1: a deep sustained or monotonous sound : hum
2: an instrument or part of an instrument (as one of the fixed-pitch pipes of a bagpipe) that sounds a continuous unvarying tone
Drone music and its derivatives have become a recent fascination for me. Previously, the idea of an unchanging tone that spans for the majority of a song sounded strange and terrible. However, I have discovered that the sonic possibilities and subtle harmonic shifts that can be found in drone music to be very deep and gratifying if dug into. Drone music as a relative of ambient and meditative music is also quite intriguing to me. The way sound can seem to slide into the background of one’s consciousness or be specifically focused on in the foreground may depend entirely on the listener, but I feel like drone music can easily be appreciated in both ways.
What I love most about drone music is creating it. There is something very simple and yet tangible about creating this type of music/noise. So today we will build a drone. We are going to use my Drone Lab, designed by Peter Edwards of Casper Electronics. This was built from a kit, and features 4 square wave oscillators, an effects section, and some tremolo features. You can read more about it at Casper Electronics or in my short review of the kit here. The advantages of using this type of hardware for drones (despite the fact that it was designed for drones) is the immediate hands-on nature of the sounds, the simplicity of the device, and the completely manual/analog nature of the tuning of each oscillator.
I’m going to break down a simple process of the way I sometimes build a drone and discuss a little about each element as it is added. This is a pretty raw and dirty drone, but illustrates certain points well. Skip to the bottom to hear the whole thing from start to finish.
First, we introduce a single tone, and then add in another one octave below. The notes are slightly detuned, creating a “pulsing” effect:
Then we add in another tone, again slightly out of tune, creating more width and adding a lot more harmonic content as the voices phase in and out of one another:
The 4th voice added is one fifth up from the original tone, creating a little more interest in our wall of sound:
Here we add some pretty heavy distortion. This ups the harmonic content even more, and accentuates the pulsing of the voices:
A simple low pass filter is swept over the gritty sound, revealing more nuances of harmonics and creating movement:
Finally, some additional band pass filters are swept around and added in and out, again to create more interest and movement:
From here on out, the drone continues by adjusting the above changes to some degree: voices are added and dropped, the tuning is adjusted between them, distortion amount changes, and low/band pass filters swept around. If you’re feeling adventurous, the drone in its entirety can be heard below: