What is the future for sound effects libraries?

For those of you too young to remember, sound effect libraries once came on vinyl. I had the opportunity recently to help archive an old library digitally converted from DAT tapes that had to be edited and saves as wav files. Amongst those sounds were a real mix of vintage recordings and some from the 80s’ and 90’s too. But the real gems were some old recordings of WW2 Spitfires flying low and close. While I have no idea what they were recorded with, the warmth and the feel of the recordings was just amazing. The recordings had vinyl crackle underneath, so I quickly realised these were old recordings.

After Vinyl, the mainstream was CD, DVD, hard drives and then we eventually ended up online, with some of the older methods still around and still popular. In 2004, I started an online digital sound effects library offering downloads and back then I was one of only a handful in operation. It didn’t seem conceivable back then that in just a few short years there would be so many companies doing the same thing. Technology has allowed faster recording with less time spent with cumbersome equipment, and quicker editing with non-destructive DAWs.

Changes to the libraries in the last 5 years

Traditionally sound effects libraries were distributed as packages. Before the Internet allowed us to deliver files into the manny Gigabytes, distributing libraries meant it was cost effective to sell a general library most of the time. CDs and then DVDs made this easier than tape or vinyl, then hard drives could house hundreds of thousands of sounds. But the internet allowed the sale of single sound effects, easily downloaded one at a time and sold for a healthy profit by the library. There is no depletion of of stock as each file licensed is simply a copy of the master.

However even this method is seeing changes. Many people find that paying $5 for a single sound is expensive if they need lots of sounds. But spending $5000 for a general library on hard drive doesn’t work well either as a large percentage of the sounds on the drive never got used. It seems a false economy for some, and others simply can’t afford them.

So we’ve seen the new independent libraries pop up offering themed packs of sound effects for as little as $10 a piece. The great thing about this model is it allows users to buy, for example, a pack of Halloween sounds for their project, or metal impacts, or a certain vehicle, etc. There is less wastage and the files are generally small and cheaper to store online. However it appears from our own user activity, individual sounds are still a desirable way to access sound effects online.

So what’s next?

I was having a conversation with some colleagues recently and we were discussing how the industry will evolve next. Are we entering a settling down period where customers seem happy to choose between individual sounds themed packs or larger general libraries?

One of my friends suggested we may see companies move to a more mainstream subscription based server model that allows instant access to a catalog via on online library, severed like a virtual server in the cloud. This isn’t new, it exists already, but the costs don’t make this accessible to students and beginners so much. With other services springing up, offering desktop apps that allow users to drag and drop sounds into their DAW from the cloud, this is opening up an interesting move forward.

Personally I believe we are heading firmly into the cloud. We are already they you could argue and you’d be right. Companies may be utilising cloud technology, but they are still distributing sounds via a shopping cart method. Maybe we will see this model shift to a subscription model across the board soon?

By Alan