So you're a filmmaker entering post-production on your film, a game developer working on music and audio triggers or perhaps a YouTuber wanting to enhance your videos. You need SFX and a music soundtrack but you might not have the budget to hire a professional composer or audio engineer.
The question is: Can you still have a great commercial soundtrack and great SFX for your project utilizing only free resources?
Quick story about why I am writing this article:
My career is in electronic music production, but I also love game design and have always wanted to create my own video game, so 2 years ago I decided to produce my first interactive horror visual novel.
I was designing everything in-house: music, SFX, graphics, writing, everything. Many of you reading this are probably quite similar to me and are doing most of the work for your project yourself.
I could handle the music, the writing, and the code, but there was no avoiding the obvious fact that I was terrible at drawing and I did not have the field-recording equipment necessary to record my own sound effects.
I also did not have the budget to hire an audio engineer or an artist to provide me with SFX and the artwork needed for the game, so I had a dilemma.
How do I immerse the player in my story without quality sound effects, artwork, and no budget to pay for them?
Well, I did what I always do when I have a problem that seems impossible to overcome:
I asked the internet.
I spent days researching online and long story short I found dozens of websites providing free commercially-usable resources for my project.
And imagine my surprise when a few of these free resources...didn't suck! Not only did I end up finishing my game without spending a penny, but I could still sell it!
So I got to thinking, what about filmmakers, game developers, and YouTubers who already have great video and artwork but need great music and SFX? Are there equally-powerful free music libraries out there to search and download from?
I did my research and once again found some incredible resources that I am going to share with you now!
And not just that, but I'm going to help you incorporate and edit these free resources so they don't sound like you just downloaded them off random websites online.
Here's what we are going to cover:
- Where to obtain free, commercially usable music & SFX for your project without sacrificing the quality of your end-product
- How to edit music and SFX you downloaded from widely different sources to create a unified soundtrack that works with your project
- How to create loops, fade-ins, fade-outs and layer audio to immerse the audience
- Licensing, what it means and what restrictions you have when using these resources (not many, I promise)
- How to change the format of your audio to work with your software
- Where to find volunteers or paid professionals if you can't find what you need
So without boring you to death, let's get started with the best 9 websites to download free, commercially-usable music & SFX!
TOP 5 FREE COMMERCIALLY USABLE MUSIC LIBRARIES:
(For SFX, Keep Scrolling)
https://jordanwinslow.me/royaltyfreemusic - My Personal Library of Hundreds of Electronic & Orchestral Soundtracks Arranged by Category for Free Download - License: Free Commercial Use With Attribution (See Terms of Service on Website)
As I said before, I have been producing electronic music for over 14 years now, 5 years of which it has been my primary source of income. So I wanted to put together my own free resource for others to benefit from! These are some of my absolute best soundtracks, many of which are loopable. And I spent many days organizing them by category and mood to make it easier for you to find what you're looking for! And the best thing is, all of the tracks can be listened to without even leaving the page and can be easily downloaded in 1 click!
https://icons8.com/music/ - Incredibly Well-Sorted, Professional Library of Hundreds of Songs from Various Artists - License: “Free for a Link” (See Website)
Don’t be fooled by this company’s origin: They started off as graphic designers who made icons, thus Icons8. But they have evolved and got their hands on a rather large music library of various artists who have been curated by their team. Naturally, when a library is curated, it is subjective and therefore might not be to your tastes if you disagree with how they select their tracks for inclusion on their website, but it can’t hurt to take a look at their gallery since it is so incredibly well-sorted!
https://incompetech.com/music - A Classic Library of a Few Hundred Songs Ranging from Classic Rock to Jazz - License: Primarily Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
Incompetech has been around for quite some time and is recommended by many other bloggers because it provides a convenient category system. Unfortunately, the tracks are not organized by mood or tonal characteristics other than genre, so you will find tracks with the instruments you are looking for, but it may take some digging to find the appropriate mood you are looking for.
http://dig.ccmixter.org/free - A Massive Library of Non-Categorized Music Submitted by Various Artists - License: Primarily Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
Unfortunately dig cc mixter, though a MASSIVE resource with tons of great tracks, is not a great place to find music in the specific genre you are looking for as there are no categories and no search functions to speak of. If you are willing to spend the time looking through thousands of tracks though, you will find a few hidden gems on here that will fit perfectly in your project!
https://www.joshwoodward.com/- 200+ Primarily Acoustic & Electric Guitar Driven Songs - License: Commercial Use With Attribution (See Website for Terms)
The best part about Josh Woodward’s free commercially usable library is that he has tagged each and every song with different moods, themes, and styles to make it very easy for Filmmakers, Game Developers & Artists to search through tracks to find songs in the mood they are looking for!
Honorable Mention: https://www.partnersinrhyme.com/pir/free_music_loops.shtml - A Little Over 100 Free Unsorted Music Loops - License: Free for a “Thanks” or With Attribution (Vague, See Terms on Website)
This library is more of a last resort as the tracks are unsorted and not as high quality as others on this list, however free is free and these tracks would be suitable for app developers or creators who are looking for this type of sound.
TOP 3 FREE COMMERCIALLY USABLE SFX LIBRARIES:
https://www.zapsplat.com/sound-effect-categories/ - 27,000+ Searchable Sound Effects Recorded by Professionals - License: Free Commercial Use With Attribution
ZapSplat is by far my favorite free SFX resource. When I first discovered their website it had far fewer audio files and a much less appealing logo design. It appears they are dedicated to growth because they have completely redesigned their branding and added thousands of audio clips to their website! I personally used this resource in the development of my Horror Visual Novel titled “The Watchers.”
https://www.soundeffectsplus.com - Over 5000 Free Sound Effects Sorted by 16 Categories - License: Free Commercial Use With Attribution (See Website for More Details)
Soundeffects+ offers a large library sorted by the categories visible in the screenshot above. See something you’re looking for? Click the link and go check it out. Otherwise, keep scrolling!
https://www.videvo.net/royalty-free-sound-effects/freeclips/yes/ - 400 Free Sound Effects Sorted by Over 20 Categories - License: Complicated, each sound effect has it’s own license and it varies. Check each sound page for the license.
Videvo is primarily a stock video provider with many free video clips, but they are also breaking into sound as well and have an expanding library of 440 clips which isn’t much but they are very well sorted so it should be easy to find something unique for your project. Make sure you check their licensing page as their licensing is quite complex compared to other websites.
In the above 9 websites, you should be able to obtain all of the sound effects and music for your project as long as you are willing to put in the time filtering and searching through these libraries to find what you are looking for.
It may seem like a daunting task, but I have done it personally myself in my game development and have had great success!
My suggestion to you is download anything that sounds interesting to you at the time, even if you are unsure if you can use it in your project or not, and copy-paste the license information into a .txt file so you don’t forget to give proper attribution.
Part 2: How to Choose the Right Music & SFX for Each Scene, and How to Edit Audio to Achieve Your Goals
Once you have a selection of songs or SFX for your project it's time to edit. Since most of you will be using many different types of software I am only going to cover how to edit music in 3rd party FREE software, namely Audacity.
Don't knock it, Audacity is very powerful software and unless you're considering a career in audio engineering, music production, sound design or mixing, this is probably the only tool you'll ever need.
If you want more professional audio editing tools I highly suggest iZotope's RX6 software as it allows you to do incredible things such as take backgrounds out of one scene and move them into another, repair poor recordings and dubbing, and more.
How to loop music that wasn't originally recorded as a loop:
To achieve this the easiest method is to create a soft fade-in and fade-out on the track. You can experiment with different values but 1-2 seconds on each end usually suffices unless the music is louder or more complex, then you can try up to 4 seconds on each end or even more for atmospheric loops.
Here is an easy to follow video tutorial:
How to make everything sound cohesive, as if everything was designed specifically for your project:
Keep in mind, layering audio is an incredibly easy, yet very powerful tool at your disposal. You can loop one audio track while another one continues to play underneath it to keep the player from noticing the loop. You can even create elaborate scenes with chattering people, blowing wind, ambient tones, and musical accompaniment.
All of these types of atmospheres can be downloaded at the above free resources!
It is important to consider the stylistic and tonal changes of the music you downloaded when switching from one song to another. Don't just go from a percussive action track straight into a somber atmospheric melody.
Transitioning is key: utilize fade-ins and fade-outs during most, if not all of your audio changes so the experience draws the audience further into your story rather than taking their focus off the screen and into the audio.
Oh yeah, and...
Epic Music Does Not Make a Boring Scene More Epic!
I think there is a huge problem in the video game industry specifically (filmmakers don't scoff, it's a problem in your industry too, but perhaps less pronounced) where game developers think if they make the music louder and louder and more and more epic it will somehow make the game more fun or the experience more immersive.
Well, it doesn't.
Many times have I been playing through a game or watching a film where the audio is 10X more dramatic than what is happening on screen and it makes me just want to mute it or turn it down. This is not the experience you want to give your audience, trust me.
Consider the emotion of every scene before you place any music and ensure that listening to the music by itself gives you the feeling you want the player to have, but don't expect the music and sound effects to do the work for you on making the scene enjoyable and immersive!
Once you have a rough draft of your soundtrack & SFX library, go back to Step 1 and make SURE you didn’t miss any audio that may be in other categories you didn’t listen to that might fit the scenes you’re working on.
Part 3: Obtain the Appropriate License to Use the Music & SFX and Ensure You Have Given Proper Attribution
Whenever you’re working with royalty free music & SFX you always have to keep in mind that just because the music is free doesn’t mean you don’t have to cite the author.
For example, if you’re using my personal Royalty Free Music Catalog at https://jordanwinslow.me/royaltyfreemusic then this part is very simple:
If you will not make money from your project directly or indirectly (this includes advertisements and YouTube monetization) then all you have to do is put “Music Downloaded From jordanwinslow.me/RoyaltyFreeMusic%E2%80%9D in your credits, description or somewhere easily visible in your project.
If you will make money from your project directly or indirectly, simply fill out the Commercial License Request Form found on the website and enter in the title of your project and your project’s information for EACH project you will require music for.
All of the sites I linked above have very similar licensing agreements, so just read up on the individual website before you download, and ensure you create a .txt document with all the links you need so you don’t forget!
The best part about all of the above libraries is that almost every song and SFX clip you download can be legally edited, looped, layered, remixed and changed any way you see fit!
The only restriction is you cannot sell or distribute your edited or remixed audio clips as standalone clips if they were your own because technically the author still retains copyright ownership over the files. But that does not mean you can't sell your film or video game with the edited audio!
If you are confused, double-check the licensing page on each website to be sure.
And that’s how you spend time instead of money to create a custom soundtrack for your film, video game or YouTube video!
What to Do if you Still Haven’t Found What You’re Looking For, or the Audio You Downloaded isn’t the Correct Format
If the audio you downloaded isn’t in the correct format for your software, you can use the free open source tool Audacity to convert it by using the "Export" menu to change the format of your audio or use this free online audio converter: https://audio-converter.online/
Keep in mind that certain audio formats like .mp3 have restrictions on where they can be used. I recommend .ogg since it is an open source audio format with great quality and compression.
Now if for some reason you don’t find the music or SFX you need in those libraries of thousands of songs and SFX, it’s probably time to consider looking for a volunteer composer or simply hiring a professional.
You can find low-cost audio engineers and composers on websites like Fiverr and Upwork, but keep in mind that quality products do not often come with low price tags, be wary of anything that seems "too good to be true" because it probably is.
And be sure to listen to their portfolio thoroughly before making a decision!
I know it’s not easy to make a career out of your passions when you’re on a limited budget, believe me, just read My Story on https://jordanwinslow.me/mystory if you want to know how I spent 6 years in poverty before becoming a successful electronic music producer & composer.
But I guarantee if you put the time into finding music and SFX in the above libraries, or looking for a great volunteer, you can get your project done at no cost other than the hardware and software you purchased!
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me any time!
See you later, creators!
Electronic Music Producer, Composer & Audio Engineer