1. Analog or Digital
Kammarheit: I prefer a bit of both. Analog equipment, especially reel-to-reel tape recorders or homemade cassette loops tend to inspire me more and creates the type of sound sources that I find good for manipulating. I don’t mind including a bit of the humming of cables and the hissing of tape. Instead of just using a sample as it is, I often record it with my tape recorder which I connect to a few pedals and re-record the sound somewhere in my home using a small amplifier and a proper microphone. It takes more time, but it often leads to a whole lot of new ideas and interesting sounds. Most of the time I make improvisation sessions with analog synths, tape loops or acoustic instruments through effect pedals, and then pick out the best parts in my computer and play them on the midi keyboard.
Seesar: Being a percussionist, my music is entirely analog in the early stages. I strive to make unfamiliar sounds, often acknowledging Italian Futurist aesthetics and timbral groupings as part of my musical focus, that present acoustic sounds intended to seem electronic or, at least, unusual. I use digital means to organize and manipulate the recordings, so I must also say that I embrace both analogue and digital elements in my presentations, but all source sounds (samples, base tracks, overdubs, et cetera) are analogue in my tracks.
a. What do you see as the differences between analog and digital creations of dark ambient music?
Aegri Somnia: It’s a long debate and you will always have sides that prefer one over the other or both. Digital/analog have both cons and pros, and you have purists on both sides. My preferences are analog for bass, digital for leads, pads, efx, sound design, etc. It’s all about preference and specific needs of production, really. It’s a trend nowadays to use virtual emulations of analog synths. It comes very close to the real deal as computers are more powerful than ever.
Stuzha: Making analog sound good is certainly a skill. For dark ambient, I guess you have to go with lots of digital effects on top of analog anyway. So for me, it is a merry union. However, digital stuff can also be a cheaper and more efficient way to reach your goal.
Skadi: Both domains have their benefits. In the analog domain, you’ll have the classic approach of sound creation, including: twiddling knobs, the warmth of analog sound, the jitter of the signals in many synths. However, the digital domain provides an incredible spectrum of possibilities to create sounds and textures. It adds sampling, creative synthesis methods. On top of this, it also provides analog emulation of many famous synths for an affordable price. I tend to recommend experimenting in both domains. Especially for starters, the digital domain could be more flexible and thus, more attractive since usually you have less money to spend on getting decent equipment.
Atrox Pestis: I personally prefer the feel, sound, and aesthetics of analog. I try to incorporate the analog feeling, as much as possible, in my own work. However, I depend on digital so much that using exclusively analog would make no sense for me. I think this is a very personal thing. Some artists exist solely in one domain, while others move freely between the two. Nowadays, with analog modeling software and modern plug-ins, someone, who may not have the analog gear to get the sound they want, can do it all digitally with fairly good results. I suppose the key differences would be sound, performance capabilities, and ease of accessibility.
Mebitek: It’s all the same, creativity is the key point.
protoU: I prefer digital over analog at the moment. I think that, in order to be a gear person, you need to clearly know what you need and what can be achieved from a certain analog tool. I feel more comfy with something that can be morphed out of software. I think I would get impatient with crafting something out of a synth. I mean, I would probably love to play around with it, but in the end it all comes down to what you can achieve with it. I mean, you can have all the most sophisticated equipment in the world, but have zero ideas with it. It becomes worthless.
Shrine: I think the “analog vs digital” question has not been valid for a long time now. It was valid in the past when digital equipment was in its infancy, so to speak, but not anymore. I’m not saying there’s no difference in the sound between analog and digital tools. But, you can also have differences between various analog tools, and between various digital tools too. There are also hybrid synths, with digital oscillators and analog filters, for example. And besides, what if you are using analog synths, but process them with digital effects? Or if you are using digital synths and process them with analog effects? I believe the more important question these days is hardware vs software, not analog vs digital.
Ugasanie: I can not say which is better. It all depends on the equipment on which the music is played. Also depends on the format. I am sure that most people do not feel the difference. Of course, this does not apply to live performances. There, analog is much more pleasant to me.
Seesar: I think merely the approach to deciding which timbres and tunings to enlist in a composition, as determined by the media production method of choice, is the main difference between analogue and digital means of dark ambient music creation. What I mean here is that with digital music there are two main approaches – synthesizing sounds to incorporate or manipulating sounds sampled (either analogue or digital sounds). With analogue music making, there is only one main approach – creating samples to incorporate, be that live performances, entire tracks of root sounds, small samples to alter in the studio, overdubbing of sounds onto partially finished tracks, and so forth. When thinking about how to go about creating the sounds, you, as a composer and performer, wish to use within your works, the choice you make to generate the sounds you use informs the ways in which you are able to create the finished work. Obviously, it is possible, too, for you to utilize both analogue and digital. There is certainly not one that is better than the other. It is simply a matter of preference and aesthetic taste. There can be extreme differences between analogue and digital creations, or they can be merged together seamlessly, as well, depending on the desire of the composer, methodology of the performer, and intended end result of the piece.
b. What are some of the key instruments/programs that you use to make analog dark ambient?
Treha Sektori: Voices, everything around. Lately, I try to build my own instruments, making music as a substance, physically living the act of creation, the act of recording.
Aegri Somnia: Any semi-modular poly-analog synth will do the job. Examples: MFB Kraftzwerg, Korg minilogue or their MS-20, Roland SE-02, Dreadbox Erebus, Moog Mother-32, or the Pittsburgh Modular Lifeforms SV-1. If you have a lot of money to burn, you can go full modular and pick from thousands of Eurorack modules available, and build your own modular system, whatever you want. You can go modular in the virtual digital environment for free, with VCV rack.
You can go DIY with platforms like Arduino and build your own synths. You can buy some used virtual analog all-in-one synth, like the older access virus synths, that have all you need.
Stuzha: I personally use analogue Korg keys and bass, as well as various guitars.
Seesar: I use a combination of extended performance techniques on standard instrumentation; re-purposed “household” items, converting their function from a non-musical one to one of sonic exploration; and purpose-built noise-making devices (often self-made). I also, occasionally, use specific traditional folk or classical instruments from various cultures to emphasize musical narratives within my pieces, such as incorporating Polynesian percussion when evoking stories of the mythical Tcho Tcho people or a thirteen-moon Pagan ritual frame drum when attempting to refer musically to a Samhain celebration, for example. I often select instrumentation for individual tracks that will reflect the nature, feel, or story inspiring the work, and I regularly attempt to find new instrumentation, whenever possible and appropriate, to rotate through new timbres and tunings in an attempt to avoid stagnation in my palette of sounds. Of course, I also have favourites, to which I return regularly.
Atrox Pestis: I use a wide range of analog gear in every step of the performing and recording process, from instruments to tape consoles. Most commonly, I use several analog synthesizers but mainly the MS-20 mini and Mother-32. I use electro-acoustic elements such as contact mics and coil pickups; plenty of analog distortions, delays and reverbs, as well as spring reverb, outboard gear and various tape recorders.
Mebitek: MeeBlip Triode and Arturia MicroBrute.
Shrine: None. I work entirely with software, when composing. I have some analog synths around, with the sole purpose to use them at live performances. I’m not using them in the studio. Note: There are software programs that emulate analog hardware, but they are not real analog tools.
Sonologyst: Analog synthesizers, electrified string instruments, guitars, samples, editing software and plug-ins, percussions, and wind instruments parts (commissioned to other musicians).
c. What are some of the key instruments/programs that you use to make digital dark ambient?
Ugasanie: Recently, my main instrument is a recorder (dictaphone). I constantly record various sounds, backgrounds, and voices. Sometimes, I integrate a sound into a synthesizer. Other times, I use live instruments, which I also record on the recorder. Basically these are simple instruments: ocarina, vargan (or khomus), didgeridoo (I made it from a conventional PVC pipe), calimba, wooden flute, shakuhachi, acoustic guitar, tambourine, rain stick. Many of these instruments I made, myself. Almost always, I change the original sound of the instrument. The programs that I use: Adobe Audition, Reaper, Absynth, different virtual synthesizers, recently sometimes Ableton Live. Also I use a mini synthesizer from Arthuria.
Skadi: I started in the digital domain, including virtual instruments and digital hardware synth. In my early years I experimented with internal soundcards like the Soundblaster AWE32. I used their sampling capabilities on a deep level. Later, I enhanced my rig with a Nord Lead 2, a Korg Trinity and a Creamware DSP card. However, time and PC performance changed significantly. So, I switched entirely to virtual studio technology using several East West Quantum Leap Libraries, Spectrasonic Omnisphere 2, amongst several other instruments and effects and Izotope Ozone for mastering.
Atrox Pestis: I really enjoy granular synthesis specifically for dark ambient. I use SAMPLR, which is an app for iPad, quite a bit. Also, I use some digital synthesizers, digital effect pedals, and track most things on Pro Tools.
protoU: Ableton Live is my weapon of choice, here. I also use Kontakt a lot. All other effects are mostly built in Ableton. I try to keep it all clean, and not clump things together. I also have the AKAI MPK Mini controller. I don’t think I need anything more, actually.
Shrine: All software. Native Instruments synths only, when it comes to synthesis. Plus, external plugins for Reaktor and Kontakt. Various plugins for processing (too many to list).
Sonologyst: Mainly plugins to work on noise parts.
Treha Sektori: I don’t use programs to create sounds, just as a way to edit, mix, and sometimes process certain effects. I use Logic Pro.
Aegri Somnia: Absynth, Massive, Reaktor, Sylenth, Diva, Ace, Serum, Spire, Omnisphere, etc.
Stuzha: I use many digital effects normally. I also use digital synths like Mininova and Waldorf Blofeld.
d. Do you see one or the other as being the “better” technique for creation of dark ambient music?
Treha Sektori: I think technique is not important, as everyone find their way.
Stuzha: It is indeed difficult to classify “better” in this business. For me it is all up to a moment and improvisation. Often, the main problem is to shape the idea well, it can be a very frustrating and time-consuming process.
Seesar: Absolutely not. I realise this is a question intended for instruction, but I think it should be emphasized that the creation of music be developed through one’s own preference and means available, rather than claiming analog or digital be more useful over the other to create dark ambient music. Embrace that which you are most comfortable and to which you have the easiest access, then cultivate your style and methods of creation, expanding into other areas when you are able and interested in doing so. The end music result will be exciting and innovative in all circumstances if you, as a dark ambient artist, engage with your creativity on a compositional and performative level, incorporating what you see fit and with which you are familiar.
Atrox Pestis: They both have their strengths, for sure. Dark ambient has a far more analog sound and feel than so many other electronic music genres. So, pulling off a purely digital process, while still having the analog feel, takes more skill. But, personal preferences aside I cannot call one “better” than the other. Digital is far more versatile, but I find the sound and live playability of analog gear in most cases to be superior.
Skadi: The quality of dark ambient is not a matter of the tool you’ll use, but is based on emotion and inspiration. For me, good dark ambient is based on the ability to turn emotions and situations into sound.
Shrine: Not sure, when it comes to comparison between analog and digital hardware. As for hardware vs software, I personally think that working with software is more versatile. With hardware you are bound to the physical reality while, with software you can go beyond and do things that are not possible with hardware. On the other hand, hardware in general still has superior sound quality to software (although the difference is getting slim nowadays).
protoU: I don’t think there are even terms like that 🙂 It very much depends on the DAW you’re using, the methods, how your imagination stretches within the tools. I would rather say making/recording quality sound is the main thing here. No matter how you achieve it, it’s important to have it quality. The scene is definitely overwhelmed with lo-fi bedroom producers that distort the feeling of the genre. Please don’t be one of them 🙂
Sonologyst: Everyone has to develop the better process fitting with her/his attitude.
Ugasanie: There is no better method. You must always use what you have at the moment. The best method is an experiment. In our time, of course, everything has become much easier. I dont need to glue the loops from the tape or solder new detail in musical boxes. Everything is much more accessible.