You did it. You’ve published your first set of sound effect libraries. You’ve bundled your clips together and have them hosted in a popular Web store. You may have even created your own digital storefront.
How can you guarantee your sound bundles will succeed? What can you do to ensure people will purchase your sounds? You may be wondering, how do I sell sound effects successfully?
The second in a three-part series, today’s article introduces a new approach to ensure you share sound well: by distinguishing your sound libraries. We’ll start by thinking of sound libraries differently, then wrap up with concrete suggestions for ensuring sound library success.
Please note: I explore this idea in detail. This article should take you about 16 minutes to read. No time? Click the button below to email the article to yourself to read later.
A New Way of Sharing Sound
Last week’s post introduced an idea: perceive your field recordings as more than just tools needed for projects or for sonic expressions of place and time. Instead, think of the needs of your listeners. That’s not easy to do when you’re sorting out cables or balancing levels, of course. It’s certainly the last thing on one’s mind when scrambling around recording dogs or stomping through mud to find the perfect nighttime jungle ambience location. Just the same, it’s vital to highlight the benefit your sounds provide, maximize the value of the sound library, and solve problems for your fans.
You may notice a pattern. All of the tips in last week’s post are objective. They deal with quantifiable things:
- Helping people save time, money, or build relationships.
- Provide a strong tangible benefit for customers.
- Sharing unique or difficult-to-capture sounds.
- Using sounds to solve problems.
Using those tips will dramatically improve your sound collections. However, to ensure that your bundles are truly successful, one more ingredient must be added: distinguishing your sound libraries.
Different Ideas of Sound Quality
Quite a few people wrote to me after the first post and mentioned that the real reason for weak library sales was poor quality. It was interesting to read their thoughts. One person mentioned that they wished more releases were like corporate sound libraries from The Hollywood Edge. As I read the message – bing! – another email appeared in my inbox. The new writer loved the indie collections and felt the corporate releases were utterly soulless.
Clearly the concept of quality isn’t universal.
After all, someone may crave a greasy breakfast after waking with a nasty hangover. That wouldn’t stack up against the 3-star Michelin restaurant you’d stumble into with a client later that day. But even the most succulent bœuf Wagyu haute cuisine plating wouldn’t convince our migraine-burdened recordist that their sloppy bangers and mash aren’t a slice of heaven. Nor would the best pub grub impress a Fortune 500 C-suite exec.
The point? Quality isn’t something we can universally describe in a single sentence.
From Photography to Field Recording
I’ve been working in audio since around 1996. I started selling sound by 2000. I launched my first independent sound library around 2006.
However, my thinking about sharing field recordings came from elsewhere. Even before I was interested in audio, I was fascinated by photography. I began collecting manual film cameras. Every weekend I would roam Le Vieux-Port in Montréal and take photos of architecture. I explored shooting with different lenses. I spent time experimenting with developing in the darkroom.
I remember clearly when my thinking changed. I had shown a photo to my friends. It was a shot of Montréal’s decaying Redpath sugar refinery. I had stalked the abandoned grounds to find the right angle to capture the colourful rusted metal of the hulking factory against a brooding sky. And with a snap of my Pentax K1000 behind a $300 lens, it had been captured to film.
The next weekend, we all met again. A friend showed his photo. It was a near copy of mine: the same building, the same angle, the same light. No one could tell them apart.
The enjoyment of photography drained from me. I had been happy with the shots I had taken. But really, how good were they if someone else could copy them so easily?
A Challenge for Field Recording
Field recording has the same challenge. It is far too easy for another person to capture the same sound as you. All it takes is a maxed out credit card, an Internet connection, and 30 days, and a new field recordist can get results close enough to most sound libraries. Elite gear is simple to purchase. You can learn enough from blogs and YouTube to get going. 30 days of recording will give you enough trial and error to eventually find success. That’s more than enough to record a gun collection like many on the market.
That’s hyperbole, of course, but you get my point.
This isn’t a challenge unique to field recording. Many arts have the problem of separating tools from creation. But why does it happen with field recording? The answer is vital to understanding why sound library sales sag.
The Impact of Field Recording Gear
This is something that I’d thought about back in 2015, when I wrote the Field Recording Gear Buyer’s Guide. At that time, I was inundated with requests for field recording gear suggestions. I wrote the article so I could escape my email inbox. While that post has become one of the most popular on the site, I had been reluctant to write it. I remain convinced that gear is only marginally important to capturing excellent field recordings. Just the same, most of the emails I receive and the most popular posts are about gear.
In a way, it’s a bit strange. Think of some inspiring creators. Did Ernest Hemingway compare typewriters with his colleagues? Did Shakespeare need to know the right quill or paper to begin writing? I doubt it.
Don’t mistake me. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying or comparing field recording gear. And yes, good gear can indeed capture excellent field recordings. A wax cylinder won’t provide the same sound as a Sennheiser and Sonosax combo.
I’m conflicted myself. I love gear, too. Gear is absolutely necessary. After all, we can’t record digital audio without it. It’s fun. Equipment satisfies the gadget-head in all of us.
Sound Library Risks
I mention gear to make a broader point: for sound libraries, objective qualities invite limited success. After a point, success will expire. Whisper-quiet preamps and broad SNR microphones alone won’t guarantee sound library sales. After all, dozens can buy the same gear as you as simply as a few clicks of a mouse. It’s the same for the subject you choose to record. Anyone can buy a ticket to visit exotic locations. Everyone’s military has a community relations division that can grant access to tanks, jets, and guns.
No objective part of field recording – equipment, fidelity, or subject rarity – is exclusive. They are empirical things that are easily imitated. What’s more, focusing on equipment puts a field recordist at a disadvantage even before they press the red record button. For sound libraries it’s even more challenging. Qualifying a collection by number of files, amount of takes, and total gigabytes is easily outdone by a competitor one-upping your bundle with a few more throwaway clips. Now they have 505 sounds compared to your 475. Does that make their collection better? Of course not. But a numbers-game arms race can convince those who don’t look closely. And that’s reason enough for some publishers to pad their collections.
This means that – with enough time – even the most successful of these sound libraries will be replaced. I suspect few people want to be replaceable. No one wants to be an organic assembly line for audio. Buying expensive gear and going to a remote location has little staying power – even if the sounds themselves are beautiful. There isn’t craftsmanship in that – it only borrows from the beauty of the planet, and omits the creative potential of the field recordist. And to extrapolate further, if all sound effects are recorded this way, they have no future beyond being stock footage.
The point? Focusing on objective qualities makes your sound library vulnerable. And without anything more to it than that, existing sound library sales will be washed away by competition, or slowly drown under a swell of similar sounds.
How to Distinguish Your Sound Effects
So that’s the idea. Let’s put it to work.
Our goal for success? Distinguish your sound library. Craft sound libraries that display value, that embed qualities you – and only you – add to your work. These characteristic, unique, and evocative clips sound different, are used differently, and cannot be copied by anyone else. The result are appealing sound libraries that evade competition, too.
How can you do this?
Ten meters of copper wire is 10 meters of copper wire. No one buying copper wire really cares about the brand. It’s a tool to get the job done.
Now think about a designer watch. Consider the Rolex Submariner. The most popular model, the 124060, is $8k and up. The quality is excellent, however people don’t buy it for the cost of the metal or the rock-solid movements. The appeal of the timepiece is something beyond its objective aspects: aesthetics, social clout, prestige.
That’s how it works for luxury watches. For sound libraries, we want to do the same thing: to convey value beyond just the sound itself – and hopefully your value as well.
Here are four ways:
The easiest way to distinguish your libraries is to provide unique recordings.
This is already fairly common. Some people use unique microphone and recorder combinations. Others capture rare sounds. As we learned earlier, that’s good, but not enough.
Instead, think about what is special about the recordings. Perhaps you recorded sounds in a new way, from a different perspective, with a rare recording technique, or using knowledge about your target that no-one else would know. Maybe they’re processed later using your “secret sauce” plug-in chain. The goal is to include as many unique qualities as possible.
For instance, a Ford Probe car sound library may seem unexciting. However, you’ve driven it for years. You know every rattle and squeak. You’ve rebuilt the engine yourself. There’s a lot of character in that car, and a sound library can be assembled to reflect that.
Use that unique knowledge to highlight that irregular rhythm of the timing belt. Create inspired performances by driving the car with flair in addition to the stock speeds. Push the engine to bring out that painful wail you’ve heard before. Plant a microphone lower in the cabin to capture the clatter of the rickety chassis.
Focus on what you bring to the deal beyond the sound itself. Use that to record differently and highlight special and inspiring sounds. Place value on anything other than the objective qualities:
- A new type of sound.
- A new way of recording.
- What is sonically special about the subject.
Of course, the sounds still have to be useable. So, when sharing sound for sale, it’s best to stay away from truly abstract audio. In general though, the more things that are unique about a sound library, the more successful it will be.
Impact of Uniqueness
- unique performances
- emotional recordings
- unique gear
- unique subject
Adding unique qualities to sound libraries is a good guideline, but it doesn’t share too many specifics.
Let’s dig deeper.
Create Your Imprint
Think of your favourite sound libraries. Why are they high quality?
They’re likely recorded with excellent equipment in high fidelity. Those are objective things, of course. We need more than that.
What these superior sound libraries also likely have is craftsmanship.
Craftsmanship is the most powerful tool you have in giving your sound libraries distinctiveness. These are the techniques you have gathered from painful trial and error to invoke unique performances from the sounds you record. There are two ways to think about this.
First, use your craft to sculpt endless, inspiring sonic variations. A basic metal library would include drops and hits. A superior one would include those as well as unsettling metal moans, sudden steel smashes, or a melodic cacophony of iron debris clattering. How can you do this?
You can focus on the elements of sound: pitch, dynamic, timbre, and duration. You can perform your metal hits inspired by the elements of music: rhythm, meter, pitch, melody, texture, tone colour, form, repetition, contrast, return, and variation (whew!). Or, you can highlight how sound is perceived: pitch, duration, loudness, timbre, texture, and spatial location.
They’re all variations of the same concept: use technical measurements to influence your technique. That thin piece of aluminum may create some interesting wobbles. But can you flex it with different rhythms? Maybe grab it in the middle to change the pitch? Or move while you shake it to change the sound field?
The most powerful field recordings highlight expression. Some of this you provide: think of the unsettling screech of a bowed violin, or of shutting a door meekly, or driving a car aggressively. For other sounds, the trick is to emphasize the emotion that already exists: the soothing swish of beach waves, the brooding grumble of an approaching thunderstorm, and so on.
It’s not easy to think of field recording this way. After all, technical challenges keep us busy in the field. Use these two tools to increase your emotional vocabulary to highlight evocative sounds.
Dr. Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is a great shortcut for inspiring performances. The most intense emotions are at the centre, and the least intense are at the outside. Contrasting emotions are on the other side of the wheel.
It’s easy to highlight emotional performances for living things. Dogs are such expressive pets that it’s easy to capture bored vocalizations, sad whines, and rage-filled barks. You can use it for inanimate things too, though: imagine opening a door in anticipation, shutting it in terror, or it bursting open in surprise.
Want more detail? Check out Dr. Gloria Wilcox’s Feeling Wheel for more subtle emotional differences.
Used together, detailed variations and emotional performances create a unique sonic imprint that only you provide.
Not a planner? No problem. Here are some questions to kickstart considering how to shape distinctive sound libraries:
What’s the appeal?
If you think of your favourite sound library, can you explain why you like it? Highlight those characteristics in your own recordings.
What makes a library distinct?
When you listen to this sound library, would you mistake it for someone else’s work? The best sound libraries are so distinctive that they can be identified blindfolded. It’s similar to recognizing a singer’s unique voice. Nobody could mistake the sound of David Bowie’s singing.
Think about Ansel Adams’s photographic processing, the writing in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Picasso’s synthetic cubism, or even Banksy’s street art. Each of those has a style so unique nothing else comes near it.
For sound libraries it’s similar: the subject chosen, the performances, processing – and most importantly – the style makes those collections unique.
Can you describe your library without the stats?
Can you describe your own work without mentioning the tools you use? What about omitting the subject? What unique craftsmanship do only you provide?
Compare Degas and Monet. If you were to ask them to describe their own work, and how they do it, they would give you vastly different answers. And I imagine neither would mention their tools. Instead, they mention intangible things – ideas, meaning, texture, colour, etc.
Practical Publishing Checklist
Let’s go even simpler. It’s time to write a Web shop description for your latest sound pack. Here’s a practical checklist:
- Do not mention things that can be duplicated: price, number of takes, size in gigabytes, or equipment used (unless it is very rare equipment that conveys a special feature).
- Articulate what is great about the recordings without using the info from the point above.
- Express what you’ve done in a unique way: what’s special about the recording, what the recording experience was like, what the experience will be like using it.
Bonus quick challenges
- Easy challenge: describe your work without using numbers.
- Moderate challenge: only mention the main subject once.
- Difficult challenge: explain something about the sound recording that only you provide.
Just released: Apex Jaguars sound library! Inspired from nearly a decade of visits to South American conservation reserves, our team collected days of recordings inside actual jaguar habitats.
Listen to moody purrs and startling roars to visceral skull bites and chewing. Use the vocalizations as boosters for tense transitions or inspiration for threatening designed creatures.
Captured with the Sanken CUX-100K microphone for full ultrasonic audio resolution.
How to Sell Sound Effects with Distinction
Sharing sound is not just about commerce. There is an opportunity here for creators to make something that distinguishes itself. An opportunity for every field recordist to capture better sound, make field recordings more appealing, and their craft more satisfying – to add a sonic imprint to field recordings and sound libraries. Powerful performances embedded with emotion and filled with variation will amplify the value in your sound libraries, attract your fans, and radiate success. This creativity comes from you alone. It is unique, irreplaceable.
Steve Jobs of Apple once famously said:
We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?
It’s not a coincidence that the “Your Verse” iPad Air advertisement echoes the idea. Featuring Robin Williams‘s iconic monologue from Dead Poets Society, the speech highlights the power of contributing something unique for others.
Can you create field recordings that are appealing beyond merely solving problems? Can you offer distinction? What part of your craft can you contribute?
Solving Sound Problems with Tools and Distinctiveness
Recording sound for your own projects is challenging to do well. Recording for sale is trickier still. The value in sound libraries is difficult to articulate. If people can't quickly or easily see why one library is better or offers more benefit than another they'll default to a cheaper price.
There’s an opportunity to share sound more thoughtfully, by thinking about what a customer needs and solving their problems, all while highlighting the benefits of what you create. That’s important, of course. It creates real value. And it helps. However, there’s a risk at assembling your sound libraries with only this in mind. At best there’s a risk of capturing field recordings that are easily duplicated. At worst, it creates stale field recordings and distracts from creative input. It creates a threat to your success.
It’s vital to think beyond the objective aspects of recording sound: equipment, sound library quantity and size, and even price. In the end, it’s important to share what makes your field recordings special and how you accomplished that, and how a customer benefits from your expression. These are precisely the things you sell to your customers – the subjective traits, the intangible benefits. Of course, you can mention the objective benefits too: quantity, microphone, and so on. But don’t dwell on them. These can be copied, and hanging your product on something that is easily imitated leaves you vulnerable.
Change focus. Create tools to solve problems for customers. Use performance to highlight expression. Share the benefits your work will provide. You’ll evade competition and find more sound sharing success.
Next: 12+ strategies for safe sound library promotions.
- How to Embed Creativity Into Your Field Recordings – Part 1 – Recording
- How to Embed Creativity Into Your Field Recordings – Part 2 – Mastering
- How to Embed Creativity Into Your Field Recordings – Part 3 – Curation
Below are a few articles from the Creative Field Recording membership, a list of carefully curated articles that help you sell sound wisely.
- How to Take Your Sound Effects to the Next Level
- How to Build an Irresistible Sound Library To Evade Competition