13 Lucky Tips & Tricks for Sound FX Library Categorization


Your sound effects library is overflowing with new tracks. How can you wrangle all your sounds so your fans can find what they need easily and accurately?

Last week’s article shared one idea: organize your field recordings and sound design clips in categories and subcategories. That introduced sound effect categorization, the theory behind sonic grouping, why it matters, and ideas such as nesting, broad and narrow categorization, and two methods for naming your categories.

Today’s post shares quick categorization tips and tricks for classifying your sound effects.

Note: the rest of this month will be dedicated to sound library curation and categorization.

This post will share tips and tricks in two steps:

  • Category naming tips.
  • Organizational tricks.

Category Naming Tips

  1. Name categories simply. Use simple, predictable, and common names for your categories and subcategories. They should use the most recognizable term available. Should you use “Aeroport,” “Aerodrome,” “Airdrome,” or “Terminal?” Skip them all and use simply “Airport”.
  2. Avoid industry trade names. An extension of the previous tip: it’s not a good idea to classify your sounds with terms familiar only to industry insiders. Yes, we all know what “walla” is. Accommodate for the newbies, casuals, and consumer listeners with simpler, more obvious terms.
    One common mistake is to create a category for “Foley.” Step outside the studio and ask anyone what “Foley” is. No one knows. That means the common person who searches (which vastly outnumber the amount of professionals searching) won’t be able to find the sounds properly. Instead, sort those effects by what they are or the action they portray. “Foley/Metal” is better suited to be labeled “Metal/Drop.” “Foley/Cloth Moves,” would be more findable in “Cloth, Clothing/Rustle”.
  3. Use singular terms. Avoid naming your categories using plural terms. So, the best choice is “Door,” not “Doors.” Why?
    It has to do with the way people search, and search engine optimization (SEO). People don’t type the keywords “Download doors sound effects.” Instead, they type “Download door sound effects.” Yes, most of the time they’ll click category links on a site to dig deeper. However, if you have an online store, name your categories to help Google, Bing, and Duck Duck Go drive new fans to your website.
  4. Group similar terms. Avoid category sprawl by grouping similar terms together. For example, dirt, stone, and rocks are similar enough that they serve as their own category: “Dirt, Rock, Stone.”
    This is a helpful way to gather similar “elements”: metal, wood, ice, snow, glass, and others.
  5. Name categories predictably. Using a category with multiple words? Name it predictably by placing words alphabetically. For example, name a category “Dirt, Rock, Stone”. The helps you remember the word order when curating your own sound library.
  6. Name subcategories consistently. Some subcategories appear again and again. Examples include “Drop,” “Crash,” “Creak, Squeak,” “Hit, Impact,” and others. You’ll find those subcategories within many top-level categories such as “Metal,” “Wood,” “Glass,” and others. Name them identically. That’s much better than having a “Hit” subcategory in “Metal,” and an “Impact” subcategory in “Glass.” That helps your fans know what to expect when searching.
    It also helps curating your own sound library, too; consistent names take the guesswork out of remembering how you labeled similar sounds before.
    This strategy also helps with tag linking, too. Some software allows users to click a subcategory tag link to view all other sounds with the same term. So, if you name all your metal and wood crashes “Crash,” clicking that tag link in software will effortlessly display every crash sound in the entire library.
  7. Sort imaginary sounds objectively. Sound fx library categorization is relatively easy when classifying real things. So, a budgie will be placed in a “Bird” category. Times Square will fit nicely in “Ambience/Traffic.” What about magic, horror, fantasy, and science-fiction sound effects?
    After all, one person’s lightning spell is another’s electrical Gauss gun blast. What one person would call a werewolf roar could easily be mistaken for a pit demon’s outrage. What’s the solution?
    Categorize these clips by how they objectively sound. The lightning spell/Gauss gun is a better fit in “Sound Design/Electricity” or “Electricity/Hit” categories. The werewolf/demon is more suitably placed in the “Sound Design/Creatures” or “Creatures/Roar, Shout, Yell” categories.
  8. Be specific. Avoid naming categories and subcategories “Miscellaneous” or “Various.” Those are vague. Also, remember that categories are designed to filter tightly, so terms that nebulous actually aren’t really categories at all. Every sound will fit somewhere. Remember, name categories to match how fans search. They’ll rarely type “miscellaneous” in keyword searches, and “various” isn’t inviting when browsing by category.
  9. Label international sounds with two terms. Use “Italy, Italian” when creating country subcategories for international ambiences. Both keywords help with SEO and return accurate results more easily.
  10. Categorize machinery with detail. Different models of cars, trucks, buses, and more benefit from detailed naming. Avoid naming a transportation subcategory as simply a “van,” for example. Each manufacturer, model, and year has a different sonic voice. Highlight that in the subcategory: “Car/Dodge, Caravan, SE, 1992”. Distinctions can be found in bullet types, dog breeds, ages of people or animals, and much more.

Organizational Tricks

  1. Use two-level categorization. How deeply should you nest your categories? Should your category have subcategories? Should a subcategory have its own subcategories? Here’s a quote from last week’s article:

    Two [levels of categorization] is usually best. Most metadata apps have two fields for categorization: category and subcategory. This makes sense online, too. The rule of Web e-commerce is that customers should find what they want in three clicks. Two-level categorization does the trick: one click for the category, the second for a subcategory, and the third to select the actual sound.

  2. Change subcategories, not categories. It’s better to keep your categories the same and not change them often. Instead, add subcategories when new classifications are needed. Why?
    Naming categories consistently teaches your fans what to expect. If categories are constantly added or changed, users will return to your collection and be immediately lost. Having a fixed, predictable set of categories teaches users how to search, and allows them to make that first decision – the category choice – quickly.
    For example, let’s say you have a “Wood” category. For a long time, your fans searched that category for drops, moves, and other wooden sounds. Later, you add a “Crash” category. That can confuse users: are there some crashes in the Wood category, or are they all in the Crash category?
    The solution? Add a subcategory: “Crash” to “Wood”. Are there remaining metal and glass crashes? Add “Crash” subcategories to the “Metal” and “Glass” categories, too. Skip adding a main “Crash” category; leave all the categories the same.
  3. Create new subcategories for 50+ sounds. When is it time to add a new subcategory? Generally, when you have so many common sounds that it’s either:
    • Cumbersome to browse them: it creates visual clutter or lists become too long to scan.
    • Helpful to your fans to collect them all in once place. This happens when sounds fall under a common theme that fans want to find.

    I create a new subcategory when I have around 50 sounds of one type. Pick your own threshold and stick to it.

Do you have any sound library categorization tips from your curation bible? Share them in the comments below.

Next: deconstructing a sample field recording category tree.

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9 responses to 13 Lucky Tips & Tricks for Sound FX Library Categorization

  1. Justin Macleod 2017/07/05 at 19:11

    Good article as always. I have a couple of questions…again as always.

    Last one first, being as it’s fresh in my mind from reading it.

    You recommend having material categories with crash sub-categories for each. this makes sense because then you can have squeak categories for each too and perhaps splinter/break/hit.

    You advise against having misc or various categories. Again, makes perfect sense. But what would you advise if you have crashes that involve multiple materials?

    You could have crashes that involve wood and glass, wood, glass metal and rocks, rocks and glass etc. It would seem a little cumbersome to have a category for every permutation of materials, especially if there are only really crashes, and not very many of them, that need such treatment.

    Secondly, on the theme of avoiding technical names, how would you recommend categorizing production elements to get round having to use terms like stinger, bumper, chopper etc.

    Thirdly, You recommend using two words when organizing geographically specific sounds. I come from Britain, England and the UK depending whom you ask. What would you say is the most commonly used term for sounds recorded here? Of course, if all my sounds are English, the temptation would be simply to use England and English, but are people more likely to search Britain and British.

    • Great questions, Justin.

      1. I would classify mixed items in whatever material is the most dominant, by sound and note anything else in the sound file name. But, if it becomes too cumbersome, it’s important to do what is best for your users. Rules aren’t useful if they make an editor’s life a hassle. So, if a single crash category is easier for them to use instead of as subcategories, then that’s the best. As an aside, if it is possible, I always try to record materials separately, not combined, since that offers the opportunity to mix them. I realize that’s not always possible, though.
      2. This also depends on who your library is designed for. If your users are most familiar with words like “stinger”, then it’s best to use those names. The flip side to that is that it will have limited use to non-pros. It just depends who will be using your tracks. Given that there are far more sound-interested non-pros unfamiliar with trade names, I personal avoid those terms since that allows for greater accessibility, but again, it depends on your audience.
      3. I would say the best choice is to first use the term that people will be most likely to type or be familiar with when they see it. Failing that, fit in as many terms without being cumbersome.
      • Justin Macleod 2017/07/07 at 05:17

        So if you were designing a production elements library for non pros, what words might you go for rather than the traditional ones as category names?

        Stingers, as I understand the term, and I have seen it used differently depending on who produced the sound library, are compositte sounds involving multiple stages – perhaps a swell, a hit, a chopper and a wash or an ascend augmented by glitches followed by a hit and a power-down. How would you categorise sounds that are meant to achieve the same job but could sound very different in this way and still avoid the technical terms?

        • If you are categorizing for non pros, more intuitive names will have the best success. After all, they won’t know what a stinger or a chopper is; those terms will confuse them. Instead, it’s better to describe the production elements by their dominant tone, objectively (buzz, hum, subsonic, watery, electrical/power), and what they are doing (up-to-hit, pass by, constant drone, hit-to-power down), and add bonus terms (pitch, speed, how the sound evolves).

          a swell, a hit, a chopper and a wash

          Thick, gritty buzz swelling slowly to a hard metallic slam and releasing into a shuddering subsonic accent with an airy wash.

          That could be a possibility for a name.

          For the category, I would suggest putting it into a “Hit, Impact” category with the subcategory being “Buzz” or “Metallic”, whichever the dominant sound is, or what the focus of the clip is.

  2. hi Paul, thanks for a great pair of articles with much food for thought. I wanted to ask a question relating to Part 1 of this “categorization” series but can’t seem to post a comment on the first article.
    Forgive the daftness of this question, but when you say “Once you’ve captured many similar sound effects, it’s helpful to collect them all in one spot. This is done by placing similar clips within a category and subcategory.” Do you mean physically placing the audio files in separate folders based on categorisation, or via the audio file’s meta-data attributes?
    As you can tell, I’m a beginner looking to start sorting my library of field recordings properly and want to figure out best practices. Thanks for all the great articles here, very helpful stuff.

    • Hey Drew,

      Typically the category and subcategory will be applied using metadata apps such as Basehead and Soundminer (I have post coming in a few weeks which describes how to do this). So, it’s most commonly done by assigning metadata. An example could be assigning “Door” to the category metadata field, and “Wood” to the subcategory field in the software.

      Some people prefer to move the actual files around on a hard drive itself, although this less common since the folder choices are not embedded in the sound itself the way metadata is. Anyway, in that case, they would create a folder called “Door,” and a folder within that called “Wood,” then drop the sound file within the “Wood” folder.

  3. Hi Paul!

    Very interesting series for newcomers like me! Especially for those ones not native english speakers, because it’s not easy for us to consider what words to use for identify particular sounds. Yes, i use in my research libraries from other people, and some web resources … btw how do you do your researchs abot what words people use during googling sound fxs? 0_o Most problematic for me to choose “right” words that sound pros and amateurs use on regular basics.

    • Hi Nicolas,

      Thank you very much, I’m glad the post is helpful.

      I research terms in a few ways. The easiest is to use Google to search for terms. For example, I’ll search “auto sound effects” and then “car sound effects.” Whichever has the most hits I’ll use as the category term, since that would suggest it is most common, and what term Web searchers use the most.