Ambient sound: presence, embodiment and the spatial turn


For the past few years a major part of my research revolves around the notion of “ambient sound” or “ambience”.[1] The broader interest is to examine how ambient sound is practiced in the process of sound recording and production, such as in films and sound-works. The specific focus however lies in conceptualizing the processes of (re)constructing the presence[2] of a site by means of ambient sounds, recorded from the site or location. In film it is the fictional site, while in sound art it is the field for making site-specific field recording towards artistic transformation.

How can the term “ambient sound” be adequately defined? There are many intersecting definitions. A quick (and dirty) googling may lead to some of the term’s many interpretations, but it is quite doubtful whether they correspond to each other and help conceptualize the term. According to the sundry Wikipedia, in the context of filmmaking “ambience” consists of the sounds of a given location or space. This definition correlates ambience with other associated terms, such as atmosphere, atmos, or background sound. The resourceful website suggests: “ambience pertains to the pervading atmosphere of a place. Ambience is widely used as a synonym for ambient sound, which consists of noises present in the environment.” One may ask whether “ambient sound” and “ambience” are the same term. Drawing on practitioner’s vocabulary, I would argue that these two terms are in the same “family” of concepts in sound practice and theory, and they can be used interchangeably. However, “ambient sound” underscores the material and functional aspects of the term, while “ambience” emphasizes the social and cultural connotations.

Terminology aside, for the sound practitioner[3] ambience generally means the surrounding sounds that are present in a scene or location, e.g. wind, water, birds, forest murmurs, electrical hum, room-tone, office clatters, traffic, neighbourhood mutterings, etc. Ambient sound can provide a specific atmosphere of a site in the construction of the diegetic space – or the interior world of a film or sound-based media artwork. To the sound practitioners ambient sound injects life and substance not only to what we see on the screen but also to the off-screen story-world. The practitioners use the material layers of ambient sound to construct the experience of presence.[4] Ambient sound also helps to mount atmospheres of a specific site in the mediated environments. These practical considerations and perspectives underscore its sitely and spatial nature.

Film sound scholars point out this spatial, enveloping properties of ambient sound. Take for example David Sonnenschein, who suggests that ambient sound can “create a space within which the audience can be enveloped” (Sonnenschein 2001: 47). Emphasizing the atmospheric properties, Béla Balázs proclaimed that it is ambient sound’s business to reveal the acoustic environment— the landscape that we experience everyday. He calls the acoustic environment the “intimate whispering of the nature” (Balázs 1985: 116). Theories of spatial cognition also suggest that site-specific environmental and ambient sounds can reinforce spatial aspects of perception “focusing primarily on perception of sound-source direction” (Waller and Nadel 2013: 83). These varied perspectives inform us how ambient sounds provide depth and a spatial dimension to a particular filmic sequence by establishing the conducive environment to elicit the cognitive association between the auditor and the site, reinforcing “the impression of reality” (Percherron 1980: 17). In film sound organization and design ambient sound completes the perception of direction and localization enabling the audience members to relate to the specifics of a site’s sonic environment in the interior world of a film.

Tomlinson Holman informs us that there are various kinds of ambient sounds used in film sound production: they can vary from the characteristic natural environmental sounds of a given outdoor site to the indoor “room tone”. Room tone is the low-frequency ambient sound of an indoor space in which all the actors are silent; it is the sonic layer that is significantly capable of carrying the characteristic details of a particular indoor location. In this connection, Holman suggests that, “ambience most typically consists of more or less continuous sound, often with a low-frequency emphasis we associate with background noise of spaces” (Holman 1997: 177). The advent of digital recording makes it possible to record and re-present a deep layer of low-frequency sounds (Kerins 2011). Earlier recording media, analogue optical recording and analogue magnetic recording, with their limited dynamic range were less capable of capturing the full spectrum of locative ambient sounds, such as the elusive layer of a room tone. This low frequency content such as room tone and rumbles in digitally recorded ambient sound layers arguably contributes to the sense of embodiment. An embodied experience of sound in the cinema is provided by site-specific bodily perceptible location recording of ambient sounds in their spatial organization proliferated by full-frequency multi-track digital audio recording and multi-channel surround sound design. As rightly argued by Mark Kerins (2006, 2011), this sense of embodiment through bodily perceptible low frequency sounds finds prominence in the digital realm of sound production – an important aspect for sound design practices where this capacity is termed “adding body to the sound”.[5] The concept of embodiment draws from phenomenology of sonic perception. Merleau-Ponty has argued that perception is the product of a multisensory relationship between the individual’s “body” and its surroundings as a whole (2005). Don Ihde resonated with similar claims, such as: “I do not merely hear with my ears, I hear with my whole body” (Ihde 2007: 44) substantiating embodiment as a useful concept in discussing ambient sound.

The notions of presence and embodiment, as drawn from film sound studies, may also be quite relevant while discussing sound art production developed from field recording of ambient sounds. However, in sound art the functional aspects of ambient sound are often dissolved to embrace the artistic imagination and transformation. In the context of sound art practice the “ambient” in “ambient sound” often relates to a loosely environmental and a rather vague understanding of atmosphere (Böhme 1993). No wonder, sound artist and theorist Seth Kim-Cohen in his book Against Ambience (2013) would diagnose the art world’s recent fascination with ambience. Here “ambience” is understood as the soothing atmospheric or environmental sounds prevailing in contemporary sound art exhibition contexts. His discussion does not however expand towards a deeper ramifications and implications of “ambience” in the Sound Studies.

Ambient music pioneer Brian Eno has defined ambience in the liner notes of “Music for Airports” (1978) “as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint”.[6] This sense of subdued colouring indeed permeates the field of ambient music. Eno’s definition shows the tendency to make an easy association between ambient music and ambience. I would argue that correlating ambient music readily to ambient sounds or ambience is debatable. As Joanna Demers has shown, ambient music “uses a slew of methods to make it sound as if it lacks a foreground and thus easily melts into its surroundings” (Demers 2010: 117), and thus, as David Toop suggests (1995), hints at an imaginary environment rather than imposing one. However, ambient sounds emerge from specific sites and their site-specificity cannot be easily dissociated in artistic transformation.

Contributing to the discussion, Ulrik Schmidt (2012, 2013) has proposed the term “sonic environmentality” as a general context for the ways ambient sound can affect us as environment. The concept of sonic environmentality further opens up the discourse by making distinction between three major forms or dimensions: the ambient, the ecological and the atmospheric. This threefold dissection of ambience helps create a deeper engagement with the term in a comprehensive understanding. My current research (Chattopadhyay 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016) intends to intervene into the discourse by considering ambient sound as a material layer in the hand of the sound practitioners and artists. In specific, I inquire about the ways in which they sculpt the conditions of presence (or relative absence), embodiment (or deliberate abstraction) through the processes of recording and spatial reconstruction of the site and its surrounding atmosphere within the mediated and augmented worlds of sound production.

Ambient sound as a concept gains currency in contemporary studies of sound in film and field recording-based sound art practice ever since digital technology made it possible to record sound more precisely from the actual location and reconstructing it in spatial organizations of sound in the contemporary media environment towards what being termed the “spatial turn” (Eisenberg 2015). This turn indicates an intellectual movement that puts emphasis on place, space and site in social science and the humanities. The present time is indeed right for these considerations since Sound Studies has already emerged and rapidly established itself as a vibrant academic discipline. A critical listening, informed inquiry and in-depth analysis of the generally ignored field of ambient sounds will do justice to the pertinent discourses in Sound Studies.


Budhaditya Chattopadhyay

Copenhagen, 22 June 2016



[1] See ongoing project ”Audible Absence” (Chattopadhyay 2016)

[2] The conceptualization of “presence” concerns the degree to which a medium can generate seemingly accurate reproduction of objects, events, and spaces – representations that look, sound, and/or feel like the “real”.

[3] “Sound practice” is a broad term encompassing sound recording, production mixing, dubbing, studio mixing, Foley, re-recording, and so forth. Likewise, the term ”Sound practitioner” accommodates all the sound professionals, e.g. location sound recordists, field recording experts, directors of audiography, Foley artists, sound designers, production mixers and mixing engineers, re-recording specialists et al.

[4] In contemporary media scholarship “presence” is defined as the perceptual illusion of nonmediation.

[5] Referring to the interviews I conducted with the many renowned sound designers, production mixing specialists, mixing engineers, re-recordists, sound editors and location recordists in the context of the project “Audible Absence” (2016)

[6] See the website



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