Love thinking about this topic as I love (and make) ambient music myself.
There are, in my opinion, some phases in the process of completing the production of a piece of ambient music.
Some are a bit irrational, and somehow emotional/philosophical.
Some are rational and regard production techniques which enhance this type of music.
The irrational/emotional side of it:
- It starts with inspiration, which for me is often a sensation of going through a "journey".
- When I get an inspiration, with spontaneity, I try to get a rough take down playing anything I can reach, jamming (Live session view has been an eye opener). Technical or sound production details are in this phase not important (while a "sound" in itself is important, as it may be in itself the reason for the inspirational journey...).
- After I put things down (Ableton Live being ideal to get this quickly while "in the flow") I force myself to leave things I recorded down for a while, to forget them. A day is often enough. It may be months if I start doing something else.
PS: by the way Live 9 with its audio-to-midi has even improved the sketching part of it for me.....
The rational and production side of it.
Once in a while, when I feel to, I go back and listen to these takes. Here is when I feel (or rather not) if the sketch has depth and emotions.
And if something gets back to me at this level, I immediately get ideas on how to "dress" and "structure" the thing up further.
In other words, it gets time to start producing the idea in a piece of music.
The techniques I use are a matter of layers of paint:
- I often work a bit more on the harmonic side of things first. Ambient for me often drives to lush pads and sustained chords, typically in a progression form (a journey...). So I try to "complete" harmonically the original, spontaneous sketch by adding some chord variation to the main progression. Most of the time the chord progression remains quite simple and self repeating (a song-like structure of chorus, bridge etc does not fit the feeling of a journey in ambient music....) but is nice to have some spacey chords in there: like 7th minors, 9th minors or suspended chords. As I am not a trained musician, I made some tools myself in Max for Live to aid my harmonic research.... (free, have a look to http://fabriziopoce.com/HarmoTools.html
- Synth sounds based on saw and pulse waves often work for me and almost always in combination with quite some amount of modulation on the filter (cutoff and resonance, but also tracking). In alternative some FM-based pads or even a bit of rhodes.
- Then I often reach to some repetitive while evolving sequence of delicate muted-like sounds in combination with rythmic delays (yes, ping-pong in the PAN range). Typically I use some gating trick to not melt everything in too much of a delay sauce....
- The ping-pong rhythmic delay I use with some send automation also on the pads to give them only a "tail" while sweeping the filter. This is risky if you over do it, but if you use side chain compression and send automation can just give a bit of lovely windy effect...
- Then on the rhythmic side I like to keep percussions/drums minimalistic (I mean not too many percussions) but yet with some syncopation to make things a little funky and interesting. Things can range to simple 808 electro beats to cutting some loops and breaks. There is a way to set clip trigger and start quantization to less than 1 beat which is particularly useful for creating variations of patterns. Over patterns then I like to build them in Max for Live too.... but that's another story (tools I released as well).
- And then the basslines.... For me the groove is there. Either playing a real bass guitar or, to the other extreme, using a step sequencer / groovebox on a synth (even a bit 303/acid like). In this case I think you need the evolutions in modulation on the filter. Live has nice LFO's now. I also made some myself in Max for Live exactly to do modulations specially on synthetic basses.
- Then it depends if I want to keep things electronic (I do most of the time) or get wider. In this case I often grab my guitars (I have an acoustic and an electric one) and do (badly as I am on the instrument...) some jamming on top. I normally need to do quite some takes to get somewhere and then "cheat" a bit editing in Live recording creating some (eventually) large clips/loops of myself on the guitar (cut and paste / adjust by warping / apply a groove.... I can get where I want to).
- Then I try to put things good together. Live is quite good for it. Applying a groove from an un-quantized part (played by myself or taken from a loop) and applying it to some extent to the rhythmic (percs/bass) helps. So does using warping. I often keep the original clips of my sketch completely un-quantized to be able to add the human touch to the final version. So that I end up with a mix of quantized, un-quantized, warped and groove-applied stuff....
- Finally I concentrate on the mixing. But this is quite common to any type of electronic based music production: I often use side chain compression (on the lush pads especially), EQ (cutting bands I do not need from sounds to make the space), PAN (use the stereo range and do once in a while some panning change or evolution)
- And then..... I leave the thing again for a while...... 95% finished. Why? I discovered that coming back to it the day after, I like to cut some holes.... Like leave half a measure free in one part, remove part of another etc. A bit of a remix I would say. This normally works for me, making things build up without becoming too full.... It's ambient so even empty space sometimes works....
Uh.... I got carried out and wrote quite a lot!
Anyway, I love ambient music! And if you like have a listen to what I did (http://fabriziopoce.com/music.html