Lakeshore Art Director John Bergin interviews Robert Rich, veteran music producer who mastered Adam Wingard’s sinister score to Blair Witch:
When I first heard Adam Wingard’s ominous score for Blair Witch, I knew that such deep and subtle music would have to be mastered carefully. There is an art to mastering ambient music — an art to preserving and enhancing the sense of space, whether claustrophobic, intimate, or vast. My good friend, ambient music pioneer Robert Rich was the first person that came to mind.
John Bergin: About Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch soundtrack; this genre of music is called ambient, dark ambient, or black ambient. For readers who may be unfamiliar with the genre, how would you characterize the sound?
Robert Rich: I think of “dark ambient” as an outgrowth of the early “industrial music” scene from the late ‘70s, when groups like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and SPK defined a sort of apocalyptic, dystopian sound, based on electronics, distortion and heavy rhythm. It was a more intellectual reframing of the punk rebellion. Even further back to the late ’60s foundations of the Krautrock scene, we had groups like Cluster, Tangerine Dream and Conrad Schnitzler making improvisational experimental electronic music as a form of cultural rebellion. Within those early expressions of electronic naivety, they planted the seeds of dark ambient.
However, I think the more specific expressions of a style started happening in the ‘80s with Lustmord, Hafler Trio, Zoviet France, Nurse With Wound and many others. These artists removed or slowed down the electronic rhythms of industrial music, and extended the tonal manipulations into abstract textures farther away from expressing obvious emotions, into a very foreign, deep and surreal place.
Just as you could argue, say, heavy metal or punk music should be experienced loud, dark ambient is best experienced in a certain way. What are your recommendations for a good ambient music listening environment?
RR: I think the creators of this music often hope that listeners have a good stereo system that can get loud with an extended low frequency range. Much of the music has a distinctly deep bass extension, and it’s almost orchestral in its dynamic range. It’s intended to create a strong mood. I find it can be interesting in the background as well, if one really wants to surround oneself in that brooding environment. Of course nobody can predict or dictate an ideal listening environment, and modern listeners usually use headphones, but I think they’ll be missing some of the physical impact of the low frequencies.
Some people hear this kind of music and believe it is easy to make – that it simply sounds like earth rumbling or wind blowing, but there is more to Adam’s music (or artists such as Lustmord, Haxan Cloak, or Steve Roach) than simple sound effects. There is a technical proficiency required to make this kind of music well. Would you agree?
RR: I think the surface characteristics of dark ambient or noise music may be rather easy to mimic with a beginner’s skill set. Slather on some thick gobs of long reverb with a bunch of slowed-down sounds and there you go. However, like any compositional language, you can tell when someone takes a more intelligent and considered approach to it.
From a listener’s perspective, it does benefit from an open mind, patience, and an awareness of the parameters of sonic experimentalism. For example, when I first listened to the early albums of Thomas DiMuzio I could immediately sense a deep compositional intelligence and an awareness of dynamics, an elegant structural arc with peaks and troughs; but on the surface the music was a very abstract dissonant texture. Like anything, it takes some familiarity to appreciate the structure.
When you master ambient music, what unique or interesting challenges make it different than mastering more traditional music?
RR: Interestingly, I treat it more like classical music than anything. It has that scope and breadth, and wide frequency excursions. The biggest challenges often come from an enormous low frequency component, understanding how to maintain the impact desired from those low frequencies while finding enough detail in the midrange to allow the music to translate on smaller speakers or headphones. That usually involves a set of tricks that I might use more on a rock album, although I generally avoid audible compression and I don’t smash the signal with a limiter. The wide dynamic range encourages more active listening, and rewards the listener who gives a little boost of the volume knob to soak more deeply into the sound.
Who are some artists you would recommend to anyone new to ambient music?
RR: On the more melodic and peaceful side of things, I can highly recommend Steve Roach, Alio Die, Jeff Greinke, and the collaborations of Ian Boddy and Markus Reuter, perhaps also my 7-8 hour works “Somnium” and “Perpetual”. For the more experimental and overtly “dark” then certainly Lustmord would be the standard bearer. His album “Heresey” is a classic, and “The Place Where the Black Stars Hang” is epic.
Some people consider my album with Lustmord called “Stalker” as bit of a prototype for blending of the “lighter” and “darker” halves of the style, and my albums “Below Zero” and “Troubled Resting Place” might cross over a bit. I do think Thomas DiMuzio’s work is consistently excellent. There was also a series of releases on the Desolation House label in the early 2000s, which I mastered; and I think many of those were pure expressions of “dark ambient” — artists like Gruntsplatter, Subterranean Source, Angel of Decay, Amazing Grace and such.
Thanks to Robert for answering my questions.
Anyone who is interested in exploring more dark ambient music can check out this playlist I’ve made based on Robert’s suggested artists:
Deeper Into The Woods (A Playlist Featuring Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch Soundtrack)
Download The ‘Blair Witch’ Soundtrack here.
ABOUT ADAM WINGARD: In 2011, Adam Wingard co-directed Autoerotic with mumblecore icon (and frequent actor in Wingard films) Joe Swanberg. He was selected to direct one chapter of The ABCs of Death, a 26-chapter horror comedy anthology for Drafthouse Films and Magnet. His solo directorial effort, You’re Next, a home invasion slasher, premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival as part of the ‘Midnight Madness’ section. The film received a wide release in August 2013. His next recent film, The Guest starring Dan Stevens, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and Fantastic Fest and has received critical acclaim upon its wider theatrical release. Blair Witch directed by Adam Wingard, written by Simon Barrett is in theaters now.
ABOUT ROBERT RICH: Across four decades and over 40 albums, Robert has helped define the genres of ambient music, dark-ambient, tribal and trance. Rich has performed in caves, cathedrals, planetaria, art galleries and concert halls throughout Europe and North America. His all-night Sleep Concerts, first performed in 1982, became legendary in the San Francisco area. Rich returned to playing Sleep Concerts in 2013 for special performances in Krakow, Tokyo, Copenhagen and elsewhere, followed by his 15 hour Blu-ray release Perpetual.