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How to DRONE without Boring Everyone

May 11, 2024
Drones are kinda boring, and that's kind of the point I guess.
There's a whole genre surrounding drones, and I have to admit, I love a tasty drone myself.
Wobbly tape drones. Buzzy synth drones. Low drones. High drones. Organ drones....
Yeah, I like drones.
But I also like harmony and counterpoint and parts that interact with each other in interesting ways...because I'm a huge nerd.
Blending those two things has been a fun experiment over the years.
Today, we're going to talk about some of my favorite ways to use drones. We'll focus on the drone itself. But, more importantly, we'll talk about what we can do around the drone to keep things interesting.
"But I don't want it to be interesting. Boring is what I'm going for." If droning as a meditative practice is what you're going for, that's awesome. Not really what this video is about though, and I'm not sure anyone needs a video for that...
This is more like droning for the active listener. It's how to not land on that "ambient drones to calm your dog while you're at work" Spotify playlist.
How does it function?
Like in the video about sequences, the first question to ask is "how does my drone fit within my track?"
Is it the foundation that everything else is built around? That's often the case.
Or is it a textural element happening in the background?
If the latter is true, are there going to be multiple drones? How will they interact with one another harmonically and texturally?
Pedal Points
This isn't an exhaustive history of the drone, so we won't dive too deep into the origins of droning. But it's safe to say that it's not a new concept.
Hurdy Gurdy, Bagpipes, Sitar, Lyra8, these are all old instruments, some of which go back all the way into the 2010s.
But the closest to my heart is the pipe organ - an instrument I've been playing for about 20 years now. That's depressing to think about.
In western classical music, a long sustained bass note that ties everything together while all kinds of other stuff happens above it is called a pedal point or pedal tone. Get it? Organs have pedals....
That's a drone, and it's often used to build tension while chords change above it.
If we apply this concept to electronic music, the drone would be our foundation. It would keep us harmonically rooted.
The bass note in this track never changes. The harmonies above it do. The textures do. Even the rhythm does.
We might not think of this as a drone because I'm using an arpeggiator to make it pulse, but harmonically speaking - it's a drone. It's a pedal tone.
Drones in the middle...
What if we flip the concept of a pedal point on its head? Now the drone is not the foundation. Instead, it serves as a throughline or connective tissue in the mid or high mids of the frequency range.
In my track Monuments, I did this with one synth (a Model D clone).
On that synth you can switch off key-tracking for one of the oscillators so that it....drones. Instead of tuning it to be the bass/foundation, I thought it would be more interesting to have it sit in the middle and tune the other two oscillators above and below it.
This way it could lead to more interesting harmonies because of the way those other two oscillators would rub against and interact with the droning oscillator.
Textural Evolution
By definition, drones don't move around harmonically. So if they're stagnant harmonically and somewhat exposed, we need to find ways to get them moving texturally.
Lately I've enjoyed using wavetable synthesis for this. You can sweep through the wavetable position and find interesting harmonics and all these sweet spots that you just don't have with more basic waveforms. If you get a cool wavetable moving with a slow lfo, you can immediately add a ton of character to your drone.
And if you've heard any of my music, you know how much I love recording a drone to a tape loop for extra wobble, noise, and unpredictability. It's a bit like a cheat code that can add movement to even the most static sounds.
Layered Drones
It can be a lot of fun to experiment with stacking multiple drones on different pitches. The Lyra 8 is built around that premise, and it's heavily featured on this track
This track was about finding the right angular harmonies or dissonances. They would rub against each other and create tension and release.
Everything works together. The Lyra drones create a stagnant chord. Underneath, the chord progression creates polychords against the droning chord.
If you'd like to learn more about putting parts together like this, you can check out my Composition Course.
In it, I've distilled some of my favorite techniques that have helped me finish more music over the years.
If you'd like to learn more about synthesis and sound design to start making your own evolving drones, I have a Synthesis Course that will take you from the basics to more advanced techniques.
For a limited time, Newsletter subscribers can get either course for 20% off by using the code SUMMERNEWSLETTER at checkout :)
Whenever you're ready, here's how I can help you:

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2. Understanding Synthesis - learn to design your own sounds starting with the basics of subtractive synthesis and progressing to more advanced sound design  with semi-modular and various forms of digital synthesis.

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