Room tones are the sound of silence.
I‘ve borrowed the term ‘roomtone’ from the film industry, where regular practice is to record the stillness of a room or location after each shoot. That way, when various takes of are edited together, they can be glued into one continuous scene by a consistent audio background.
Every environment has a its own distinctive audio fingerprint of almost imperceivable sounds. They include everything from the quiet humming of electrical equipment, extractor fans and appliances, to the weather outside or distant traffic noise.
If room tones were missing in a film, the silence would be so unnatural that the audience would think that the sound had stopped working. And yet I am constantly surprised at how many Theatre and Dance soundtracks don’t include a constant ambient track. For me, the moment I hear silence breaks the illusion of the theatrical world, and I remember that I am sat watching a show.
My soundtracks are peppered with recorded silence, room tones and ambient tracks. In The Deluge by Lila Dance, I created a track called endless rain. It’s over an hour of constantly evolving rain which loops automatically so that the audience will always be immersed by the sound. The soundtrack is run on Qlab which allows the tracks to not only overlap, but also automatically cue volume shifts in the rain. The Deluge is an immersive physical theatre show, and the sound plays a huge part in helping the audience feel like they are living in the fictional world.
Another example is Stopgap Dance Company’s The Enormous Room, which features a track predictably titled ‘The Enormous Room Tone’. It runs throughout the show, and ensures that when a music track ends there is never ‘true’ silence. The whole show is situated in a living room, and the track reflects that by including a ticking clock, gentle hums of the kitchen next door, and the faint sound of traffic outside the house.
For me, these sounds at the edge of our perception fill theatrical worlds with life and character, and have become a fundamental part of my work. But perhaps my ears have become too tuned into this kind of thing.
So let me know if you’ve ever noticed silence, or felt completely engulfed by a soundtrack in the comments below.