Room Tone = Emotional Tone: The Importance of Hearing Ambience
ambiances, plural; ambiences, plural
- The character and atmosphere of a place
– the relaxed ambience of the cocktail lounge is popular with guests
- 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.