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October 24, 2023

The best Free Library Manager Apps for Sound Designers


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If you are just starting out as a sound designer, film maker, or content creator who is regularly on the hunt for sound effects to use in your latest production, then you'll most likely know how time consuming it can be to locate that specific sound you're looking for. You might have been using your operating system's built-in search (Spotlight, Cortana, etc.), your DAW's media panel, or even iTunes to organize and locate your sounds but you've probably been wondering if there is a more user-friendly way of managing your ever growing library.

Well, you'd be right with that assumption. Sound library managers take a lot of the guesswork out of trying to find the perfect sound effects or music track and there have been a slew of apps released recently that can offer you a killer feature set at no cost to you!

Sound Library Managers

Sound Library Management software has one purpose: Making your entire library of sounds searchable and accessible at a moment's notice. With sound designers usually dealing with libraries containing hundreds of gigabytes worth of sound effects, I'm sure you understand why this kind of software is a big deal for a smooth and steady workflow.

A Sound Library Management app lets you search for anything contained in your sound effects library and preview the results instantly. This means that you don't have to first open a folder and then search for the sound that's hopefully contained within. Think of it like your iTunes / Winamp / Windows media library on steroids.
Once you found a sound you like, you can simply drag & drop the file to your timeline or use the spot to timeline feature that most of them offer to directly insert the file at your playhead position or selection in the DAW.

On top of the search and tagging features, many Sound Library Managers add handy editing and processing features that let you manage channel count, decode mid-side recordings, or even process a sound with effects before even dragging and dropping it into your DAW of choice.

While the film industry standard, SoundMiner, is quite pricy, a number of feature-rich FREE alternatives have hit the scene over the last couple of years. Of course, none of these free alternatives quite reach the level of functionality that SoundMiner or BaseHead can offer, but I know plenty of people working professionally with just these apps as they are so responsive and easy to use and receive regular updates that expand functionality.

What are the Similarities?

While the apps I'm going to list differ in certain feature sets, I wanted to start off with a list of things relevant to music that all of them can do.

  • Metadata search and editing (i.e. descriptions, categories, notes, star ratings)
  • Instant previewing of one-shots and loops
  • Handling multichannel (surround) files
  • Converting files from stereo to mono or decode mid-side recordings prior to export
  • Spotting straight to your DAW timeline
    Software will automatically recognize (or let you choose) which DAW is open and, with a single button press, let you insert the currently selected file at your playhead / selection location on the timeline.
  • Ability to send only a portion (selection) of a file to your DAW
  • Previewing and exporting sounds pitched down or up.
  • Reversing a sound before transferring it onto your timeline.

Beyond these, all of the apps listed below also offer very competitively priced subscription options that both give you access to 100k+ SFX on-demand and certain advanced features.

And now, let's get to my recommendations and what sets each one apart!

Sound Particles Explorer

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A couple of months ago, audio processing powerhouse Sound Particles threw their hat into the Sound Library Manager game with Explorer. This free app is the most feature-rich out of the bunch and packs absolutely killer value in a flexible interface.

Sound Particles' claim to fame is their flagship software of the same name that utilizes technology inspired by 3D rendering and procedural generation to create sonic source material out of dozens, thousands, or even millions of individual samples without requiring much manual tweaking. Remember any recent movie with gratuitous gunfire or a swarm of creatures surrounding you sonically? If so, you have definitely heard Sound Particles in action.

But now, back to Explorer. It allows for quick searching for samples and loops, dragging & dropping straight to your DAW, and, of course, the ever-helpful "Spot to Timeline" feature that places the selected file (or section within) straight at your playhead. While Explorer doesn't automatically detect which DAW is running on your machine, if you tend to use the same one most of the time you won't have to manually select it from the dropdown each time.

A welcome addition is the built-in effects rack where you can create a processing chain consisting of various bundled plug-ins. These include: EQ, clip gain, reverse, pitch shift, woosh, and more. These effects automatically get rendered to a new file whenever you drag & drop or spot a file into your project. Combinations of plug-ins can also be saved as presets for easy recall. This feature is very reminiscent of SoundMiner's FX rack which is only available in the Plus ($399) or Pro ($899) versions. Killer added value!

The big advantage over the others mentioned in. this article? There is no hard limit to how many individual files the free version can index. In fact, the only feature the free version doesn't get is access to the Sound Particles FX Cloud online library. If you struggle finding the right sound effects but don't have the means to invest in pricey libraries, this on-demand collection of over 100,000 sounds can be an excellent starting point.

Another handy feature in its metadata panel is that it keeps track of how many times you've used (drag & drop or spotted) a sound letting you keep an eye out for sounds you might be overusing. This can be used helpful in keeping things sounding fresh and original across your different projects.

The so called "brightness" column also gives you an idea of where the highest frequency with significant energy sits, letting you decide at a glance whether a sound may or may not be suitable for your desired application. For example, if you're looking for dark and ominous drones, ones that high-pitched swirls or crystal-like sounds might not even be worth listening to. The brightness value would immediately let you know that this sound wouldn't be one you even need to review during your initial search.

Pros

  • Unlimited indexing capabilities in free version
  • No paywalled features besides their cloud library
  • Basic FX rack integrated (EQ, woosh, pitch shift, phase invert, etc.)
  • Ability to convert sounds from any format to mono, stereo, surround, and ambisonic
  • Multiple view options let you dock a smaller Explorer left, right, or at the bottom of your screen
  • Waveform preview in sound list and spectrogram view for selected sound
  • Fluid search and user experience
  • "Brightness" column is an interesting factor to sort your search results by
  • Supports binaural (virtualized) monitoring of Ambisonic and surround files
  • High-quality cloud library available ($19,99/month)
  • Offers a spectrogram / FFT view for its waveform display
  • Features a built-in Ambisonics decoder

Cons

  • FX rack is great, but 3rd party plug-in support would make it amazing.
  • UI elements can feel a little too small on high-DPI screens.
  • Can only connect to one library location at a time.
  • Currently no support for networked collaboration
  • Currently no support for network storage or cloud storage providers
  • Spot to Timeline does not auto-detect your active DAW
Try Explorer

Soundly

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As far as I'm aware, Soundly has been among the first apps to offer sound library management free of charge and provide the option for a paid cloud library that can cover the needs of any sound designer looking to get their start in the industry.

Thanks to it's amazing and ever-growing on-demand cloud library, Soundly has quickly become a hit with sound designers around the globe working on indie games, podcasts, and low to mid-budget movies. Can't find a sound in their cloud library? Suggest it and the team will actually try and source it for you!

For features, Soundly focuses on offering all the necessary basics and doing them right. It's super responsive, offers many handy features like an easy-to-use metadata edit window, and even includes a brand new built-in Voice Designer which can generate surprisingly natural sounding AI-based text-to-speech in a split second.

In "Dock Mode" soundly shrinks to a toolbar-like interface which takes up about 15% of your vertical screen space while retaining all of its searching and monitoring functionality. This works especially well if you're working on a single-screen setup but would like to still have your samples just one drag & drop away.

Its Spot-to-Timeline feature will automatically detect your active DAW, making spotting a breeze. Like Sound Particles Explorer, fades can be added in the waveform panel and files can be converted to mono, M/S decoded, and surround channels exported individually (or stereo pairs, quad files, etc.).

The only caveat for me is that the free version only allows for up to 10,000 sound effects. Since Soundly's cloud library is so strong though, I would highly recommend subscribing to Soundly Pro for anyone looking to get their start in the industry with a well-stocked library of professional sounds.

Pros

  • Super responsive search with built-in thesaurus
  • Dock Mode is a huge bonus for single-screen users
  • Very simple and quick metadata editing
  • Built-in Voice Designer gives you dozens upon dozens of AI voices with just a handful of clicks. Super handy for drops, temporary dialogue tracks, background walla, and much more.
  • Ability to work with cloud storage like Google Drive and Amazon S3
  • Peer-to-peer connectivity for network collaboration either locally or around the world.
  • Ability to drag & drop files into library without copying them. They will end up in a section called "loose files".
  • Pro version offers extensions including real-time search in the FreeSound library and additional free SFX from 3rd party providers.
  • Very high quality cloud library with new sounds added daily at $14,99/month.

Cons

  • No FX-rack functionality. No ability to host audio plugins within Soundly.
  • Can only connect to one library at a time.
  • Free version limited to indexing 10,000 local files.
  • Free version limits voice designer renders to 25/lifetime.
Try Soundly

SoundQ by Pro Sound Effects

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SoundQ comes from the company Pro Sound Effects, a household name in the film and games industry when it comes to ultra high-quality original sound effects libraries and the ability to purchase sounds both as bundles as well as individually. While SoundQ is also a vehicle to facilitate the SFX purchases on demand, it's also a very powerful sound library manager that's similar to Soundly in many ways.

Three distinct advantages over Soundly are as follows: 1) you can browse the FreeSound.org library without requiring any paid subscription. 2) around 2,000 sounds and 100 music tracks with stems come bundled with the free version. 3) The free version can index an unlimited number of local sounds.

Alas, cloud collaboration, network storage, or shared libraries are not supported - but this omission shouldn't concern most people working on their own.

Pros

  • Unlimited indexing capabilities in free version
  • 2,000 SFX and 100 royalty-free music tracks (w/ stems) included
  • Fluid search and user experience
  • Automatic keyword translation in search
  • FreeSound.org integration included in free version
  • Lowest-cost subscription at $9.99/month while including 100,000 sound effects

Cons

  • No built-in processing or 3rd party plug-in support.
  • Can only connect to one library at a time.
  • Currently no support for networked collaboration
  • Currently no support for network storage or cloud storage providers
  • Spot to Timeline does not auto-detect your active DAW
Try SoundQ

BaseHead Creator Edition

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After SoundMiner, BaseHead is likely the 2nd most popular sound library manager in the film and games industry. While most versions of it can be quite pricy, they recently introduced a Creator Edition which focuses on the essentials and also brings with it a huge library of 22,000 sound effects graciously donated by some of the biggest names in the SFX library game.

While the number of files the free version can index is limited to 69,000, this should still be enough to suit many people's needs when starting out. Exporting resolution is limited to 24 Bit / 48 kHz which is perfectly fine if you're just starting out or mainly working on web-based content, and pitch-shifting can be "baked-in" when dragging & dropping or spotting to timeline.

Pros

  • 22,000 included SFX make this the largest included library on the market
  • Fluid search and user experience
  • Supports multiple databases (aka multiple folders on different drives can be indexed)
  • Can index up to 69,000 local files

Cons

  • Exporting to timeline limited to 24 Bit / 48 kHZ (fine if you're just  starting out)
  • No cloud storage integration
  • No plug-in support
  • Minimal metadata support
Try BaseHead

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