WRITTEN BY JEFF SHIFFMAN, CO-OWNER OF BOOM BOX POST

We have been meeting with a lot of candidates lately, both for our internship program as well as to bulk up our freelance roster. In addition to sitting down for a chat or looking over resumes, Kate and I are reviewing a lot of work. Whether editors are aware of it or not, the work in these sessions speaks a lot to their experience level. I've written previously about how to properly present your work with the mixing endgame in mind. However, I haven't yet touched on a topic that time and again seems to need further discussion; how to properly cut backgrounds. Not so much on a technical level (when it comes to how we like to see backgrounds cut, Jessey Drake has already created a great practical guide right here on this blog). It's more an issue of what constitutes a background, an ambience or simply another sound effect.  It seems like such a simple thing, but being able to distinguish these from one another and thus properly laying out these sounds seems to be the dividing line between experience and novice. Here are some tips on how to be sure your backgrounds are an asset rather than a liability.

Backgrounds vs Ambiences vs Sound Effects

Step one in good sound design is determining whether what you are cutting falls into one of three categories. This is actually a fairly easy process as long as you categorize by visibility.

Backgrounds

  • Function: To build the location of each scene. 
  • Visibility: Backgrounds consist entirely of elements not seen on screen.
  • Examples: birds, wind, room tone, traffic wash
  • Rules:
    • Backgrounds will always run the entire length of a scene, they consist of elements that could never stop for any reason. Rain is not a background. While it may rain through an entire scene, rain could, at any time, start or stop. 
    • Backgrounds are consistent in nature. A wind background should not have a single dog bark thirty seconds in. It needs to just be wind. This is because when mixing for television we are on a limited timeframe. Background mixing should be a relatively fast process, consisting of leveling and panning that works for the scene from end to end. When elements start or stop or random sounds pop in, the mixer needs to adjust. Backgrounds need to be a ‘set it and forget it’ routine. 
    • Good backgrounds are built in layers. Sure, you may have found the perfect stereo track for an exterior neighborhood scene with wind, birds and traffic all married together in one file. But when the client says “I love it, can we just take out the birds?” the mixer’s hands are tied. In this case, you need a layer of wind, a layer of birds, and a layer of traffic, all independent from one another.
On the left, you can see proper choices and execution on backgrounds. Relatively steady material, cut end to end for an entire scene. On the right, many elements which start and stop are mixed in with steady backgrounds. These are ambiences and need to be moved up to the sound effects tracks.

On the left, you can see proper choices and execution on backgrounds. Relatively steady material, cut end to end for an entire scene. On the right, many elements which start and stop are mixed in with steady backgrounds. These are ambiences and need to be moved up to the sound effects tracks.

Ambiences

  • Function: Additional elements, not necessarily continuous, which help to realize a location. 
  • Visibility: Ambient sounds (or sources thereof) may be seen on camera but may not have any specific on screen actions associated with them. An EKG machine in a hospital room beeping at regular intervals in the distance is an ambience. A close up of the screen with a specific tempo that needs matching is not.
  • Examples: Random office phone ringing loops, babbling river, walla, rain
  • Rules:
    • It’s often hard to distinguish an ambience from a background. The main difference being, ambiences may come and go depending on story or distance from camera. Lets say we find ourselves in a forest with a waterfall in the distance. As we approach the waterfall, the sound would increase in volume. The second you find yourself needing to add a fade, pan or volume graph to something that exists steadily in a scene, you should realize you are cutting an ambience and not a background. 
    • Another distinction between ambiences and backgrounds is that ambiences will often time need to be ‘cut for perspective.’ If we suddenly jump the camera to 100 yards away from the river, that jump needs to be reflected with a perspective cut on your river sound to reflect the sudden change in volume. Backgrounds are never cut for perspective.

Sound Effects

  • Function: When a sound doesn’t fall into the background or ambience category, it is simply a sound effect. 
  • Visibility: A specific sound, associated with a specific on screen action.
  • Examples: Distant car bys, Copy machine in the distance (moving and lighting up on screen), Phone ringing just before an actor in the distance answers

Why all the fuss? It’s a matter of hierarchy when mixing your work. Typically I’ll set up my projects from top to bottom with the most to least important. This is job number one in making the mixer’s life a little easier. I’m immediately communicating where things should stand in the mix. In this case, sound effects reflecting specific on screen action should be given the highest importance. Ambiences come next with a little more visual presence in the seen. Lastly, we have our backgrounds which provide the base for each scene but are typically not featured very prominently in the overall mix.

Thus, the way to reflect the type of sound you are cutting is by location in your project. I like to dedicate chunks of tracks for Backgrounds. Depending on the show, I will do the same for ambiences with an AMB food group. Alternatively, you can often get away with simply communicating which sounds are ambiences by grouping the corresponding elements together, placing them down low in the higher numbered SFX tracks and coloring them similarly to one another. The important thing here is to keep your ambiences distinct. Sound effects that tend to be more of the overall ambient collage I then place just above any ambiences.

One last note in terms of Walla. Ambient talking, even that which is steady and cut throughout a scene, should be treated as an ambience not a background. Crowd sweeteners (bursts of laughter, clapping, etc) and call outs (shouts, screams) should be treated as sound effects. 

It takes a little extra thinking and some practice, but knowing the difference between these three types of sounds that help create the overall feel of a scene and then placing them in the right location within your project will not only make mixing your work a breeze, but it will show you have a solid grasp of the relative importance of the sounds you are cutting.

What examples do you have differentiating backgrounds from ambiences? Leave your experiences in the comments.

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