Using music and sound effects libraries is easy, but knowing how to use them is confusing. Here are some tips on buying and using royalty-free music.
There are a few editors who gladly strike up the band and the Foley studio to record their own custom music and sound effects. But many of us don't have the time, equipment or money to make that a reality. That's when royalty-free music and sound effects (SFX) libraries come in handy. A robust collection of music and sound effects quickly become the editor's best friend. This should be a top priority for anyone starting out as an editor. Put some money aside now. Royalty-free music and sound effects pay for themselves by saving you a lot time and frustration.
Royalty-Free Is Not Free
One of the more common misconceptions about royalty-free music and sound effects is that they are free to use in your production. Not true. In fact, most good libraries cost money, and the best libraries can run up quite a bill. Royalty-free means that you do not pay any royalties to the music or sound effect author when your video airs or is distributed. That's the general agreement. You pay a flat fee upfront for the rights to use their media. But the agreement when you make your purchase can vary between authors.
License and Legalese
What you are paying for when purchasing royalty-free music and sound effects is for the right to use the media according to the license agreement. Make sure to read the license agreement and understand any limitations, such as an expiration to the license or certain uses that are prohibited. Most royalty-free authors give you head room, and you can pretty much use the music and sound effects just about however you want, as long as you're not reselling the media to someone else. In fact, most royalty-free media is non-transferrable. That means you can't sell it to someone else or let another party use it.
Short of these few restrictions, you're free to use your royalty-free music however you'd like. You can even do a mashup if you'd like. Some royalty-free music authors even publish their scores with different musical layers, so that you can blend tracks together or mix up the instrumentation. Let your creative mind explore the possibilities or take a stale score and make it fresh. Of course, all this fiddling can distract you and eat up just as much time as starting from scratch. If flexibility is your main concern, look for scores that offer the different musical layers in separate audio files. This can also help if you want to emphasize a certain mood by highlighting a specific instrument.
Use and Re-Use
A good music and sound effects library gives you the most for your money if you stick to the standards. Take a look at what kind of productions you're doing and plan accordingly. A sci-fi library sounds like fun, but, if you're primarily shooting car commercials, it's probably not going to pay for itself (at least not in your lifetime).
When it comes to selecting a starter set of music libraries, it's always safe to choose from a collection with a variety of moods and tempos. A fast tempo and upbeat mood might be good for a new hair salon, but it might not work so well for a wine bar (medium tempo and upbeat). Look for variety in tempo and mood, and also consider what kind of projects you're working on.
Time is an important factor as well. Documentaries, narratives or anything with a long format will benefit when the scores are three to five minutes in length. A good musical score at this length has various movements that build much more slowly. You can use different parts of the score at different moments throughout the video. Shorter musical scores (10-, 30- and 60-second scores) are better for punchy productions, usually with a faster pace. Don't try to cut corners on the timing. It can be incredibly difficult and sometimes impossible to cut a good 30-second score from a three-minute piece. It sounds like a good way to save some dough, but you'll end up pulling your hair out in the process.
Sound Effects Galore
The trick to sound effects is having a lot of them. Unfortunately, this is not good news for your pocket book. However, many sound effect libraries come complete with many files around a central theme. Reflect on what kind of actions take place in your productions and how you might amplify the experience with some sound effects.
Think Inside the Box
Moving inside, there are quite a few indoor noises you can be prepared for as well: door bells, door knocks, door slams, phone rings, clocks, etc. The good news about interior noises is that a lot of them can be accurately captured on set with a decent shotgun microphone. You might be able to save yourself some money if you carefully include these during your shoots. If not, you'll probably save yourself a little time (but not any money) purchasing a sound effects library for your needs. The Foley method is most ideal in these situations, as it provides the most accurate results; however, that can be extremely time-intensive.
Most importantly, come up with a sound and music plan for your production long before you start cutting. Make sure you and your client know in advance the demands of the production and what is needed to complete the job. The last thing you want is to surprise a client with a big bill for the sound effects you need.
Often, music and sound effects are purchased as digital files from websites. This presents a challenge, as many files have arbitrary names. Organize your music and sound effects appropriately. Music should be organized by mood and by creating different folder categories. You can separate the music into more folders by tempo or further by instrumentation. Organize sound effects by environments, starting with interior and exterior. Then divide by themes, like Car Sounds or Gun Shots.
Having a well-organized library of music and sound effects makes your job much easier. And don't forget to back up your libraries. You cannot afford to lose them. Otherwise, you'll be paying another fee to renew your royalty-free license.
See our Music Libraries Buyers Guide.
Contributing columnist Mark Montgomery is a web content specialist and produces instructional videos for a leading web application developer.