Xenophobic Tourism

As has happened previously this month, this is not the song I started with. I had an idea, and had started trying to find sounds when I realized that what I had in my head was going to need an earlier start and a lot more prep work. Around midnight I decided to switch gears, but wasn’t entirely sure where that would lead me.

  1. Xenophobic Tourism Ray Toler 4:20

This type of sound wash ambient is nice in what it brings to you can change entirely based on what you bring to it. Try this experiment: play this track and then try shifting your mental movie to each of the following

  • A dark forest. With a witch or some druids. Everything’s watching you. Even the trees.
  • A complex mandala, slowly growing larger, adding color and saturation over time.
  • A slow motion scene of urban destruction. Riots, explosions, anger, fury.
  • Wide, distant shots of a small party making their way through rugged glacial terrain.
  • A shot pulling back from a monk meditating next to a tranquil pond.
  • Shots of a massive spaceship approaching, descending through the atmosphere, and landing on a new planet.
  • A spaceship hurtling through hyperspace and falling into a wormhole.
  • Alternating moments of birth and a death. A baptism. A funeral.
  • Morphing color washes, like those old 60s oil projections.

It’s tempting to just call this dark ambient and give it a dark connotation, but that’s a disservice, and another reason I do my best not to force interpretation on the listener, subtly or overtly. It’s why so many of my titles are semi-non-sensical. The first interpretation in that list came entirely from some of the patches I used: Witching, Winged Dwarf, Sentient Trees. None of those really mean anything either, and I really don’t envy synth programmers for having to come up with hundreds of unique names for their sounds.

“What’s in there?”
“Only what you take with you.”

– Luke & Yoda


A few of sounds, but not many, were tried and abandoned before finding the one that opens the track. I’ve (surprisingly) not written a ton of ambient this month, but the ones I did still had a sense of rhythm and tempo. Doxastic Truth has the soft chanting and piano. Fluvial Desert has both a repeating chord structure and a soft arpeggio throughout.

For this one, I decided to shake the tyranny of the metronome and fly without a net. The opening sound is from Cycles, which is another of the instruments that overpowers my CPU, sometimes with just a single note played. I played the entire piece in, but had to take my best guess at what it would really sound like. 

Before rendering it, I selected everything and made the notes land on the nearest measure. The reason for this is that it wouldn’t change any of the apparent timing of the track in the absence of anything else providing a stronger sense of tempo, but it also gave me the option to add a rhythmic element later and have things match up.

The next sound I chose is the distortion wash that appears every so often. For this sound, I pulled the fader all the way down, so you don’t hear it directly, and sent all of the signal through a crystallizer, which creates a swarm of echoes, each of which gets pitch shifted each time it repeats. It’s almost a granular effect, almost a reverb. The source sound is an interesting FM patch that descends as the modulator slows down.

During mixing, I decided to bring in some of the source sound both for variety and to give it a little more emotional impact. An example of that occurs at 2:08. What’s crazy is that the original patch sounds nothing like a big distorted guitar hit. It’s much more synthy, almost like a dance sound, but the crystallizer fundamentally changes the character. This is a perfect example of why the effects chain is at least 50% of good ambient work. Even a a bad sound can become amazing through the right effects.

The third sound is the pulse / heartbeat that starts in the middle, mostly inaudibly, and slowly grows in volume through the end of the track. It’s not really a heartbeat, and doesn’t have the WUB-dub double hit. It could be a heart, but it could also be a helicopter rotor in slow motion. Whatever interpretive quality it brings, the main thing I’m using it for is to create a tiny bit of tempo and drama. It’s one more detail you can grab onto when listening critically, or absorb if it’s  just background music. I did put a big, but dark, reverb on the sound, but it’s fairly subtle.

This was almost the stopping point. I’ve been doing better about knowing when to say when.  But it felt a little empty and, while being something I would absolutely listen to in an ambient playlist, wouldn’t be one that I would want to listen to in a more eclectic one.

I searched through a lot of patches before finding one that had the right combination of slow attack (but not too slow), slow decay (but not too slow), and that was neither too bright nor too dark. I really lucked out in that this one provided not only the higher lead sound, but also the pedal bass notes, the latter of which really cemented the track into place.

When I created the distortion washes, I copied certain notes out of the original pad’s track so they’d match. For the lead, though, I opened up the MIDI for the original pad and watched it as I improvised. This let me see both the chord change coming up and the timing. There were a few points that I went in and manually adjusted to make the notes better fit the pace of the sound (or to sync the bass notes up exactly with the main pad), but it’s 95% as I played it.

Mixing and Mastering

I was a bit worried about this one. It already sounded decent, but that can be a trick… our brains have a remarkable ability to adapt to repetition. It’s not until you hear a version with the issues fixed that you realize what the issues were. My mixing proficiency has gotten much better (and producing 28 songs in a month is a good way to practice), but I still don’t have the golden ears that take me directly to the frequency range that needs to change.

There wasn’t a lot of surgery needed. I made some small cuts (<1 dB) around 200 – 300 Hz to clear up some of the muddy low end and let the bass poke through a tiny bit more. A little high-end boost here and there, and… it’s finished. That’s always a weird moment for me: thinking about what else needs to be done and realizing that the answer is “nothing.”

So in a rare feat, the track was completely mixed and mastered before I went to bed, plus I’d produced the entire track in about two hours! I didn’t print it, figuring I’d be horrified at the sound in the morning, but I couldn’t hear anything that I thought sounded bad, so went ahead with raising the overall level to match the rest of the month and posting it.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t know what I don’t know about this one.


  • Synths: Cycles, Pigments, u-He Zebra HZ, Hive2
  • Effects: Valhalla Shimmer, FabFilter Pro-R
  • Mixing & Mastering: BX SSL 9000 J, Gullfoss, Pro-L 2

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