LISTENING EXERCISE 1 – AMBIENCE LAYERS
PART 1 – NO EQUIPMENT REQUIRED
Go for a walk, stop for a break, sit down & listen for ten minutes.
As you listen, mentally consider this:
If you had to recreate the ambience you are hearing (with control of each of the elements)
how many layers and perspectives would be required?
It can be useful to categorize elements by perspective:
Foreground, mid-ground, distant.
What are you hearing that can be discreetly assigned to each layer?
Which sounds are constant?
Which sounds are periodic?
Which sounds are passing?
Which sounds are intermittently repeating?
A small notebook and pen can be useful for documenting what you hear.
While you could use your phone to do this, I recommend using a notebook and pen for a few reasons. First, phones are a major distraction. Chances are if you look at your phone, you will also check notifications and email, and without realising you are no longer present. You are no longer giving your full attention to listening and analysis. Connect your ears and brain, to a pen and notebook and pay attention to your immediate sound world. Leave the distraction device in your pocket. All the drama of social media etc will still be there when you have finished the exercise in ten minutes time. Pay attention to now.
Now this might seem like a simple exercise, but do not be fooled. It is far more complex and far more important than first impressions might indicate.
1. Creating memories & documenting references
As a sound editor every time you do this exercise, you are consciously ‘burning in memories’ which form the basis of your instincts. Maybe years from now you will be working on a film project that will have a location very similar to one you analyze tomorrow. To recreate the elements of that location to achieve basic generic coverage is not so difficult, but to make a location feel interesting and alive will come down to using these memories.
We are learning to analyse what we hear in reality via critical listening, by making you aware of what you are hearing and where these sounds originate. Some of the most interesting ideas for new sounds originate from when we can’t quite identify the source of a sound. Can you identify every element in the ambience?
3. Target focus your hearing
When you notice a singular element of an ambience, it can feel like you are focusing your ears. Unlike our eyes, our ears cannot physically change focus, but using your mind and focusing attention to a single aspect is a very important psychological skill to develop. It is an invaluable skill when recording sound, while editing and during a mix. Being able to hear ‘into’ a complex mix and identify a discrete element so it can be addressed, is not dissimilar to sitting on a park bench and clearly identifying an element of the ambience you are hearing. While you may have past experience at doing this with music, the world of sound is far more complex and requires different listening skills which can only be gained from practical experience.
4. Preparation for sound editing
Thinking in terms of layers of sound, and of perspectives is based in reality. With filmmaking, we constantly manipulate perspective and point of view, scene by scene and sometimes moment by moment. So for example, the sound you analyse in reality in a sunny park at lunchtime is useful when compared with say a reverberant back alley. As a sound editor, you may use elements from many locations to create a composite that feels both real and evokes mood as required by the story. Your memories of real-world examples are an invaluable and important tool.
5. Preparation for field recording
When arriving at a location to do some field recording, it is important to first listen with your ears, before you listen via microphones. Your brain can locate and focus the attention of your ears to any sound source in an environment, so an important skill to develop is to consider this: if I was recording this ambience where would I place my microphones?
This thought process can be extended to multichannel recording. If I had two microphones, where would I place them? If I had four microphones, would quad be the best approach or would multiple stereo images be more useful? Such decisions should be informed by the location and what you are actually hearing with your ears, rather than arriving with pre-conceived ideas.
Another aspect of this process is to also identify unwanted elements. For example, maybe you wish to record city ambiences without any wildlife. While sitting in a park at dusk you notice how the birds get very active at sunset, but then quieten right down. This is useful knowledge. Maybe years from now you will use that dusk bird activity, or maybe you will return to this location after dark to capture the spacious empty park without birds.
WHEN TO DO THIS EXERCISE:
For me this is a lifelong exercise. I have deliberately trained my mind to pay attention, but any time I am in a new location and have five or ten minutes, I will stop and deliberately pay attention to what I am hearing and do this exercise.
Some typical opportunities might include:
– Out for a walk, getting some exercise & fresh air.
– Walking the dog.
– If working from home, use this exercise as a reason to leave the house!
– Maybe you have an appointment, or are waiting to meet someone? Arrive ten minutes early.
– While running errands, or doing the shopping (eg how many layers in a supermarket? book shop?)
– While at work
– While “sportsing”
– In a local park, gardens, forest
– At home
– When travelling, or on holiday
This last example is useful because especially when we travel to another country and culture, the new sights and smells and sounds are such a joy to experience. Despite it being over 20 years since I visited USA, I can still vividly picture for example the ambience in Union Square, San Francisco (and know I have a recording of a great car sub doppler from there) or the beautiful hushed ambience in the basement of Gaudis La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or the vast diffuse ambience at the massive enclosed entrance to the Tate Modern Gallery in London.
But this also provides insight as to how we should proceed, all of the time.
There is a great saying by George Kneller:
“To think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted”
So this process is training our mind to pay very specific attention to sounds, in composite and individually.
Sounds that many people have become oblivious to, zoned out or simply try to ignore.
We must be able to listen afresh at what we normally take for granted.
Exterior and interior locations should be used, as well as transition EXT/INT areas such as a foyer or entrance – notice how the ambience changes when eg automated doors open and close.
It can be especially interesting to compare contrasting locations. Rural and urban locations should also be used. Many films and TV series are set partly in cities and partly in suburban homes, apartment builngs etc…
As an example, let’s say you work in an office building in the central city.
– Lunchbreak, sit outside and complete the exercise.
– Coffee break, sit in the foyer and complete the exercise.
– While working, sit for a minute and complete the exercise in your workspace.
While interior, quieter locations can appear less complex, that may not be the case as more careful and particular attention must be paid. Sensitive microphones will pick up more than your ears may hear, so it may require walking around a location to clearly identify more subtle sounds.
It is also useful to revisit locations at different times of the day, and during different weather and seasons. Notice how a city ambience changes during rain, and changes again after the rain finishes… Even a quiet office interior changes between winter and summer.
NOTE: AT ALL TIMES BE AWARE OF YOUR PERSONAL SAFETY!
Always have a safe exit planned if some paranoid person mistakes you for the FBI or something.
If visiting or recording a sketchy location, take someone with you. And make sure others know where you are going & when you should be expected back. This is not intended as a high risk activity!
EXAMPLE EXT by Tim
Location: Civic Square, Wellington
Date & Time: 20220131 lunchtime
midday, mid week.
pedestrians – footsteps, passing by
pedestrians – voices, some kids playing
bicycle – riding & wheeling
busker playing music
gentle wind in the few trees
Ambience Mid Ground
traffic, diffuse passbys from 1-2 blocks away
traffic, buses occasionally on schedule
pedestrian crossing buzzer, timed
flagpole/wire rattle from gentle wind
vehicle with PA/loud hailer – passby
diffuse city rumble
diffuse traffic from 4 lane waterfront street – periodic x traffic lights
distant siren (nice slap echo off buildings)
Notes: Even if a film set in Wellington only briefly shows an establishing exterior shot of Civic Square, I now have a great list of material to consider sourcing and using when editing ambiences, from just this ten minute listen
EXAMPLE INT by Tim
Location: Wellington Public Library, Second floor
Date & Time: 20220131 lunchtime
midday, mid week.
pedestrians – footsteps, passing by carpet
pedestrians, students – hushed voices
pedestrians – activity, chairs, book & newspaper movement
Ambience Mid Ground
computers in use
book checkout, downstairs
distant verby voices
lift doors and beeps
automated entrance double doors, with EXT presence
traffic – occasional loud passby, bus
air con – diffuse
city rumble – diffuse
traffic – diffuse
NOTES: Noticed a few people asleep in the library.
No audible snoring but…
PART 2 – EQUIPMENT: RECORDER + MICS
If you wanted to, this exercise could be expanded to include field recording.
While following all steps as per PART 1, also: take a recorder & mics with you.
Record 10 minutes of the AMBIENCE from the same position as your note-taking.
If you wish to monitor your recording through headphones, do so after making your notes while directly listening with your ears, not via headphones. Take a photo of the location, as a visual ‘memory prompt’ & also capturing time of day and GPS. Make this a habit: every time you make a recording, document it with a photo.
Later, back in studio:
Listen to your recording on studio speakers.
Does it match your description?
Can you clearly hear all of the layers that you noted?
What elements are lost? How could you improve your recording?
Learning how your microphone hears, compared with how your ears & brain hear.
Start to collect your own personal Ambience Library.
REPEAT: FOREVER MORE!
If you have any questions about this listening exercise, or would like to share some of the results from completing it, then please feel free via the comments.
Of course, there will be occasions where it is not practical to pull out a notebook and sit for ten minutes, but as you gain more experience at critical listening it can still be invaluable to make ‘mental notes’ when you hear an interesting sound. For example, maybe once a year I notice a car pass where the fan belt is clearly loose. The doppler sound of that car, shrieks past, like it is some kind of shrill scifi vehicle. I have not recorded this, it is not in a notebook. But when I have heard it I have consciously thought to myself: that is a crazy great sound source and when the occasion arises, it could be a great source of strange doppler passbys! Where a mechanic would hear only a problem, I hear an opportunity and make a mental note.
Also finally, to reinforce:
This requires no equipment, or prior experience. But it does require initiative and action on your part. If it sounds like too much work or hassle, then sorry but I doubt you would last the first week as a trainee sound editor. Equally, if I was interviewing you for that assistant or trainee sound editor role, I would very likely ask: what have you done, in terms of your own learning?
Passively watching Youtube videos would not impress me, anyone can do that. But if you pulled out a small moleskin notebook containing handwritten detailed breakdowns of 100 interior and exterior locations, I would think wow! This kid is already working hard, and has evidence of their initiative, and is clearly thinking about their future work as a sound editor. Every potential employer wants to be impressed and this small exercise (that maybe takes you ten minutes every few days) within a few months could directly contribute to that. But it is primarily for your own benefit. Developing critical listening skills and building memories of the elements of naturally-occurring, complex ambiences.