So upon reading all the great interviews and posts on BG creation/layering, im finally designing a specific set of backgrounds for a film. Im trying to make a background that can convey the harsh danger of a homeless girl living on the street. Its a series of 4 scripted scenes that in reality are one large flowing scene. There are 3 parts that are a stationary non moving and in the middle there is a long walk and talk steadi-cam shot covering about 8 blocks or so.

I currently have a hand-full of static stereo recordings I made in the neighborhood in which it was filmed.(I ended up being pretty uncomfortable there recording at night :P) I like them quite a bit, as one you can here a building alarm/buzzer in the distance, the other has a lone siren build up to many police/ambulance sirens and progressively get closer. There third is a general air with a single cricket going on.

I am planning on using train sounds in combination with the alarms and sirens to bring in the harshness and removing them to take away the danger at certain times that parallel the emotional arc Ive got going. BTW waiting for a train to come is a pain, I wish there would be published freight train schedules.

Any other ideas of things I can use to help convey the sense of danger?

Also during walk and talks, do you guys try and use backgrounds that were actually not recorded static. I was thinking about trying to record a couple stereo backgrounds while slowly moving down the street, or do you think having single effects like light buzzing or dogs ac units etc dopplering by would do enough to convey that movement? We are mixing in stereo for this project FYI.

Any help would be appreciated as I am almost done cutting all the dialogue and will jumping into the BGs very heavily in the next few days.



8 Answers 8



Thanks for providing so much information up front - sounds like a great project to be involved in!

You've done the film a great service by going to the actual locations to record. Although there are a plethora of high-quality sound libraries available today, nothing can beat well-recorded custom recorded FX, imho. Here are a few points I try to follow when creating my backgrounds:

  • Layering Rarely do I rely on a single mono or stereo track to make up a particular background. Try layering several tracks for maximum depth and complexity, ie. close traffic, mid traffic and distant traffic would become your "traffic" predub. These individual tracks could include a distant freeway, a mid-shot of an alley, a few close passbys, some distant busses, etc. This also applies to other categories such as air, walla, and nature.
  • Panning Make the most of the stereo image with thoughtful and dynamic panning that contributes to the story being told. Examine the camera angles and pan appropriately, ie. if you see the sidewalk/curb on the left and an open space on the right, try panning most of your traffics left and some walla to the right, or perhaps there is an alley out of frame somewhere? Maybe there are people over there doing something interesting? Make you panning tell part of the story.
  • Specific Events Backgrounds should not be limited to long static recordings. For feature films I create a separate predub for "spotted BGs", or sounds that are single events but function as part of the fabric of the background. These could include anything: In your case, think doppler horns, an interesting piece of walla, a ratty car passby, a shopping cart, a snippet of police radio, etc. The idea is to incorporate these single events into the mix so they become a part of the world, as opposed to being a featured sounds that grab your attention, as most "hard fx" do.

Creating danger can be subjective, but it sounds like you're on the right track. Don't be afraid to embrace clichés, since those sounds will speak to your audience right away. Sirens, distant yelling, distant gunshots or backfires, bassy "hip hop" car bys, train brake squeals…these are all good, time-tested sounds that will work. Other ideas? Try silence, low drones, steam escaping from a subway vent, subway passbys through the vent, etc. Try drawing on the things that made you uncomfortable when you were recording there.

Lastly, recording moving backgrounds is an EXCELLENT idea. I just finished a film where a lot of recording was done this way and it yielded a huge amount of great flavors I could pull from and use as spotted BGs. One great thing about this approach is that you really get a sense of the acoustics of the space; the reflections off the walls and buildings, the distance of various wallas and traffics, and the slight dopplering of everything in your tracks brings a realism that is hard to replicate any other way. Try to be as stealthy as possible so nobody notices what you're up to, and you'll be able to capture people doing things they might not normally do if they knew you had an open mic.

  • @Jay I am definitely layering my BGs. After reading many different books and articles on backgrounds, I can't believe I never did it until now. It is a night a day difference. I am going to add some more layers to be able to pan things around. As far as tapping into what made me uncomfortable, I think it was more in my head than anything. Not so Safe New Orleans Area with 5 grand worth of gear strapped to me in the middle of the night. Car full of people creeps past while staring at me, I cut that take short and went to a bar for bit to be around some people. :P May 2, 2011 at 17:34
  • Utopias call out/ argument idea is actually a cool way for me to tap into that feeling I had. May 2, 2011 at 17:44
  • What are good books to read about backgrounds? You could always stretch out a sound that is bad to a character and use it subtly underneath
    – Chris
    May 2, 2011 at 18:18
  • @Chris, forget the books. Go listen to some movies, preferably ones that are not wall-to-wall score and music. Then come back here and ask questions. May 2, 2011 at 23:05
  • 1
    @chris, one thing I've been doing lately is recording a lot of refernce files. Mostly walkthroughs of spaces that I like that are too noisy, or have sounds in them at the time that are too specific (guitar players in subway stations, for example). I then use those sounds as a point of refernce to give a sense of the space and what it's like to move through it. Transitions are always the parts of mixes that I feel most insecure about, so I record just about everything so that if I need to do a particular kind of move, I can know kind of what it should sound like.
    – g.a.harry
    May 3, 2011 at 2:57

Everything written in this thread is really great advice! Let me give one additional piece of advice about layering from a re-recording mixers point of view.

As Michael wrote in his original post, he has recorded a few static BG tracks from the original location that have certain elements in them that he likes. Now being that these are from the original location they will really compliment the original production dialog track, but try to not rely on these tracks as the main bed for the scene though.

One of the tracks that Michael mentions has a great siren in it and could be one of the "harsh/dangerous" elements he's looking for. Now this track may sound awesome in the edit suite, but once it gets onto the dub stage, for example, that siren may very well clash with the score. You might be able to move the sync on the sound to get it out of the way, but more often then not, it tends to just get dropped.

This is where the layering is so important. Once it has been decided that the siren needs to go, everything else that was in that track also disappears. The night air, traffic, possible distant walla is gone. This will leave a major hole in the soundtrack that needs to be refilled. By layering in all of those elements that are present in the original track, you can rebuild the scene. By having these tracks as well, can give you more options in placing them around in the speakers to really fill out the scene.

Another situation where this can and does happen all the time, is after the main mix is done and you are mixing the M&E. This is where you find out that the sunny park scene in the domestic mix has discernible English present in it. You find the track that has the English in it turns out to be not only the kids playing, but also the birds, traffic and wind. Once that track is dropped the scene turns into a barren desolate landscape! Hehehe This is when as the mixer you have to scramble to find something to put back into the scene.

Now those are worse case scenarios, but they do come up from time to time. It's nice to be able to have choices on the dub stage when it happens. Also remember the dub stage is a really expensive place to be re-editing tracks!

Just my 2 cents.

  • @Bill, what can I say besides "excellent"! I see these situations arise in final mixes all the time, and without adequate track coverage you can quickly find yourself in a tough position. I will say, however, that finding new material (fixes or sweeteners) really is a part of the final dub process, so long as you're not recutting entire scenes or having to rethink sequences from a conceptual point of view. Looking for a different siren or a more generic walla while on the stage happens all the time -- you just need to be prepared and quick on your feet to handle the pressure. May 3, 2011 at 4:34
  • @Jay, Yes, there will always be fixes and people scrambling about! hehe (intercom all page) "Can the sound supervisor for show X please come to mix stage A.....quickly!" Good times, good times. May 3, 2011 at 5:02
  • @Bill, Hey! Great post! I also checked out your imdb page and I see that you mixed a film which a good friend of mine voiced a French taxi driver and main character French Dog!!! What a small world.
    – Utopia
    May 3, 2011 at 17:05
  • @Bill As a mixer, do you prefer to have multiple stereo/5.1 layers and mono tracked pre panned positioned etc coming to you when working in the box. I ask because Its a graduate thesis film, 30 minutes long, I know the music and already have it, Im handing my entire PT session over to the rerecording mixer at a dub stage. Its my first time to be able to have the opportunity to do this, so I want to make sure the one day we could afford on the mix stage is used as best possible. May 3, 2011 at 17:34
  • @Michael - I generally like to have 3-4 stereo tracks for the Left and Right speakers, 1-3 stereo's for the Surrounds, and at least 2 mono Center channel tracks. For those last two tracks, we try to get them as similar to the sonic quality of the production dialog track. These can help the dialog mixer smooth out his mix a bit more especially if the scenes are quite noisy and there isn't an abundance of production fill. The "spotted BG's" that have been mentioned above, I generally prefer to have those in mono so they can be panned to where we "think" they would be within the image easier. May 3, 2011 at 19:03

Tips on making a dangerous environment:

  • Experiment with some gang walla or callouts in the background. Or (no offense to anyone) poverty-stricken area callouts.

  • Tire peel-outs.

  • Gigantic truck lorries or bus bys which are loud and on the verge of being harsh to the ear. These are what make me feel uncomfortable on the street.

  • Nice old jalopy car SFX (there is one file in my library called jalopy which is an awesome older gas guzzling engine).

  • I'd experiment with putting in cars going through water or puddles to make a subliminal feeling of cold and wetness - this always makes me feel cold and dreary - like it has just rained.

  • ANGER and HATRED -filled arguments in the background.

  • Car alarms.

  • Sirens like you said - great idea.

  • People coughing.

  • Wind blowing trash or leaves in the street/gutter.

  • Jay's suggestions of subway hiss and bys are awesome.

That's all I can think of right now. I'll re-visit this later if I think of any more during the day.

P.S. I've archived Jay's answer for later use because it smokes.

  • @Utopia What is your feeling on using cay bys, puddles etc, like you describe when the image is void of any other signs of life. I know from the rough cut to the Pic lock, all vehicles pass bys were removed from the picture. I can hear them in the Production audio, but they have all been cut around visually. I like the call outs and arguments in the back That can definitely show some movement as I can have it roam around in the mix as if the fight moves or the characters moving from it. Hopefully I can capture some recordings somewhere or convince a couple friends to get rowdy outside. May 2, 2011 at 17:41
  • Hey @Michael - ohhh I see. No cars? Hmm. Possibly some drainage splash though that might not make enough sense sonically. Possibly a wind/trash being blown combination? I'll think about it and hit you back here.
    – Utopia
    May 2, 2011 at 19:29

On top of what everyone else has said, absence of sound can be very effective when used in the right place.

Silence can create different feelings, depending on exactly how it's woven into your atmos, but can make things very uncomfortable when incorporated just the right way. This silence could be created with "synonyms of silence" such as a single cricket, or very distant car burnout (or any of the other great suggestions from Jay and Utopia). You could also experiment with bringing your soundtrack down to nothing, but that relies heavily on the film's aural style.


Might be worth trying to play with some tonal BG sounds is possible too to manipulate them in a way to make them sound a bit dissonant/oppressive. Things like aircon and perhaps other broadband type sounds.

I was coming back from a weekend away just gone and stopped at a multi-storey car park. There were some big air-con/filtering units going off in the background and they had this tone to them which reminded me of a large swarm of bees. I whipped out my hand-held recorder (much to my girlfriends bemusement lol) and recorded a short sample. Not as long as I'd have hoped though :/ It had a pretty ominous vibe to it! I could have imagined that working quite well as a bed underneath other sounds of bees etc. Not that I expect your scene has a bee swarm in it though! lol

Annoyingly though, I'm currently without internet access at home so can't upload anything but will do when I finally get connected again...


How much motion is there in the stereo ones you have, i.e. Moving traffic, people walking past? If there's enough of that you'll probably be fine with moving hits (trains, dogs, etc). If there isn't much of that you could try the moving recording, as long as you don't go too fast.

  • @g.a harry The raw recordings have car bys some bicycle and pedestrians, but I have cut all of that out as there is nothing at all in the picture that supports them. I can maybe put cars in the distance, but the recordings have a much closer perspective. I think with the ones I have, the only one that shows a lack of motion is the single cricket, as it is a constant thing, the others I have have motion happening in the extreme distance of the city. May 2, 2011 at 16:58

Any subjective views ? => Panting, heavy breathing and heartbeats

  • My bad... that's not part of the background.
    – Teo
    May 3, 2011 at 10:58
  • Nope, as far as the scenes go its pretty basic dialogue scene coverage. Nothing fancy. One character does have a bicycle that is "out of true" or basically bent/broken rim. That is something im trying to accomplish as they walk and move is the clicking of the bike gears and bent rim etc. Trying to make it cry and moan at times is the plan, has not worked out yet though :P May 3, 2011 at 17:38

I appreciate all the feedback, it has given me a lot to think about and experiment with. If I only had more time to do everything! Ill try and do some SC links of things once I get out of dialogue editing phase and get a chance to play some more with the Bgs.

  • Great! Glad I could help you out.
    – Utopia
    May 3, 2011 at 17:42

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