I was once told that you always need ambience in your films. Makes perfect sense anyway, right? If there isn't any ambience, the audience doesn't feel like they're in the environment and all.

Then I noticed Family Guy. Made me start to think. Do all shows use ambience? Because Family Guy sure doesn't. Unless it's so subtle that I don't notice it.

Thoughts? How does a show like that get away without room tone?

2 Answers 2


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There's two schools of BGz in my opinion. The school of thought where they are there for presence and smoothing over as a technicality, and the school of thought where they are the expressive glue holding the film together and responsibly for breathing life 'off the page'. Neither are wrong or right, just different points of view on BGz. Personally, I'm in the latter school.

In the mix, BGz tend to play very low except for a few circumstances where it can pop through without fighting against other sound elements (Jurassic Park and Contact are a great example of this - the BGz are very lush and full of depth and character, and there's many moments where they are allowed to breath with no dialogue or music going on). That's another reason I like to support the idea of being appropriately bold and expressive with BGz, since this may be the only 'saving grave' to really allow it to pop through a mix tastefully when everything else is going on.

But the ability to do this comes down to time and budget, so many times it's finding a happy medium and picking your moments to go big, and knowing where you can go simple.

For Family Guy, I'm pretty sure sure there's a BGz pass (given that Todd-AO does the post) but it likely plays very low, and I'll bet the way it's played as an aesthetic choice. Nothing like the funny 'crickets' awkwardness moments when we hear the birds chirp over the house or the zip zip buzzing of the Drunken Clam sign. With VO too, the recordings are going to be clean, so you don't have to worry about smoothing over and masking dialogue issues with BGz (as we sometimes do using mono airs/winds/roomtones to help backfill trouble), so in a case like this show, you can get away with being quite stark and it doesnt affect the final product.

  • Great posts on your blog! Now you have some hungry mouths waiting for parts III & IV! Commented May 17, 2012 at 3:16
  • Epic reply! Thanks so much! I hadn't heard about there being two schools of thought in this, though it makes perfect sense. It seems I was taught in school A, but school B fits my style better. I'm also guessing it plays a lot depending on the program material, as you mentioned. Wasn't a huge gap in my knowledge, come to find out, and I'm glad you cleared that up. Commented May 17, 2012 at 5:33
  • @subtlelapse Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. It looks like while it's going to be a nicely productive summer, I'll actually have a little time time to wrap up III and hopefully get IV out too. Commented May 17, 2012 at 7:33

@Stavrosound totally nailed it. Our post team at Todd-AO does cover everything, BGs included, and they are treated as described for the reasons mentioned. I wasn't sure they existed either until I asked the supervising sound editor. Two additional notes:

First, it's a cartoon, so our ears (and eyes) accept a ton of things which we might not in live-action.

Second: in the Seth MacFarlane aesthetic, the joke comes first, dialogue second, and everything else needs to not get in the way. So BGs are mixed super-low, footsteps and other hard SFX are often dropped entirely, and things like MX and car-bys that might normally have a long lead-in or tail are cut very close. Comedy and dialogue are the focus and the approach to mixing represents Seth's desire to avoid any possible distractions from that focus.

So yes, BGs are covered, but I imagine you won't want to mix them like on our shows unless you're doing something in the same style.

  • I had read about dropping everything out completely to serve the joke, in Mix mag or something. Fascinating. Commented May 17, 2012 at 19:59
  • Yeah, we all talk about adding or changing things to suit a style, but in this style it mostly comes down to taking things away. End result = funny. Commented May 17, 2012 at 20:13
  • Definitely speaks a lot to the truth that there are no rules in the industry. I never would have thought of "the joke" as a separate element from "the dialogue"...and I can see why Seth's been such a huge success! Commented May 17, 2012 at 21:06
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    Right, @Chris , one of the many ways he's a genius. The comedy is usually in the dialogue but of course if Chris falls down or a car crashes or Peter's trying to use a shoebox and a wall to pick up a dead frog (youtube.com/watch?v=DXHaCEhOiWU) of course you'll hear it loud and clear, because that's where the joke is. Commented May 17, 2012 at 21:51
  • Upvote for the frog and the shoebox reference. Great example @jeremyscottolsen! Commented May 18, 2012 at 1:36

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