During the last two articles we explored explored a theme: is it possible to be inspired when shackled to the technical demands of gathering sound effects? The first week’s post suggested there is potential to be creative when using highly sophisticated equipment in the field. The last article shared ways to inject creativity within the rigid requirements of mastering sound effects. That gives hope to creative professionals who need to collect audio and slice sound with uncompromising accuracy.
Is the same true for one of the final stages of sound effect sharing: sound clip curation? The final post in this series will explore that answer, and share ideas for presenting exceptional field recordings and mastered clips to your listeners.
What is Sound Effects Curation?
What is sound effects curation? Curating sound effects involves:
- Naming sound clips.
- Adding metadata to sound effects.
- Organizing field recordings on hard drives.
- Presenting all this work in a way that makes every clip easy to find, audition, and use.
Why bother curating sound effects? Well, if a field recording can’t be found, it won’t be used. That means there’s no point to recording it in the first place. After all, even a spectacular field recording of the most rare sound on the planet is worthless if it is hidden in the corner of a hard drive. That’s why the final step of a field recording is sharing it with others. For this reason, curation is absolutely vital.
So, curation is the process of organizing and presenting exceptional field recordings so they can be discovered and enjoyed.
Just like mastering, curation can be broken into two tiers:
- Precise sound fx curation. Labelling a sound as accurately as possible to help pros find a perfect, single clip.
- Characteristic sound fx curation. Guiding sound discovery so pros can make inspired selections.
Note: Like every other step of field recording, curation depends on its audience. Sound effects are not only shared in sound libraries or sourced from a network drive. They can appear on sound sharing sites (e.g., Soundcloud), or on forums. Tweak these ideas for your own audience.
How to Curate Precise Sound FX
Last week we learned that it becomes trickier to be creative the closer field recordings come being shared. Gathering exceptional sound effects is challenging. Cultivating inspiring sound clips while mastering is even harder. Curating sound has even less wiggle room. Why?
Well, a lot of sound fx curation has to do with labeling or organizing. Either a sound is a cat or it isn’t. Is it meowing, or drinking? Does that track belong in the Animals category, or Nature? Was it recorded in Alexandria or Anaheim?
Why are these things important? Because part of curation is involved with finding sound effects. So, it’s important that search results are accurate. If we’re looking for a cat, we don’t want to find a kettle whistle instead.
Start by creating a general name: cat. Then, add as much specific information as you can. What is the breed? How old is the cat? Is it male or female? The best, precisely curated sound clips answer this question: how is this sound effect different from any other? How is this cat different from the next feline waiting to enter the studio?
What about the cat’s behaviour? Saying it is meowing is not enough. Add specifics: duration, pitch, volume, character (e.g., scratchy or thin), and more. Research your subjects extensively. Precise details help sound pros select the best clips quickly and accurately.
How to Curate Characteristic Sound FX
If curation is meant to guide sound effect discovery, accuracy is clearly incredibly important, right?
That’s correct. Introducing listeners to inappropriate sounds doesn’t help them.
So, is it even relevant for sound librarians to curate collections creatively? Is it possible to blend accuracy and creativity?
Yes. While sound file discovery has to be accurate, there is room to be creative in the way sound effects are presented. How?
Making Inspired Selections
Imagine you’re in a museum. It’s divided into different collections: antiquities, sculptures, paintings, and so on. So, each type of art is gathered in its proper room. The Goya paintings are in one room, and the Delacroix are in different gallery. You won’t want the Spanish paintings mixed with the French ones, of course. If you want to find French paintings, you go to the proper place: the French wing in the museum. There’s a lot of room within that scope, though. Maybe the museum curator arranges two contemporary painters’ work beside each other. Perhaps an important evolution of style is presented in a single room.
It’s the same with sound effects curation. You want users to find rock drops when they search for them. But, within those search results there is a lot of latitude in the way they can be presented.
Why bother? Well, sound professionals are creative. Given the choice, they will select more interestingly presented sounds than dull ones. That means they’ll skip over “Rock drop 01” for something presented more compellingly, perhaps “Rock smashing on granite with debris chips swirling away.”
The best curated clips carry something captured on location: emotion. Those “angry” or “surprising” race car field recordings make it easy enhance curated sound clips, later. Those emotional keywords from the Feeling Wheel help sound pros greatly. They select sounds based on emotion. Imagine searching for the perfect door yank for a feature film chase scene. The door tracks labelled “anxious,” “tense,” or “frantic” will be the first sound fx pros try from a list of dozens.
This is how creative curation can help. Here are two ideas for accomplishing inspired curation:
- Blending information.
Creative mastering techs pull out the distinctive elements and highlight them. With mastering, this is done with audio. With curation, this is done with text.
We saw how sound clips curated with precise names help pros find what they want more successfully. Build upon this by curating with active verbs (e.g., “metal bash” vs. “pounding metal” or “metal being hit”), rich adjectives (e.g., a “resonant” metal hit), and colourful adverbs (e.g., a “colossal” metal anvil).
Start by applying this to a sound’s file name. Curating with this idea in mind helps when writing metadata, too (e.g., description, or track title fields).
- Five Reasons Why A Sound Effect’s Name is Vital.
- 15 Tips for Naming Sound Effects.
- The 7 Commandments of Sound FX Metadata.
Keywords and tags are another great way to practice creative sound fx curation. How?
Well, primary metadata fields like file name, description, category, and so on require accuracy. They can accommodate a bit of creativity, as we discovered.
There’s even more flexibility with single-term tags and keywords. These fields aren’t as closely tied to the identity of a sound as its name is, for example. So, a skilled sound librarian can slip golden terms into these fields to help pros find delightful, unexpected sounds when they least expect them. Those incidental discoveries are a great way to help spark a sound pro’s creativity.
This can often happen when two unusual elements combine. Imagine a sound pro is looking for a booming castle door slam. They can’t find a door with the proper heft. Then, they find a few surprising sound fx at the bottom of their search results: a thunder clap, some kick drum hits, and so on. Those clips, when processed well, can easily slip behind a castle door to add the weight the scene requires. How did these strange sounds appear in a search for castle doors?
The sound librarian had the insight to know that kick drums and thunder are often used as sweeteners for other sound effects. They can be blended with a weaker door close to make them seem bigger, and “sweeten” them. So, they added “slam,” and “boom” to the keywords. Those words didn’t appear in the primary thunder and drum name and description; they’re just tucked away in the keywords field. But it was enough to appear in a related search just when a sound pro needed them.
This idea of blending information allows sound pros to be motivated by juxtaposed sounds, and accommodate for inspired selections.
So, what is the difference between precise and characteristic sound fx?
Curate precise clips so they can be found. Focus on accuracy. Curate characteristic clips so pros will be inspired, and make wise choices that are best for them.
The Arc of Sound Recording Beyond the Studio
Capturing sound effects beyond the studio is only a small part a field recording’s lifespan. For a sound clip to achieve its full creative expression, it must be cleaned, found, and shared. So, the challenge for field recordists to remain creative persists in the edit suite when mastering, too. To reach its full potential, a sound must be shared with wise curation, as well. These three crafts are the trinity of sound library perfection: performance (field recording), presentation (mastering), and understanding (curation). None of these can be neglected; they are a complete expression of a sound recording.
Right now field recording, sound fx mastering, and sound library curation are mostly technical crafts. That makes sense. Sound must be captured, polished, and presented accurately using sophisticated equipment. However, there is a great opportunity for the craft of sound effects recording to grow by using creativity to inspire the people that gather and use these sounds. There’s another reason, too: there is always a risk of falling into a trap of recording sound in only a purely technical manner. That abandons the inspirational audio that first made us step outside our studios to begin field recording in the wild.
The upshot of the series is this: fulfill the technical basics first, but don’t stop there. Expand your craft to focus on gathering more distinctive performances. Yes, capture the typical sound clips. But always aim to ensnare and share distinctive sound. This adds character, personality, and nuance to your work. It takes your craft beyond “sufficient” sound effects. These clips with “personality” are vital for two reasons. They graft power and expression onto clinical field recordings. They fuse remarkable performances and insightful interpretations into sound itself. The result?
Your compulsion to capture sound beyond the studio becomes embedded in your field recordings. It emerges when the sounds are polished, and unfolds for anyone who finds them. The best part? No matter how many times the sounds you craft are unearthed, that will be there, locked within you field recordings: an inspiring imprint, unique to you.