Creating Rich Story Supporting Ambiances

Students will be given prompts describing a background environment and at least 3 foreground sounds. They will then be tasked with creating the environment and foreground sounds using three different techniques: 1) All field-recording based; 2) All synthesized; 3) All “Foley” (in-studio effects recording)-based. Students will explore different techniques for establishing a scene and telling narrative stories through sound by being tasked with generating three distinct versions that all represent their prompt.

Activity Objectives

–Students will learn how to properly record and document field sources, and how to properly prepare for field recording (ie What are the environmental demands? What gear do you need to bring? How do you document sessions in the field when conditions may be less than ideal? How do you slate field sessions? Etc). This would be prefaced by training (either in other courses or in this one) in field recording techniques.

–Students will learn basic synthesis techniques for manipulating sound to their desired ends. This would be prefaced by training (either in other courses or in this one) in some synthesis fundamentals.

–Students will learn basic Foley procedures (even if not working to picture, the principle of effects creation by live performance in studio will be realized). This would be prefaced by training (either in other courses or in this one) in Foley fundamentals.

–Students’ mixed-down projects will be reviewed by Instructor and fellow students in a class listening session (may take more than one session if class has many people enrolled). Review will consist of evaluating both the success of the recording and production techniques in creating sounds that are not peaked, are not anemic, and are properly prepared for use in a sound design environment (ie, if the assignment was given with the framework of sound to picture, files should be in 48k or 96k, but if done for theater, this would not matter in the same way). Success in narrative storytelling will be evaluated by instructor and fellow students in class—a successful student’s projects will clearly place listeners in the intended environment, and at least give an outline of the foreground activities if not clearly and exactly represent them. Au unsuccessful project will be narratively weak, and listeners will not be sure where they are, or what is supposed to be happening there.

Activity Goals (optional)

–Students will actively engage in the process of examining and determining how sonic elements can inform us as listeners about set and setting, about foreground actions, and about how different production techniques can result in varying degrees of realism/naturalism (or abstraction).

–Students will explore different sound production techniques, engaging with field recorders and associated kit, synthesis, and studio/Foley-style effects production. Students will become acclimatized to the differing demands of these production techniques, from preparation through documentation, execution, and post-production.

–Students will actively listen to the world around them for clues as to what sounds might either paint a realistic picture of a particular sound, or be suitable for demonstrating an entirely different sound than the real-world object (ie Ben Burtt using a wrench, hitting guy wires on an electrical tower, to create the Star Wars “blaster” sound).


Project is slated to take roughly two weeks (which is why one week and one month are checked, above). Project will be introduced in class after students have had some exposure to field recording, synthesis, and Foley-style sound generation techniques.

Students will be presented with either one or two sets of prompts (depending on the time you wish to dedicate to this unit in your course). Each prompt set will consist first of a background/environment: prison ward, spaceship bridge, house party, any place that has the potential for a distinct sonic environment that is not immediately accessible to the students (for example, our campus is in the forest, so a quiet forest is not a great background for this assignment, as it is too easy for them to capture with little inventiveness). Secondly, the prompt will consist of at least three foreground events that must be demonstrated only through sound (no dialog): for example, in the prison ward, the events might be something like 1) inmates begin agitating towards a riot; 2) guards remotely institute lockdown; 3) klaxons sound as some inmates have escaped the lockdown and a full conflict begins. If time is afforded in the course, it can be advantageous to give two prompts, one realistic and one very unrealistic. So, if we give the prison ward as one, perhaps the other involves the surface of the planet Mars, and the first human expedition to land there, and what they encounter, etc.

It will be explained that students are to create three versions of their prompt, executed from recordings/synthesis through to edit/mix, so that they create a short sequence that should function on its own as a sonic story. Each “story” production should ultimately be one minute or thereabouts in length (can flex depending on number of students in class and time available for in-class listening and review). Prompts and assignment will be given on first class day of a given week, and mixed content will be due two weeks from that date in class. If time can be allotted in class during the two weeks they have to produce this, it is ideal to have one class day at the one-week point dedicated to hearing snippets of rough drafts. This can allow for some constructive criticism, and for crucial audience feedback. In playing sounds for fellow students and the instructor, asking the listeners if they are getting the designers’ intent from their content can be key to helping young sound designers figure out how others are hearing their content (students often get so close to the creation process that it can be challenging to know anymore if their strange sounds actually read the way they intend to an audience who is unaware of your process).

For the submission, students will play their sounds as final-mixed in class (and will submit digital files to the instructor). Discussion will focus on what they chose (sounds, mics, techniques, blends, etc), why they chose the way they did, and ultimately, on whether or not the sounds were successful in communicating the stories. For small classes, it’s nice to give each student their own unique (and confidential) prompt, which makes the audience-feedback very valuable (whether or not the audience understood the environment and actions as intended, or if those things read differently to listeners who are unaware of the prompt). For a large class, this can get unwieldy, so use your best judgment.

Final written evaluations of the assignments will be prepared by the instructor after this presentation day (students will submit their mixed files, for instructor review).

Time Required

Students’ investment will depend heavily on their experience levels with the three fundamental production techniques. Some students will be able to create each of the basic versions in an evening each, and spend one additional session mixing. Some students may need to schedule several sessions in order to capture what they seek.

Students with access to their own field recorders and synthesis tools will be at an advantage, so if you are in a program where most students will not have this access and will have to share limited school resources, the production period might be extended to three weeks instead of two. 

Teachers will be well-served to work with students on some of these techniques prior to this project, so the students will have a good sense themselves of the needed time commitment. Teachers would be well-served to offer to listen to roughs in individual office-hours appointments as possible, as this encourages early work that gets revised productively (this is also the purpose of the mid-project rough draft listening session). If the deadline for final project is the only listening session with students, it not only encourages them to wait till the last minute to do their work, but also risks one of the most useful outcomes of the project, which can be that students can evaluate initial impulses and refine them based on feedback, rather than just guessing that what they do will work and waiting to see if they succeed or fail.

Required Materials

–Field recorders/mics/windscreens/batteries/headphones/etc (field recording kits)

–Synthesis tools (ie Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Max MSP, etc)

–Studio space for “Foley” tracking. Mics/DAW for production.

–Mix space/stations for post-production.

Adaptation (optional)

The narrative prompts don’t have to be as dramatic as the prison ward scenario above, and depending on the skill/experience level of the students can be simplified (ie for beginning students, perhaps a background is a grocery store during off-peak hours, and the events are a stockboy knocking over a heap of soup cans, a floor-cleaning machine passing by, and a clerk ringing up items until one has to be price-checked—all sounds that the students can research in their day to day environments, and perhaps even capture part of naturally, but are unlikely to achieve 100% just through collecting the exact sounds listed—the cans falling especially). Foreground sounds should ideally contain seeds of narrative, but again, if working with less experienced students, this might even change from “ringing up items until price check is needed” to “clerk rings up items”. These prompts can also get much more complex if teaching very advanced/graduate students.

This project could also focus on two of the three techniques, if either time or resources are limited (ie if the program and students have no field recorders, but have studio equipment, they could do synthesis and Foley, but no field). So long as at least two techniques are used, the fundamental comparison between parallel techniques can still be effective.


Students are evaluated both in class and in writing.

In-class evaluations take the form of playback sessions with discussion to follow. Discussion should be afforded enough time to listen to all three variations, and discuss each for a few mins, so this review might take a couple of class sessions depending on class size and session length.

In-class evaluations should touch on (at minimum):

  • Listeners’ perception of the productions—Was the intent clear? Were the environmental/narrative components clearly represented? If so, what about the productions accomplished this? If not, what led listeners astray and how could the production have changed to solve this issue?
  • Technical success of the productions—are all recordings executed cleanly, with good signal-to-noise ratio and no clipping/distortion? Are mixes/edits executed proficiently, with no clicks/pops, no sample rate issues, no distracting automation or effects that work against the storytelling? Conversely, are edits/mixes enhancing the narrative? Are effects helping to paint the picture more clearly? Etc.
  • Weighing the success of the three techniques at accomplishing the prompt’s goals—was synthesis easier for making the spaceship than for making the supermarket? Why? Was that due to the nature of the production technique and target product? Or was it due to the student’s relative success at executing those specific techniques (ie the first student uses field recording to successfully portray a supermarket, but the second student does not succeed at this…it is not the fault of field recording that the second student did not execute the supermarket, but is more down to the second student’s use of those techniques).

Written evaluations should be based on these basic concepts, but should be based on a rubric (that should be published to students at the time the assignment is given). The rubric can be narrative prompts with point values assigned, or can be more of a spreadsheet, but it should clearly touch on factors such as technical execution, narrative success, and the like.

It is valuable to give written responses in addition to discussion responses, for a number of reasons. 1) Students often get overwhelmed during class discussions of their work, and may forget or misremember some of what was said. Writing it down helps prevent this. 2) Student discussions can be very valuable, but some groups of students may discuss things in a way that betrays their own lack of understanding of techniques or subjects more than it demonstrates mastery. In this case, having written response from the more experienced instructor can be a good counterweight against students developing unfortunate habits based on the comments of their less-experienced fellow students (though instructors should endeavor to steer in-class discussions away from erroneous ideas posited by any students whenever possible). 3) It can allow for comments that might not be easily expressed in a short class discussion. 4) Allowing the instructor the time to review the projects again away from the class session may reveal things about the productions that were not as evident in class, and unless the class is taught in a tuned listening environment with reference monitor speakers, it is often the case that the instructor has a more accurate listening environment in which to grade alone, which can allow for more detailed comment and response. Rubric should be formed by instructor based on the goals of the project, and what the instructor feels is particularly important for students to get in this particular course (I rewrite the rubric slightly from year to year, based on what my students have been grasping or not grasping prior to this project in that given semester).

Josh Loar, Michigan Technological University