Adam A. Johnson from SFXsource.com got in touch to ask how much we enjoy searching through 1000’s of sound effects to find that one gem. “Not much” we admitted, “It’s probably down to the libraries you’re searching,” he said. So we suggested that as an owner of a sound effects library, perhaps he’d like to share his insider knowledge with DN instead of asking us cryptic questions.
Hi filmmakers. I’m a composer and sound designer and must say I’ve rarely met another group as passionate about their craft as you are. Personally, I’ve never been inspired in the least to make a film but sincerely admire those who do. Frankly, all I care about aside from family, friends, and the general state of the world, is sound. And, through the years not only have I loved sound and sound effects, but I’ve come to care about the quality of sound. So the quality of sound and most specifically the quality of sound effects libraries that many of you frequent to find audio for your films is a topic close to my heart.
So with that in mind, here are some quick tips to make your search for sound effects efficient and productive. Currently, there are dozens of online sound libraries that offer a huge selection of royalty free sound effects you can license cheap and download for use. So, how to you go about figuring out which library is best for your purposes? If you’re serious about your work, and I assume you are, and you want quality sound, as I assume you do, then look out for the following characteristics of a sound library: category structure, quality, and redundancy.
In terms of structure, you want a site that has at least 100 categories and sub-categories of sounds, not 10 or 12. Why? Because your time is valuable and if a site offers 20,000 “sound design” sound effects in a “sound design” category, then you are going to be sifting through hundreds of drones, impacts, hits, etc. when all you really want is a killer whoosh. There are potentially thousands of categories of sound effects and sites that lump them all together without regard for their users’ time are a waste of time. Personally, over at my sound effects and royalty free music site SFXsource.com, we have undergone the rather agonizing but ultimately satisfying process of assigning all 100,000 plus of our sounds into 645 separate sub-categories. This process has taken hundreds of hours, but results in a very efficient user experience. In other words, it’s quick and easy to get to the niche sound you’re seeking.
Quality is an obvious element to pay attention to, in terms of format and the site’s contributors. It is obviously better to go with a site that offers various formats such as 48k aiffs/wavs, 44.1 wavs, and high res mp3s over a site that only has mp3s. Mp3s, of course, are compressed files and their sonic quality is not fit for a film. That’s why ‘free sound effects’ sites often don’t work for serious filmmakers, because they generally only offer mp3s. Furthermore, look at the type of contributors. I’ve noticed over the last five years that larger sound libraries have split into two camps: professional and ‘user-generated’. The contributors to a professional sound effects library are working professional sound designers whose sfx have come as a result from their work on Hollywood films and major indie releases. They are skilled, trained, have pro equipment, and know how to capture and design excellent sound effects. In addition, libraries that host professional sound effects always vet the sounds for quality.
On the other hand, while ‘user-generated’ sites are fun, good for quick youtube films, and give sound designers starting out a chance to distribute their newly found craft, they are not a place for serious filmmakers. User-generated sites grow from creating a sort of social community for new sound designers and rely on huge amounts of un-vetted sounds to attract visitors. It’s sort of like a garage sale of audio. Anyone and everyone can create an account and upload whatever they like. Sites like these are fun and impressive in the amount of traffic they garner, but inefficient for a filmmaker looking for quality audio. In addition, they’re often not any cheaper than professional sites, i.e. $2-$5 per sound.
Finally, redundancy can be a problem with sound effects libraries. Do you really need to preview 897 thunder sounds to find the right one? As I mentioned before, quality sound libraries vet the product before making it available to the user so the time has already been invested on their end. No need to spend an entire hour looking for a good solid thunder clap because the products made available are all good. In other words, beware of sites that are overstuffed with hundreds of instances of a single type of sound.
There are many great sound libraries out there, and in fact the business is rather incestuous so you’ll find many of the same sounds on different sites. The choice then comes down to each library’s sound organization, format offerings and selection.