why room tone is important
The first time I was on set as a camera assistant in film school I heard the sound mixer kindly ask the cast and crew to stop moving and to be silent. Then the assistant director yelled “quiet for room tone!” There I was frozen midway of wrapping a cable thinking “are you kidding me… we have to move locations! There’s no time for this!” Little did I know at the time how crucial this 1 minute of silence was for everyone in post-production!
This post will explain the importance of room tone, using it for ADR, how long you should record, and some resources if you’re in need of room tone for your project!
but what is room tone?
Every space and room has its own sound. To a novice sound person, this silence may not seem like such a big deal but to an experienced sound mixer or editor, it can be a lifesaver!
For example, imagine a scene in a kitchen with dialog between actors. To make a more compelling moment the editor chooses different takes, adds beats, and uses insert shots. When the edited scene is played back, those gaps need to be filled with the authentic ambience of the room. This kitchen has a humming fridge, distant traffic coming from down the street, the space has hard surfaces creating reverb, and the wind blowing through the trees outside. If there was no room tone from that particular location it would make it far more difficult to make the scene sound seamless.
Room Tone for ADR
Another reason why room tone is crucial to capture is for ADR in post-production. Automated Dialog Replacements (ADR) is the process of re-recording dialog in a studio or quiet setting. Due to background noise or instructions given by the director, actors will be required to come in after a scene is edited to replace their dialog.
Let’s say you shot a scene, the location is wrapped up, the actors are long gone and several days later you sit in the studio editing. Now you hear unwanted sounds like crew members chatting in the background or train horns in the distance. You’re sitting at your editing bay and realize that reshooting is impossible. The location is unavailable, the actors have scheduling conflicts, or there’s no budget for pick up shots or reshoots.
With room tone, the sound editor can use the re-recorded scene and create a cohesive sequence. Without the original room tone, you would only have a clean dialog with no sound presence of the overall scene.
How long should I record room tone?
Several factors determine how long to record room tone. For example, the mood of the crew with time restraints, the space in which you’re in, and what the head of the sound department requests. Of course, it would be wonderful to capture 3 minutes in each location but that time luxury isn’t always available in the high-pressure film set environment.
Generally, if you’re in a room with constant sounds like humming or buzzing 30 seconds to 1 minute is fine. However, if a scene is in space with changing or inconsistent ambience, aim to record longer and capture up to 3 minutes. This will provide to most safety to match the background noise and gaps in the dialog and/or inserts in post-production.
HOW TO RECORD ROOM TONE
For room tone recording on set, it is advised to use the same microphone that was used for the whole scene. If you use four microphones then record room tone on all four of them and write proper metadata for the sound editor.
As a traveling field recordist who doesn’t work for specific productions, I can only use the microphones I have with me. If you’re just starting out remember the best microphone is the one you have!
In my experience, my favorite microphone to record quiet room tone has been the Wildtronics SAAM. With a self-noise of 8dBA, I’m able to record perfect room tone sounds without any hissing in the recording!
HOW AM I SETTING THE LEVELS?
This is situational and depending on which recorder you’re using and the sound of the space. For me, while doing field recordings, lately I’ve been using the Zoom F6 and I don’t set the levels because it’s a 32-bit float recorder. If I capture with the Zoom F8n and hear microphone noise (like hissing) then I lower the gain until the self-noise is no longer audible.
Sometimes a room may be too quiet and I can’t hear the quality of the space. In this case, I might find an air system that runs somewhere in the corner and record near there!
Why I started recording room tone for anyone to use!
The first recordings I ever captured were loud sounds like traffic, construction, and sound effects like doors, shuffling of beans, and pouring hot water in teacups. I never thought to capture audio of “silence” until I started receiving messages from sound designers asking me where they could find my room tones.
Back then, I knew what room tone was but I didn’t consider it something I should record because I figured the sound recordists on set would always get these sounds. It turns out other sound people need room tone other than individuals working in film production.
The truth is, I was blinded to the fact that thousands of artists out there are looking for sounds and using them for so many reasons that I don’t know. For example, I learned that sound designers, sound engineers, and musicians use room tone as a start to create a noise profile for their soundscapes and sound effects.
Through the knowledge I gained as a traveling sound recordist and the feedback from amazing sound enthusiasts & professionals, I knew it was my duty to record as much room tone as possible on my field recording trips! Already so many people have downloaded my recordings to use in their projects.
If you find yourself hunting for room tone for a film, animation, video game, music, or anything take a listen to a few of my room tone sound libraries! They are royalty-free so be creative and have fun!