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In the scene example, the ambience track is a continuous recording of waves lapping against the piers, with a bit of wood creaking and some distant traffic. That tells the audience that the scene takes place in a city, near the water. The stingers include the distant foghorn and a breath of spooky wind placed at just the right moment.

Room tone is a special type of ambience, typically a recording of the atmosphere of an interior space with no specific sound. It’s not very dramatic, but room tone is important for creating a subtle undercurrent that ties together the other elements in a scene. It is critical in matching ADR (automated dialog replacement, which is dialog recorded after the fact) with dialog recorded during the shoot. Room tone is mixed with the replacement dialog, which helps conceal the fact that it was recorded elsewhere.

There are various steps in the sound-design process, including ways to find material, process sound, and combine sources. Keep in mind that sound design is a post-production process; that is, it takes place after some or all of the primary production work (filming and animation, for example) is complete.

In determining how to design sound for a project, you need to gather everything related to the project that you can find. That might include scripts, documents, footage dubbed to VHS tape, QuickTime movies of game animations and alpha versions of the game, or rough versions of a Web applet in progress. Whatever content your collaborators can provide is of utmost importance; you need to see what is going on before you can design sound for the project. (See the sidebar “Preliminary Procedures” for additional suggestions about preparing yourself for the task.) Doing it any other way guarantees a mismatch between the sound and visual elements and a mess at the end of the project.

Also, because sound is added at the end of the process, all the delays and late deliveries throughout the production, as well as all budget overruns, will happen before you get to ply your trade. It isn’t fair, but that’s how it goes.

Once you have decided what sounds you will need, the next step is to acquire the raw sound recordings. Those recordings are the clay from which your sonic sculpture will come, and it is essential to pick the right material from the start. Look for sounds that you think are interesting, rich, and full of life; it’s difficult to breathe life into dull or listless raw materials. The right well-recorded sound needs virtually no processing to get the message across.

Field recording. Field recording is the process of taking a portable tape recorder and microphone into the unruly world outside your studio. Field recording is terrific for capturing ambiences, animals, airplanes, or nearly anything else that you can’t bring into your studio. There is no part of sound design I love more than field recording. It’s supremely satisfying to strap on a bunch of gear and go out into the world to get a sound you need. The results are authentic, unique, and your own—frozen moments in time and space that you have committed to tape.

Reprinted with permission from Magazine, March, 2001
2001, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved.