Do you want to learn how to sound design dark, ominous drone sounds?
Dark Drone FX sounds are those deep, long, pad-like sounds that will provide a tonal anchor in your music. They are similar to a pedal tone on a big pipe organ, since their main purpose is to provide a low harmonic pedal tone in your music. But dark drones are more complex, evolving, ominous and with a more atmospheric texture.
Get ready for darkness, because you are now going to learn how to create your own dark drone effects, to use in your music compositions.
1 – Sounds
Now the first aspect of sound design is of course to choose your starting waveforms and sound layers. In the case of dark drones, you want to use instruments or synth presets with a soft attack, and long release tail in the sound. If you use software instruments, make sure to choose articulations and playing styles that have a soft, warm sound. Record one single long note in the lower register, with low dynamics for a warmer and deeper sound. Then experiment with various instruments and sounds to use as layers for the final dark drone sound.
Sounds – Main Tips
2 – Ambience
The tonal aspect is the foundation for your dark drone sound. However, often you want to have another layer that is non-tonal to act as the overall ambience. This will act more as a texture of noise. It will make the final sound more haunting and mysterious. The kind of atmospheric sounds you use will affect the overall mood of your dark drone. Do you want it to sound evil and creepy, or shimmering and magical? Think of wind noise, breathing sounds, industrial atmospheres, gears in motion, chains dragged in the catacombs etc.
Ambience – Main Tips
- Wind Noise
- Monster Growls
- Industrial Atmosphere
- Gears in Motion
- Chains/Metal Sounds
3 – Filters/Envelopes
When shaping the individual layers of your dark drone effect, you will mainly use low-pass filters at a very low setting to focus the layers on the low-end range. But if you are using ambience sounds and textures, you often want to have them thinner and mixed in into the background just to add more atmosphere. Here you will often use a band-pass filter or even high-pass filter. With the envelopes you generally want to have them very smooth, like slow waves. Meaning a long attack and long release. And you can also use the filter envelope to add some subtle opening and closing of the filters to create slow evolving motion.
Ambience – Main Tips
- Deep Low-Pass on Tonal Layers
- Band-Pass/High-Pass on Non-Tonal Layers
- Amp Envelope: Slow Attack/Release
- Filter Envelope: Slow Open/Close Filter
4 – Movement Automation
To create more movement and variation in your dark drone sounds, you want to add slow moving automation of parameters. The best way to do this is by using LFOs that you map to certain aspects of your sounds. I also recommend that you create different automation on each layer, because it will make the overall sound more organic and interesting. If you are using a software instrument such as strings or brass, you can add movement by creating curves in your MIDI expression data, such as dynamics, which most often is your MOD-wheel data. You can also use insert effects that add evolving movement in your sounds, such as an auto-panner, tremolo, phaser etc.
Movement Automation – Main Tips
- LFO Automation (Filter, Pan, Waveform Mix)
- MIDI Expression (MOD-Wheel etc.)
- Motion FX (Insert Effects)
5 – Space and Depth
You want to create a lot of depth in your dark drone sounds. One way is to use very long release tails in your sounds. But you can also add a deep reverb, such as a concert hall or even bigger. If you want to keep the clarity in the low end, I recommend that you filter out the deepest frequencies in the reverb output, say 150-200Hz and below. You can also experiment with using a stereo widener insert effect. For example, having minimal stereo information on the deepest layer of your sound, and wider stereo field in the atmospheric layers.
Space and Depth – Main Tips
- Deep Reverb (Big Hall)
- Filter out the Low of the Reverb
- Stereo Widener (Less Stereo in Deep Layers)
6 – Final Mix
Regarding the production aspect, and final mixing of your dark drone sounds, you of course have so many creative choices. But to get you started, I have a few guidelines to use as your starting point. Add distortion and saturation on some layers to get a gritty, mangled sound. Use heavy compression (preferable parallel processing) to crush the dynamics and bring out the atmosphere even further. Use a final mix EQ to shape the overall tone. In most cases you want to heavily reduce the “focus frequencies” which is where your main melodies, riffs and themes will be in your music composition. This means notching deep around 800Hz to 4kHz. You also want your dark drones to be, well, dark and deep. So boosting the bass register below 150Hz works great. And finally, if you really want to push the sound back in the mix, you might want to roll off the highs with a high-shelf EQ. Finally you may want to use another compressor or limiter at the end of the FX chain, to make sure it does not clip, and perhaps crush the dynamics even further. This way you can have the dark drone quite low in the mix, and it will still be audible and add low end power.
Final Mix – Main Tips
- Distortion/Saturation FX (per layer, and/or the overall sound)
- Parallel Compression (heavy compression, mixed with no compression)
- Filter/EQ (low end focus, notch out the mids, roll off the highs)
- Final Compressor/Limiter (no clipping, add more power)
You have now learned the foundations, guidelines and tips on how to sound design dark drone effects to use in your music productions. Now take action, and use what you have learned in this class, to create your own dark drone sound from scratch.