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Posted by on Nov 15, 2012 | 7 comments

Room Tone = Emotional Tone: The Importance of Hearing Ambience

noun /ˈambēəns/
ambiances, plural; ambiences, plural

  1. The character and atmosphere of a place

                    – the relaxed ambience of the cocktail lounge is popular with guests

  1. Background noise added to a musical recording to give the impression that it was recorded live

Wherever you may be reading this article, stop whatever you are doing, and listen to your environment. What do you hear? Tempting as it may be to declare ‘nothing’, the complex cacophony of the world around you  is being combined, and fused together in your environment to create the sound of a specific location. The sound of your immediate surroundings is being pulled from all manner of sources such as electrical hums, water pipes, passing traffic, neighbours, the weather and even local wildlife. As indistinct these may be from your perspective, these sounds are still making their way, however faint, into your room, heavily filtered and being reverberated around and off your furnishings to distort them beyond recognition and delivered to your ear as a nondescript, intangible ‘room tone’. Its such a slight sound that many people simply don’t hear it. They hear ‘silence’ (Probably because they haven’t tried to make any recordings there!)

Believable, natural feeling ambiences can be difficult to create, especially in video games, where the nonlinearity of the medium, combined with the inherent system limitations  put a severe strain on the designers options. At the most basic level, ambiences are often split into two distinct categories: room tones and one-shots. A room with no tone will sound disjointed: I find that the contrast of the ambience ‘grounds’ the other audio events and maintains interest.  To clarify; a room tone isn’t a static sound – for example, in a forest scene it would be a bed of winds, foliage and bird calls, in an urban setting there would be traffic, technology hums and crowds – my definition is that of a sound that defines the location at its most basic level, and is a first step into creating a believable location. A looping room tone can easily become noticeable in a game environment; a method to overcome this is to concatenate the tone by breaking it down into several smaller chunks and placing them into a looping randomised playlist. Although ‘loop fatigue’ will still occur, breaking it up and randomising it in this fashion will help to ease that.

However, a room tone is not enough to create the feeling of a living environment: All around us, sounds are happening all the time and in our subconscious, creating the room tones of our locations. But there are sounds that we consciously hear: a slamming door, cars passing,  or creaking water pipes, for example – that we can recreate as one-shot effects. One-shots can be surgically placed in linear media to enhance the tone of a scene, but in video games, the non linear and repetitive nature makes this difficult. Instead, using randomised audio playlists, set to spawn randomly in time, 3D position and even pitch and volume. Used with appropriate care, such sounds combined with a suitable room tone can create a believable and aurally rich scene for the player to explore.

In my experience of projects, ambiences have been among the most important sounds I’ve created. When I review older projects with my ever-sharpening critical ear, the times where (for whatever reason) I neglected to include an ambience were the most disjointed, because silence is an incredibly unnatural phenomenon it is psychologically jarring, even if only on a subconscious level. As audio designers, we want to keep our audience immersed deeply into the narrative of our work, and so we use ambiences to not merely mask the silence, but to lend credibility and coherence to the scene and the world in which it exists.


  1. Thank you for this.  I definitely agree with the one shot.  It completely sells the idea.  I added a very simple buzzer and tweaked it Ina scene of a warehouse where there were only two people talking and it made it seem so much more believable.  Thank you

  2. All so very true! Wonderfully put into words, great article. Now to get back to recording some ambience…

  3. Thanks Mike, you focused some really insightful thoughts! On a design perspective, I think ambience is a basic, continuous loop between our “physical” layer and the more abstract level we interact with in our sound-related acts and experiences, be it a game, a filmscore, a music listening. It’s all about our life-level, sensorial experience… so pervasive and unavoidable! It involves our more or less conscious hearing existence, at a “noise-gate” level, if I could say it so.
    Ambience tone and one shots absence is really disjointing, and even better… their subtle presence or their sudden occurring can be disjointing at all!
    How much do surrounding accidental sounds, floor-noises, unexpected voices or tones break in our life or in our every-day experience, in a comical or disturbing or dramatical manner? Just recalling the disrupting intrusion of a faraway marching band during a funeral procession… it could be tearing, and it could be funny…
    Thanks again for […BEE-BEEP!!!…] your post!
    (aehmmm, sorry for the annoying “bee-beep” foley intrusion)

  4. The thing that annoys me about how ‘room tone’ is played back in games is that it’s usually just a looping sound(s) that’s played from the players perspective. These sounds are usually played in stereo and when a players rotates in 3d space, the sound does not shift. (Obviously other ambient sounds that are spot sound will shift which helps sell the scene). I’m planning to start working on a system that makes the room tone shift as you rotate using ambisonic technology.

    If anyone knows of anything similar, let me know :)

  5. Thanks for the interesting article, Mike.

    In film sound editing we typically loop the different components of the ambience (such as wind tone, vent sounds, crowds, creaky building sounds, etc., which are usually recorded separately from each other) at different times so that the composite of all the loops, all looping at different times, doesn’t sound loopy. Can you do that easily in game sound? Or are you limited in the number of BG loops you can have running? 

    The one-shot sounds which are part of the offscreen space I would consider part of the middle ground and are very useful for keeping the ambience interesting and varied. The more story or action related sound you have going, the less you need these one-shot type sounds, since there aren’t many empty spaces to fill when the track is busy for other important reasons.

  6. @Douglas

    I create game backgrounds by taking a particular component e.g. wind, and cut it into shorter sections. these can be played back in random order and crossfaded in real time by the game ‘engine’. This means that, although the sound is looping, it never plays in the same order which helps to keep the sound varied, and prevents other ambient elements coinciding with each other. 

    Sounds such as creaky building sounds, can be a group of one-shots set up to play at random intervals with pitch, volume, and low pass filter variation. The game engine can position these sounds randomly in the surround field, if desired.

  7. Thanks for responding Jamie. Randomizing chunks of the sound is a great solution to the looping problem. Playing the creaks as one shots makes sense too. Cheers. 


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