It happens when you least expect it - you suddenly realize you need some sound effects for your project but you have no budget. Now what?
Many many people are looking for sound effects for free and if you just Google "free sound effects", that would bring up tens of millions of hits. However, you'd have no idea which were useful, let alone legal. The pirate sites are off limits so you need a way to sift through all the free sound effects downloads to find those that fit your budget and criteria. Free sound effects are out there, but it's important to find the ones that are truly free, of good quality and meet the needs of your project, all at the same time.
Videomaker has always had "Free Sound Effects" links on our website, and recently we've added our own collection of clean, clear and professionally produced sound effects library for our readers. Check out our free download page.
Out to Sea
Searching for free sound effects is the same as any other Internet search - knowing something about the topic and tools helps narrow the search. Just for fun, we did a simple Google search using the phrase "free sound effects". Google returned over 35-million results, including some real gems buried in a giant pile of junk. Sifting through that many results is impossible, but Google has some advanced search capabilities that can simplify and narrow your search for sound effects downloads. By simply inserting commas between the words in our search, we cut the results in half.
Another technique is to surround one or more search phrases in quotes like this: "free sound effects". This tells the search engine to find only those sites that include the exact phrase in quotes. As you're searching, you may find certain sites keep showing up that have nothing to do with your results. For instance, maybe your search results include many YouTube videos. Those aren't going to help, so add the word 'YouTube' to your search criteria, but insert a minus symbol in front: -YouTube. This tells Google to ignore any search results that include YouTube. You can use this for any word or words you'd like to omit. Just separate individual words with a comma.
If you're looking for specific sound effects, include those words in your search. Sound effects libraries are often broken into general categories like machinery, people, environmental, nature, guns, animals, etc. Starting with basic categories can narrow your search but, if you have a certain sound in mind, add that too. All this search shorthand might seem a little much, so if you prefer a less cryptic interface, Google has an advanced search page that offers these tools in a simple fill-in-the-blanks form. Try shuffling the words around for different search results.
It's Legal... Or Is It?
There are several websites that offer free sound effects downloads. The sounds are sorted by category and most provide a basic player for preview. A search tool is usually provided too. Virtually all of these sites claim free or royalty-free sound effects, but how can you be sure? Honestly, you can't - you just have to take their word for it. There is no documentation on the origin of the sound effects - whether they were created for the website or collected from various libraries. Smart Internet shopping is just as important here as anywhere. Steer clear of any sites that require your contact or credit card information "for confirmation". An email address and password should be plenty. You'll also find several websites that offer a master collection, available for a small fee or "Free! Just pay shipping and handling". We have no reason to think there is anything wrong with these offers, and there are many on the Internet. It's worth considering, but buyer beware.
There are a few sound effects download sites that specialize in short musical stingers, like the classic indicator of trouble, the "dun, dun, dun" sound effect. Where did these come from? Were they lifted from a movie? Is that movie public domain? In the grand scheme of things, it may be impossible to identify one specific sound effect as copyrighted when compared to a dozen sound-alikes. The fact that you have to ask the question is part of the price you pay for "free".
As an alternative, consider the granddaddy of free sound effects sites, the Freesound Project. This site is populated by users who record and share their sound effects. The interface is a little sparse, but you can search through thousands of files to preview. Each sound effect is clearly marked with its sample rate, bit depth and file format, making it easy to choose files for recording quality. All sound effects downloads show their license restrictions - if any - offering a clear indicator for suitability in your project.
Quality and Format
With any sound effect download, you have to consider its quality and format. Just because you found a rare recording of a 1920's vintage film projector, it doesn't mean it sounds good. In fact, many free sound effects sound awful due either to age or poor recording technique. You just have to keep searching. It's hard to complain when it's free, but quality can be a problem.
You also have to consider the format of the downloaded sound effect. Most are available in either WAV or MP3 format. Both are easy to drop into any editing system or DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) for further processing. However, you may find sound effects in other formats - specifically AIFF and FLAC. AIFF is the native audio format for Mac editing systems and works fine in most Windows environments too. FLAC, on the other hand, is a compressed format - something like Zip files for audio. Inside the FLAC container, the file is full quality and is "unzipped" on the fly during playback. This provides high-quality sound, check file compatibility with your software. FLAC support is rare, but there are ways around it. If you use REAPER as your DAW, it handles these files perfectly. Just import and export in a file format you can use. The current versions of Adobe Audition and the freeware Audacity also work with this format. Another option is a transcoder such as Mediacoder . With a transcoder, you simply drop your files in, decide on an output format and let the software process.
Once you've downloaded and converted any necessary files, it's a good idea to create an archive. Filing setup is your choice, but consider modeling one of the sound effects download sites, categorizing your effects by type or usage. In addition, this is a great place to archive any sounds you've gathered or created for projects over time. Depending on your work style, you might consider placing your sound effects in a Dropbox folder for availability on any Internet-connected computer you use. It makes them easier to find, backup and share with others too.
If It's Free, It's for Me
They say nothing is truly free in life, and sound effects downloads are no exception. You have to spend time searching and parsing the results. You'll spend even more time auditioning sounds and processing them for your project. In the end, even though you haven't spent any money, you've invested a good amount of time. You may even decide to ditch the whole free thing and buy a sound effects library one day we use them, too.
Sidebar: Composite Sounds
Just like building an image from layers in Photoshop, you can build sound effects from layers too. Say you need a car crash but can't find one sound effect that does it all. No problem, just find the individual pieces and combine them. You'll need the sound of the car driving by, a crash sound and maybe some glass breaking. Drop each sound effect on it's own track and slide them around till they make sense together and match the timing of the scene. Next, use some EQ and pitch shifting to clean and fatten the results. Voila! Custom car crash.
Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer, photographer and technology consultant.