The Land of Nod: Tom Middleton goes deep ambient for a cause

Tom Middleton recording a TV interview with The Associated Press, March 2018

by Mike G, April 2018

Super versatile DJ, composer, producer and now sleep science coach Tom Middleton is on a mission to help you sleep better, and he’s made an album designed to do just that. Ambient Music Guide spoke with the bearded one about his new adventure in sound.


Although usually associated with club music, UK artist Tom Middleton has also created some bonafide classics of ambient and downtempo electronica over the last 25 years. Notably, three albums with Global Communication – including the ambient techno classic 76:14 (1994) – and his stellar solo outing Lifetracks (2007).

More recently, however, he become a qualified sleep science coach and his new double-length deep ambient opus Sleep Better is – conceptually at least – a surprising and fascinating departure into therapy music. Via his social feeds and interviews with mainstream news media, he’s talking up the benefits of good quality sleep and highlighting the costs – both personally and economically – of not getting enough.

Now, ‘relaxation music’ as a genre is usually utterly barren creatively. Yet I find this album an exception that works on both musical and functional levels. The beatless, glacially morphing cycles of sound are certainly conducive to relaxation and heavy eyelids, while texturally and harmonically it’s often seductively spacey and lush.

Whether it’s bed time or just chill time, Sleep Better is the business.

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AMG: I laughed when the BBC quoted you as saying “I actually don’t want you to listen to this music”. Isn’t that just a teeny bit cruel to fans of your more chilled fare who’ve been waiting for your next release? As an ambient head, I’m enjoying the new album myself.

TM: Thankyou Mike! I appreciate the feedback. That quote was typically taken out of context. The meaning was in relation to the fact that it employs certain psychoacoustic production techniques to deliberately disengage the listener by actively slowing the mind and body, the notion of an un-listening experience.

Of course, the album is still at heart emotive ambient music which can be fully enjoyed as an active listening experience. I would say it’s some of the most rewarding ‘music’ I’ve ever made. Was very challenging to actually stay awake when creating it, though, experimenting with soundscapes to make the listener drowsy.

AMG: On the back of the album you’ve been doing lots of interviews from your perspective as a sleep science coach, talking up the health and wellbeing benefits of a good night’s sleep. It’s a very different kind of promotion to your usual DJ/composer role. How are you finding the experience?

TM: I’m really enjoying it. It’s so rewarding to be able to share what I’m learning with those who have sleep problems. The hope is that some small part of the awareness and sleep hygiene information will connect, resonate or aid in achieving a better quality of sleep and ideally prolong the all-important slow wave sleep, which is hard to maintain in such a noise disrupted world. So far it’s been incredible feedback and very positive results, which I’m delighted about.

AMG: Do some cultures or countries sleep better than others? Did your sleep research turn up anything interesting on the topic?

TM: Globally it’s a mixed bag. But the UK is particularly sleep poor and compromised as a result. We’re part of the 5 nation group that includes US, Japan, Canada and Germany, working very long hours and sleeping much less than we should do. UK averages around 6.5 hours, which is an hour less than the current baseline of 7.5 hours (around 5 complete 90 minute sleep cycles). The economic impact continues to shock me. The UK loses around £40bn each year, but we could add back £24bn to the economy with just one extra hour of sleep.

AMG: Your background already includes some highly regarded ambient and downtempo. How specifically did the science on sleep inform your approach to composing and mixing the music for the album? I mean things like texture, key, EQ and so on. How was it different, say, to creating some of your Global Communication tracks?

TM: There is a clear evolution of the sound and principles if you consider the journey from 90’s Reload and Global Communication material to the 00’s and the Lifetracks album. Having always been interested in the science of sound, psychoacoustic research is the logical next step in my journey. It’s applying the instinctive principles learned from years of creating, designing, performing and observing how listeners react to ambient music, then transforming and enhancing those characteristics into something with genuinely meaningful purpose that addresses fundamental human needs.

The soundscapes have a clearly defined narrative, which is very important. I’m illustrating a story that will help subconsciously guide the listener using deliberately placed and mixed sounds, effects, ambience and field recordings. They’re multilayered with evolving drone textures that don’t adhere to any of the standard practices I used to employ. It’s a whole new set of disciplines. They utilise binaural spatial mixing techniques to help separate and place sounds in space. I’ve included certain [additional] harmonic and melodic elements but these aren’t obvious or mixed upfront.

I want the experience to start defined with “Sunset”. This is the only track I’ve designed for active listening. With this track, I’m priming you for relaxation by association of the word, sounds, harmonies, warmth of the textures. From then on in, tracks 2-8 gradually dissolve into the background and deliberately fade down volume so you shouldn’t ever need to turn it down. The names are evocative of the narrative, so I’m imagining the feeling of star gazing or floating and drifting in space and translating that into sound.

AMG: In that BBC interview you said the mastering session for the album was the most challenging of your life and that your mastering engineer even swore at you. What specifically were the challenges?

TM: Imagine you’re sat in the sweet spot between a pair of £100k audiophile mastering monitors. Even thought the volume wasn’t cranked up, it still had to be at a level that was suitable for critical listening. And you hear every detail, nuance, right across the full audio spectrum. It’s unlikely that anyone would have a similar set up for playing back this album with so much detail, definition and clarity. So, to try and actively listen through for any errors, clicks, etc as the soundscapes where being recorded in was very challenging indeed. I was nodding off all the way through, couldn’t help it! It was quite a psychedelic experience at that volume, too.

AMG: The one-hour piece in album’s second half called “Relax Better” seems to have a different character to the long title track. Was that your intention? That piano progression is weepingly beautiful, one of the prettiest things you’ve written I reckon.

TM: Thankyou, I’m glad you’re feeling it. It’s a different mood to “Sleep Better” in that I want to help the listener open up emotionally and relax at the same time. It’s an intentionally designed response. I’m playing with those known melancholic Satie or Vladimir Cosma-inspired piano chord progression styles in a lullaby-like 3/4 time signature, which sonically provides a gentle and comforting rocking sensation. Washing out the sound in space with atmospheric field recordings also helps to frame the mood and feeling.

Mr. Middleton dons his DJ hat, circa 2014

AMG: New age and relaxation composers have been mining the therapy music thing since the 1970’s. Do you feel any connection with those subgenres or their history?

TM: I’m not an expert on that genre. I’ve always been put off by whale noises, digital pan pipes and plinky plonky piano spa sounds. I should give it another chance and dig deeper, really. I know there must be some quality New Age in the mire of mediocre spa muzak [AMG: Oh yes indeed, there is.] I’m more inspired by the likes of Eno, Laraaji, Vangelis, Jean-Michael Jarre, Sylvian and Czukay, Tomita and Peter Gabriel.

AMG: In 1978 Brian Eno famously wrote that ambient music could simultaneously be ignorable and interesting, that it could be created without artistic compromise when designed to induce calm and space to think. What’s your view on that, in context of your new album?

TM: Absolutely spot on and still so very relevant. Mr Eno wrote the ambient manifesto, then threw creative curveballs at artists with his genius deck of oblique strategies cards. The Music for Airports track “1/1” is still one of my go to relaxation/meditation/sleep soundtracks. It’s pipped to the top spot by Eno’s “Ikebukuro” from the Shutov Assembly album which I could happily go and float in. No, actually I could go and LIVE inside it.

My Sleep Better soundscapes are directly informed by these principles. Then they go a stage further and deeper by implementing psychoacoustic research and neuromodulation techniques to deliver beneficial physical, mental outcomes from the listening or ‘un-listening’ experience.

AMG: A post you shared on social about device addiction struck a chord with me. About 9 months ago I quit looking at my phone on the train and during work breaks. I’m also doing it less in the evening an hour before bed. I’m wondering what proportion of people with poor sleep quality are smartphone addicts? Are we looking at an epidemic?

TM: Yes, it’s an epidemic. It’s a huge problem which is having a significant impact on physical and mental health, work productivity and performance and the economy. Trying to improve sleep hygiene by switching off blue light-emitting screens an hour before bed along with relaxation practice is the key to preparing the mind an body for deep and restful sleep. Research suggests listening to ambient music can definitely help.

AMG: Music-wise, what’s next for Tom Middleton?

TM: Talk about all the buses arriving at once. This is going to be a vintage year, that’s all I’ll say. Much more coming that should satisfy the existing Global Communication, Reload and Lifetracks fans.

*Sleep Better is released through Universal Music and available on CD and most major digital music platforms.

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