, and dimension modulation effects like chorus, flanging, and phasing can lend to an otherwise unremarkable texture.
If you really want to add width to a track, a detune effect can really make a difference. First clone your track. Then use a pitch-shift plug-in to bump one of the tracks up 10 cents and the other down 10 cents.
Finally, pan one track 100% left and the other 100% right. Doing this will add an almost unnatural width to your track.
If you're processing a background element, you can get pretty creative without affecting the vibe or character of your entire mix. Don't be afraid to get heavy handed if it sounds good!
Add Multiple Delays and/or Reverbs
Another great way to add ear-grabbing ambience to your tracks is to combine multiple delays and/or reverbs. This enables you to add long and short, as well as bright and dull, spatial effects to your tracks.
It's also extremely easy to tailor each effect's level and panning location using auxiliary sends and returns in your DAW (which can also be controlled using your DAW's automation), giving you a massive palette of ambient textures to work with.
A very effective way to add space and ambience to a track is to run it through multiple reverbs with increasingly longer pre-delay settings, and with each reverb sitting in a different spatial location.
For example, run your center-panned lead vocal track through two reverbs, one with its pre-delay synchronized to 1/8 of project's tempo, and another to 1/4 of your project's tempo. Pan the 1/8-set reverb aux track 100% left and the 1/4-set reverb aux 100% right.
If you're mixing in Dolby Atmos or Spatial Audio, you can also try placing the 1/8-set reverb in front (or above you) and placing the 1/4-set reverb behind you.
You could also set up two delays in parallel (i.e., the delay effects aren't feeding into one another), with one synchronized to 1/8 of project's tempo and another to 1/4 of your project's tempo, and with one panned 100% left and one panned 100% right.
Not only will multiple ambient effects lend ear-grabbing spatiality to your mix, since the effects are panned away from your center-panned track, you can get things pretty wet without robbing your track of clarity or intelligibility.
Nobody wants their mixes to sound flat and one-dimensional. That being said, you don't want your tracks to sound like they were recorded in an echo chamber, either.
That's why knowing where — and when — to place ambient effects within your mixes is so important. Keep following our blog for more ideas to help you level up your production skills.