Would you like to earn some money, recording and releasing sound effects? Have you ever wondered what it takes to record, edit and release a sound effects library. In this article, community member Tom Lowe explains how he went about producing and releasing his first Ambisonics sound effects library.
Having purchased the Sennheiser AMBEO VR mic and a Zoom F8 recorder back in January 2017, I began making recordings around London to start building a library of sounds for my own use for 360 video and VR projects, which were in the pipeline.
At the same time I was also keeping an eye on what was available in the way of ambisonics commercial sound effects libraries. There were a few libraries available, but none that were of London, or even had a few sounds of London within a library.
To test out my ideas, I spent a few days going around London locations that I thought would be useful to anyone who needed sounds of London and tentatively started building a collection of recordings.
It was around the same time I saw that Pro Sound Effects had released an ambisonic library featuring sounds of New York, Tokyo and other global cities, but not London. As a result of my research test recordings and location scouting, I realised there was a potential demand, as well as a gap in the market, for an Ambisonics sound effects collection of London sounds, rather than just collecting sounds for my own projects.
One of the benefits of ambisonics is that the user can convert an ambisonic recording to any format from mono through to 5.1 right up to Dolby Atmos, Auro3D and other immersive formats. For me this means I could record the sounds once, and the customer could decide which format they wanted for that particular project. Given the wealth of free and paid software on the market to work with ambisonics, this seemed to be the most sensible option.
I did consider making stereo and 5.1 versions for ease-of-use, but considered that if I had bought the library, I would want the flexibility to choose how to use the sounds, rather than have decisions baked in for me.
I did consider that Pro Tools users, who don’t have Pro Tools Ultimate, wouldn’t be able to deal with the 4-channel Ambisonics b-format files, but with low cost software such as Reaper being able to handle ambisonics files very easily, I decided that just supplying the B-format Ambisonics files was the best route to take, rather than spending the time undertaking a number of different conversions, which would ultimately increase the cost of any libraries on sale.
In B-format software such as Harpex-X, or the free Rode Soundfield plug-in (which has replaced the older SurroundZone plug-in not that Rode own the Soundfield product range) the user can also decide which mode of stereo sound they’d like to decode to, such as AB, XY, spaced-omni etc. so again thought it would be best to leave this to the end users to decide.
Acquisition To Release
I started by going out in London to record with the Sennheiser Ambeo mic and Zoom R8 recorder in the locations that I had selected from by scouting trips around London. After a few days I considered alternative places I could record, where I would be less likely to be approached by security staff or were places where if permission to record was required, it would be easy to obtain. One of the first set of recordings were made around the Barbican Centre and Estate. Initially the recordings were planned to be both interior and exterior locations but after a while I decided it would be better to focus more on recording exterior spaces for this first library.
I recorded for around 20 to 30 minutes in each location, and also recorded different parts of the same location for a variation, and at different times of day, if there was a significantly difference to the sound. A good example of this was at Trafalgar Square. If there was a particular noise, such as a performer or busker, and there wasn’t enough ‘clean’ material to edit the unwanted sound out and get a smooth, clean end result, I would make a note and revisit the location at another time where it was hopefully quieter. Anywhere which was playing commercially released music or a busker that could be recognised also had to be avoided.
Big Ben Going Silent
Not long after I had started collecting the recordings, I learnt that Big Ben in Westminster was going to be silenced for a number of years, apart from a handful of special occasions, to enable the building to be restored. Consequently, this would be the last chance for several years to get a good recording of the iconic bell chimes so this went to the top of the list.
Copies And Backup
At the end of each day, all the recordings were copied off the SD cards onto my internal laptop drive, an external hard drive as well as uploaded to secure cloud storage. In total the recordings were across 4 sessions and were fitted around other work, so overall took quite a while to gather. Once I felt there was enough material to turn in to a library, I started the process of going through all the recordings, finding the most suitable ones.
Editing To Get The Best Recordings
Once I had chosen the best recordings, I set about editing them. I didn’t want any clearly audible dialogue in the recordings as these are designed as ambiences. Anything that might clash with the sounds laid over them by a sound editor had to go. A few dog barks were OK, but if this was happening a lot, they were removed. The same applied to sirens, motorbikes, children shouting and crying, or anything else I thought would be too distracting. With my experience as a sound editor, the last thing I want from a sound library is to have to spend lots of time editing out unwanted sounds. Now I was producing a library, I wanted to make it as easy to use as possible whilst keeping some degree of variation in the sound.
Mastering And Metadata
Once everything was edited, the average length across the 20 final files was just over 6 minutes, giving editors and sound designers lots to work with. I exported everything at 24-bit, 96KHz ready for metadata to be added. This was done using Soundly, and exported in to PDF form as well as embedded in the Broadcast Wave files. Once it was all done I uploaded them to my account on A Sound Effect, which I had setup a few months earlier, so that everything was ready to go once I had completed the library.
Where To Sell
I did consider selling the library through my own website, however the time and cost of setting up a suitable e-commerce platform, advertising and marketing it, as well as ensuring compliance with all tax agencies across the EU via HMRC for EU VAT compliance seemed too much, so going with an already established distributor seemed the best and easiest way to go. Given the money is paid straight into my PayPal account, minus the relative VAT and a 30% commission, it seemed worthwhile given the convenience and the fact that A Sound Effect is very well-known and regarded within the industry.
Solving Problems Along The Way
The biggest problem I faced was the great British public! I’d often set up the mic and hit record, only for someone to come and sit very close by and start to unwrap sandwiches, or start talking on the phone, or come up and ask what I was doing. Given it took around 10 minutes or so to set up everything, this resulted in a fair bit of wasted time. Usually the solution was to move slightly or to return back later in the day.
Getting a good recording at Trafalgar Square was particularly challenging, largely due to number of buskers and performers. Due to copyright issues that would arise, as it could potentially affect the usefulness of the library, I wanted to avoid any identifiable music in the recordings. During the day I managed to get a recording at the side of the square away from where the performers are, outside the National Gallery. Although there is some indistinct music in the recording that ended up in the final product, there are quite a few gaps without any music, which met my own criteria for an each-to-use library.
Getting long recordings gave me room to edit out things such as excess sirens and loud vehicles such as motorbikes. Obviously sirens and traffic are integral parts to the sound of London, but anything that would be distracting when used under other sounds or dialogue needed to be taken out to make the library as user-friendly as possible. However, if I was 5 minutes in to a recording and could see there weren’t going to be any quieter periods, or I was next to something which kept interrupting the recording, such as a pedal bin, or anything else that audibly stuck out, then I stopped the recording and moved to a better location.
Getting a good recording of Big Ben was a particular challenge, several times recordings were ruined by loud motorbikes or other vehicles passing, people talking consistently through the bell ringing, and on one occasion a group of really loud beach buggies driving around. As I knew the bell would be silenced soon for maintenance work on Elizabeth Tower, this was time-critical. I went along on the last day the bell would be ringing 12, and setup. Parliament Square was full of photographers and members of the public. Luckily during the bell ringing there was very little traffic noise, and most people were quiet. However, everyone was taking thousands of photos. From DSLRs to smart phones, the recording was covered in camera clicks. As a result this was the only recording which needed serious work on it with iZotope RX to salvage it. Thanks to the tools in RX I was able to rescue this recording and include it in the finished library. I also chose to include the original version if sound editors wish to have the un-processed version.
Full Quality Ambisonics Samples
Tom has very kindly made available 3 sample files each 3 minutes in duration in st order Ambisonics at 96KHz sample rate. The 3 free recordings are Borough Market, Trafalgar Square and St James Park…
I already have quite a few sounds recorded at interior locations in London, and I am planning to expand on these, so I’ll almost certainly be releasing a follow-up Interiors Of London library later in the year.
I’ve not touched on any of London’s vast transport network in the first release, other than the occasional black cab or bus going past in the recordings, so that opens up a lot of possibilities for future libraries!
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