Author Topic: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music  (Read 1665 times)

chris23

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How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« on: September 22, 2018, 09:57:12 AM »
I've recently invested in some basic gear so that I can try my hand at making ambient music. Let me blunt: You all make it look (sound) so easy.

How do you do it?

I've read a bit about some of your workflows in various places in the Hypnos forums, but, if you're in the mood, I invite you to say a bit more here about how you work. I realize that is an open-ended question, so I'll toss out a few specific questions if those are helpful for inspiring a response. I also realize we have a range of experience on the forums, including others who recently starting messing about and those who have been at it for several decades. I'm curious to hear from people at all phases of their development.

1. Do you typically just experiment until something "clicks" and you feel inspired? Or do you typically have a aural version of a vision that you're trying to bring to life?

2. If you use synths, do you typically start with a preset and then modify it? Do you start from scratch (e.g., with basic oscillators) and build from there? I assume there isn't a "one way" you do things, but what are some of the common roads you follow?

3. Building on the last question: If you work with synths, do you typically stay within that local synth environment? Or does your final sound emerge as a result of chaining a source through multiple plugins/effects? (If the later, do you "futureproof" it by saving those sounds separately and banking them? Or is that typically not necessary?)

4. I assume there are some things in your arsenal that are "must haves." For example, I've read about the way many of you revere certain reverb plugins, like Valhalla. What are some of your essentials--hardware or software?\

5. Sometimes people say things that imply that the quality of your gear is less important that what you can do with it. The implication is that, with the right mindset, knowledge, and talent, it is possible to produce some amazing soundscapes. But, I must confess, some of the more pricey tools out there would seem to give users a huge advantage. Is that perception the result of being new to this? Or is it, in fact, worthwhile to drop a few dollars on some strong "bang for your buck" style synths/modules?



APK

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #1 on: September 22, 2018, 11:03:32 AM »
Good for you, Chris.
If nothing else it can been a relaxing and enjoyable break from everything else in life.

Yep, I'm sure there are many varied methods and approaches to creating this music.
I'll say a few things here, but feel free to email me if you have specific questions/problems.
I do keep up with new synths and software.

1. After this many years (decades) of practicing I know what I like and how to achieve it. I have favourite synths and effects and have these setup, often fairly complex, in my DAW (Reaper) as various projects. I can load one, sit at the keyboard and simply play, and will like what I hear. Inspired by what I hear. Adjust a few settings and I hit record. Often it is as simple as that. So the trick is to find a setup that works for you, and that has the sound you like. Then tweak it this way and that for different tracks. Don't invent the wheel anew each time. Build on what works.

2. Yep, simplest way is to find a preset you like and work with it. Learn how it works, and lean how to modify it in a direction you like. I especially like soft synths that have a lot of varied presets where you can either rank them or mark some as favourites. That is what I do with a new synth, go through the presets, marking my favourites, these are the ones I will come back to when I load the synth into a project.

3. When I record I typically am recording, in one live take on a few tracks, two or three synths, each with at least one effect on it. The whole thing saved in my DAW. So yep, I use multiple chains of synths and effects to get the sound I want. That is a handy thing about softsynths and effect ... saving the whole thing, and easily recalling the setup again later.

4. If I told you what I use, I'd have to .....  :-X  You know the story. But I'm happy to suggest things in particular categories if you write me.

5. I think its true that the better you get at it, the better you are at doing more with less. Yes, you can buy something expensive like Omnisphere and hold down a few notes on the right patch for a few minutes and have a lush and enjoyable result. But after a while you will be saying: where is the satisfaction in that !  You are after your own sound, not someone else's. And like a sculptor, it is often about trimming back, not just piling stuff on. That said, a more expensive synth may do more, or do it better, and that can be useful for discovering new sounds and techniques. Later you will likely get interested in gear that may be more specialized or limited, but that is more focused on what you particularly like .... rather than being a jack of all trades. And remember that, especially with software, more expensive does not necessarily mean better.  And they are all on sale cheaper at some point.
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stargazer

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #2 on: September 22, 2018, 02:46:42 PM »
Hey Chris, making music is about inspiration and composure to let it all out of your soul. For me it is one form of meditation. Then I am in a world of nothing but sound. Wishing you much pleasure and ambition.

To your first two questions. For me it all starts with the instruments and effect machines. Like Anthony I have found the perfect routing many years ago and saved in my head (and cabled in our studio). It variagates with the instruments and effect machines. I can approach my instruments and just play presets, adjust sounds or build sounds from scratch. I always build my own sounds on my Roland JD-800. I use choir/orchestra libraries on my Roland XV-88 and adjust those sounds to my pleasure. Every device is unique and to be learned from scratch. Only by doing something from scratch you will understand the device. It needs an ambitional desire to learn and many years to perfection.

Somehow I always have visions about my next or over next album. There is a vision, an inspiration, a wish, a hope, a feel without I wouldn't make the music I do. Music is to dream away the universe. Music inspires music. Emotion inspires music so deeply. And we all carry our own being in ourselves that strives to the surface when making music. It is all about inspiration and vision, especially with Ambient music. It is all about the import of feeling within the musical creation when it comes to the listening pleasure. I only make music when inspired and only at night. I always compose a theme and then improvise and record. Composition is an ambitious project, I think you have to be keen with it.

To your third question. I always play through effect machine. Always and with no exception. But I record dry, this is important to have possibilities. You have more choices if you store everything seperately. Often you wanna adjust the sound before the effect or adjust the effect afterwards.

To your fourth question. Vallhalla-plugins are great tools, Omnisphere is a great plugin-choice too. But these are all very common tools and everyone uses it. Just only try these out with much sensitivity. Omnisphere comes with many internal effects. This can become a problem with external effects. My essential equipment is hardware (the synths I mentioned, external reverb, audio interface and audio console/mixer). I would never change back to software although hardware has its limits too. I admire Anthony to make such great music and you never know if he uses hardware or software.

To your last question. Not the priciest tools making good music. Often the opposite comes out. Good music comes from the heart. Depending on what music you creating, try the tools, machines, instruments out first before you buy. Step by step you will see how musical things deepen and then you will sense what you need and how much money you wanna spend for it. Get rid of things you dont need anymore. Less is more.
« Last Edit: September 22, 2018, 04:54:11 PM by stargazer »

petekelly

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #3 on: September 23, 2018, 06:53:10 AM »
I've recently invested in some basic gear so that I can try my hand at making ambient music. Let me blunt: You all make it look (sound) so easy.

How do you do it?


Hi Chris,

In a sense, it is easy to make ambient music these days, freeware stuff is good enough. Regarding the inspiration / motivation to create ambient, I can only really speak for myself.

As to your points:

1) I'm of the '95% work / 5% inspiration' mindset - only by working may you stumble across / develop some inspired ideas and work.

2) I rarely use synths, but if I do, I almost always process them heavily.

3) See above.

4) Yes, there are some things I almost always use. For me, the most significant is the DAW I use (which currently is FL Studio) But saying that, I use new stuff on new projects to try to inject fresh ideas into things.

5) Yes, ideas are more valuable than pricey gear. Gear needs to be really explored to see it's potential. There are too many huge programs / sample sets etc. out there, which would take an age to peruse, in themselves.

Hope this may be of some use. All the best with it !

chris23

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #4 on: September 23, 2018, 07:55:43 AM »
I really appreciate your responses thus far. I'll probably ask you some more specific questions based on what you've written, just because I'm super curious and inquisitive. But I want to fully digest these ideas first.

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #5 on: September 25, 2018, 12:25:51 PM »
Hi Chris,

I think Ambient music is quite hard to pin down regarding specific approaches though we do each have our own ways to create it.  Actually that there are no set rules or structure to adhere to makes the creation of Ambient music appear quite accessible which it is and is not because you really are on your own without a map or compass to guide you beyond your own imagination.

For myself Ambient music is a feeling that needs to be released.....like a sculptor chiseling away to one day reveal what was within whether pre determined or discovered. Perhaps this could be said for music in general yet Ambient music is such an abstract genre that exist on the verge of the avant grade though still with some melodic presence.

Im not sure knowing what Ambient music is is helpful in the creation of it.
Chris you certainly are well versed in it as a listener and what draws you to this music will be the same thing that inspires you to create it.


1. Usually I will play piano and see what happens. Like the sculpting analogy above, I discover without an agenda.  I will try and push musical elements around and work on why certain note combinations sound good and other do not.  The ones that do not sound good can be  the most interesting and are hiding something that maybe is just a missing note away.  Once I have this chord or musical phrase I write it down.  No music theory here just left hand G#2- B2, right hand,  E3-F#3. I tend to forget unless I do this.  Often within this simple 4 note chord is the entire piece of music waiting to be expanded.  Sometimes it could be completely random like turning on a synth and play a single note as the  oscillators warm up and slide into tune or creating a patch from scratch can open many possibilities.

2. I don't like presets though that doesn't mean I have not used them. There are some really good ones that just beg to be tweaked.  Starting with a blank canvas so to speak is the best way to learn and the most challenging, yet presets are a good way as APK mentioned to become familiar with how they work.  I try to make a sound my own even if Im using someone else tailored sound.  It does not take much to alter a patch.  Tweaking the filters alone can offer a wide sonic and variable palette within a single patch.  I have a synth with 100 patch memory that has not changed much over the 10 years I have had it.  If I do it is a tweak of my own preset.  Actually using ones own presets in a recycled way is very rewarding. Some synths like modulars do not have memory, this is one of their attractions.  When I create a patch Im normally in writing mode and will record the patch once it gets to where it works with the other material already recorded....then I save it, or sometimes tweak it some more to see whats there if anything and save it again as a separate version.  This goes back to using your own patches as a place to build from.

3. 99% of my music today is created on hardware synths.  I stay within that environment and use my DAW - Logic X as a virtual tape machine. I rarely use midi and record performed audio wav files direct to disc. This becomes more of the painting approach where track upon track is built to create the expansive aural effect..  IT maybe simple sounds combined together to create complexed ones.  For me this is where the magic starts as sonic accidents occur that can not be predicted. Even though Im recording as I create patches as I explained, the unexpected does not happen until its spread across the visual canvas of Logic.  Pieces of music get moved and combined with others in ways that I would not of thought of, effects are added to certain track, manipulated, modulated, crushed or distorted.  The DAW is an amazing creative tool beyond its immediate responsibilities.

4. Essential for me is a musical instrument that inspires me.....this has changed over time and I have had quite a few.  It is the sonic nature of the instrument that is paramount.  Hardware analog or digital, does not matter, except to say that I want a digital synth to do what it does best...digital sounds. I don't want it to try to emulate an analog synth. I think its important for me today to have instruments that have a voice of their own.....and I don't need many, not anymore. As to plug ins...I have a handful of soft Eq's and compressors that play an important role within my DAW, some sculpting tools like Soundtoys software but much of what I create is really that space that layering tracks brings.  I have an Eventide Eclipse rack unit thats seen plenty of use.  One aspect of my production that is very important for me is the quality of my recordings and the way i hear those recordings.  I have talked about this throughout the forum so no need to go into it here.

5. This comes down to what makes you feel good when played and how it sounds.....however the odds are you won't know if it does it for you until you make your way on this journey an get some experience.  A student Violin or a Stradivarius....Im going to make both squeak and sound awful. ;) ;D

Enjoy the ride!
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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #6 on: September 25, 2018, 05:07:25 PM »
"ideas are more valuable than pricey gear."

Nicely put Pete!
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phobos

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #7 on: September 26, 2018, 12:56:07 PM »
Welcome to the world of music creation Chris, this can be a very rewarding, satisfying and sometimes a little frustrating experience.  :)
Anyhow,
1) it can be any, all or non of these methods, sometimes it is just a thought, or a sound or a certain feeling you want to convey.
2) Presets on synths always get modified when I find one I like, or created from scratch, I call it "Phobosorising" the synth. Samplers also play a big part in my creation process, I use Kontakt and an Akai Z8 hardware sampler. With these I can create my own specific sounds by sampling lots of things and importing the wav files into them for further messing with.
3) I feed the audio from the hardware into an analogue mixer and then into my DAW (Cubase Artist) via an audio interface and treat it with fx plugins, I also use a hardware Lexicon Reverb unit, no it is not an expensive one (MX300). As you mentioned earlier reverb is a main ingredient and also delay.
4) the piece or pieces get saved as the project takes shape. Therefore all the settings, sounds and programme changes, control changes etc are saved as part of the project file. That way when the file is loaded everything is recalled when you hit play/record.
5) I don't know what you are calling a basic set up, but you don't have to spend a lot of money to get a good sound these days. Speaking about virtual stuff there are some excellent free synths and fx out there to try, and those that aren't usually have a demo version that you can try for free. Hardware stuff is obviously a little different. While it may be nice to have a rather expensive synth or whatever, it isn't necessary. Fellow musicians never buy anything new anymore, and if you are prepared to wait and bide your time, there are some seriously good bargains to be had on the second hand market.

 The most important thing is to spend time with your gear, get to know it, learn your craft, don't be in a rush to get something out there, if that is what you want to achieve, I would guess that many of us here
had been "at it" for a fair amount of time before we put anything out.

Please also feel free to PM me at any time if you think I may be able to help or need advice, I don't consider myself as an expert but if I can help I will.
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petekelly

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #8 on: September 28, 2018, 11:29:42 AM »
Great to see such a response to a really interesting set of questions - there's life left in the forum yet :)

Julio Di Benedetto

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #9 on: September 29, 2018, 04:25:05 AM »
Any excuse to talk about ourselves  ::) ;D......actually it is a good set of questions and I enjoyed thinking about the process as it is something I normally do not do when creating music,  though it might be a good way to shake things up and consciously change aspects of ones recording habits.
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Seren

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #10 on: October 08, 2018, 06:35:14 AM »
1.
For me it can vary…
I think exploring/changing sounds on a synth/keyboard/sampler is a good thing to do as you can discover something that can set off a whole sound/track/album (just make sure you save it if you can).
At the same time if you have something in your head, trying to carve/craft the sound to manifest it is also a good thing to do.
Sometimes being inspired by another piece of music or a sound heard in nature is also a good way to start – practicing hearing things is a very good idea.
Sometimes a sound I use in one track, usually in the background, may become the base or start for another – I used the last sound of Veils, Shadows as the first sound for The Quiet Labyrinth.
A lot of my sounds have been created from field recordings – rolling ball bearings down sheets of tin foil, rubbing a thin sheet of foam across the foam covers of microphone, opening a bottle of fizzy water, waving a large bird wing, making wine glasses drone, wind/ string/ percussion instruments to name a few possibilities.
Try playing instruments in different ways – violin bow on a guitar, tying the strings up and using it for percussion.

2 and 3.
Yep, most synths now have presets and user banks to save any tweaked sound to.
If I do use a preset as it is I like to pass it through a number of effects and changes to get a sound I like.
I have been known to pass a source sound through numerous effects, then pass the resulting track back through another set of effects (more than once). Sometimes having the same sound move through similar but not exactly the same set of effects can create a range of different soundstages – giving more depth/texture/colour – such as multiphasing a sound a couple of times.
Best to use carefully to create subtle sounds otherwise all you hear is the ‘effect’.
I have also used full wet reverb (with other effects) and then slowly wound the wet/dry mix down so that the original sound appears slowly out of the mists.


4.
I tend to use my computer minimally – mainly for final editing of tracks – such as fade out, or for playing with effects again. I do not use a ‘computer’ computer to record at all.
I appear to have developed a studio based around toslink optical connections (minimising use of analogue/digital signal conversions)) – so I find good Minidisc recorders very valuable – my Sony has a very extreme pitch control that can make a second of real time last much, much longer (at lower frequency) – and I can listen to the results easily on portable player.
I use TC effects – TCM3000 and Fireworx. I like them very much – but tend to use certain presets and tweak them (one place where perhaps my imagination is focussed by the equipment rather than the other way round - see no 5).
I also use 2 work stations – Korg D16 and Roland VS2480. Both have their own on board effects and I often use them to record stuff and bounce back again – the Korg is very good for creating drone/loop effects through cut/paste and staggering.
I have also used EQ to separate different frequencies from a source sound and then move them apart in time.
The Korg has a stretch function that makes a sound longer but keeps the frequency the same if I want to.
I also used microphones and feedback during recording sessions to get subtle shifts on source sounds.

5.
Hmmm, I think both can be true.
What soundscapes/ambient music do you want to create – what aspects of it are similar to musicians you enjoy and what sets it apart? Which of these aspects do you wish to focus on and which are spring boards to launch you into your own journey?
You have to make the sounds you want to make, so the advantage may not be from a big piece of equipment that makes a recognised and more ‘commercial’ sound, if that is what the big buck spending is geared towards. It may be a smallish spend on something that you know will help you create the sound you hear in your dreaming.
On the other hand if spending that money gets you something that makes you want to sit up all night and day making music then go for it.
Sometimes too much gear can inhibit creativity if it is not actively being utilised to manifest your own imagination.
My first album (this time round) was recorded using only a kids Yamaha keyboard, 2 microphones and the Korg D16. There was no ADSR on the keyboard so every note involved turning the volume knob up and down to get the slow drift on the musical parts I wanted – took a lot of concentration to keep that movement smooth…. No big gear, but it was picked up by a label as they liked it a lot.
If I was to try and do it now I would do it differently as I have more equipment, more range, more facilities, more possibilities - but it was the raw creativity, drive and passion that got it made in the first place.
« Last Edit: October 08, 2018, 06:55:53 AM by Seren »

Seren

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #11 on: October 08, 2018, 06:53:41 AM »
PS - if you have any visitors that play instruments that you don't or cant - just get them to record some improvisations and then, with their permission, you can start playing with that as a source.

chris23

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #12 on: October 25, 2018, 05:50:39 AM »
I've read this thread about a hundred times over the past few weeks. I really appreciate everyone's input. It it fun to see you gear-heads get excited about this stuff.  :)

I have another question that I hope at least one person will be able to answer: Maybe because I'm a bit of a programmer, when I first started experimenting with ambient music, I naturally gravitated to generative processes: creating scripts that triggered sound sources, shaped their envelopes, and modulated them in ways that didn't require human intervention.

I'm having a hard time accomplishing that with a more traditional DAW. (I'm using FL Studio, for what it is worth.) Is there a way to reproduce that "generative feel" in an environment that is more playlist/sequence oriented?  I feel like I'm losing something spontaneous and unpredictable about the sounds when I have to manually adjust these parameters. And I feel silly just haphazardly placing audio clips on a playlist to simulate randomness.

Am I overlooking something obvious?


petekelly

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #13 on: October 26, 2018, 02:57:19 AM »
I have used FL Studio for years now, so I may have some useful experience with it.

You can just treat the playlist simply as an 'arrangement' place, bringing in audio clips with no reference to tempo, just build a track in that way. Audio can be moved around 'manually' (alt/drag) without any snapping to tempo.
There's a lot in FL that is 'under the hood' so to speak, a great deal of interesting things can be done with automation.

I've been looking at generative things too and had the most success with Reaktor / Reaktor Blocks (within FL)

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #14 on: October 26, 2018, 06:57:39 AM »
I've been using FL Studio for composition since 2003 or so. Great DAW!

I agree with Pete. Reaktor Blocks could be what you're looking for.

Alternatively, perhaps a tool such as Noatikl might work better for you.
https://intermorphic.com/noatikl/
Google generative music software for more options. I know there's some out there that will create MID files, which you could import into a DAW and finetune from there.

Most importantly, just have fun!  ;D
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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #15 on: October 27, 2018, 07:42:33 PM »
"I'm having a hard time accomplishing that with a more traditional DAW. (I'm using FL Studio, for what it is worth.) Is there a way to reproduce that "generative feel" in an environment that is more playlist/sequence oriented?  I feel like I'm losing something spontaneous and unpredictable about the sounds when I have to manually adjust these parameters. And I feel silly just haphazardly placing audio clips on a playlist to simulate randomness."

One method to go with what you already have - would be to get all John Cage with it and devise some simple rules using rolls of dice or drawing of the I Ching to determine the amount you shift your audio clips. Change it from "silly" to "spiritual" randomness. It's worth trying at least once or twice. Then add some brain/heart/personal taste adjustments after the "random/generative" process to bring yourself back into the piece.

stargazer

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #16 on: October 28, 2018, 11:52:16 AM »
I always found that the generative systems lack the human interaction. You can create an environment by generative art, but how do you manage feelings, sponteneous emotion, composition and more. Generative music also comes mostly from virtual machines. While Reaktor (NI) is a great instrument for sounds, I never have heard a generative song only made with Reaktor. I love the generative aspect that comes naturally from my reverb machine, or from the LFOs of my synths. But I interact and stimulate those generative aspects analog. I can adjust velocity, release, tones, timbre (for instance with the keys) and so can variagate the generative process in my synths and effect machines. You must be a technical genius to programm this in a generative system only. Every device has its own generative character. You have to love it and to learn from it. If you love what you hear, you will be able to make the music that you like to hear. It is a process, and I hope that the more technic experienced members will help you to accomplish. Good luck.

Edit: Of course I programm my synths and effect machines .... not easy but neccessary for the generative movements.
« Last Edit: October 28, 2018, 03:45:01 PM by stargazer »

phobos

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #17 on: October 28, 2018, 01:22:40 PM »
Hit record, play, tweak adjust. You can't get more generative than that.
Hit stop, listen back, keep the best bits and start again.
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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #18 on: October 28, 2018, 08:59:17 PM »
I love random generative music and attempt to use it all the time in the way I program my synths. My Matrix 12 synth is really good for this.  With 5 lfo's set to random as modulation sources and then aspects of the lfo's being modulated on top of that and then opening up the second VCA which acts like a hold or latch as the sound just goes on without ending and one is able to play over it until all 12 voices are used and then the the evolving patch starts again at voice 1 and goes to 12 and cycles again.  As long as I keep playing the patch is continuously changing both in timbre and melody.  It can get percussive, sometimes glitchy and often with soft hypnotics.  And then..... ;) ;D  Hopefully you get the idea

As far as generative software and playlists not much has inspired me....Im still looking though.

Generative random music as a performance makes sense but as soon as it is recorded it ceases to be random and generative. Bit of a dilemma.
"Life is one big road, with lots of signs, so when you ride to the Roots, do not complicate your mind, ... "  Bob Marley

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petekelly

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Re: How the heck do you do it? Creating ambient music
« Reply #19 on: November 05, 2018, 02:33:58 AM »
'Rowan' a short work-in-progress generative track using Reaktor Blocks:

https://soundcloud.com/igneous-flame/rowan
« Last Edit: November 05, 2018, 10:56:46 AM by petekelly »