Quick BG Exercise

This term continues our focus on film post work – BGs, SFX, SPFX – and the bar’s been raised. I’m starting to feel a bit of the frustration that’s got to come with (and eventually be overcome to survive) a long-term career in sound, which stems from pouring hours and hours of time into little pieces that may eventually go unnoticed in the final mix, or get a one- or two-word response from a colleague that sends you immediately back to the drawing board. Gotta push through!

Here’s a quick clip from a BG (backgrounds, ambience) cutting exercise we did in class last week, from a comedy called The Long Weekend. The only directive here was to make sure the jail felt well isolated from the office scene (instead of just somewhere in the back), to see how we could push the atmosphere of a scene with ambiences and clue the viewer in as to where everyone is before anyone speaks a word.

Have a listen and I’ll break down my thought process and ambience, and a few things I thought I could’ve done better. Learn with me!


My primary directive for the jail ambience was to make it feel very, very heavy, so that I could bring the tone up dramatically in the office and get some easy sonic contrast. Since this is a comedy, I didn’t bother with subtlety – yes, that’s my take on a guy getting the electric chair somewhere off in the distance – and baked enough reverb into each of these stems to give them some weight even before they hit the mix stage. It was my first day of playing with a rented copy of Waves’ RBass plug-in, so I used that on the generator to give the jail BGs a ton of low-end presence, hoping to make this thing feel very deep underground. The futzed cop radio could’ve made it feel like the place was being very actively patrolled, so I tried to space this out and make it feel more like pages from some sinister intercom. some water drips, some really grungy, gross bodily noises from the nearby prisoners (we had authority to cut walla on this one) and the tried and true fluorescent light bulb buzz rounded it out.

For the office, there wasn’t a lot I could do here that would keep my take from sounding like everyone’s else in class, but I tried to keep things on the lighter side and make sure you heard lots of laughter. I wanted to give the impression of a late night or a shift change around the police station that had everyone in a great mood, in heavy contrast to our boy await his fate in Room 101 deep below. The exterior traffic sounds are there just to give the scenes a sense of movement with distant car bys, and to position the scene really close to the outside world. Again, contrast.

What Went Right

  • I was pretty happy with the overall balance of sound in the jail scene for sure, all the layers in there were chosen for a reason, and they got that thickness I wanted across. This was me taking some feedback from my last major BGs assignment and trying to put it into action with really careful layer selection, and I think I did a much better job with sound/texture selection here than I had before.
  • The spec BG coughs and grunts worked nicely (though I wish I had set them a little more distantly), and I had a blast doing the electric chair.. it’s a bit distracting, maybe, but would be an easy thing to mute if the mix stage didn’t dig it, and I was trying to get creative.

What Went Wrong

  • Too much verb! A first pass of mine was completely drenched in echoes, though, and after cutting the whole thing I finally bothered to look back up at the picture I realized that we weren’t in the cavernous underground complex I had been scoring. I definitely crossed the line with my first pass, and it would’ve been something too saturated with echoes for the eventual mixer to do anything with, so I had to dial that back.
  • A couple of my spec BGs (one-off sounds) like the chain clinks and key rattles didn’t sound great once I took all the reverb off, so I had to mute a lot of the content I had put in earlier after I took that out. I was running up against the class deadline, so I didn’t have time to replace those with fresh sounds.. and so the jail BGs are sparse in some places.
  • The whole office scene feels a little “stock” to me, but I was a bit limited by the library on that one and didn’t do a lot of sound design/processing on any of those ambiences. Again, I could’ve also put a larger variety of spec BGs in there, so one of my goals for next time is going to be to push for more detail.

Thoughts? Leave ’em in the comments!

Promise those train impacts (with some bonus discussion and layer breakdowns, etc.) will be up shortly. It’s going to be a great term.

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