Tutorial: How to Make Vocal Ambient Music With Free Software

These days I’m making a style of ambient music using only my voice and a load of digital effects. I’m having a lot of fun, and I found some very easy production techniques that don’t require a lot of skill or expensive equipment, so I wanted to share a tutorial in case anyone else gets inspired.

So let’s start with a demo, and then I’ll explain the technical setup:

For the demo, I wanted to use the simplest most accessible setup, so anyone can copy it easily. I’m just using the built-in microphone on my laptop, cheap headphones, and all free software. I used VCV Rack, but you could recreate it in any platform you’re comfortable with: Ableton, Loopy Pro (iPhone/iPad), or with effects pedals.

In addition to the default VCV modules, I use Lilac Looper, xVox Harmonic Pitch Shifter , and Plateau Reverb, so you’ll need to install those if you’re going to follow along at home. With those modules installed, you can download my patch here and you’ll have the same setup I used in the demo.

As you can see in the demo, the basic approach is to start with a simple bassline, using the pitch shifter to dropping my voice an octave lower than usual. Then I add layers with the other loops.

Rules for Vocal Ambient

They’re not really rules of course, but maybe useful creative constraints to get you on your way.

  • only a microphone for input: singing, humming, whistling, breathing, thumping…
  • your voice becomes a full orchestra when you add +/- 1 octave pitch shifting
  • use the breath! one long breath is the right length for a foundational first loop
  • 2 or 3 loops (with disjointed timing & independent volume control) are enough for background, plus 1 live channel for foreground
  • delay & reverb cover all sins
  • no sudden movements, e.g. volume swells on the microphone, no attack
  • if you move smooth & gradual, people will follow you anywhere, including out of standard tuning (notes are fake and made up)
  • if your voice wants to make a pitch that you brain doesn’t approve of, trust your voice
  • there’s no wrong notes, if you don’t like it, do it twice to make it right
  • very short loops make subtle rhythms
  • simple low-attack shamanic trance drumming is acceptable e.g. bonk your microphone into your chest
  • field recordings introduce naturally perfect expansive stereo width & imagery
  • modulation, modulation, modulation. out-of-phase subtle stereo effects like chorus, tremolo & panning plus unsynchronised loop timing create colliding interference waves of rising and falling texture
  • when it comes to pleasure there’s no such thing as too slow
  • you can encode surprisingly detailed intentions or emotional states into a soundscape and they will fairly reliably communicate across to the listener
  • if the listener is going to be you next month, what intentions do you want to bake into the track today?

Let me know what you create! And hit me with any questions.

If you want more inspiration, you can follow my ambient music project Sound At The Speed of Sunset, on YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud or Bandcamp.

13 Likes

Well I really can’t sing, so that’s a non-starter for me :wink:

Joking aside, this was an excellent tutorial. I don’t see many other people using VCV for processing external audio so it’s great to see posts like this. Other instruments would work too, I’d like to hear @DaveVenom playing his ethnic flutes into pitch shifted loopers!

A few other things you could try:

Using the V/Oct output from Entrian Follower or Nysthi P2V to control the pitch of a VCO with your voice (I’ve used this to make a guitar synth before, doesn’t track perfectly but it’s fun).

Voice signal into VCO sync inputs. I have a patch for that shared online which I think included a looper too, sounds nasty!

Effects, effects and more effects! Granular would be interesting, pitch shifters in the feedback loop of a delay (Chronoblob can do this for example), frequency shifters. Almost infinite options really.

I’m listening to some pieces on your YouTube channel now, just subbed to hear what you do next.

Cheers

1 Like

Great project and tutorial. Right up my alley.

During the pandemic I did a bit of experimenting with something similar, though that was before I discovered VCV Rack. I used plugins in Reaper for effects to process my voice.

Here is my very first “public” vocal improv recorded at one of Rob’s virtual open mics. I have linked to the start of the vocal performance.

The sound is pretty crappy - it wasn’t until a few months later that it dawned on me to use Reaper to record my performance while broadcasting (By the time I did record, I was on to using VCV and rarely doing vocals). Also I was nervous, and there are a few shaky moments. But at 11:35 there is an amazing moment where I tried some overtone singing, and the way the effects picked up and transformed the overtones is really cool.

I have one more recording from that time period that is a mixture of my massive 2 inch bore PVC overtone flute that I made, coupled with voice, and DAW effects. Better sound, but still just the raw YouTube recording from the live event.

Before the pandemic I had a TC Helicon VoiceLive 3 that could do some amazing things. But I didn’t get to use it long before the damn thing bricked on me. I did get one very cool recording from an open mic in a very old rural church. No video, just a photo montage. I am playing along with my buddy Dan LaPorta playing a WaveDrum loop and electric bass going through a massive pedal board. It was fun cycling through different VoiceLive 3 presets that I made. The opening bass drone is my pitch shifted voice. After that I am strictly playing flutes.

I have messed around with playing my flutes through VCV effects, including pitch shifters. I see tremendous potential. At some point I want to explore processing both flute and voice more deeply, but there is only so much time - developing the Venom plugin is a big (though satisfying) time suck. I also need a portable USB interface that I can hook up to my MacBook Air so I can conveniently take the vocal / flute processing on stage. I have a really crappy one, and need something better.

2 Likes

Thanks for the Chronoblob tip, I never realised it had that send/return feature. Awesome!

Yes! I have also discovered some surprising overtones by working with live effects processing. There’s a feedback loop where my voice will go and explore something, then the effects processing emphasises some overtones, then I will change my voice slightly to intensify it.

I love your flute+drum duo, lovely.

1 Like

oh awesome, here’s the first track made by someone following my tutorial:

https://x.com/alex_with_ease/status/1807361563000525035

3 Likes

You can also create a CV out of your voice’s waveform. Omri’s Simpliciter video shows how.