Backgrounds. Ambiences, the rarely heard but most definitely felt, unsung heroes of the post-production sound world. Without ambiences, scenes and designs feel empty. I could have went with a discussion about the design of some next level insectoid-servo-monster-hybrid-machine, but I feel like in order to get to that level of creativity you need a solid foundation. Not only in your skills as a sound editor or designer but in the overall build of your production. And that foundation, my sound design brethren, are backgrounds or BGs for short.

When I start building out any scene, I will almost always start with the backgrounds. They transport you to that busy New York City street corner or that distant desolate planet. They encompass the audience, and most importantly backgrounds are an integral part of telling the story. The backgrounds support the entire scene. So they should support your entire design as well. The backgrounds are the basement of which all other sound effects should sit delicately on top of, but as I’ve said you want the audience to still feel their presence.

Now, designing backgrounds can be just as big of a challenge as designing that next level insectoid-servo-monster-hybrid-machine. Like any other design, there are key techniques you, as the editor, should use in building your backgrounds. These are the most important:

  1. First and foremost you want every ambience to sound round and full. So I like to fill out as much of the dynamic range as I can or at the very least have a low-end, high-end and mid-range element to all my backgrounds.

  2. The number of tracks used to create an ambience varies per scene and varies per show. Some shows and the designs of those shows do not require such intricate and developed backgrounds. However, some really need depth and character. In general, I would say one mono track and two stereos tracks are a good start. From there, depending on type of production you are working on, you can add tracks accordingly to get your desired background.

  3. Volume of backgrounds and the relative mix between the elements of your backgrounds vary as well. To start, I pull each element down about 30dB and adjust the volume of each element depending on how much or how little I want to hear of that element. And of course, we want to just barely hear the backgrounds to give a sense of setting to the audience. So they should sit relatively low your mix. As for mixing in 5.1, the sky’s the limit and it’s best if we leave that for another discussion.

  4. Lastly and certainly not least, fades between backgrounds are of the utmost importance. Without fades, you would have very noticeable pops on the hard cuts of scenes. Not only is that utterly undesirable in the post sound world, but it would completely take the audience out of the story. So there are two ways to make fades between scenes. The first and most common way is to have your fade out of one scene match the incoming fade of the next (seen in the example below). This way reduces any chance of volume fluctuations and is the smoothest way to fade your backgrounds.

The second way to fade between backgrounds is to have one frame of each scene overhang the cut of the scene (seen in the example below). This way reduces any chance of dropouts in the sound, but isn’t as smooth of a transition.

I have used both ways to fade backgrounds in my experience. We use the first way here at Boom Box, but I personally have no preference. Both methods have their pros and cons. What’s important here is that the fades are present.

After we have taken all that into consideration, I send you off to create and captivate your audience into the world of your story with backgrounds. For some inspiration, I’ve included a background I’ve designed for one of our shows here at Boom Box. I’ve boosted up the volume quite a bit so you could really hear everything in detail. Take notice how developed and in-depth the ambience is. You can only imagine what this is the background for. Remember, hearing is believing and backgrounds are the foundation to that belief.

QUESTION: Do you have any tips and tricks for cutting backgrounds?  Share them in the comments below!


Featured image by Meitzke

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