The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol06/nr01/a05

Ambient sound

All living things—whether of this world or any other—inhabit some kind of interior or exterior setting. Characters interact not only with each other through dialogue, but also with the space in which they presently exist. It is not simply an issue of space, however. We must also account for the unfolding of time within such settings. Time, connected with our position in space, allows sound to come and go for the hearing character. This time element comprises the audible horizons of perception for the hearer (Ihde 2007). Such time-spaces are rarely if ever silent. There is always a sonic structure pervading any setting. The most interesting environments are those that are alive with culture, atmosphere, and activity. So the first method of creating a sonic lifeworld is to consider this evolving time-space in which events occur. This kind of sound goes by many names in audiovisual production: natural sound, backgrounds, environmental sound, even “noise.” But a better descriptor of this kind of presence is “ambient sound” because it goes beyond the idea of location and into subjective awareness and personal psychology. It may seem simple to have machine hum in a factory or birds chirp in a forest. But ambient sound can do much more. It can reflect character emotion in a given situation, offer commentary, present certain conditions to the characters, and conjure a deep sense of culture.

It is also the means of establishing the subject in relation to his environment. When space and time combine effectively, it does not only produce the objective, but establishes “the timespace of the phenomenological subject who performs a reduced listening which does not hear a place but produces its own” (Voegelin 2011: 163). There is enormous creative potential here. If a story takes place in a futuristic city, for example, the designer has total freedom to create that sound culture as it relates to the individual being of a character. Somewhat akin to audible production design, ambient moves beyond such static image-based world-building and instead moves dynamically in time in relation to that character. The sonic lifeworld can breathe and change not only in its physical representation, but also as varying states of subjective co-presence and absence. It also presents the possibility of absolute subjectivity. Imagine a moment when a character either notices a particular sound or must listen carefully to one. Another approach is to develop a compelling ambient signature and then gradually removing it to silence. Through this, we can isolate some particular sound for the character as a means of isolating some key narrative moment. “The suppression of ambient sounds can create the sense that we are entering into the mind of a character absorbed by his or her personal story” (Chion 1994).

Unfortunately it is difficult to find animated films that use ambient sound well. The reason for this goes back to the idea of “location sound” in film. Because film records in a location, there is ambience already produced. It is then a matter of “sweetening” it toward various purposes—to establish sonic continuity or to produce something more creative. Because there is no location sound in animation, there is nothing to manipulate in post-production. This is why oftentimes there is simply nothing—no sound of place whatsoever and instead merely silence.