How to Protect Sound Library Samples


How to Protect Sound Library Samples - Lock and Key

In a recent article, I explained how to create a sound library preview montage for your pack or sound library. I shared some ideas on the importance of sound previews beyond the basic, literal demo tracks.

But all of this talk about sharing sound online invites another question: if you’ve created a great preview that showcases your best work, doesn’t it put your library at risk?

It’s true. We all know that sample pirating exists. There are ways to rip audio from Flash players, and that includes SoundCloud. It’s easy to find the direct link to your preview and download it from your website. Once your library is digitized and online, there is a risk it may be stolen. It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.

How can you offer your best work online, and protect it?

There are three ways to deal with sample theft. I’ll explain each in this article.

Avoiding Sample Theft

Here are three common ways Web shops avoid sample theft.

  1. Watermarking
  2. This term originates from the method of marking sheaves of paper with an invisible logo that can only be seen when they are held to the light.

    In the audio world, watermarking places a second sample beneath the preview. It could be a music track, beeps, or dialogue (“my sound website dot com”). Whatever the choice, it is known as the “watermark” that covers the sample.

    I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get watermarks to work well, and it is indeed possible. There are some automated methods, but it’s easy to do this yourself, too. With a bit of time and a multitrack editing app, you can cut in and render your own watermarked previews. It’s just a matter of:

    1. Arranging the original file on the first track.
    2. Editing a watermark sporadically beneath it on the second track.
    3. Setting the level of the watermark appropriately.
    4. Exporting them both, mixed together as a single, watermarked sound.


    Despite that, it’s tricky watermarking previews correctly. Here are some tips:

    • It’s better if watermarks appear at random times, instead in a rhythm. That prevents extraction. It shouldn’t be too wildly random, though.
    • The watermark must be discreet, and sporadic. Why not just layer music throughout the entire duration? Well, constant music on the track overwhelms the sound effects they’re paired with.
    • Balance the watermark so that it does not overwhelm the sound effect. It should merely be a presence. Since sound effects swell and dip, this may mean you’ll have to change the gain of each watermark, one by one.


    Watermarking works, but there are drawbacks. It’s often distracting. Most of the time it isn’t mixed well, and the watermark dominates the sample. The result? No one knows what they’re listening to, and won’t buy the sound. It’s also confusing on a subconscious level: is the ear attracted to the music watermark, or the sound effect?

    Here is a sound effect sample with an audio watermark. Listen how the audio dips slightly during the watermark. This ensures the watermark is embedded, but the principle sound remains. It’s just quieter.

    And here’s an example with music. The dips are a bit more apparent.

  3. Reduce Sample Quality
  4. Another option is to diminish sampling rates or bit depths. This presents low quality sounds in your preview. Common examples reduce the sound to 32 kHz, or 8-bit clips.

    That certainly makes the preview unattractive to sample pirates. It also makes it unattractive to fans as well. Low res previews are confusing, too: clips can sound fuzzy or indistinct, or misrepresent the final track.

    How bad does it get? Here’s a jet fighter sound in a number of resolutions, in both WAV and MP3. Listen carefully for loss in dynamic, or the aliasing or “slushiness” that occurs at lower resoltuions.

  5. Crafted Previews
  6. I explained this method in an earlier post. Crafted previews carefully select and present the audio in a pack or series. The clips to convey meaning, emotional impact, and represent your library and your brand. But how does this protect your work?

    Crafted previews protect your library because they use only portions of a whole track, not the entire duration. Also, they’re typically limited to two minutes in order to be attractive. That means that they risk only a selection of clips, not the entire catalog of a bundle or library. Also, the checkerboarding technique I described overlaps samples in an unobtrusive, and even appealing way. These blended clips aren’t useful to sample pirates. Crafted previews are also useful because you can use full resolution library samples without worry.

Your Choice

Which do you choose?

I’d not recommend reducing sample quality. Yes, it protects your library well, but the cost is too great.

Watermarking is a quite good when done correctly. It’s easy to overwhelm a track with a watermark, though. Watermarks must be discreet, and tactfully placed. It’s important to realize that excessive watermarking or diminished sample quality does more harm to sound effects than the protection they offer.

Right now I’m a fan of crafted previews. Why? They protect your work with an added bonus: they convey more meaning than the audio itself.

Beyond whichever method you choose, it’s important to alter your perspective as well. Spending energy and time worrying about theft doesn’t pay off. It undercuts your creative process. It steals time away from doing meaningful work.

I’m not saying you give your work away. Your contributions are valuable. They should be recognized, and rewarded. They must be protected. Just make sure that you spend your time and creativity in the areas they are most needed. This isn’t when slaving for hours tweaking watermarks. Instead, it’s best used doing what you’re meant to do: recording remarkable audio, and sharing it with the world.

Photo courtesy of xserve.

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