Updated: Jan 5, 2021
Zoom. Crash. Buzzz. Background sounds put listeners right into the cockpit of entertainment, a form that game designers especially are well versed in. When used correctly, audio can become more powerful than visual cues. What happens when we as audio engineers bring this method into the studio? Well in today's post, we're going to unpack background noises, also known as ambience, with a technique I like to call an "audio sketch."
The Audio Sketch - Formal Analysis
An audio sketch is when the type of ambience that would show up in a movie or video game appears in music to engage and immerse the listener further into the theme of a piece. First let's go over a couple of ways this gets used and then see a few examples of it in action.
The Effects-Driven Audio Sketch
The first way to use this technique is with effects. Going this route, we're not concerned so much with what is going into the mix as we are with where it sounds like the elements are. Are your voices in a club, a cave, on a stage, or outside? The list goes on. This angle on the idea also helps to further illustrate basic production principles like atmosphere and stereo field, how we reverb and delay, etc. In it's most basic form, the audio sketch appears everywhere in mixing a track.
A pure effects-driven audio sketch sounds like Example 1: "A Breathtaking Flight (Story Mode)" from our latest release, 2110 Reborn. In this track, Sgt. Blueround of COMMS division is prep talking his squad on a spaceship to suit up before their final battle against the DOX Drones. To actually put a spaceship in the track, we edit the reverb insert on Blueround's voice to make it sound like he is inside a confined metallic space.
Spatial Effects Parameter 1: Room Size
Room size is the most important parameter because it determines the physics of how your sound will translate. Room size effects everything else. We won't get into the mathematics behind why, but let's just say there are many. This is what your reverb plugin is for and comprises the majority of its workload. All the calculations behind simply room size by itself have a tremendous impact on your sound. For this mix we set the size small, but not too small. The number (meters) in Studio One doesn't exactly translate to how it actually sounds. In my opinion, they sound like they could be in meters x10.
Spatial Effects Parameter 2: Room Geometry
The next most important thing driving your sound atmosphere is the room geometry. This is how far apart the listener and the speaker/emitter are. In this mix the listener is a meter away from the speaker (a little unrealistic, but hey, it works). If we had the listener and speaker clear on opposite walls, there would be a totally different sound.
Spatial Effects Parameter 3: Length & Pre-Delay
Length and pre-delay especially can be useful for cleaning up the signal out of your reverb. The spikes on the graph at the top indicate the delay points of your sound. Turning up pre-delay just a bit clears up what is going into the reverb. 500ms of length kept things modest and effective in our mix.
Spatial Effects Parameter 4: Room Character
The next thing driving the sound out of our reverb is character. This is one of the final touches to the output and determines the nature of the surfaces of our space. Reflections would be high for metal surfaces and low for rough surfaces. We kept ours about halfway to strike the balance between realism and minimally distracting to the voice over.
Spatial Effects Parameter 5: Reverb Mix
It may be better to send your sound to a reverb on a bus. In this case you would leave your wetness at 100%, "Mix" at 50%, and adjust send level from there. For this session, our voice over was getting its own effect to produce a more realistic sound. For a final adjustment to your spatial effects, adjust the level of the reverb with the mix parameter until you get the right sound.
That's it. Now we move on to the other forms of audio sketching.
The Sound-Driven Audio Sketch
The second way to use this technique is with actual sound effects or ambience. Going this route, we add new elements to the mix to create atmosphere. Notice that both types of audio sketches create atmosphere but only one adds new elements.
The first time we produced a sound effects driven audio sketch was on the Tame the Beast EP under Astrorobics. This track is a great example of influences from the way the audio sketch is presented most commonly in classic hip hop. Before the days of sampling to create new instruments, hip hop tracks were the best at using traditional sampling when a line from a movie, another song or a separate recording get their own cameo on the master. The first time I personally encountered this was in trance radio and other forms of electronic music. The only shame is in how a traditional sample as ambience has fallen out of fashion a little in music today.
Let's hear a classic sample as ambience in the "I'll Be Runnin'" remix from Tame the Beast. In this track we followed the first form presented to create a club space that the vocals would be presented in. Then we sampled actual sound effects to create atmosphere: the sound of an audience cheering to the breakdown to create extra hype and excitement. We also inserted the feedback sound of a mic on stage. Let's hear it all come together at time-code 4:41 in the track.
As you can see, from sound effects to spatial effects there's plenty you can do to give your sound more atmosphere and keep your listeners engaged by the time you reach the buildup or recapitulation portions of your music.
Speaking of which, thanks for sticking around. I hope you enjoyed this quick trick demonstration of how to make tracks more interesting. As always, see you for the next edition and until then, keep daydreaming.