How to Make Drone Music

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Do you remember being in class during a lecture, with the teacher just droning on? If you tuned out a little bit, the teacher’s words were no longer distinct. They seemed to run together. You looked around, and some classmates were doodling. Some were drifting off. And in the back, one student must have been grinning, and thinking, this is awesome. Found the drone musician.

Kidding aside, you have to approach drone music from a totally different direction than most music, and the set of rules is like the opposite as a result. Stretching back to antiquity, we’ve chased bouncy rhythms, catchy melodies, impressive musicianship and arrangements. The kind of music that makes people want to get up and dance or sing. The kind of music that tells a story, with lyrics or with melody and harmony.



Drone Music

John CaleDrone music is the antithesis of just about everything I just said. There is often no predictable rhythm. Just elongated sustained tones. When there are even distinct notes, they play hypnotically and endlessly unchanging rhythms. Forget about hooky melodies or lyrics. As well as complex interlocking arrangements. More often than not, there is just one instrument or sound playing at any given time.

The richness comes not from the combinations of tones, as in most music, but in the depths of the tone of the single instrument that is playing. Perhaps there is no rhythm, but the single droning instrument is slightly wavering and pulsating. The sound gradually changes, but so slowly that it’s more an evolution than a rhythm.

Drone music is not music that carries you along. It’s music to get lost in. And it’s not music to play at parties unless you are in a SoHo art loft party in the 1960s, rubbing shoulders with Warhol and Rothko and whomever.

Anyway, if you want to make your own drone music, it’s never been easier to get started. Read on for a rough guide to the hardware, software, and approaches you should take to start out.

Listen

John CageThis is always my first advice. I don’t believe anyone can create great art if they haven’t developed their taste first, by consuming loads of art. At the same time, I believe anyone who has experienced lots of art in their chosen aesthetic, and who puts the time into perfecting their own version, will eventually be an amazing artist. Taste and time are the two necessities.

These days, some people consider drone music to be a subgenre of noise music. I understand why. They are both more about creating soundscapes than about traditional music. Approaching both blindly, the biggest distinction seems to be that noise music has a predilection for harsh distortion, while drone is softer and calmer, almost ambient.

But that’s selling drone music short, because its history stretches back hundreds of years across cultures. Modern drone music essentially has its roots in a mid-60s Western fascination with Indian classical music. Drone musicians owe it to themselves to start with the source. Here’s a fun guide.

Many other historic forms of music involve droning sounds, from Scottish bagpipes to traditional music from Japan and the Byzantine empire. Today, drone influence has spread to various drone hybrid genres, like shoegaze and drone doom. Anyway, the more drone influence you get, the more ideas you will get!

Gear

Hardware

Setting up a home recording studio would have taken years of technical training and thousands of dollars of equipment just a generation ago. Now, setting up a bedroom recording studio that can deliver professional results is shockingly simple. Of course, it’s one thing to buy and learn the equipment, and another to become an expert in using it. There’s no substitute for the time perfecting your craft no matter what. But I never went to school for music production, I started with a cheap audio interface and microphone in my bedroom about a decade ago in between college psych classes. Now, I’m a full-time freelance producer/songwriter/composer in LA.

Audio Interface

This is the device that turns your laptop into a mighty yet compact recording studio. Audio interfaces use a USB port to route mics, instrument inputs, speaker and headphone outputs, and more. Check out Focusrite, who make the quintessential first-time interface. The Scarlett Solo is extremely popular in home studios for a reason, and I’ve also written an article about great alternatives.

Microphones

Many drone musicians will not use a microphone at all. Just a combination of synths, programmed with a piano roll on their computers or played with MIDI keyboards. But some drone musicians want to record live playing of acoustic instruments, like guitar, piano, or even saxophone.

But I have some favorite mics to recommend as all-around workhorses in home studios. A large-diaphragm condenser is the best type if you are going to just buy one mic, as it will capture nearly any sound or instrument with detail and fidelity.

If your budget is very tight, the Audio Technica AT-2020 has been making an impression. I’ve never used it personally, but I can tell from the way that people write about it that it’s the best in its class. That said, in no circumstances should you spend any less than the price of the AT-2020, because I can virtually guarantee it is garbage. I also recommend avoiding anything with MXL or Behringer stamped on it. These are bargain brands, and it’s worth your time to shoot higher.

For medium budgets, the Lauten Audio LA-220 is unbeatable. It’s not as flashy as more popular competitors like the Rode NT1-a or the Aston Origin. But I have used all three, and the LA-220 has the clearest and truest sound hands-down.

And as your budget goes higher, your options open up. My favorite ever medium-high-budget mic is the Avantone CV-12. It has a consumer-friendly price tag but serious build quality and sound. The CV-12 was used to record Taylor Swift’s vocals on her first two albums, for example. (oops, how did I manage to drop a Taylor Swift reference in an article about drone music? Point stands, it’s a great mic!)

MIDI Keyboard

The idea of buying a keyboard is intimidating to producers who didn’t grow up with piano lessons. After all, the mind tends to jump to child prodigies tearing their way through Beethoven. But the truth is even the most basic keyboard skills are a huge attribute for home studio musicians. A MIDI keyboard is a really useful tool for browsing sound patches, and recording synths and sounds. It can behave as a programmable, powerful musical control surface. The AKAI MPK Mini Mk2 is basically the default starter keyboard at this point. I’ve also got an article about alternatives.

Monitoring

Monitoring your music- that is, listening back on headphones or speakers- is extremely crucial for drone music in particular! The texture and richness of the sound is basically the entire point of drone, so if you’re listening on a subpar system, you might be creating ugly noise without even realizing it. I wrote an article a few months ago about my favorite choices for headphones and monitor speakers for new producers. Check them out!

Software

DAW

Your DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, is the canvas upon which you paint your sounds. Like the software companion to an audio interface, it’s the central brain of music production. You can record audio and MIDI, load effects to process the sounds, and mix and master your music. There are dozens of choices these days, but for beginners, I recommend Ableton or Fl Studio. Another compelling choice for more synth-based music is Reason, with a unique interface involving fun and powerful emulations of rack-mounted synths and effects.

I personally use Reaper, which is slightly more time-consuming to learn than some of its competitors But a one-time payment of $60 means you legally own Reaper, which is ridiculously cheap compared to some of the mainstays like Logic and Pro Tools.

VSTs

The DAW can also host third-party virtual instrument libraries and effects, usually referred to as VSTs. There are thousands of VSTs, and you can spend any price imaginable, from nothing to thousands.

I’d recommend checking out vst4free for a huge selection of free VSTs. There is a huge variation in quality, and I still use some of the best ones in my pro production workflow. Waves has good all-around effects, and they are a great deal when you catch them on sale (which is frequent.) I’ve never used them, but SoundToys is very popular with producers who get a lot of joy out of the process of creation.

Drone artists should get familiar with a few types of effects in particular.

Equalizer

First of all, EQ (equalizer) is one of the most fundamental and powerful effects. It is used to shape the tone of a sound, with the ability to boost or cut the low, mid, or high frequencies. In music like drone, you can change the way music feels to listeners by playing with frequencies. Try boosting in the 200-500Hz range to add a deep, enveloping warmth to your sound. The 1000-2000 range can be boosted slightly to bring out more timbre, and 5k-10k can add a little bit of sizzle if you need it. Try cutting the 2000-3000 Hz range in drone music- this is the “presence” range that gets fatiguing after a while. Backing it off will make music more ambient and soothing.

Reverb/Delay

Also look into reverb and delay. These are different types of echo simulators. Reverb is like the natural “glow” to a sound that occurs when it happens in different environments, from small rooms to huge caves. Delay is more like a literal echo. You can use either, or both, to create a rich and satisfying soundscape. I would go so far as to say that the right reverb and/or delay can make all the difference, and turn a very simple sound into a beautiful drone.

Distortion

You might experiment with some light distortion, overdrive, or tape saturation as well. If you don’t go too far with it, this can add some richness to your sound through harmonic overtones. A little bit of extra color and depth to your tone.

Sound Libraries

Drone musicians would do well to invest in a really great sound library. You could get away with forgoing other elements of the production process in the name of an expansive sample library. Since drone music tends to be so minimal, many times just one instrument at a time. Therefore, carefully selecting the right instrument to work with is crucial. The standard-bearers here are probably Native Instruments Komplete and Omnisphere. These are expensive, but the reviews attest to their value time and again. But if those are out of your price range, I recommend browsing for something else. There are literally hundreds of instrument packs out there, some free, some expensive. Most show off samples on their websites, so look around to find sounds that catch your ear. Searching for “ambient” or “drone” patches is a good starting point.

Writing Drone Music

All this is well and good, but once you have all this gear set up with it, what do you do exactly? Well, drone music is felt, not figured. Therefore, drone music is explored, not explained. In reality, your own jamming and experiments will lead you down paths that will become your own drone music.

There are a few guidelines though. Drone music often involves tension and release in unusual ways. Play with note intervals that are a little dissonant. Or maybe intervals that are harmonious, but in a lower than normal register. This way, you create unusual feelings that don’t typically shine through. These intervals can alter slowly as the music progresses, to build or release tension.

When working on drone music, I recommend taking breaks from creating, bounce out your track, and take time to listen to it all the way through. Some music can be worked on in modular sections, focusing on one bit at a time. But with drone, you won’t really know if it’s working unless you listen to the whole thing through. Try doing it different ways- while lying down, while walking, while doing anything that allows you to explore the feeling you’re trying to create. It’s a very emotionally introspective genre.

Conclusion

So get to work, and you could be the next John Cale or John Cage. You too could write a piece of drone music that is so powerful that a church in Germany begins a 639-year-long performance of it. Or you could keep your sights more humble, and just try to create music that helps listeners ascend to the next plane of consciousness. Seriously, keep working and feel the joy of the music!