The types of sound you will come across in creative projects
This blog will discuss the different types of sound that you can expect to encounter in creative projects. What is the function of each layer inside the mix and what should you keep in mind when you are mixing your audio together? Here’s my take on it.
Different projects require different mixing approaches, these are the most common mixing layers that I divide my audio into.
The ambience is the base that all the other audio sits upon. It is the background audio.
It consists of room-tone and environment sounds.
Room-tone is what you hear when it is silent. Because in reality it will never be fully silent around you. Distant traffic, electronics, people or wind create a bed of noise that is always present but that our brains don’t really focus on normally. If this noise wouldn’t exist, we would start to consciously hear or own breathing, heartbeat and even blood flow.
Environment sounds are the sounds coming from the surroundings, birds chirping, cars driving by, a cobbling stream of water. Sounds that are part of your location but that are not necessarily involved with the actions on screen.
In the mix the ambience gives context to the other audio. It sets the location and helps to ground the other sounds and make it feel like those are also coming from the same place. The ambience also masks any gaps the other audio might have. True silence between two voice clips feels strange and uncanny because in real life we don’t have complete silence either. With room-tone underneath these clips those gaps won’t be noticeable anymore and the scene will feel a lot more natural.
Imperfections within the other sounds, such as noise or reverb can also be drown out to a degree when a layer of ambience is added, leaving the mix sounding more natural and cohesive.
Where the environment sounds in the ambience were part of the background sound, this layer would consist of all the sounds that take place in the foreground. They are the sounds directly involved with the action and movement on screen.
The sound effects represent the action on screen, they make what is happening on screen feel alive and believable. Cinematic sounds like drones and stingers are powerful tools for creating tension and defining the flow of a scene. Video game sound effects make sure that the actions of the player feel responsive. Well designed sound effects make the monsters sound scary and the hero sound powerful.
When there are no vocals present, this is probably the most important piece of audio in your mix. Meaning that in those cases your sound effect can be the loudest sounds in the mix. When there are vocal you have to find a good balance where the important sounds are discernable and impactful while not interfering with the vocals.
The human voice, the sound that we are most attuned to. It can behave in very different ways within a mix, depending on the type of project and the function of the vocals. It could be a narrator providing a voice over, it could be a dialogue between two characters, grunts and exertions from a video game character jumping and fighting, a singing voice in a song or even vocals that aren’t even human such as animals or monsters!
While there are many different ways that vocals can be used, the most important thing is recognizing their function. If the vocals are the main information source they should be the loudest piece of audio in the mix, and the other layers must not interfere too much with the frequencies of the voice. If the vocals serve as background audio, such as a crowd for example, the listener doesn’t necessarily need to understand what is being said. This means you can let those vocals fall into the background and make sure certain sound effects or vocals from your main characters take the forefront.
Because vocals can be used in so many different ways, the most important thing is that you are aware of the function of the vocals and base your approach around that.
Composing music and designing sound effects have very different workflows, but in the final product it is important that they work together so they don’t drown the other out.
Good communication between a sound designer and composer is key. Understanding the function of both is essential for combining them well inside the mix.
Music is very good at leading the attention in a scene, it has the largest influence on emotion and mood from all other types of audio and deciding when to use and where not to use music can be very powerful as well. Through leitmotifs and deliberate choice of instruments and keys the music can do a lot to subconsciously tell the story through building and referencing associations.
Music that sets the mood is usually on the background and softer than vocals and important sound effects, but it can come forward and become louder while ducking the other sounds to emphasize the music and its emotional impact on a scene.
As I mentioned before, the most important thing about building your mix is that you know what the function is of your audio layers and which are the most important to ensure that those are clearly conveyed to the audience. The other very important thing to keep in mind is that your audio must never clip by going over 0 dB. Always try to stay a bit below to be safe.
Below I’ll share a guideline that I use for mixing my audio.
Keep in mind that for different projects and purposes your mixing approach is also going to be different. This is simply a reference that I use as a base that I can then customize to the needs of each project.
- Ambience -24 dB
- Sound effects -6 dB to -18 dB
- Vocals -6 dB to -12 dB
- Music -18 dB when it is on the background
Sound effects and vocals sit in the same area, consider which is the most important in a scene if they are conflicting with each other. Being aware and manipulating where both sit in the frequency spectrum can also help to keep them balanced.