Sound design - it's an infinite well of possibilities.
With endless knobs and buttons, thousands upon thousands of sonic characteristics to choose from, and a seemingly bottomless abyss of effects and processing plugins, you could even spend hours making something as simple as a percussive one-shot.
However, I want to dig in a bit deeper and talk to you about building soundscapes.
Soundscapes go beyond catchy melodies and lyrics. Here, 'ambiance' and 'atmosphere' are king.
They put the listeners in certain spaces, creating air, life, and movement from an auditory perspective. However, they can change drastically from one project to another, making them so much fun to create.
While there are no rules when creating soundscapes, I want to let this guide serve as a bit of a map of how you can start utilizing soundscape composition in your productions, no matter what kind of music you make.
What Are Soundscapes?
A soundscape is the lovechild of 'sound' and 'landscape,' offering a sonic smattering of sounds in environments or physical settings. The original term was coined by the author Michael Southworth. However, it was popularized later on by R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer, writer, and environmentalist who became known for his World Soundscape Project.
I like to think of a soundscape as an auditory GPS, which can transport a listener to a different dimension. This is because it's not just a single sound but a tour de force of sonic elements that work together to evoke different feelings.
Whether composing pop tunes or laying the foundational underscore for cinematic films, soundscapes are incredibly versatile and complex elements where imagination is the limit.
Necessary Tools for Soundscape Creation
When it comes to modern soundscape composition, I think of the process as a musical scavenger hunt.
Soundscapes offer audio snapshots of times and places, capturing the unique sounds that make each place sing its own tune. From the serene whispers of a forest to the hustle of the city streets, you could build a million soundscapes.
With modern digital wizardry, you could even craft your sonic version of an ultra-futuristic spacecraft without leaving your studio.
Let's look at a few ways in which you can get started.
The beauty of field recording is that it doesn't require any sort of fancy studio or complex audio setup. All you need is a decent recording device and a "field" or environment to go out into and record. The choice of environment is up to you, though some popular places to record include rural outdoor spaces and urban centers.
Many amateur field recordists will use portable recording devices, which have basic microphones and can typically run for many hours with a set of batteries. However, more professional recordists will use omnidirectional microphones with portable power sources and headphones to ensure they're getting the best sound quality possible.
How you choose to approach the recording process will come down to your budget and where you're recording. With that said, portable recording technology is far better than ever, so there's no reason you can't make quality recordings on a budget!
If you don't want to take the field recording approach, you can use software in your DAW at home to compose soundscapes.
I like using software synthesizers and VSTs from companies like Native Instruments and Xfer Records, which offer Kontakt and Serum, respectively, as they offer a versatile palette of sounds for creating dreamy, three-dimensional soundscapes, which can be effective in just about any kind of project.
The key here is layering different sounds. In the natural world, soundscapes are made up of numerous elements, so when composing them digitally, it's often a good idea to use sounds with different textures and timbres to evoke the sound of a full atmosphere, from percussion noises to atmospheric pads and beyond.
You can even blend real-world sounds and samples from field recordings or sample libraries to add more depth to your soundscapes.
Creating Your First Soundscape
Coming Up With a Theme
I think having a prep phase in music helps create parameters that you can be creative within. With that in mind, I suggest you come up with why you want to create a soundscape.
Are you looking to make natural soundscapes that feel like forests, oceans, or city streets, or do you want to create soundscapes that align more with synthesized ambient music? When you can decide on a theme or idea to start, you'll be able to collect the right individual sounds from your field recording or sample hunting sessions.
Recording in the Field
When it comes to getting out in the field and recording, consider all the different environmental factors that could impact your final product. If you're going out to the beach, for example, going during the day when there are tons of people will yield completely different results than going late at night, when you'll be able to better record the sounds of the wind, waves, and overall ambiance.
Making sure you have the necessary equipment for where you're recording is equally crucial. I recommend using a windshield to protect from microphone pops and interference in case of inclement weather.
Adding Effects in Your DAW
Once you get back into your studio, you can begin manipulating your recordings with audio effects. These can be helpful in adding sonic interest. While plugins and effects can come in many different forms, spatial and filtering effects are some of the most commonly used in soundscape creation, including reverbs, delays, and EQs.
There are about a hundred plugins that I could recommend, though there are a few plugins in my arsenal that I find myself coming back to when I want to create soundscapes:
- Valhalla Supermassive
- Minimal Audio Cluster Delay
- FabFilter Volcano 3
- Soundtoys FilterFreak
- Output Portal
Whether you want to introduce granular synthesis or lush spatial processing to the main elements in your soundscape piece, the sky is the limit. Sometimes, you can be completely subtle with your sound effects, especially if you want to keep the natural components of your soundscape intact.
Using Synthesis in Your DAW
If you don't feel like going out in the field and recording the sonic environment around you, you can make interesting, evolving soundscapes from the comfort of your own studio using synths and plugins.
The beauty of this approach is that you get total control over your final product, as you're not at the whim of the randomness around you.
There are a few sci-fi projects I've worked on in the past using granular synthesizers, as they're great for building complex and realistic-sounding textures. One of my favorite granular synths for something like this is Straylight from Native Instruments, as it takes the cinematic approach to granular synthesis. The team at Native Instruments developed it with Paul Haslinger, who was the composer for Minority Report , Underworld , and Rainbow Six: Siege .
Of course, you can even use analog synthesis to create soundscapes, especially when paired with audio effects like reverb, delay, and modulation.
Synthesis is an incredibly complex topic, so if you know nothing about it and want to get an idea of how powerful it can be, check out our modular synthesis guide.
When I make a soundscape, I like to approach it as if I'm producing a song.
So, for starters, I'm selecting sounds and samples that work naturally together without having to alter them too much with EQ. For example, I wouldn't want to put a ton of rumbly, low-end sounds, as there wouldn't be enough sound in the high and mid-frequency range to fill out the space.
As an exercise, you can start with three elements in your soundscape (one low, one midrange, and one high). Once you've combined these elements, they should fill out the entire frequency spectrum. Then, all you have to do is balance their volumes depending on the feeling you're trying to create.
This works for both natural and synthesized soundscapes.
For example, if you were creating a soundscape in the studio, you might use a sub-heavy sample for a low-end bed, an evolving mid-range pad, and a floating string sound for the highs. On the other hand, if you were creating a natural soundscape, such as the sound of a beach, you could choose the rumble of ocean waves as the low-end, the general ambiance of people at the beach as the mid-range, and the sound of air and seagulls chirping as the high-end.
The beauty of this approach is that it can keep you from going overboard when filling out your arrangement, so you don't end up with a muddy mix or phase issues.
How to Use Soundscapes
The term soundscape is used across multiple mediums, though it often refers to the same thing.
Soundscapes in Music
When we think of soundscapes in music, we typically think of ambient soundscapes. Ambient music makers will usually create long soundscapes with a mix of field recordings and synthetic sounds.
Ambient music is different than regular pop or rock music in that it doesn't typically have a defined song structure (verse, chorus, etc.). Rather, you can think of an ambient track as a complex sonic environment filled with background noise and other sounds throughout the greater stereo field.
Whenever I've had to build ambient soundscapes for projects in the past, I've typically started with a field recording theme, such as a capture of sounds in a rural field or a mountainous forest, before I added electronic elements like synths, pads, and effects, once I got back into the studio.
There are endless ways to approach this idea and combine different elements to create soundscapes, so experiment with sounds and see what works.
If you want some inspiration, I recommend listening to ambient artists like Boards of Canada, William Ackerman, and Biosphere.
In fact, Biosphere might be one of my absolute favorite ambient artists. He's a Norwegian electronic composer who uses a mixture of natural soundscapes, often inspired by the arctic environment around him, and sci-fi-like synths and samples.
Listen to his full album, Substrata, here:
Soundscapes in Film
In film, a soundscape refers to the space in which the scene is taking place. This can be the wildlife surrounding characters, the events taking place around them, and the general ambiance (air, wind, rain, etc.).
Essentially, when someone creates a soundscape in film, they create a three-dimensional space that gives the impression of someone in a specific location. The elements in these soundscapes are meant to work across the stereo field to give viewers a sense of space.
For example, the character might be standing on a beach in the Pacific Northwest facing the ocean. About 50 feet in front of them, they can hear the crashing of the waves. However, a half-mile behind them, you can hear the sound of cars on the nearby highway, and about 20 feet to the left of them, there's the sound of a family playing in the sand.
With these elements, the viewer gets a sense of depth and direction.
Beyond more obvious environmental elements that one might hear in a specific place and time, there are also realistic sound effects that are there to make the scene feel more tangible. In post-production, these sound effects are referred to as "foley."
Foley often combines the ambient noise in a space, such as an office space or a forest, and specific things going on around them, such as people clinking a glass at a coffee shop, someone walking atop crunchy leaves on a lawn, or a person delivering a '60s Batman-style 'Pow' punch.
Foley is an art form all its own, contributing to the overall realism of a scene with a built environment. Though some people might not agree that it should be associated with the art form of soundscapes, it does work hand in hand with soundscape creation in that it provides listeners with the feeling that they exist in a specific environment.
Soundscapes in Environmentalism
What you might not have known is that soundscapes play a pretty significant role in environmentalism and our understanding of the natural world around us. Beyond music, the way that sound and the environment intersect can have pretty significant implications for environmentalists and scientists.
Scientists can use soundscapes to indicate the health and diversity of a particular ecosystem, as different species contribute to specific sounds. When an ecologist starts studying a particular ecosystem's soundscape, they start recognizing patterns. When these patterns begin to change, or signals begin shifting, it indicates changes in the environment.
Essentially, the interplay between different elements in a particular ecosystem, such as the animals, the wind, and the water, can give us valuable insights into how an ecosystem functions.
These studies can also show how noise pollution from industrialization and urbanization can negatively impact wildlife communication and animal behavior, helping us come up with ways in which we can mitigate our impact on wildlife.
Many soundscape ecologists have used soundscapes as educational tools, giving people a bridge to connect with the natural world around them on a deeper level. The idea is that when someone immerses themselves in a natural landscape, they gain a more significant appreciation for it.
Conservationists will work in tandem with these efforts to create acoustic sanctuaries or low-noise zones to help contribute to the conservation of natural spaces.
The term "soundscape" can mean different things to different people, but the great thing about that sentiment is it leaves room for experimentation.
Whether you want to get out in the world and begin recording environments around you or build your own unrealistic soundscape pieces with synthesizers and effects at home, you can approach the soundscape creation process in whatever way suits you best.