8 creative atmospheric sound design tips

Want to make more of those synthesized and sampled textures, soundbeds and background ambience elements? Here are eight surefire techniques to try today.

For more atmospheric sound design advice, grab the December 2018 edition of Future Music.

1. Join forces

When making textural sounds, it's always worth trying combinations of electronic and processed acoustic source sounds. The blend of harmonics from both will produce unique, hybrid results.

2. Silence is golden

Sometimes sound design is as much about managing silence as the sound design of the noises you do want to add to a mix. Many of the techniques we’re exploring in this article experiment with long reverbs and delays and whilst they might sound beautiful while the parts which trigger them are playing, they’ll need careful management in the gaps between sections, or as a track fades away. The easiest way to manage effects with long tails is to make sure they’re part of your arrangement. Automate auxiliary volumes, so that rather than relying on a reverb’s decay to die away ‘perfectly’ each time, you can take more direct control of moments where intervening produces a better musical result.

3. Watch the lows

Don't let the bottom end of your sound designed sounds and atmospheric backdrops get out of hand. You don’t need lots of sounds reinforcing the bottom end but you might get them by accident if you pitch-shift lots of sounds down. Be ready with high-pass filters and low EQ cuts.

4. Know your surroundings

If you’re producing dramatic, trailer-style music, it’s tempting to focus on the big hits and sub drops which are common to a particular type of action movie. But frequently, cinematic sound design is even more heavily reliant on the background textures explored here, with the increased benefit (for those writing for the big screen) of having surround sound speaker setups to work with. If you’re working in 5.1 or 7.1, think incredibly carefully about your choices of reverb and revel in having the option of little textural, detailed sounds spin around the auditorium. Even if you’re working in stereo, keep a cache of glitches, drones, noises and effects ready. 

5. Don't go overboard

Think about the level of your background textures: a whole lot less can be more. Things don’t need to be memorable; don’t be afraid to set things back as far as needed.

6. Wider worlds

Effects and techniques that widen the stereo field are great if you’re designing background textures with plenty of high-frequency detail. However, low-mid and bass sounds often sound horribly off-balance if their stereo impression is increased. Upper-mid through treble can sound great though. Better still, by increasing width, you may well leave more of the mix’s central position uncluttered for your foreground sounds to shine through. Mid/side processors allow you to adjust these portions separately, and few do this better than Brainworx’s plugins. You can go deep, setting up separate EQs for the mid and side bands or employ a one-dial approach by boosting stereo width and trusting your ears.

7. Bass in space

Don't let anyone tell you reverb can’t be added to bass-heavy sounds. When it comes to shaping atmospheres and drones, the world is your oyster, including shaping the space of low-end sounds.

8. Exciting times

One often overlooked effect that can be particularly useful when building textural sounds is the exciter. Many people misunderstand the difference between exciters and EQs, as the ‘fizzy air’ that exciters produce can sometimes be achieved - in part - by adding a high-shelf EQ band and boosting upper frequencies. However, there is a crucial difference: whereas EQs can only boost or cut the volume of existing frequency content, exciters artificially create harmonics, using a chosen frequency point and building new harmonics above it to thicken duller sounds. As a result, they offer a hybrid, synthesised approach that can be anything from dreamy to fierce. A sound designer’s secret weapon!