The Morality of Library Sound Design
Some sound designers have a serious hair up their butts when it comes to using commercial sound libraries for sound design.
If you're a sound designer, especially a budding one just starting to claw your way into the industry, you may be in for some pretty severe judgments if it is found out that you're using sound libraries in a way that offends other sound designers. If you're just starting out, you could make one wrong move with the way that you use sound libraries, and it's curtains for you! Your reputation could be sullied far and wide! And you may not even be doing anything wrong, at least technically speaking.
For those of you that aren't familiar with sound libraries, a sound library, at least in the terms that I'm using for this article, consists of a bunch of sound effects, musical elements, voice lines, or even more broadly speaking, audio files of some sort, that can be purchased or licensed from a vendor for use in your project. An example sound effect vendor that many will be familiar with is Sound Ideas, but there are a bunch of vendors out there providing this service. Some are big companies, some are just one person who wants to sell their field recordings.
The point of this article is to elaborate on the perception issues held by many sound designers out there with how these libraries are used. The aspiring game audio designer should be aware of these perception issues, and then they should use their own brains to determine how the want to approach their work with libraries. I'll list a handful of common methods for sound design using libraries, and then I'll provide my own opinion for a little extra context.
The Worst Possible Thing You Could Ever Do In Your Whole Life
Let's start off with The Worst Possible Thing You Could Ever Do In Your Whole Life, also known as a "straight library rip."
This practice involves buying a sound library, or even a single sound from an à la carte sound library service, and then implementing that sound as-is into your game without any manipulation.
Even though this is often completely within your rights according to the terms of service of the purchase you've made, this is considered by many sound designers to be a cardinal sin of sound design. If you're aspiring to be a gainfully-employed sound designer, be very careful with this method. Many sound designers have memorized large volumes of sound effects from commonly used libraries. If one of those sound designers is playing your game or reviewing your demo materials and notices a sound being used as-is from a library, they may want to smite you, and potentially smite your reputation.
My personal opinion: This is a valid practice as long as it is within your rights according to the terms of service that you agreed to when buying the sounds. You're probably not going to grow very much if you approach your work this way, and if you use this method a lot, you may ask yourself what it really is that you want to be when you grow up, because it may not be "sound designer." I believe this method is excusable, maybe even smart and practical, when you're overwhelmed and you're trying to get a bunch of unimportant sounds off your plate so that you can focus more time on sounds that will have a greater impact on your player's experience. Personally, I avoid this method at all costs, not because I think it's morally wrong, but because I find it boring and unenjoyable.
Straight Library Rip + Effects And Other Manipulation
This is the next step up from The Worst Possible Thing You Could Ever Do In Your Whole Life, and even though it's just marginally different, it will likely assuage most of the sound designers that are looking for reasons to be disgusted by other sound designers. But be warned -- the less you manipulate the sound, the more likely that other sound designers will notice and will still want to slap you with their SPL meter.
This practice involves taking a sound from a commercial library, adding effects to or otherwise manipulating that sound, and then implementing the manipulated sound into the game. A similar approach involves implementing straight library rips into your game and adding effects at runtime, although for some reason, this still seems more frowned-upon than doing it outside of the box.
The bare minimum required to fulfill this practice tends to be applying a compressor or equalizer to the source sound, or changing the pitch of the source sound. If you're just changing the volume (e.g. normalization), you're probably still in cardinal sin territory.
The more you manipulate the sound to be different from the original sound, the more likely this practice will be acceptable to a larger swath of your peers in audio. If you've made the sound unrecognizable from the original source, you're good to go.
My personal opinion: One you've manipulated a sound, you've probably surpassed my threshold of giving a crap. Even if it's just compression or equalization. This is probably a good point to mention, even though it should be obvious by my opinion on the cardinal sin, that I'm not super anal about this topic. But I would still suggest to you that you push yourself further into the next categories below. It will likely be good for your growth and learning, and if you have a sincere interest in sound design, you'll probably find it more fun and rewarding.
Layering And Mixing Library Sounds (+ Effects And Other Manipulation)
This is a significant step up into what most sound designers would officially call proper sound design. If you're doing this, you've likely surpassed the scowling-threshold of the many sound designers that I've spoken to on the subject.
This practice involves taking more than one library sound and mixing them together, possibly manipulating one or more of the library sounds in your DAW before rendering them out. This could also happen at runtime, which would involve you implementing multiple straight library rips into your game and mixing them together dynamically in your authoring tool / engine. Again, in terms of perception, many sound designers, for some reason, seem to prefer that this mixing happens outside the box.
My personal opinion: As far as I'm concerned, if you take even two library files and mix them together, you're designing a sound at that point. You're making something new from something that already exists. If you add effects, all the better, as long as it ultimately serves your player's experience. At many game developers, you will find that this is the bread and butter of sound design work.
Using Library Sounds To Sweeten Your Field Recordings
Some sound designers would call this the entry level to "true" sound design. This can also be reversed by saying that you use your field recordings to sweeten a library sound, although it's often perceived by some sound designers as better to use the library sounds as a sweetener for a field recording. I think the difference between the two is whether or not an original sound is more prominent in the mix of the final render.
This practice involves mixing sound effects from commercial sound libraries with original field recordings that you, or others within your organization, have captured yourselves.
My personal opinion: I think this is a great practice because there is a tremendous amount of potential growth in this approach. There is a barrier of entry here, which is that you'd need some recording gear, or at least to know someone who is willing to loan you their gear, to make this happen, which is why I wouldn't scowl at someone saying that they only used libraries for a project. By including your own source material, you've ensured that the sound is going to be fresh and new. But I would also say that there is a potential gotcha here, which is that ultimately what I believe matters most is the player's experience, and if someone insists on using a field recording in their sound design to the detriment of that experience, then that seems silly and prideful to me.
In The End, What Does It Really Matter?
The last thing I want to do is give you one last explanation for the purpose of this post, and maybe to shed a little light on my own opinions.
The reason that I'm posting this is because I think it's a shame when an unsuspecting, aspiring game audio designer gets lambasted for using straight library rips. It's entirely possible that it never occurred to them that others would deem this practice as morally wrong, especially when it's within their rights according to the terms associated with the use of the library. I don't think it's fair that people find themselves as the butts of jokes within certain cliques that could harm the future of their careers just because they're ignorant.
But I would also ask those sound designers out there that would judge someone based on their sound design practices, what does it really matter? If a straight up rip from a library makes its way into the game and it evokes the response in our players that we're after, what is the actual harm in that?
I'll mention again, just to protect my reputation, that I cannot recall a time in my career where I have done a straight library rip, but I also wouldn't necessarily be upset if a sound designer that I worked with used a library sound as-is, as long as it served its purpose.
I'm interested to know what others think. Leave a comment.