Ambience YouTube Might Be the Greatest Content to Come Out of the Pandemic
Audio is booming online as never before, but Clubhouse’s much-hyped pioneers and Spotify’s celebrity podcasters aren’t the only ones making noise. Creators of every variety are experimenting and finding audiences on platforms new and old.
Sound On is a series of nofilter articles on the coolest trends and innovators in the emerging audioscape. Watch this space for at least one new story every day this week.
There are many mundane hallmarks of everyday life I’ve come to miss during the coronavirus pandemic, but none more acutely than working at a coffee shop. In college, as a post-grad freelance writer, and most recently, as an office worker subject to regular subway meltdowns, I cherished settling into a corner of my local coffee shop with a laptop and a mocha. The hum of low voices beyond my headphones and whirring of the espresso machine combined for a peace that allowed for hours of solo work that never left me feeling alone.
The same cannot be said for working from a couch in quarantine, so, as with everything else, I turned to the internet. A YouTube search for “coffee shop sound” yields an endless scroll of options: “Rainy Night Coffee Shop Ambience with Relaxing Jazz Music and Rain Sounds,” “RAINY DAY COFFEE SHOP AMBIENCE: Piano Music and Rain Sounds With Distant Thunder,” “Twin Peaks Double R Diner Ambience - 8 Hours of Smooth Jazz Music, Rain Sounds, & Cozy Cafe Ambience.” These videos, made up of rich illustrations accompanied by a low buzz of relevant sounds, approximate scenes from real life that we can no longer indulge.
While the past year may have inspired a fresh appreciation for these ambience videos, the concept itself is not new. Creators on YouTube have long experimented with music and sound, well before we found ourselves in the midst of a social media audio boom. The “lofi hip hop girl”—a sketch of a woman with blunt bangs and a chunky sweatshirt at a desk in the thumbnail for one of the most popular recurring ambience streams on YouTube, “lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to girl”—even transcended thumbnail status to become a recognized online character. The original video was posted by creator ChilledCow in March 2018, and it has 49 million views.
That same year, the New Yorker covered the phenomenon of YouTube videos that made it sound as if popular songs, like Toto’s “Africa,” were playing in an empty shopping mall. The videos, Jia Tolentino wrote, seemed to “trigger some fundamental human emotion.”
“I can’t tell if this is meant to be surreal or nostalgic,” one commenter wrote on the Toto mall video.
Ideally, a successful ambience video is a bit of both, and a number of creators have cracked the code. Popular ambience channels like ASMR Rooms, The Guild Of Ambience, and Calmed By Nature have seen steady growth since the start of the pandemic, and are still accumulating tens of thousands of subscribers a day, per Social Blade. There’s enough content on each channel to get me through weeks of working from home, and a wide enough variety to make me feel as if I’m far, far away: I’ve worked “at” a coffee shop in Amsterdam, “in” a cabin in the snowy woods, and even “on board” the Hogwarts Express.
“Growing up I LOVED fantasy series like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones, etc,” Claire, the New York City-based creator behind ASMR Rooms, tells me over email. “I’ve always fantasized about spending time in those magical places.”
Over the past six years, Claire’s been bringing these fictional universes to life, initially with stock audio sounds, and now with additional audio she collects herself and voice actors that she hires. She has over 190,000 subscribers.
The views on her videos tend to exceed her subscriber numbers; the highest performing one,her recreation of the Hogwarts library, has 2.5 million. Fire crackles, pages flip, and pens scribble for a full hour. Something like that takes about 10 hours to animate, Claire says, plus an additional 30 hours or more for the video to render. To support her hard work, Claire, who is self-taught, has a Patreon and sells merch.
“Fantasy” doesn’t have to mean magic and dragons. I find that in quarantine, the ordinary is sometimes the most welcome escape. When FalconML founder Sudharshan Chandra Babu launched “Work at Dunder Mifflin,” a site that lets you toggle between and layer dialogue and background noise from the TV show The Office, the server crashed within three hours.
“I remember watching a video by The Office on YouTube (probably some Jim and Dwight prank) and there was a five-second pause where I heard just normal office sounds—paper printing, typing, people talking—and I really liked the ambience,” Babu tells me over email. “The idea pretty much hit me then.”
The landing page instructs users to first play the general “Ambient Noise” button, which is mostly room tone, paper shuffling, and unintelligible talking. Then you can layer more sounds of your choice, such as Pam at reception, meetings in the conference room, “Creed Thoughts,” or every “That’s what she said.”
Babu had no experience with sound mixing, but used his knowledge of web design, the basic tools on Audacity, and his personal favorite moments from The Office (which he has watched twice through) to create the now-viral hit, which has been featured on Morning Brew and Product Hunt. Since it launched on February 23, Work At Dunder Mifflin has received over 28,0000 visitors, most via Reddit, Babu says.
Despite this success, Babu doesn’t plan on making more ambiences. However, if he had a bit more practice, there is one he’d like to give a try: It’s a coffee shop, of course.