Key targets for gravitational wave (GW) observatories, such as LIGO and the next generation interferometric detector, Advanced LIGO, include core-collapse of massive stars and the final stage of coalescence of compact stellar remnants. The combined GW signal from such events occurring throughout the Universe will produce an astrophysical GW background (AGB), one that is fundamentally different from the GW background by very early Universe processes. One can classify contributions to the AGB for different classes of sources based on the strength of the GW emissions from the individual sources, their peak emission frequency, emission duration and their event rate density distribution. This article provides an overview of the detectability regimes of the AGB in the context of current and planned gravitational wave observatories. We show that there are two important AGB signal detection regimes, which we define as 'continuous' and 'popcorn noise'. We describe how the 'popcorn noise' AGB regime evolves with observation time and we discuss how this feature distinguishes it from the GW background produced from very early Universe processes. (c) 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.