Cutting Backgrounds/Ambience for Film&TV

Times Square.

Backgrounds are an integral part of a film’s sound scape. They provide that sense of being there, if you know what I mean. It’s some sort of psycho-auditory {totally made up!} response that the backgrounds create in human being that creates an illusion of being in a particular location as shown through the visual content. In simple terms, its creates a feel of the shown location for the audience. Correct sound selection can make a lot of difference between good and bad backgrounds. I will explain the techniques and tips I use while cutting backgrounds for films. The same techniques can be adapted for use in television and games.

If you’ve read my previous post about sound design, then you can see pretty much the basic outlines I have for selecting backgrounds. Here we will discuss the methods in detail. These methods have been tried and tested and used by many professionals worldwide. Please feel free to add in your thoughts on these methods and of course discuss your own.

Sound Selection

This is the first and the most basic step to creating anything in post production sound. You should know what you are trying to create. You should feel it and be able to hear it in your head. Trust me, if you can’t visualize your goal in your head then you’re not gonna be able to do it. Even if is something that you aren’t clear about 100% then at least be able to have a feel for it and know which direction to start from. This comes from constant work and years of experience. If you’re a beginner, then you might wanna start by observing other movies and their sound scape. Interact with like-minded people , discuss and most importantly, be ready to do a lot of self learning. You’ve got the internet.

I use Soundminer to search for my sounds. It’s a very handy tool and can import your selected sounds directly to your DAW and do a LOT more other things so do check it out. You need to start by focussing on what element in your sound scape are you looking for.

We will use an example of a simple city scene throughout this exercise to help in explaining things a little better. I’ll try to describe the scene, so visualize it in your head and play along! Imagine a busy intersection in a city. With lots of traffic passing and people on the sidewalks. Imagine daytime New York. We need to make it sound like it would in a film, without all the garbage. I usually tracklay in a 5.1/7.1 environment with Pro Tools HD 10/11 for films.

Laying the Foundation

Now to begin with, I would first start by laying a foundation layer. Something that has an overall feel for the place. This layer will play at a nice subtle level usually in the LR position with maybe another layer in the rear surrounds. I use a filter in the McDSP plugin suite called the F2. It shows up under EQ in the Pro Tools audio suite. I use this overall on my sound scape on individual layers wherever required to cut out all the unnecessary frequencies out of my layers. For this scene, I would start by looking at some of the busy city layers which might have some footsteps as well in it but I would prefer one without. Most of such layers will have a good amount of rumble in them so I would use F2 to cut out the lows and maybe just notch the highs down a bit too. Now you would ask me why did I notch the highs down? If you’ve ever done music then you would know that every instrument has a place of its own in the sound spectrum. If you cut everything the right way then there will be minimal need to boost. Same way, the background layers as well have their own place in the spectrum and I don’t want layers to interfere with each others spectrum. This being a foundation layer, I don’t want it to pop out so much. I would do the same thing with any other foundation layer that I choose. If I am panning it in the rear surrounds then I would ensure that this layer it subtler than the other one or maybe a cut down version of the other one, totally depends on what sounds right!

Analyzing the On-Screen Elements

See what is on-screen and start by putting in layer by layer. For example, a series of car passes to serve as a base for the passes, footstep wallas for people walking, slight crowd murmurs maybe for the people talking, a city rumble for the rumble we cut out of foundation etc. Layers basically that represent the elements that can be seen and felt. These layers are usually specific to the screen and are panned accordingly. You should be as specific about these layers as possible and choose layers with only the stuff that you need, if you can’t find such layers but can manage by cutting some of the frequencies out then do so, but be careful not to completely diminish the sound, a quick A to B comparison will help with staying on track. And don’t overfill the spectrum as well and make it muddy.

By now you should have built a basic sense of your location. Remember, editing is the key. So keep in mind that just laying the layers will not help. You need to edit what needs to go and keep whats needed and when needed.

Fixing the Spot Elements

This usually comes under sound effects for most but I will describe the whole scene here otherwise this exercise will not be complete. Spot elements are basically elements that come and go. That are not fixed and not happening constantly. For example, all the cars passing the background. If you put neatly edited nice passes for each of those car passes, then it’ll add a more realistic feel for the whole location. I sometimes go ahead and do foley elements as well in my sound effects and in the end when the foley comes in for editing then I would see which one works best or the combination. So cycles passing nearby, some guy probably dropping something, some guy on a skateboard etc. I hope you understand what I am pointing towards here. These elements help in making your sound scape unique to that location. Good sound selection, which goes without saying, is a must.

Bring in the Design Elements

Now your scene should be at a stage where it all feels like it’s coming together. You should almost feel complete. But! We’re laying this for a movie. You do have the liberty to dramatize it. You can bring in a lot of sounds that can add more depth to your sound scape. For example in this scene, we can add sound police sirens to give more of a new york feel. See the new spiderman, you’ll hear the sirens almost everywhere. Probably some helicopter passes that represent the TV channel crews that keep flying. These elements are not usually seen on-screen but help a great deal to enhance the overall quality of the sound scape. The elements are there to stylize existing sounds or to heighten a sense of the location. For example a car which braked too suddenly at the stop light so a tire screech for that maybe or one which accelerated fast from the stop light so a light tire burn for that, an announcement from a shop somewhere or a loud bike that passed fast somewhere around.

If you have done everything right to this point then you should be near finish now. Just need some polishing touches.

Levels! Levels! Levels!

I hope you have leveled everything as you laid the tracks. If you haven’t then you really need to. You need to set a reference level in your mind and try to get everything sounding as close to your imagination as possible. Try to make it as realistic as possible or if its something like sci-fi then try to get as much of an edge out of it. I usually set default levels for each of my tracks while cutting em’ and also pan them to an approximate position. later when I am doing cutting up all the layers, then I’ll go through and automate everything how I would listen to it in a natural environment. Set your track to touch mode {Pro Tools} and start automating. Automate the pans as well if necessary. These will give your sound scape the dynamics you would normally observe in nature. Your levels have to be absolutely right to deliver the right impact. It should be punchy and maybe abrupt but should not hurt the ears, should be soothing to the ears. A lot of times I see people just boosting the levels of their effects if they see they are not able to achieve the right impact. This is wrong in my opinion. The reason you are having to raise levels is because that sound originally isn’t probably meant to be the way you’re trying to make it sound. You will just have to come up with another sound which has the right pressure, boosting levels is not an answer and deteriorates the overall quality of the mix. Taking this in mind go through and properly level all layers till you are at a point where it feels right. After I am done leveling, I usually find the overall levels to be a bit soft. So I group all the tracks and raise the level by a few dB’s. Ensure that your sound scape isn’t clipping although I haven’t seen this that often. Compare your mix with other people’s work for reference and to know where you stand.

This is basically the workflow that I follow while cutting backgrounds. These are just some steps that I go through subconsciously. There are many more things that I would do as well but these are steps that I always go through. Your end result should sound right and that’s all that matters.

If you still haven’t then please go get an internship at some local studio and start working. I have worked in both music and film post studios and I have learnt a lot of stuff that I can use in both the practices. A spirit to learn and an open mind are all that you would require to excel in this field of work. I hope this small writeup will help you in achieving a higher quality in your work.

Please post your comments and feel free to discuss if I could have added anything more or discuss your own workflow.

A few more posts on the internet that might be of help..

Ambiences for Film

The art and technique of post production sound

Like Film Sound Review on Facebook!


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