By Bob Barnes
Bigger is not necessarily better — especially when it comes to sound effects libraries. Most of the SFX collections marketed today are created primarily to support the film or video media. Many are huge, full of superfluous sounds, and cost hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars. A lot of these behemoths are ill-catalogued or over-catalogued making effects hard to find. The catalogues are the size of telephone directories and some list multiple libraries published by the same company—you’ll often find the effect you need in the catalog, but it’s in a library you don’t even have! (I once located “bag pipes” which when auditioned was the sound of someone placing metal pipes into a paper bag! Weeks later, I found the “bagpipes” I was searching for in the same catalogue but in a subdirectory under “Music Cues.”)
What’s needed—especially for the commercial radio producer—is a small library of intensely useful, easy to find, identifiable sounds. Oddly enough, just such a library was created by the legendary recordist Jac Holzman (yes, the Jac Holzman of Jimi Hendrix and Doors fame) nearly 50 years ago! And, while most of the sounds remain highly useful even today, it’s difficult to find the library in its original, unspoiled edition.
In the early ‘60s, the Elektra label published 13 vinyl stereo LP’s under the less-than-catchy name “Authentic Sound Effects.” The hundreds of sounds in this library are more than just sound effects—they’re production effects in every sense of the word. “Overstuffed Closet” would do Fibber McGee proud. There’s a “Mockingbird” track that is perfect for establishing any kind of outdoor scene—golf course, back yard, camping. And no pictures needed here. Each sound is arch-typical and instantly identifiable by ear. I own 14 complete SFX libraries and a truckload of partials, but after 40 years of producing radio commercials, Elektra is still the library I reach for first! Yeah, okay, it IS analog—but it’s THAT good! (And don’t knock analog—it still has the highest sampling rate in the industry!)
Unfortunately, unless you have very old LP’s, produced from the very first stampers (and very few remain after all these years) you don’t have the REAL Jac Holzman library. Y’see, while Jac undoubtedly oversaw the original mastering of this collection of great sounds, later RE-mastering (done in the ‘70s and ‘80s) must have been handed off to an intern who would’ve much rather been in the other room lathing a Hendrix LP. The LP’s weren’t really mastered–just transferred verbatimwith little attention to VU meters or tape speeds. As a result, the later releases are full of effects mastered at wrong speeds, widely varying volume and EQ from track-to-track, and even multiple effects superimposed onto each other (caused by differing head configurations.) Lion roars sound like alley cats, subways sound like sewing machines, and “New Year’s Eve at Times Square” sounds like the munchkin scenes from The Wizard of Oz.
It’s easy to understand how this happened when you know the catch-as-catch-can practice of collecting effects on the street. If you’ve ever recorded sound in the field you know that you often have to grab effects when they occur or you just don’t get them at all. Here’s a typical scenario that might have gone down: Ol’ Jac and his trusty Nagra are out recording with a film crew when a shot is delayed due to “ambient sound.” Let’s say there’s a Shriner’s parade coming down the street. Now, the parade would make a great edition to Jac’s stock library, but he only has 50 feet of tape left on the 5-inch reel. Jac has 3 choices: 1) roll tape and get a partial recording, 2) take time to thread up a new tape and chance missing the effect altogether, or 3) switch the Nag to a slower record speed to double his record time. It’s a no-brainer—especially for Jac—since he knows he’ll be doing the mastering of the effects and can match the tape speeds “on the fly” during the lathing process. Not so with the intern!
The library suffered even more when it “went digital” in the mid-‘80s. The CD version of the library had only 3 discs. Less than a third of the tracks from the 13 original LPs made the cut! Both the vinyl and CDs were soon relegated to the bargain bin at Goody’s. So, little wonder that most people who came into broadcast production after the Johnsons left the White House have ever heard of this great little library.
Well, late last year during a move to a new home, I stumbled upon a nearly untouched Elektra Authentic Sound Effects Library I’d stowed away in a box with some other old vinyl. Only two volumes were missing and all but two more were still in the original shrink wrap! I vowed that as soon as we got settled, I was going to restore this great old collection of production effects.
What followed was truly a labor of love. I started by copying each LP to CoolEdit Pro 2000 using a great old 1958 Empire 208E turntable with a Shure SME tonearm and Stanton cartridge routed through a Dynaco Pat 5 preamp. I then compared the effects from the vinyl to the ones on the CD edition of the library. When I found duplicates, I replaced the vinyl cut with one digitally imported from the CD.
Next, I re-sampled and corrected any sounds that were mastered at the wrong speed. (Only a couple on the two missing LP’s where I had to improvise from the “Intern Edition.”)
Then came the hard part—cleaning up the remaining analog cuts. Although CoolEdit Pro has a “pop & clic” removal” plug-in, I manually removed any pops, clicks, and scratches one at a time. Not only was I more discerning than the software, it gave me a great opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the effects and their layout. I also used CEP’s fade in/out feature to ramp 4 seconds of complete silence in between each cut.
I then made one CD .wav master for each of the 13 LPs with the exact same tracks in the exact same order as they appeared on the original LPs. I filed each effect under a filename that began with the letters EK (for Electra) and a 4-digit code that related to LP number and cut number, followed by the effect’s title as it appeared on the vinyl. Example: “EK0504 Blizzard.wav” i.e.: “Elektra Library, Volume 05, Cut 04, Blizzard.” I made protection copies of the 13 CDs and filed them away for safe keeping. Finally, I used CoolEdit to batch convert ALL of the cuts to 256k, 44.1 .mp3 files, and… PUT THE ENTIRE LIBRARY ON JUST TWO CDs! I carry it in my briefcase so I have it wherever I’m producing. I also left the entire .mp3 library on my hard drive so I can import any effect in a heartbeat when I’m working in my own digs. To make each sound easier to find, I made three major folders—one each with the cuts arranged by volume number, by title alphabetically, and under sub-directories by sound type (Transportation, Weather, Crowds, etc.)
The whole thing worked out so well I’m now looking at other old vinyl SFX—including a Hanna Barbera Library and a Big Sound Library produced by Warner Bros in the ‘50s. It has lots of great Looney Tunes effects—not those cheap imitations you can buy on CDs cluttered with silly character dialog. No, sir. These are the real thing—right off the Warner Bros mag stripes! Zip-pow-bonk! “Th-th-that’s ALL, Folks!”