“Ambient music is about drawing out the details in the small sounds”: Producer Cephas Azariah on his essential reverb plugins

We learn of Azariah’s new release on Anjunadeep’s Reflections label, how he melds organic and software-based sounds to create “sonic weight”, and what ambient music means to him.

Cephas Azariah in his studio

Cephas Azariah in his studio

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Cephas Azariah is a British-Indian composer who creates contemplative music for films and media as well as home listening. Using both hardware and software-based instruments, he has made music for acclaimed films such as WRANGLER, which was honoured with the Audience Choice award at Lift-Off Global 2021 and was recognised for Best Female Director at Cannes World Film Festival 2021.

Alongside this, Azariah releases ambient-classical music via Anjunadeep’s ambient-focused Reflections sub-label. In this interview, he shares insights on his brand new release, if I can be honest, a collaboration with vocalist Elle Limebear. He discusses the meditational quality of ambient music, favourite plugins like Landforms by Slate + Ash and Stratus by Spitfire Audio, and his unique approach to blending real and synthetic sounds for ethereal compositions.

Tell us about this release.

It was predominantly produced in my studio at home. The most exciting thing for me was working with Elle Limebear and recording her voice as an instrument (rather than lyrics and melody) which is an important part of the project as much the music – plus several voice notes and nature foley for that organic feel. We did the majority of the writing between March and June this year.

Do you find that making ambient music – as well as listening to it – has a meditational quality?

Yes. For me, ambient music is drawing out the details in the small sounds. Whether that’s a piano, a synth, orchestral textures or a pattern, it’s about bringing those elements to the forefront of the sonic space. Making this kind of music requires an intuitive slowness and attention to detail. For example, you could gain up the mics on a felted upright quite a bit to hear the mechanics, the actual notes being played, the room, the piano stool, the player and really draw the listener in as if they are sat next to you at the piano. It’s just one instrument, but that’s sometimes enough in ambient music.

Cephas Azariah plays the piano
Credit: Will Chamberlain

What’s your latest plugin purchase?

Landforms by Slate + Ash. This has been a revelation in all areas. I’m not classically trained or have much understanding of how orchestral instruments work. Landforms is an orchestra-synth hybrid plugin that reimagines both worlds by bringing them together. This makes for a broad and understandable instrument with its easy-to-use interface and out-of-the-box sounds that simply blow you away. The strings (cello and violin patches) are the ones I use the most. You’ll hear this, especially on track 1 of the EP – if I can be honest.

Landforms by Slate + Ash
Landforms by Slate + Ash

What’s the best free plugin you own?

Chorus by TAL and Supermassive by Valhalla. I’m a big fan of the Juno chorus effect and this plugin emulates that so well. I use it both as a bus effect and on the channel strip.

On Valhalla’s Supermassive – why is this free? There’s so much control and a vast depth to what you can do with this delay/reverb plugin. I mostly use the expansive reverb settings like happy little clouds or we are stardust – usually automated and filtered in some way to make sure everything it does is controlled.

Supermassive by Valhalla
Supermassive by Valhalla

What plugins go on your master bus without fail?

Grand Finale by Klevgrand. This plugin enables me to bounce “listenable” demos. I don’t write with it on, but when I need to export a version or demo, I’ll ease the output on it until I hear that crisp in the overall sound. Super-easy to use without needing too much knowledge of mixing or mastering, but I recommend that it’s used appropriately as these types of plugins can be overbearing.

Grand Finale by Klevgrand
Grand Finale by Klevgrand

What plugin would your upcoming EP be incomplete without?

Stratus by Spitfire Audio & Olafur Arnalds. I’ve used this as an extension of my upright to create wide piano textures and patterns. A big part of making ambient music is having interesting sounds that are discreet but contribute to the overall journey of the track. I also use this as a percussion instrument often by accentuating the felt and hammer sounds to bring some rhythmic movement into the music.

Your music often has a lot of real, organic instruments (violins etc). Are these in fact real?

These are both real strings and patches on Landforms. I love the cello. It’s my favourite sounding instrument so I try to record with a cellist as much as possible. I then layer this with a variety of sounds on landforms to create the feeling that a group of string players are playing. I sometimes have up to eight string layers – two will be real and the rest are all plugins tucked in, creating that sonic weight.

Do you have any secret sauce plugins?

Blackhole by Eventide. Oh, I also love reverb. I use five different reverb buses. The Blackhole is the cleanest reverb plugin I’ve got.

Blackhole by Eventide
Blackhole by Eventide

What do you use without fully understanding?

Decapitator by Soundtoys. Now, I know what this does but also don’t at the same time. I use it when I’m looking for that tasteful distortion and crunch on a particular instrument and nine out of ten times I end up overdoing it and dial out pretty much everything I’ve added. I always put on a subtle preset and try taking some of the dials up and take it from there. I’m still in the trial-and-error stage but I like what it does so I’ll have to keep using it.

Hear more of Cephas Azariah’s work via cephasazariah.co.uk.

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