Sound effects creation has changed dramatically over the years. So has the way in which effects are packaged and sold. Fragile tapes and LPs that degenerated with repeated plays are relics that have no place in the contemporary television and film production community. Even the CDs that replaced these media are in danger of becoming obsolete. Online delivery systems are in their infancy, but as connections to the Internet become faster and copyright protection schemes progress, they will likely make ground shipping of traditional media unnecessary.
Where exactly are we today, and how are content producers leading us into the next phase of sound effects distribution? We contacted a handful of companies, scoured the Web for downloads and conducted interviews with some key players to get a sense of the state of the industry within an industry.
Most noticeable was the tendency of even the most forward-thinking companies to protect their market share by catering to clients who are comfortable with traditional sales methods. Even those companies that would prefer to offer their libraries solely as downloads to minimize manufacturing costs tend to sell them on CD. DVD, with its greater storage capacity, may be a viable delivery option in the future, but not yet. Think about it. If you owned a 75-disc library, would you invest in DVDs, or bet that the industry will bypass them and go directly from CD to the Internet as the primary transaction medium?
Almost all manufacturers post their libraries, or portions of them, on the Internet as low-quality downloads for clients to audition. In theory, this approach is fine, and it works well for music. If you're looking for the perfect theme for a corporate video, then gathering the client and video producer around a computer that has a pair of speakers plus a subwoofer will allow the principals to sign off on music they can live with throughout the rest of the production. On the other hand, will a production company that has a wall of CDs or a networked jukebox seem more efficient? Studio survival often depends on appearance and “cool” factor — not to mention the need for speed — as much as technique. The Internet has the hip factor, no doubt; the issue of speed is still debatable.
Meanwhile, sound effects previewed as MP3 or Quicktime files, with the associated limited bandwidth, fare less well. I found it difficult at best to draw any distinction between short files, gun shots for example, that were heavily compressed. Assumptions as to the sonic place that a well-recorded brass fanfare will occupy in a film or video are essentially agreed upon. But what space will an effect labeled “car crash” occupy? Miking techniques, for example, are far less universal and are subject to more variables in this domain. No one records a rock ballad in a canyon, but that gunshot you're looking for will sound much different if it has been captured in a vault or the great outdoors. Limited bandwidth squashes out most of the distinction and, in doing so, reduces the effectiveness of the Internet as an auditioning platform.
I was, however, impressed with the speed at which demo clips at the Creative Support Services Website were delivered, so I asked Mike Fuller, a principal of the company, about their system, which offers telephone previews as well as MP3 and Quicktime demos. Fuller says that Quicktime is a newer and more efficient system for delivering audio than MP3, which was designed more than 10 years ago. “CSS Music uses the state-of-the-art QDesign codec, which was designed specifically for music.” Fuller believes that at low bit rates, the QDesign Music Codec offers better sound quality than MP3 and points out the difference between a codec and an architecture.
“Quicktime is basically an architecture, while MP3 is a codec,” he says. “Other codecs include MPEG-3, QDesign Music, IMA and Qualcomm PureVoice. Architectures include Windows Media and Real Audio/Real Video. What this means is that Quicktime can play MP3 files, but MP3 cannot play Quicktime. Quicktime is the Swiss army knife of audio and video. It can support more than 20 popular media formats, including MP3, MIDI, MPEG-4, AVI and Flash.”
Its ability to fold music delivery in with video, animation and scripting interactivity makes Quicktime a clear choice for multimedia use. Music libraries need to be vigilant in protecting their copyrights, and Fuller points out that MP3, as practiced by Napster, for example, has become “the de facto standard for pirates on the Web. On the other hand, Quicktime is backed by a reputable company, Apple Computer, and is supported by such industry leaders as Avid, Macromedia, Digital Origin, Media 100, Adobe and even Microsoft.” Fuller also points out that both the Quicktime architecture and the QDesign codec are royalty-free, whereas MP3 requires a license for commercial use.
THE INTERNET DOES PROVIDE ALTERNATIVES FOR PRODUCTION MUSIC AND MAY PROVIDE SOLUTIONS FOR LAST-MINUTE DEADLINES. BUT IT, TOO, HAS ITS LIMITATIONS, AND BY NO MEANS IS IT A SUBSTITUTE FOR CUSTOMER SERVICE.
— DENNIS PONTILANO, KILLER TRACKS
Most sound effects libraries that advertise their product on the Web — even those that do not offer their products as downloads — let the user choose between downloading a snippet onto their hard drive or using a streaming player such as RealAudio. PDF copies of catalog materials are also routinely available, and they can easily be saved to a folder on a hard drive for easy reference. Also, even if the sounds aren't available for download, the discs may be structured such that they are Web-ready, whether for the producer or the user.
A Stockholm-based company, PowerFX, has a five-CD sound library. Two years ago, Bil Brant, a programmer whose titles include On the Jazz Tip, New World Order 1+2 and several discs for Steinberg and Sonic Foundry, bought into the company. Sounds purchased online from PowerFX go directly into a folder called My Sounds. Using a personal password, the owner can access these effects at any time, from any computer. “It's almost like having your own personal sound FTP site on the Internet,” says Brant.
Another company, F7 Sound and Vision, was scheduled to release a third CD-ROM in its Concept:FX Series at the end of March, bringing its total of royalty-free sounds to more than 1,700. Featuring custom-edgy sounds, sci-fi tracks, drones and ambiences, the library effects are available in both .AIF and .WAV formats.
Sonomic, an effects company founded by the principals of mh2o.com, has emerged as a key online player over the last year. Providing samples and sound effects from a range of partnerships, including those with Doug Beck, Q Up Arts, Numerical Sound, Titus, Electronisounds, CA Sound and Clack Sound Studios, among others. All samples and sound effects, in .WAV and .AIF formats, are royalty-free, so you only pay once. The company also provides a free, personal Soundbay with purchase of effects, so a user can store, organize and access all of their sounds from any Internet-connected computer.
THE 600-POUND GORILLA EFFECT
But no discussion of sound effects libraries would be complete without mention of the two major players, whether they deliver downloads or not.
Sound Ideas, distributor of a vast range of libraries, including the BBC Library, De Wolfe Library (23 CDs), Digiffects SFX Library Complete (113), Drone Archeology, Foley Footsteps, L Squared Sound Effects Library, Metropolis Sci Fi Toolkit, Producers SFX Library, Studio Reference Disc, The Renaissance Library (11 CDs) and countless others, has more than 60,000 available sounds. Individual effects are available for download through the company's partnership with Hollywood editorial house Sound Dogs, at www.sounddogs.com.
Arguably the world's premier sound effects library, Hollywood Edge offers a range of sounds on disc, with the company roots coming out of Soundelux, one of Hollywood's most successful post-production companies. While the 50-disc Premiere Edition remains the company's bread-and-butter, recent signings with niche markets have proven to be a hit. In the past year, the company released, in conjunction with Zoetrope, an Apocalypse Now package. Also, they signed a deal for Sounds of a Different Realm, highlighting work done by the late Alan Splet and his wife Ann Kroeber, for David Lynch. The company also just released Lon Bender's Gadgets. They also distribute many highly specific discs, ranging from sports sounds to car chases to gunshots. From the site, you can audition samples, and the database is available online, but at this time, purchasing sounds as downloads is not available.
NOT QUITE YET…
Not everyone is jumping on the Internet bandwagon. Killer Tracks, the Hollywood jingle house, augmented its business several years ago by offering tracks they own as a library. The company's first sound effects library, Killer FX, a CD collection of more than 20 disks, is being released in 5.1 channel surround. Company spokesman Dennis Pontilano says that Killer Tracks is keeping a watchful eye on the development of the Internet as an outlet for sound effects.
“As DSL lines and fiber optics permeate the market, high-speed Internet access is now more affordable than ever,” he says. “[But] even with a T1 or DSL line, it takes an average of 15 to 30 minutes to download a full-length piece of music. The Internet does provide alternatives for production music and may provide solutions for last-minute deadlines. But it, too, has its limitations, and by no means is it a substitute for customer service.”
Frank Serafine is a well-known and highly respected Hollywood sound designer. His initial library offering, Platinum Sound Series, was released by Ilio Entertainment. SFX Serafine Collections, a 16-disc collection that is being released initially as audio discs only, is being brought to market at this time. One of the discs, Guns of Cinema, underscores the problem of trying to distinguish short sounds using compressed audio files. (Under an agreement with Serafine, a sound designer in Michigan named Ric Viers gained access, through the Detroit Sheriff's Department, to the largest gun vault in the world. “We had access to some very historic weapons,” says Serafine, “including some that hadn't been shot since the 1930s, including Al Capone's personal Tommy gun! One of the CDs is a full history of the guns, and we have the sheriff talking about how inaccurate guns are in the movies!)
“You can't hear the difference between these sounds as MP3 files,” he laments. “That's one of the reasons we have no plans to sell our material on the Web. We gear our products to the professionals like Disney, people who use library material every day and have to have immediate access to it.”
SKIP THE NET, LEARN TO DRIVE
The decline in cost of hard drives has led one company, mSoft Inc., to come up with an alternative delivery solution. Their product line comes on predigitized hard drives, along with database software that allows the user to search and select sounds quickly. “We offer a cutting-edge, technology-based Intranet as well as Internet browser product line,” says CEO Amnon Sarig.
“Instead of trying to be a proprietary system, we wanted to be friendly with all the DAWs on the market, including Pro Tools, Fairlight, and other PC- and Mac-based workstations. Internet technology is the common factor. How?
“I have an Internet server, which I get from Microsoft. It runs on your LAN, and it doesn't care what browser you're using, or whether you're using the sounds within a facility or among multiple facilities. It operates like the Internet. When somebody buys a solution from me, they can pay anywhere from 12 grand to 100 grand. For 12 grand, you get access to the server, an operating system, a computer and our software. For 100 grand, you get a terrabyte of sounds as well. These sounds become available for browsing and downloading to all of your DAWs.”
mSoft Inc.'s strategic partners include Fairlight, Digidesign, Waveframe, DSP and Augan. The company's products also support Soundscape, SADiE, Avid, AMS Neve and others.
For the time being, it seems sound effects will continue to be available on disc and online. Find your favorite search engine and go!
Gary Eskow is a contributing editor to Mix.
SFX LIBRARY CONTACTS
Though you may find many more custom libraries by going through your favorite search engine, here is a short list of some of the major sound effects players to help you get started.
Creative Sound Design
Creative Support Services
Discovery Firm Inc
F7 Sound and Vision
Fresh Music Library
Jonathan Helfand Music
Manhattan Production Music
Music 2 Hues
SFX Serafine Collections