Using Ambient Effects & Techniques in Songs

Been kind of committing the cardinal sin of blogging for the last few months, which means going more than two days in between posts. Apologies for that, but there is a lot of music going on right now, so thankfully I have more playing opportunities than writing opportunities. Nothing wrong with writing, but you have to have something write about or else it all just becomes, ‘Hey, have you guys heard of this band called U2?’ and ‘Remember when I tweeted about my burger?’ So here’s a piece I’ve been working on for a film called Semblance, and it’s also the single off the album I hope to release before the end of the month. I’m using a couple techniques that I get questions on a lot, so I figured this would be a good time to talk through which effects were used for which parts.

Guitars and Amps:

Prairiewood Hardtop (Woleftone Dr. V’s), Matchless HC30 (EF86 channel, input 2), 65 Amps Cab (Scumnico 30 mic’d).

In a post about effects, I’m starting with the guitar and amp for this reason: You will never like the sound of your effects if you don’t like the sound of your base tone. In other words, sell the Memory Lane and get a better amp. 😉 This is not a hard and fast rule as there are a million different ways to good tone, including having expensive effects and cheap guitars and amps. However, this one thing has been incredibly instrumental for me personally.

Swell Effects:

George Dennis optical volume pedal, Prairiewood Hardtop, Strymon Brigadier delay, Strymon Capistan delay, Strymon Blue Sky verb, Arion SAD-1 analog delay, Arion SPH-1 analog phaser.

I mention the volume pedal first because it, or the volume pot on your guitar, are the most important parts of swells. If you’ve ever heard the session player Greg Leisz, he does some of the best volume swells ever, with minimal delay. It’s his volume control that is so good. Swell too slowly or too far after the string hit, and your delays cannot ‘hear’ the swell well enough to get any sustain. Swell too quickly or too close to the string hit, and your delays ‘hear’ too much of the swell and it becomes choppy and obvious that the delay pedal is working. The swell technique is hugely important, and the only way to get there is practice. I’m still practicing…there are many takes that sound so bad that I just want to pack it up and go home. Except that I am home, which makes me want to pack it up and go home all over again. 😉

I mention the guitar secondly because the guitar has a ton to do with getting a good swell tone. You want a guitar that sustains and rings very well, as it is still making sound as you swell in. So the main sound of your swell is the original hit, but the delay is still now hearing the sound from your guitar as your volume pedal is now up. The sustain from your instrument is what helps fill in the gaps and make things more full and pad-sounding.

Effects-wise, I use Strymon delays because Terry’s a friend and they make great sounding pedals. So if you have a chance, try to get ahold of the Brigadier delay. Since the Timeline and Capistan came out, it’s not quite as in demand, so you might be able to find one for cheaper. However, it has this uncanny ability to sustain your sound without really getting in the way. Perfect for ambience. But you do not need Strymon to get ambient tones. Any delay that gives you at least 1 second (60 bpm, 1000ms) of delay time, has a tone knob or some sort of ‘brown’ or ‘analog’ control, and of course sounds good, will do. The basic settings for any delay would be 60 bpm (1000ms), tone rolled off, repeats at 14 or 15 audible repeats, and mix slightly below unity (just less audible than your original signal). I throw one or two more very warm, washed out, and dirty delays on top of that to really wash it out. That’s what the analog delay and the tape delay modeler are for. The reverb then smooths everything over. When setting your dirtier delays, set modulation depth fairly high, and rate fairly slow. For reverb, the secret is a good deal of pre-delay. Phaser is added just to make things sound slightly more ’80’s and deep, and less generic.

Trem-picking Effects:

Strymon Brigadier, Arion SAD-1, and Curt Mangan strings.

The end of this piece uses a good deal of trem picking. Not exactly sure why it’s called that, or if that name is technically correct, but it’s the current colloquialism. The strings mean a good deal here, which is part of the reason I like using pure nickel strings to give it that percussive sound. However, you want to pick out of time with the music, so delay is used to help wash it out. I set my Brigadier at the same setting I use for swells. Then put the analog delay at unity mix, with 16 or 17 repeats, at about 250 milliseconds. This gives it that runaway delay feel. Add verb to taste. The main technique to this is changing your chord hand on tempo, but making sure to strum slightly off tempo.

Guitar Vocalizing Effects:

Brass slide, Strymon Blue Sky.

There is also a lot of what I call guitar vocalizing in this song. By using a slide, setting your amp and pickup selection bassy, and then cranking the mix on your reverb, you can get the slide to almost sound like a hollow voice. This can be a great effect in ambient music, where things need to wash, but perhaps you have melodies in your head that may be a bit too staccato to stand out enough when washed out by delay and reverb. Slide also fills your piece with, as Bob Ross would call them, happy accidents. I use a full slide instead of a ring slide, and it picks up a lot of transient notes and sounds which help add a very live feel to the piece. If the transients get to be too much, capo so that most of your open strings are in the key. This is a great technique to master (I have not even come close to mastering it, but trying to!), and slides are probably the cheapest effect you can buy. You don’t even really need to buy one. Within the upcoming album, there’s a piece on which I use a slide on one hand and a screwdriver in the other. Sounds almost exactly the same…and anyone who says differently is most likely a slide salesman. 😉


Matchless HC30 and pickup selection.

As usual, I don’t use any post-effects on my recordings…every layer is as it came out of the amp. As such, each layer must be eq’d and tailored to sit properly in the mix beforehand. This is a good exercise to get into the habit of, especially when playing live. Don’t rely on the sound guy to post-eq your band to sound good; orchestrate the song and instruments beforehand so that everything comes together to create the whole eq spectrum with minimal mixing. So with layers, use your amp settings and pickup selection choices to fit everything into its place in the mix. And if you’re looking for big ambience, a good tip is to reverse engineer this. Figure out where in the eq spectrum certain parts will congeal together, and then play them in that close eq space so that they do congeal together. This technique works very well for live looping, so that everything just creates a wall of sound on top of itself. And other times, just regular engineering is fine…stick a lead part in the treble, and use middle position pickup selections for the base layers. :)

I hope that gives a nice base and background for how to create and use ambient effects within songs. And, as always, melody first. Us guitarists have a tendency to get so bogged down with effects that even though we’re able to get the perfect sound, we have no melody to play with it.

Hope that’s somewhat useful, and enjoy the song! You can download it here, and you also have the option of not downloading it here, if you so wish. (See what I did there? 😉 ) Thanks, folks.


23 thoughts on “Using Ambient Effects & Techniques in Songs

  1. There’s so much good tips in this post. especially on the trem-picking and slide. I am admittedly terrible at both. Great post!

  2. Jeff–thanks, brother! That single is on my Bandcamp page right now (, but the whole album won’t be finished for another couple weeks.

    Josh–cool man! I figure if Editors do it, it’s good enough for me. 😉

    Rhoy–really cool! Thanks for posting that! Ya, take the effects away, and it’s very classical/Godfather. :)

    Jody–thanks, bro. Glad it can be of some use!

  3. And I thought I was the only one who appreciated Bob Ross and the “happy” objects he painted. I’m still convinced he was a wizard of some variety.

    Song sounds great, and the tips are informative. Question though, do you ever use a compressor to get the sustain and consistency for your swells? In all the years of my playing, I had never used a compressor in my rig until last week when I picked up an AM Juicer. I found it particularly helpful for allowing single notes to ring out and glide in a way, like a bird riding a breeze. Seems like it would be helpful in an ambient situation like this.

    (Also, I sent you an email, not sure if you got it but I can resend if you didn’t)

  4. Really working on my Volume Swell Techniques. This is good stuff. BTW, love those old Arion Effects. The first pedal I ever purchased was an Arion SCH-1 Stereo Chorus. Little noisy due to the old-school bucket brigade technolgy used, but man, what a sound! Wish I still had it. If you ever run across one, buy it immediately! But I digress… Blessings.

  5. Once again, thanks for sharing the tips and advice. I’m really looking forward to exploring these effects ideas since I’ve always felt like I miss the mark with my current attempts. Great post!
    Now I just need to find the time to practice it all!

  6. Man, your posts have been so helpful, and this one just takes the cake. THANK YOU!

    Sidenote: since you are such a fan of Arion pedals, would you recommend the flanger?

    Sidenote2: can your recommend a decent, cheap-ish reverb, or should I just build one? 😉 My amp is sans reverb, which works most of the time, but for something like this I could use a “little extra” :)

    • If you’re looking for something to just be a simple master reverb for your rig, I highly recommend the EHX Holy Grail. Has spring, hall and flerb (sort of a phased or flanged reverb sound, really cool for spaceship type effects) modes, is only around $100 new (used for much less), and now they make them in the really small enclosures, so they don’t take up a whole lot of space on your board. The Boss RV3 or RV5 that Karl mentions below are good if you need a little more tweakability.

  7. Steve–just found your email in my spam folder! I’ll respond in a sec. And I’m not a huge compression fan…I don’t mind it in certain applications, but I’ve always found that a well-set-up guitar rings a little more naturally to my ears. But that’s just me. And yay for Boss Ross!

    Eric–great pedals for sure! I know Landau uses that old SCH-1…I keep hoping to run across one at a yard sale for 5 bucks or something. :)

    Sal–it’s a stretch, but I really wanted to use that word. 😉

    Gtr1ab–thanks, man! Glad it can be of some use!

    Justin–sure, bro. And ya, the old flange sounds great.

    For a decent, cheap reverb, to be honest…the Line 6 Verbzilla isn’t bad if you need shimmer. If you don’t need shimmer, I’d suggest the Boss RV3 or RV5. :)

  8. Great post Karl. I’m wondering if you can comment a little more on why you use a brass slide as opposed to chrome, glass, porcelain, etc.? I go back and forth on whether I like brass or not. It sounds warmer than chrome, but it seems to pick up a lot more transients. Lately I’ve been using chrome coupled with volume swells to get a pedal steel-esque tone.

  9. Karl – I’m a fellow Brigadier lover, been using it for about a year and love the decay and modulation for U2ish leads and darker swells/ambience. .it’s stayed firmly on my board even after getting a Timeline because I can’t seem to get the same tones from the TL!? ..have you found any settings on the TL that match or eclipse the Brig?

  10. Brandon–thanks!

    JK–thanks, man. And I actually really like the transients for ambient music…I need to get a ring slide for more traditional stuff. But that’s why I like the brass. Actually, I like the sound of glass too, but I kept dropping and breaking them. lol

    Andrew–right on! Ya, I just love that thing. And I feel like I can get close with the Timeline, but I haven’t quite found the right setting so that it ducks out fo the way like the Brig seems too, and I haven’t found that dark/80’s modulation that the Brig does either.

  11. lol No, but I certainly did own one of those guitars. Action would not set, intonation was hopeless, and pickups sounded like one of those nightmares where you’re having a nightmare within your nightmare. But hey…it looked metal!!

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