Finders Keepers

Managing a large sound-effects collection can be a lot of work, but with the proper preparation and organization, you can save yourself a lot of time and aggravation. We’ll show you how to get your personal studio in order and create an efficient and manageable sound-effects library.
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Whether they're working in film, television, video games, the Web,or electronic music, audio post-production professionals inevitablyfind themselves surrounded by a huge stockpile of sound effects. Afteryou've been working with sound effects a while, your collection offield recordings, commercial sound-effects libraries, and processedsounds can easily grow to encompass tens of thousands of files.

Managing that much information in a way that lets you access theappropriate sounds when you need them can quickly become overwhelming.Fortunately, there are techniques to help tame the clutter and keepyour precious sounds just a couple of mouse clicks away at alltimes.


The first step in building a sound effects library is, of course,collecting a wealth of material, and the most important tool in thatendeavor is a field recording system. A portable DAT (or MiniDisc)recorder combined with a stereo microphone can make a compact andaffordable rig. A simple, portable system is easy to take on vacationsand trips to exotic locales. Bowling alleys, old office buildings,freeway overpasses, the jungles of Burma, or the local welding shop areequally beautiful from the microphone's perspective. (For more onrecording nature sounds, see “Going Wild” on p. 50.)

I began my library by taking my field recorder with me everywhereand simply experimenting. I quickly discovered that the ever-presenthum of highway traffic and airplane noise during the day meant thatlate nights were typically better for exterior recordings.

Within buildings and factories, adopting the proper attitude is thekey to getting great recordings. If you walk around looking like you'resupposed to be there, people rarely question you. I've gotten terrificrecordings of elevator relays booming thunderously in elevator shafts;huge, reverberant doors opening and closing in turn-of-the-centurygranite hallways; and dry, clinical office ambiences.

Field recording requires organization and patience. Always mark yourtapes and tape boxes clearly, then capture the best material to yourhard drive when you're back in the studio and the recording trip isstill clear in your mind. Edit the recordings to keep only the mostinteresting takes, and cut out most of the dead air between the soundsyou want to keep.


A great time to gather material for your library is while gettingpaid for it. Every time I finish a new project, I cull through therecordings that I made to find permanent additions for my library. Forexample, I worked on a film called CQ, which takes place in late'60s swinging Paris. I recorded Foley artist Les Bloome manipulatingall sorts of thrift-shop junk to reproduce clunky contraptions that fitthe era. Once the film was complete, I sifted through the audio-filefolders of my Digidesign Pro Tools sessions from the film and grabbedthe most interesting stuff for future use. Remember that you will berevisiting your recordings repeatedly throughout your career, so thetighter and better organized you make them now, the less trouble you'llhave later.

When recording ambient backgrounds, I like to capture five to tenminutes in the field and keep the best three minutes or so. Whenrecording specific events, such as door slams, I typically record adozen and keep about half of them. I then concatenate those six doorcloses into a single file, with about two seconds of silence after eachslam. Rather than having a slew of files named Bathroom Door Close1.aif, Bathroom Door Close 2.aif, and so forth, I end up with a singlefile named Bathroom Door Closes.aif. That keeps the visual clutter downwhen I'm looking for sounds later on.


It has been my experience that the most satisfying and interestingsound effects are the ones that you create yourself. However, there aresituations and types of sounds that are impossible or impractical torecord, such as explosions, car accidents, and cockpit-perspective jettakeoffs. In addition, having a well-rounded general library of effectsis the bedrock of post-production work. It is therefore not a bad ideato purchase a few off-the-shelf sound-effects libraries. The two mainroyalty-free sound-effects CD-publishing houses in North America areSound Ideas ( and Hollywood Edge (

Both of these companies offer general-purpose sound libraries, suchas the Sound Ideas 6000 series, as well as more specific sets, such asthe Hollywood Edge Explosions for the 21st Century library.These libraries can be rather pricey, but look for deals and plan onbuying one or two per year. I always wait for a project to come alongthat needs specific sounds a particular library has to offer; then Imake the purchase.

I use BIAS Peak to transfer commercial sound-effects CDs onto myhard drive. Keep in mind that the copyright for these sound files isheld by the CD publisher, and using libraries that you haven'tpurchased is prohibited. According to Sound Ideas, you can rip filesfrom their CDs and use them from your hard drive as long as you own theCDs and have them in your possession. For further information on thissubject, please refer to the company Web sites.


Now that 40 GB hard drives have replaced stickers as the toysurprise in boxes of Cracker Jacks, it makes sense to keep your entiresound library readily available at all times. Materials scatteredacross DAT tapes, audio CDs, Zip disks, and various other sourcesshould all be gathered together into a single hard-driverepository.

It has been my experience that many compatibility issues areresolved by deciding on a single file format, then batch-converting allyour effects to the target format. For years I used the Pro Tools— compatible format of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz, Sound Designer II monoand split stereo (separate files for the left and right side of astereo field). Sound Designer II has become a legacy format, though, asAIFF and Broadcast WAV have become the dominant cross-platform standardformats. Because of that, I have switched over to 16-bit, 44.1 kHz monoor stereo-interleaved AIFF files.

Over the past year, many of my newer sound effects have beenrecorded at 24-bit resolution. There are numerous programs you can useto batch-process your sound files to get them into a common format.Sonic Foundry Sound Forge is an excellent choice on the PC; on the Mac,Audio Ease BarbaBatch and Norman Franke's freeware SoundApp can handlethe job.


So now you have a haystack of sound files, all nicely formatted to acommon file standard. The next task is to organize them into manageablegroupings. Fortunately, humans already have a lot of practice at thistask. Nature has given us a terrific method for sifting through theincredible amount of information that fills our heads on a daily basis:categorization.

We think by organizing all of our incoming information and memoriesinto categories, so it makes sense to organize the data in oursound-effects collection into categories that are meaningful to us (seeFig. 1). The organizational schema can be individual andpersonal, although there are some pretty obvious general categories,such as ambiences, vehicles, water, and wind.

If you work within a group of designers who must all access the samedata, the categories should be generally agreed upon. Furthermore, somecategories, like water, can be further broken down into rather largesubcategories, such as drips, pours, splashes, and waterfalls. Furthersubdividing the sounds into sub-subcategories generally gets tooinvolved for my taste. I've found that dividing a library into between25 and 75 categories, with 3 to 8 subcategories for the broadercategories that need them, works pretty well.


Coming up with an effective system for naming all your files andsticking to that system is the key to organizing and maintaining yourlibrary. File names should have a clear and concise description of thefile's content, a reference to the sound's source, and in many cases, ashort category abbreviation. Special attention must be paid to theprefix or beginning section of the file names; that will determine howthe files are viewed when listed in alphabetical order. When dealingwith a Pro Tools session with 600 files in the region bin, attention tothe prefix and naming convention can really save a lot of time andtrouble.

I use the source-description-suffix format in my home studio. Filenames look like this: 6014.07 Med Crwd Convention.aif. The prefixrefers to the Sound Ideas 6000 series, disc 14, track 7. I like thissystem because I know my library well, and I'm used to seeing it inthat format. It's easy for me to see the location from which aparticular file originated, and the visual clutter is kept to aminimum.

Another format that I really like iscategory-description-source-suffix. It puts a three- or four-lettercategory indicator at the beginning of the file; for example, MOTR SmServo Windup NP05.aif would be a recording of a small servo motorincreasing in pitch, from volume 5 of my personal library. Thisapproach offers the benefit of automatically grouping files intocategories when alphabetized, making it a real winner.


I often select material by simply browsing through my hard drives inthe Mac Finder or searching by file name using Apple's Sherlockutility. I then audition files in SoundApp and copy the sounds into myproject (see Fig. 2). That approach can eventually becomeunwieldy, though, particularly if you start adding commercialsound-effects libraries to your collection. At that point, you shouldconsider using a database.

If looking through your hard drive's folders is the equivalent ofbrowsing a library's bookshelves, then using a sound-effects databaseis the equivalent of searching the library's card catalog. A databaselets you find multiple audio files that meet specific criteria,audition the sounds, decide which ones you want to use, and copy themto a particular work folder. That sounds like a great way to work, andit is. However, like creating a card catalog, it's a large and tediousundertaking, demanding attention to detail and long hours at thecomputer. The payoff, though, is a sleek and efficient way to searchthrough your data, and it can save untold hours in the post-productionprocess.


My sound-effects library became large enough to warrant a databaseabout four years ago. I couldn't find any affordable solutions for aone-man production house, so I decided to roll my own (see Fig.3). I began by determining which fields, or data elements, for eachsound effect were important to me: a unique identifier, a description,a category, whether the file was mono or stereo, and a path to thephysical file location on the hard drive. I wanted to be able to searchfor a number of sound effects, to be able to audition the filesdirectly within the database, and to then tag the files that I wantedto use. Finally, I wanted to be able to click a button to copy all thetagged files into a Pro Tools file folder for use in a session.

To make that happen, I needed three tools to work together. For thedatabase, I used FileMaker's FileMaker Pro, an easy-to-usecross-platform database that is commonly used in homes and smallbusinesses. For the sound playback/auditioning application, I usedSoundApp. And to connect the two applications and handle file copyinginto my Pro Tools session, I used AppleScript, Apple's scriptinglanguage for interapplication communication and control.

Designing and implementing the FileMaker Pro database was quick andstraightforward. The intuitive layout tools allowed me to get the coredatabase working within a couple of hours. Next I had to fill in thedatabase. Entering the information for my personal sound effects took afew months of tedious data entry, which I did in fits and startsbetween projects. Fortunately, the commercial sound-effects librarieswere much easier. Both Sound Ideas and Hollywood Edge have databases inFileMaker format for all of their libraries. Adding their material wassimply a matter of exporting the appropriate fields and records fromtheir databases and importing the information into my own database.

The next phase of the project involved connecting information aboutthe files on the hard drive to the database itself, so I could auditionand copy files from within the database. That part of the project tooka lot of programming and experimentation, but I eventually got it towork. I started by renaming all the commercial sound effects files fromTrack 1 (Peak's default track-naming scheme when extracting files) tosomething like 6016.25 FS Lthr Gravel.aif.

I did it by writing an application in Macromedia Director that tooka text list of file descriptions from the database, then manipulatedthe text into the file-naming convention I wanted. The ID(“6016.25”) came from the original CD volume and trackinformation. The description “FS Lthr Gravel” came from theoriginal database description entry (“footsteps, leather ongravel”). The tricky part was coming up with a routine to parsethe description, replacing common words with abbreviations (forexample, “footsteps” to “FS”). Finally, theprogram took the revised list of file names, renamed the appropriatefiles automatically, then spit out a list of the new file names that Icould import back into the database, connecting the descriptions to thephysical files on the hard drive. Phew!

Now that sound-effects records in the database contained informationabout the file names and location of their corresponding files on thehard drive, the last task was to put that information to work, allowingme to audition and copy the files from the database. I am far frombeing an expert AppleScript programmer, but with a book and somepointers from AppleScript ace Larry the O, I was able to get the jobdone (see Fig. 4).

Auditioning sounds involved opening the selected sound file inSoundApp, which automatically played it back. Copying selected filesinto my Pro Tools session involved popping up a dialog box to selectthe target folder, then telling the Finder to copy into that folder allthe items in the database that had been marked for copying.

Developing the database was tedious and, at times, difficult. But itworks flawlessly, is quite stable, and does what I need it to.Unfortunately, Pro Tools does not support an in-depth AppleScriptimplementation, so I am unable to actually import sounds directly intoa Pro Tools session. A future work-around would be to figure out how todrag and drop the sound files onto the Pro Tools icon via AppleScript,which would then import them directly into the session.


If you feel that your library is large enough to need a database butyou don't have the time or inclination to create one yourself,commercial solutions are available. My favorite is Soundminer'sSoundminer ($895; Soundminer was developed bysound designers at a Canadian audio-post facility. They originallydeveloped it for their own needs then decided to enhance it and turn itinto a commercial product. They have succeeded admirably, creating aclever and easy-to-use piece of software (see Fig. 5).

Soundminer's data-entry system is rather simple: dropping folders ofsound files into the browser window adds them to your library. You canthen add description information by typing, by searching and replacingtext using their command-line interface, or by importing tab-delimitedtext data.

Soundminer lets you audition sound files directly within theapplication and displays the waveform visually. You can select regionsof a sound file, then copy just those regions directly into your ProTools, MOTU Digital Performer, or Emagic Logic session. You canvarispeed the files and even apply VST plug-ins to them before sendingthem to your DAW. And Soundminer allows you to customize the colorscheme of its browser window, making it as hideous and unreadable asyou can possibly tolerate. The included CD-ripping software provideslibrary descriptions for most major commercial sound-effects libraries,which makes adding them to your system quite easy.

Soundminer is not without its flaws. It is powerful but has notreached full maturity; it still has some rough edges and missingfeatures. It's great for searching for specific items, but not as goodfor browsing around. Though it was written for the Mac, it doesn't havea very Mac-oriented user interface, and it relies more on command-linetyping than on selection devices such as pop-up menus. However, it isstill early in the product's development, and I would assume thatcomments from users will encourage improvement and refinement. An OS Xversion has been released, and a server package ($995) allows multipleusers to access the same online libraries with database administrationroutines to handle passwords, permissions, and so forth.


The larger your pile of information, the more worthless it becomeswithout good organization. Creating a library of your sounds requiresplanning, forethought, and patience. It is a project that is nevercompleted, but grows with your library. While the implementation maynot be as immediately gratifying as creating sounds or spotting effectsto picture, the results of your effort can pay off handsomely withgreatly enhanced productivity and creativity.

Nick Peckis Sound Supervisor at LucasArts Entertainment.His Hammond organ soul-jazz quartet gigs around the San Francisco BayArea. E-mail him at