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The Sampler — August 10, 2005

Aug 10, 2005 11:21 AM

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Sound Ideas: A Canadian Giant's Worldwide Success

For more than a quarter-century, Sound Ideas, based in Richmond Hill, Ontario (near Toronto), has been practically synonymous with sound effects libraries; indeed, it is the largest such operation in the world. There's no way of knowing precisely what its market share in the SFX library business is, but it's abundantly clear that its market penetration is immense—it seems to be everywhere. Its offerings are broad and voluminous, encompassing thousands of FX produced inhouse, thousands more contracted from outsiders, and truckloads more licensed from such establishments as the BBC, DeWolfe, BMG and numerous top film/TV studios and producers, including Lucasfilm, Universal, Jay Ward, Hanna Barbera, and Warner Bros. Keeping up with everything it releases is almost impossible: If you only bought its most recent offerings you'd have thousands of FX to wade through—the latest installment in its massively popular Series 6000 (Extension V); Guns ("a library of the highest calibre," according to the company's description); Sony Pictures Sound Effects (available for the first time!); and, what is sure to be an all-time best seller, the 2-CD Original Fart Collection ("hilarious farts, barfs, and belches," according to the company's description). Tasteless? Unquestionably! But also practical in this age of gross-out humor and explicit sonics.

Sound Ideas founder/owner/president/CEO Brian Nimens probably wasn't involved in the actual creation of that last title (it was made by the appropriately named Pull My Finger Productions), but he's an executive who's still intimately involved in every aspect of his company, and is definitely not averse to helping out in the studio if called upon; in fact he quite enjoys that. We caught up with Nimens by phone recently to find out more about Sound Ideas.

BJ: I first encountered Sound Ideas at an AES show many years ago and it seems your company has always had a large profile at those events; more than most library companies. Why is that?
BN: Basically because the engineers or sound editors who would normally use our type of products go to those shows and they've always been extremely good to us. It's a way for us to see them face to face. There are other shows, like Promax, which is weighed very heavily toward the music industry. AES is more a technical show, and if you're going there, you're probably an engineer or [you] own a recording studio, or maybe you're a musician—all of those people are part of our market.

BJ: Can you tell me a little about how Sound Ideas started and how it's grown through the years?
BN: We started off as a recording studio, actually just a four-track recording studio, back in 1978, concentrating on doing commercials, audio/visual presentations—things having to do with dialogue and then adding music and sound effects, too. It was always a pet peeve of mine that there wasn't a great sound effects library at the time, so I decided I would build my own sound effects library, thinking at that point in time that maybe people would come and use my services because I had an excellent sound effects library—never dreaming that I would package it and sell it. But after a number of years of building the library, I thought, "I've spent so much time working on this, I might as well see if I can sell a few copies." So in 1980 or '81, we started to sell a reel-to-reel version of it, 7 1/2ips or 15ips. It was 125 box reels of [1/4in.] tape, and we would dub 10 at a time.

BJ: Obviously you decided that tape was more viable than vinyl discs.
BN: Yes, because another of my pet peeves was noise and crackle, so I thought the only way I was going to get good quality was to have it on tape.

Then, in 1985, through an alliance with Phillips in the Netherlands—one of the co-founders of the CD—we became the first sound effects library to come out on CD. What happened is that the Phillips development department had created a fantastic professional CD player, but they didn't have anything to go with it. Broadcasters were looking at it and saying, "Wow, nice machine. What can we do with it?" So we met with them—at an AES, in fact—and they said, "Why don't we press your library on compact disc and we'll bundle it in Europe with our professional CD players?" So that's what they did, and as a result I got copies made for myself, too. Back then—the mid-'80s—you couldn't beg, borrow, or steal CD pressing time. So as a result we were very lucky. We were able to get out into the marketplace almost two years before our nearest competition.

BJ: It's amazing how the field has grown in the past 20 years.
BN: Oh, yes, and also who uses sound effects has changed so much. We're selling or leasing sounds to ring-tone content providers. That area is showing a lot of promise.

BJ: There also seems to be more programming of every kind, on both radio and TV, and there are more indie films, more documentaries—so many more possible outlets for SFX.
BN: That's right. Way back when, it was essentially feature film and audio/visuals as your mainstay. Today, it's those but it's also games, software companies, ring tones. It's church groups doing religious programming, corporations who have their own inhouse training departments. The list goes on.

BJ: It seems, too, there are more amateur hobbyists making more sophisticated videos on consumer equipment. Has that filtered down to your business?
BN: Yes. The semi-pro market, or even the consumer market of people who are doing their own videos at home. We also do a fair amount of licensing—like one we just did with Apple where we'll be contributing a large number of sound effects to one of their software packages. That's coming out in the fall.

BJ: When Sound Ideas started to get into acquisition mode, what sort of considerations did you have? Now you've got the BBC effects library and so many others.
BN: Our first feature film library that we brought on board was Lucasfilm. At that point in time, it was a case where there weren't any feature film [FX] libraries out there, and we did a co-venture and that really took off. With the success of that, I went to Warner Bros. and Universal—actually I went to both simultaneously, figuring if I hit two, maybe I'll get one. I got both of them! So it took off from there, and we've continued adding things through the years. We have this thirst for new material, so we've always tried to look for categories and areas that people need for sound effects, and then fill those needs.

BJ: What kind of things come into your "SFX Suggestion Box" on your website?
BN: Quite frankly, what we usually get is people suggesting sounds that we already have in one of our libraries, but they don't own that particular library. [Laughs] But we are always open to new ideas.

BJ: Users seem to be demanding higher-quality FX as broadcast and films increase their audio capabilities. Are there libraries that have become obsolete because they're old analog, mono recordings?
BN: Interestingly, we tried to discontinue our original Series 1000 back in the early '90s, and we got so many people phoning up and demanding that it be put back in the database, and so many people still wanted to buy it, that we kept it available. Now it's become like an archival library: If you want the old telephone sounds, adding machines, typewriters, and the old ambiences, that's the library you have to go to. So a sound might be obsolete in the culture, but there will always be some need for them if someone is doing a historical film or whatever.

BJ: I notice Sound Ideas also has a number of music libraries available. Has it been harder to break into that world, since you're better known for your FX libraries?
BN: Yes. We've made some good inroads with our production music library, but music is a harder sell because there's more competition. We're sort of looked upon as the Big Guy, and basically anything you want we pretty well have, but it has been more work.

BJ: Do you still have a big studio there?
BN: Well, it's not that big. You wouldn't put a full orchestra in here. But it's a nice size. It's good for recording prop sounds and voiceover work, those sorts of things.

BJ: How much of the SFX you put out is generated from the studio, as opposed to being contracted out or acquired?
BN: We master everything ourselves, but in terms of where the FX come from, it depends on the library. For example, we just came out with a 6000 Extension V collection, and I'd say probably 80 percent of it was ours, and we probably acquired about 20 percent. But that 20 percent is really cherry-picked. We have a lot of engineers who send us material, and we go through and pick the very best of it.

BJ: There's some weird stuff in there: "Paint Ball Gun..."
BN:Actually, I was involved in the recording of that. I did all the shooting! [Laughs] It was a lot of fun.

BJ: Has your web presence been lucrative? Do more people now audition sounds online, versus buying discs and hearing them that way?
BN: The number of [CD] demos we send out is getting smaller and smaller. There's so much more information that's available on the Web than if you just get our demo and our brochure, because we can put more on the Web and have demos for every product, not just some.

BJ: What do you see happening in the business in the next 10 years.
BN: I think there will be continued growth. Everything points to that. I see the ring-tone area exploding for us. But we hope to keep growing at every level.

And For Production Music Libraries, There's Westar

Although in the interview above Mr. Nimens indicated that it's been challenging for Sound Ideas to break into the heavily populated production music library market, he neglected to mention that Sound Ideas is affiliated with a quite well-established PML: Westar Music, based in the same building as Sound Ideas, and also headed by Nimens.

The company offers 124 CDs (with cues also searchable online; de rigeur in this day and age), roughly broken down into seven main categories of production music: Sports and Corporate; Easy Listening; Rock, Dance, and Pop; Jazz and Blues; Drama and Film Scores; Country and Western; and the very broad Specialty Music, which includes such sub-genres as world music, comedy and cartoon music, children's music, and patriotic music. Within each category, there are many, many offerings, from the quietest acoustic background themes to in-your-face extreme sports assaults. The company puts out a batch of new discs every few months—for instance, the most recent releases (June 2005) include dance (club, chill, and hip-hop dance tracks with vocals), sports ("competitive and determined sports, industry, and technology themes for overachievers," according to the company's description), and a pair of rock discs loaded with inspiring electric guitar wailings.

The company's very clear and helpful website offers thorough documentation on every piece of music available from Westar (including descriptions, times, and tempos), as well as detailed information on licensing requirements, fees, etc.

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