A haunting song can mean so many different things, especially across genres. As terrifying as a deep, droning guitar can sound in a doom metal track, there’s something about a faint, frail vocal that can send shivers down your spine too.
Bone-chilling ambience is one of those things that can make a song stick with you – getting stuck in your head not because it’s catchy, but because it’s made you so uncomfortable you can’t get it out of your head. You know the type of songs… These are the ones that have you looking over your shoulder as you listen to them.
So what is it about these songs? What gives them their discomforting tones and unsettling aesthetic? Who’s actively crafting this type of music and how can you reach an all-new level of production by borrowing some of their techniques?
First and foremost, realize that many music fans are excellent at picking up on themes from movies or TV shows. Horror movies in particular have been a huge influence on music, with dozens of iconic musical themes written for film scores over the years. The Halloween series has forever associated a simple piano riff with Michael Meyers. Ask anyone what he or she remembers most about the classic shark attack movie, Jaws, and you’re more than likely going to hear a two-note melody.
That musical association continues today with TV shows like Stranger Things using intentionally nostalgic synths to bring you back to a specific genre of film from the 80s.
The point is that the music you’re writing is the best thing to keep your music sounding intentionally dark. By using minor keys and instrumentation that’s reminiscent of these chilling pop culture themes, you can craft a song that musically sounds dark and scary – setting the stage for the other forms of ambience we’ll cover next.
The Role of Reverb
As you build your mix up around these elements, you should consider the role reverb would play in creating the ambience around them. Use your reverbs as another instrument in your session. Experiment with long reverb tails and processing. The more unnatural your reverb sounds, the more uncomfortable you can make your listener feel and the harder it’ll be for them to want to stop.
This goes against traditional reverb advice saying that your reverb should help place your listener in the space with the band. In our case, we want to transport our listener out into a different space altogether. Make them feel completely disconnected from their environment if that’s what it takes.
Mixing music should be a creative experience and this is one of the greatest ways to get creative in the studio. You can create a space that sounds intentionally frightening if you want to – whether that space is at the bottom of a well or lost in space is up to you, and that’s what makes it so exciting.
Design a space that fits your vision and go crazy with it.
Other Time-Based Effects
In addition to reverb, getting creative with other effects like delays and spatial wideners can create bone-chilling results too. While not everyone is going to listen to your music through headphones, playing with the panning of delays can be a crazy treat for those who do.
Delays can be a great way to make things sound much closer in the context of a mix that’s already got massive reverb going on. By adding a slapback to a vocal, you can make a voice sound right in your face. Combine this with a soft-spoken singer recording right up close on the mic and heavy compression… let’s just say it’s enough to make you jump out of your skin.
As unusual as this mixing style might seem there have been artists taking advantage of these techniques for years. Recently, it’s been singers like Billie Eilish building a whole persona around a dark and intimate vocal, sparse instrumentation & huge, ambient spaces. But even since the 90s we’ve had artists like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson taking advantage of these production techniques and musical themes.
That’s all to say that bone-chilling ambience in music has had massive staying power with relatively few artists taking the leap into the space – so what’s stopping you from adding your music to that list?
If you plan on venturing into this space, know that heavy reverb and delay only work when the rest of your mix is in tip-top shape. One of the reasons producers in these styles prefer sparse instrumentation is that the ambience needs that space.
Check out our eBook, Virtual Signal Chain Secrets if you’re looking to maximize the instrumentation you keep and set your routing up for success with all of those time-based effects.