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Sound Effects 101: Ambient vs. Foley

By David Winter
Feb 8, 2024
10 minute read

Imagine you're watching a film. What do you hear? Beyond the dialogue and music, there's a whole world of sound that breathes life into the visuals. These are sound effects, and they come in two primary flavours: ambient and Foley. These sounds are the unsung heroes of video production, working behind the scenes to create an immersive experience. Understanding how to use these sounds effectively can elevate your video projects from good to unforgettable.

Understanding Sound Effects and Their Place in a Production

Sound effects are not just audio files you play randomly in the background. They are carefully selected and crafted elements that serve specific purposes in storytelling. 

Ambient sounds are those that fill the environment, such as the hum of a cityscape or the gentle rustle of leaves in a forest. They set the scene and provide a continuous audio backdrop. 

On the other hand, Foley sounds are custom-made for specific actions within the video, like footsteps, the clinking of glasses, or the rustling of clothing. They add authenticity and depth to the visual actions, making them feel more real.

Ambient vs. Foley Sounds

The difference between Ambience vs. Foley

When diving into the world of video making, you'll come across two key players in the sound department: ambient sounds and Foley sounds. Together, they are the secret sound effect sauce that makes your production pop! 

Ambient sounds are all about setting the scene. The background noises pull you into the video's world, making it feel alive. Whether it's the lively buzz of a city, the serene whispers of a forest, or the cosy chatter of a coffee shop, these sounds wrap around the visuals like a warm hug (or a menacing choke hold, depending on the genre) subtly crafting the atmosphere.

 

 

Then, there's Foley, the detailed, up-close sounds tailored to match the on-screen action—like footsteps, door creaks, or the sound of eating. Foley artists are like sound wizards, creating these effects from scratch to sync perfectly with the visuals, making every action feel real.

But here's a twist: in filmmaking, "ambient" often refers to the natural sounds captured live on set or location. Yet, sometimes, filmmakers use Foley to recreate or enhance these ambient noises in editing, especially if they weren't perfectly captured during filming. So, some of the ambient sounds you hear might actually be Foley in disguise, crafted to blend seamlessly into the scene.

Despite this overlap, remember: Foley is always about adding specific, detailed sounds to highlight actions, never just "ambient" noise. Ambient sounds create the environment, while Foley sounds focus on the actions within it. Together, they form a powerful duo, transforming your video into an immersive experience that captivates viewers, making them believe in the world on screen. Let’s take a deep dive into both. 

Ambient Sounds

How to effectively use ambient sounds

To use ambient sounds effectively, think about the environment your scene is set in and what noises would naturally occur there. Layering different ambient sounds at varying volumes can create a rich, believable background for your visuals.

Identify the Scene's Setting

Before you start adding any sounds, take a moment to really understand where your scene is taking place. Is it in a bustling city, a quiet countryside, or a busy office? Knowing the setting helps you choose the right ambient sounds that match the environment, making your scene more authentic.

Layer Sounds for Depth

One ambient sound effect is good, but layering different sounds can create a more complex and realistic atmosphere. For example, if your scene is set in a forest, layer sounds of wind, rustling leaves, distant bird calls, and a babbling brook. Adjust the volume of each layer to mimic how sounds interact in real life, with some noises closer and others further away.

Consider the Time of Day

The same location can sound different depending on the time of day. A city street in the early morning might be filled with the sounds of birds and the distant rumble of garbage trucks, while the same street at rush hour is a cacophony of honking, shouting, and the hustle and bustle of pedestrians. Select ambient sounds that reflect the time of day to enhance realism.

Use Ambient Sounds to Evoke Emotions

Sounds have a powerful impact on our emotions. The eerie silence of an abandoned building, the comforting sound of a crackling fireplace, or the tension-building rumble of thunder can all affect your audience's emotional response to the scene. Choose ambient sounds that complement the mood you're trying to achieve.

Transition Smoothly Between Scenes

Ambient sounds can also be used to create smooth transitions between scenes. Fading out the ambient noise of one scene and gradually introducing the sounds of the next can provide a natural flow, guiding your audience from one setting to another without jarring cuts. This technique is especially useful in establishing a new location or time passage.

Great examples of Ambient sound in popular films

Blade Runner 2049

The buzzing neon, distant city sounds, and the constant rain create an immersive dystopian world.

Interstellar

The silence of space contrasted with the ambient sounds inside the spacecraft heightens the isolation and tension.

The Revenant

Natural ambient sounds of the wilderness transport the audience into the harsh, unforgiving environment alongside the protagonist.

Gravity

The use of silence and subtle ambient sounds emphasises the vastness and emptiness of space.

Jurassic Park

The jungle's usual ambient sounds of rustling leaves and passing flies, mixed with distant dinosaur calls, create a prehistoric atmosphere.

How to get started making your own

Creating your own ambient sounds can be a rewarding process, allowing you to tailor the audio landscape of your videos to match your vision perfectly. Here's how you can get started, broken down into manageable steps:

Explore Your Environment

Start by listening to the world around you. Carry a portable recorder (or use your smartphone) and capture the sounds of environments that intrigue you. Whether it's the hustle of a marketplace, the tranquillity of a park, or the unique acoustics of an alleyway, each sound has the potential to enrich your video.

Build a Sound Library

Organise the sounds you've recorded into a library, categorising them by type, location, or mood. This will make it easier to find the right sound when editing. Additionally, explore online sound effect libraries for high-quality ambient tracks that you can use in your projects.

Learn Basic Recording Techniques

Understanding the basics of sound recording will significantly improve the quality of your captures. Learn about microphone types, recording levels, and how to minimise unwanted noise to ensure your recordings are as clear as possible.

Edit and Enhance Your Sounds

Use audio editing software to trim, fade, and adjust the quality of your sounds. You can also experiment with effects like reverb to mimic different spaces or equalisation (EQ) to highlight or reduce certain frequencies, making your sounds fit better within the scene.

Master the Art of Layering

In your video editing software, such as Lightworks, start layering your ambient sounds to create a rich soundscape. Adjust the volume, pan (left or right channel placement), and EQ of each layer to blend them seamlessly. Consider the spatial and directional aspects of sound to create a more immersive audio experience.

Practice Sound Design

As you become more comfortable with creating and editing ambient sounds, experiment with blending recorded and synthesised sounds to create unique audio environments. Sound design is an art, and the more you practice, the better you'll become at using sound to enhance your storytelling.

Get Feedback and Refine

Share your videos with peers or mentors and listen to their feedback on the sound design. Often, fresh ears can catch inconsistencies or suggest improvements you might have missed.

Stay Inspired and Keep Experimenting

The world of sound is infinite, and there's always something new to learn. Stay curious, keep exploring new soundscapes, and don't be afraid to experiment with unconventional sounds or techniques.

By following these steps, you'll not only start creating your own ambient sounds but also develop a keen ear for how sound can elevate the visual storytelling of your videos.

Examples and Application

Ambient sounds create the auditory backdrop for a scene, setting the tone and atmosphere.

Here are five generic examples and how they could be used:

City Street Ambience

Honking cars, distant chatter, and the occasional siren. Use this in scenes set in urban environments to add vitality and realism.

Forest Sounds

Birdsong, rustling leaves, and a gentle breeze. Perfect for outdoor scenes to convey tranquillity or the solitude of nature.

Ocean Waves

The rhythmic crashing of waves and the call of seagulls. Ideal for beach scenes, adding a sense of calmness or reflection.

Café Background

The murmur of conversations, the clinking of cups, and the sound of a coffee machine. Use this to create a cosy, relaxed setting for dialogues.

Rain and Thunder

The pitter-patter of raindrops and occasional thunderclaps. Great for adding tension or a melancholic mood to a scene.

Foley Sounds

How to effectively use Foley sounds

Foley sounds are crucial for adding realism and depth to your video projects.

Here are five tips on how to effectively use Foley sounds to enhance your storytelling:

Focus on Precision

The key to effective Foley is ensuring each sound matches the on-screen action perfectly. This means paying close attention not just to the timing but also to the quality and character of the sound. For example, the sound of footsteps should vary depending on the character’s footwear and their walking surface.

Record in a Controlled Environment

To capture clean, usable Foley sounds, record in a quiet, controlled environment where you can manipulate objects and materials to replicate the desired sounds without background noise. Use a variety of props to mimic different textures and substances, such as walking on sand for beach scenes or crinkling paper for fire crackling.

Embrace Creativity and Innovation

Often, the most convincing Foley sounds come from the most unexpected sources. Real-life objects may not always sound how audiences expect them to on screen, or recording the actual sound you need might be impractical (or impossible). This is where creativity becomes your greatest asset. For instance, the sound of breaking bones—a sound you obviously can't (and shouldn't) record in reality—can be mimicked by snapping celery stalks wrapped in a cloth or stuffed inside a sock. Always be ready to think outside the box and experiment with different objects and materials to recreate specific sounds. 

Experiment with Different Materials

Sometimes, creating the most realistic sound effects requires using unexpected materials. For instance, celery snapping can mimic the sound of breaking bones, and gloves filled with cornstarch can recreate the sound of snow crunching. Don’t be afraid to get creative with the items around you to find the perfect sound.

Sync with Precision

After recording your Foley sounds, the next step is syncing them with the visual action in your editing software. This process requires careful attention to detail, as even a slight misalignment can break the illusion of reality. Use waveform and video previews to match the sound exactly with the action, adjusting the timing as needed for a seamless fit.

Adjust Levels for Realism

Once your Foley sounds are in place, adjust their levels to ensure they blend naturally with the ambient sounds and dialogue. Foley sounds should be prominent enough to be noticed but not so loud as to distract from the story. Consider the environment and context of the scene to determine the appropriate volume and presence of each Foley sound.

Great examples of Foley sound in popular films

Saving Private Ryan

The Foley work, especially in the D-Day landing scene, with the sounds of bullets, explosions, and equipment, creates a visceral experience.

Foley Artist Gary Hecker in Various Films

Known for his work on films like The Chronicles of Narnia and Spider-Man, Hecker's Foley art adds layers of realism to fantastical and everyday actions alike.

Ratatouille

The sounds of cooking, chopping, and sizzling bring the kitchen scenes to life, making the food almost tangible.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Foley sounds, from the clinking of chainmail to the drawing of swords, enrich the Middle-earth setting with texture and detail.

Star Wars Series

The Foley work, including lightsaber clashes and the footsteps of various creatures, builds a detailed and immersive universe.

How to Get Started Making Your Own Foley

Creating your own Foley sounds can be a fascinating journey, transforming the auditory experience of your videos to align perfectly with the action on screen.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started on this creative endeavour:

Gather Your Tools

You don’t need a professional studio to start making Foley sounds. Basic recording equipment, such as a good-quality microphone and a portable recorder (or even your smartphone), can suffice. Additionally, having a variety of props and surfaces to create different sounds is crucial. Think creatively about how everyday items can mimic specific actions or textures.

Create a Foley Space

Dedicate a quiet space where you can record sounds without unwanted background noise. It doesn’t have to be large; even a small room or closet can work if it’s acoustically treated to reduce echo. This space will become your mini Foley stage/pit for recording.

Experiment with Sounds

This is where creativity truly comes into play. Experiment with different objects and materials to reproduce the sounds needed for your video. For footsteps, different shoes on various surfaces can create a wide range of sounds. For other effects, like rustling leaves or clinking glass, gather materials that closely mimic these sounds. It’s all about experimentation and finding what works best for the scene.

Learn Basic Foley Recording Techniques

Good recording practices can significantly enhance the quality of your Foley sounds. Learn about microphone placement, how to perform actions in sync with the on-screen action, and how to adjust recording levels to capture the best sound quality without distortion.

Edit and Sync Your Sounds

With audio editing software such as Lightworks, you can import your recorded Foley sounds and align them with the visual actions in your video. This stage requires a keen sense of timing and rhythm to ensure the sounds perfectly match the movements on screen. You may need to trim, stretch, or modify the sounds for the best fit.

Master the Art of Mixing

Once your Foley sounds are synced, mixing them correctly with the other audio elements—dialogue, music, and ambient sounds—is crucial. Adjust the volume levels and pan (to position the sound in the stereo field), and apply EQ to ensure each Foley sound sits well in the mix without overpowering other important audio elements.

Get Feedback and Refine Your Skills

Sharing your work with others can provide valuable feedback to improve your Foley artistry. Listen to suggestions and be open to making adjustments. Foley is an art that requires practice and patience to master.

Stay Inspired and Keep Experimenting

The world of Foley is vast and varied. Continuously seek new sounds and recording techniques. Watch movies and pay attention to the Foley work, analysing how sounds contribute to the storytelling. Always look for new objects and materials that can produce unique sounds.

By following these steps, you'll be well on your way to creating your own Foley sounds, adding depth and realism to your videos. Remember, the goal of Foley is to bring your visuals to life through sound, enhancing the viewer's immersion and emotional connection to the story. Keep practising, stay creative, and enjoy the discovery process in the world of Foley sound production.

Examples and Application

Foley sounds add detail and texture, making the actions on the screen feel tangible. Here are five examples and their potential scene applications:

Footsteps on Different Surfaces

Wood, gravel, snow. Match the sound to the visual to convey the character's environment and movement.

Doors Creaking and Slamming

Use these to enhance the mood, whether it's a gentle creak for suspense or a loud slam for surprise or anger.

Clothing Rustle

Fabric sounds during movement. It adds depth to the character's actions, making them more lifelike.

Eating Sounds

The crunch of an apple or the slurp of soup. These sounds can add realism to dining scenes or highlight specific character traits.

Typing on a Keyboard

The clicks can vary in intensity and speed, reflecting the urgency or the nature of the work being done.

Conclusion

Remember, the sounds you choose, whether ambient or Foley, play a huge role in telling your story. Ambient sounds set the vibe of your scene, while Foley sounds make your viewers feel like they're right there with the characters. Mixing these sounds correctly can take your projects from okay to awesome.

So, have fun experimenting with different sounds and see how they can change the game for your videos. Sound design, like all storytelling,  is all about creativity, so let your imagination run wild and see where it takes you. Happy editing!

Additional Resources

For deeper dives into editing techniques and Lightworks tutorials, visit Lightworks Resources. Enhance your skills, discover community insights, and bring your creative visions to life.

Transform your video editing journey with Lightworks. Whether crafting a short film, a documentary, or a personal vlog, Lightworks gives you the tools to tell your story your way. Download now and embark on your path to becoming a master storyteller.

Author's Note — AI and Content Generation

In our commitment to transparency and ethical practice, we wish to disclose that artificial intelligence (AI) played a role in crafting this piece. However, it remains primarily a human endeavour, with the core content written, edited, and meticulously proofread by our team. 

AI served primarily as a tool for workshopping drafts, researching topics, and ensuring a consistent writing style. Importantly, our use of AI is designed to complement, not replace, our team's efforts. It allows us to efficiently utilise our resources, enhancing our work without compromising or diminishing the value of human skill and creativity.