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The Sampler – January 11, 2006

Sounddogs.com: SFX Library Has A Hollywood Pedigree

When I reach Sounddogs.com founder and chief Rob Nokes on his cell phone a few days after the new year, he was far, far away from his 310 (Los Angeles) area code. In fact, I’ve found him in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It turns out that the whale sound recording expedition he’d hoped to go on off the coast of neighboring Uruguay didn’t pan out: “I came to record whales, but the whales came and left early, so now I’m going to focus on getting these sea lions that live on an island around here,” the affable recordist says. “I’ve always dreamed of recording whales: my dream is to go up to Hudson’s Bay and record whales there because there are very few ship engines anymore, so it’s very clean [-sounding]. I want to get my underwater recording techniques down so that hopefully in the next three or four years it will get to the point where it’s worth going up to Hudson’s Bay and really making a goal of recording whales at a really high level.” For now, however, the sea lions will do.

To Nokes, the world offers an unlimited panorama of sounds to be captured and preserved…and sold. A Hollywood recordist and sound supervisor whose credits range from French Kiss, Cable Guy, and As Good As It Gets to a passel of sports films, including Seabiscuit, Million Dollar Baby, Miracle, Coach Carter, and the brand-new Glory Road, he spends about half his time working on Sounddogs.com, which he claims was the first online SFX company; in fact they’ve never been in the business of selling FX CDs.

“That’s definitely saved us a bundle,” he notes. “I guess you could say we dabbled in it—we did two CDs with Sound Ideas that very popular. One was called Larger Than Life, which was big sounds, and then we did The Art of Foley with Dan O’Connell [of One Step Up]. Since then we’ve done four one-CD sets that are directed more for the consumer market, though it’s all still really good high-quality material.”

Nokes got his start in the world of sound in his native Winnipeg, Canada. “I had been recording music and sound since I was 10 years old, and when I was 19 or 20, I went off to Toronto and got a job cleaning toilets for a [post] studio called Master’s Workshop, which also produced [Hollywood mixer] Paul Massey.” As is often the case in these situations, Nokes soon found himself assisting established engineers, learning his craft the old fashioned way. “I went from Master’s to working on the Rolling Stones’ At the Max for a guy named Peter Tilley, who did a lot of IMAX movies. Then I went over to Sounds Interchange [also in Toronto] for a stint and worked my way up there. And that’s where I met Greg King, who became partners with me [and Robert Grieve] in Sound Dogs USA. [King and Nelson Ferreira formed the original Sound Dogs in Toronto in 1991. The two operations are no longer affiliated, though they do work together.] Back in the early ’90s we dreamed of taking all our recordings that we were making and publishing them, similar to what Sound Ideas was doing, and by around 1996, we had moved to Los Angeles, and had worked on things like Forget Paris, Cable Guy, and French Kiss, and we had so much material recorded digitally that was already catalogued, we thought, ‘OK, now’s the time. Let’s do it.’ We were always recording to DAT; we never did any analog recording. And Amazon.com was starting to get big, so we thought online might work.”

Though an acknowledged “little guy” in a world where there were already giants such as Sound Ideas, Hollywood Edge, BBC, DeWolfe, and other library companies, Sounddogs.com quickly managed to establish itself as a significant player by appealing to professionals; today Nokes says they have some 50,000 clients around the world, in nearly every area of media production imaginable. Currently, sounddogs.com has about 285,000 sounds available online, 30,000 of them from Nokes’ own work through the years, the others mostly from libraries Sounddogs has acquired, including the massive SoundStorm library, which Nokes acquired 14 months ago.

“That’s an incredible library,” he notes. “It includes Bruce Stambler, who is an exceptional sound recordist, and others, too. When SoundStorm closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy, the assets were auctioned off and we got the library portion for $187,000. That included over 7,000 DATs, Beta F-1s, and a lot of quarter-inch [analog]. Generally speaking that stuff is very hard to catalog because you’ve got to bake it and then do noise reduction. Analog recordings really don’t stand up to modern-day 24-bit recordings in my opinion, so it’s got to be quite special or historic to make it out of quarter-inch, but there’s definitely great stuff in that format, too.” Sounddogs has acquired several other smaller libraries as well, including—in a perhaps ironic twist—the Master’s Workshop collection.

Much as Nokes seems to enjoy and have an aptitude for the library business (though his partner Paul Virostek does much of the day running of the operation), one senses that his greatest satisfaction still comes from going out in the field and gathering sounds. I asked him if when he’s working on a film he also has potential library usage in the back of his mind. “When I go and record, I always have the goal of the film in mind first and foremost,” he comments. “Of course, if there’s a great sound there, I’m going to get it regardless, and if I have to put in my own time and my own hours to go back again and get it, I will. Finding the gems is the challenge in recording sound; not so much getting the sounds you need, but getting the really great sounds.

“My deal is I always give them way more than they would ever need [for a film], but I own it. The sounds are far too important to give them away. I always want to maintain ownership, because we go the extra mile in terms of preparing it and shooting it and cataloguing it. I work for about ten supervisors in L.A. and they seem to be very happy with the results.”

Nokes’ own recording rig is simple: He carries two Fostex FR-2 24-bit stereo units, which record to CompactFlash (CF) cards. “Due to all the travel I do and the extreme conditions I’m in, I’d rather have something that’s both durable and disposable, rather than something where if it breaks or gets lost I’m going to cry. The FR-2 has been great. I have the battery mod on it so I have a nine-hour battery. And I only shoot to CF cards because I’ll often mount the recorders on either cars or go-carts or whatever, so with that kind of recording technique, the cards work better [than a traditional hard drive]. When I was in Kazakhstan working on a film called The Nomad, I had 26 horses charging at me at one point. In the movie there’s something like 5,000 horses [charging], so it was important to have the feeling of a lot of horses, and not building it from groups of two and three that are typically in libraries. It was an amazing experience.”

For microphones, Nokes brings “three Neumann 191i’s, one of which is a backup. I also have a Sennheiser 815 shotgun, and I’ll also use the Sennheiser E835S, which is great for mounting on cars and things like that.

“My philosophy is less technical and more finding the right sound and getting to the right sounds. So I’d rather have a small, light setup that fits in a handbag, and then run up the hill to get the sound, or run through a cave or a jungle….”

A bit lost in all the attention Soundddogs.com gets for its sound effects is the fact that the company also offers an ever-expanding library of production music as well. “We have a limited amount of material,” Nokes says. “We hire composers to build libraries. We haven’t gotten that far into it, but long-term we’re going to continue to move into music just to stay competitive in the market. A lot of people come to our site for sound effects and they also want music, so we want to be able to take care of them as well as we can. We’ll get more serious about music as we go along.”

But for now, there are those sea lions barking off the coast of Argentina, and there’s another football movie, called Invincible, that needs him back in the States. “I love to travel,” he says with almost child-like glee. “To get to travel doing what I love to do, is so much fun.”

We should all be so fortunate.

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