As the year continues, many of these posts will be philosophical in nature. Some will be in contradiction to previous postings. These are not intended as truths or assertions, they’re merely thoughts…ideas. Think of this as stream of consciousness over a wide span…
I’m continuing the “visual vs. sound analogs” stream this week. I feel confident in expecting that everyone visiting this site is familiar with the concepts of Foreground, Mid-ground, and Background in visual media. That planar approach is also probably how most people think about fore, mid and background when it comes to sound. That planar approach, however, is an oversimplification of the complexities that exist in the way we hear. In cinema (and increasingly, games) the side and rears (sometimes overhead in Atmos and Auro-3d) are all background…even a sound 2 ft. directly in front of us can be background.
Foreground in listening is intimately tied to where our attention is, so vision…or, specifically, where we’re looking…helps determine what is a foreground sound. If you’re watching someone deliver dialog in a film, that’s likely where your attention is. That’s your foreground. If you’re focused on a car approach in the same film, it’s a foreground sound until it passes from view and that sound is panned off screen. Your eyes turn to a different portion of the frame and all of your attention (hearing included) focuses there. That’s your new foreground sound. The car sound, despite your previous attention, is now a background sound.
“But wait!” I hear you saying. “What about sounds from off-screen that are meant to draw your attention?” This is what I think of as mid-ground sound. Anything that steps out of the background and has an effect on the focus of your attention is a mid-ground sound; likely, it will quickly become Foreground. Imagine a silent character on screen, listening to an off screen event. Your attention is focused on this person. You hear the event happening off screen, but your focus is on that character. You’re watching them react, listening for little movements, breaths or sounds that help you interpret what that character is thinking. The character is still the foreground, and the off-screen sound is mid-ground. If it is able to affect the foreground, it is mid-ground.
Anything else is background.
Dialog is where things get tricky. We have a hard time not paying attention to dialog. It’s nearly impossible to hold dialog in the mid-ground…regardless of whether we can see its source or not. A quick loop group line punching through to accentuate a moment can be mid-ground. The longer it lasts though, the closer it gets to foreground. This forces us to quickly push dialog to either the foreground or the background. To keep it in the background usually involves some type of obscuring. That’s part of why loop group lines are usually delivered AS a group. With a bunch of people talking over each other, it’s hard to focus on any one voice. A few things will poke through and become mid-ground to help you grasp the tone, but most of it will be a wash…background.
Changing the way you think about foreground, mid-ground and background will have an impact on the way you design sounds to fit into those spaces.