TTA GUIDES: Tagging for Sound Design

This month we put together a tagging guide to help with the accurate categorization of SFX, Foley, and Sound Design tracks for sync music/trailer libraries. For more general tips on structuring a good taxonomy for your music library, check out our previous post here.


Whether tagging a track that lasts half a second or half an hour, descriptive metadata for Sound Design, SFX and Foley libraries is just as important for quick, accurate search as that of traditional musical cues.


While even the most trailerized music benefits from commonly understood categories like Genre, Mood, and Instrumentation, Sound Design and SFX tagging requires language that caters to the specific sonic details that differentiate each sound, providing the right kind of info to the editor or supervisor looking for just the right effect.


A strong, hierarchically organized taxonomy of sound design and sound effects terms can also greatly enhance the organization and searchability of your library, providing your SFX catalog the same level of cohesion you would expect from a music library populated with albums, playlists, genre and artist categories.


Let’s dig in!


STEP 1: Context Categories


While exact terms differ from library to library, a useful starting point for tagging your Sound Design catalog is to choose some basic categories for your tracks that best summarize the context in which you expect them to be used.


At TTA we try to be ready for everything, and have a wide variety of basic Sound Design subcategories we use when first tackling a catalog of mixed music and effects, including:


Accelerators, Alarms, Atmospheres, Bass Drops, Blasts, Bowed FX, Braaams, Bumpers, Cartoon FX, Crashers, Cymbals, Decelerators, Drones, Drops, Escalations, Explosions, Fallers, Flybys, Gongs, Heartbeat Pulses, Hits, Impacts, Metal Scrapes, Overlays, Power Downs, Pulses, Ramps, Reverse FX, Rhythmic Beds, Rips, Riser Beds, Risers, Rumblers, Scrapes, Screamers, Shrills, Slams, Stingers, Stutters, Suckbacks, Sweeps, Swells, Swooshes, Transitions, Whooshes, Wipes, Zaps


Some categories work well as nothing more than cut-and-dry descriptions for commonly used SFX and foley effects, like Metal Scrapes, Explosions, or Flybys.


Others contain musical/SFX elements meant for specific musical applications, like Hits, for short stabs of audio meant to punctuate dramatic action, or Bass Drops, like those often used in trailers to trigger moments of intense anticipation.


Still others blur the line between audio effect and full musical cue, like Atmospheres/Drones, which could contain entire compositions meant for minimal background mood, or Risers, which can range from simple synth screams to through-composed orchestral crescendos.


How broadly you define these categories will depend on how much audio is in your catalog—the list above differentiates between Risers and Riser Beds, for example, or Scrapes from Metal Scrapes—but overcomplicating your library with overly specific categories can hinder the searchability of the catalog if the resulting subcategories don’t offer much variety or turn up few search results. So don’t be afraid to start somewhere, then continue to refine your taxonomy as your sense of your library grows.


STEP 2: Adding Elements

Beyond basic categories, another class of highly useful tags for search are those defining the Elements used in the track.


These should include any and all individual instruments, sounds, or identifiable effects used in the tracks, and work similar to instrument tags for normal music tracks except that in the case of Sound Design, the more detail the better.


In typical Sound Design catalogs, many of these elements are often listed in the track title itself:


“Cricket Woods Atmosphere Owl Hoot 3x”

“Slow Phasing Rocket Pulse Loop”

“Machinery Crunch and Crash (No Reverb Tail)”


Though coming up with some formalized element tags that can be shared across other tracks will also boost search, and help link together like sounds across the catalog:


Crickets, Wilderness FX, Owl, Nature, SFX, Sound Effects

Rocket, Engine, Synth Pulses, Studio FX, Sound Design

Metal Crash, Machinery, Foley, Metal Scrapes


Similar to choosing categories, these element tags should be specific, but not so specific that they confine tracks to obscurity. When in doubt, put track-specific details in the track titles where they will be most visible, and use the Instruments field of your search platform for specific element tags that may be shared across more than one track.


This will ensure that related tracks appear alongside one another in searches, along with providing neat UI options for whatever platform pulls from the metadata.


As a final step, adding in more generally applicable Style tags can further broaden the search reach of sound design and sound effect tracks, while appealing to the types of searches where the specific elements are less important than how the sound will be used:


Night, Dusk, Woods, Nature, Wilderness, Wildlife, Animals

Space, Sci-fi, Space Travel, Science and Technology, Effected

Large Machines, Factory, Crash, Metal


Though be sure not to use these too aspirationally—try to keep as objective as you can to avoid cluttering up searches with unrelated tracks.


STEP 3: Hierarchies & Organization


For many libraries just starting with sound design catalogs, the extent to which tracks are organized may amount to not much more than a collection of nested subplaylists on DISCO, or a series of folders and subfolders kept locally on a single hard drive.


But with a laser-focused metadata hierarchy you may find that the powerful search features of online platforms can actually outperform the rigid structure of folders and subfolders, or even reveal deeper relations between your tracks that may not have been visible otherwise.


We go into the specifics of metadata QC much more deeply here, but the basic gist is this: taking the time to establish the structure of how your tags work together (like eliminating redundancies, thinking carefully about the coverage of different words, establishing hierarchies of tags, eliminating bad tags altogether) will ultimately help make sure that when new tracks are tagged, they are tagged consistently and in a way that helps them work together with other tracks in your library.


In the case of Sound Design, for example you may have the following folder schema set up for a chunk of your catalog:


ATMOSPHERES –> Organic –> Underwater Synth Bed w Water Pulses.aif

NATURE SFX –> Water –> Low Underwater Splash SFX.aif

DRONES –> Muted/Synthetic –> Low Filter Pulse Drone.aif


At first glance these tracks might not seem to have much to do with one another, and certainly by virtue of the file structure have nothing that would encourage us to consider them as remotely related. And while the macro-level categories (Atmospheres, Nature SFX, Drones) are perfectly appropriate, consider how the tagged metadata for these tracks might compare:


Underwater Synth Bed w Water Pulses.aif

Categories: Atmospheres, Organic

Elements: Water SFX, Synth Pulses, Synth Drones, Filtered/Muted

Styles: Ocean, Underwater, Deep Sea


Low Underwater Splash SFX.aif

Categories: Nature SFX, Water

Elements: Water SFX, Filtered/Muted

Styles: Ocean, Underwater, Deep Sea


Low Filter Pulse Drone.aif

Categories: Drones, Muted/Synthetic

Elements: Synth Pulses, Synth Drones, Filtered/Muted

Styles: Ocean, Underwater, Deep Sea, Underground


While this is obviously a made up example, it’s should also be obvious how much can hide beneath the surface of rigid structures like folder layouts and playlists, and how keeping your taxonomy consistent and applicable to many types of tracks can bring together resonances in your catalog that would otherwise be missed.


It’s one of the biggest compliments we’ve gotten from libraries through the years when we’re told how a music supervisor managed to find the oldest, craziest track to place, all because the metadata led them there. Sound design is no different, and the value of your SFX/Sound Design catalog is only as much as your ability to find the tracks in the first place.


Tagteam Analysis offers music tagging and metadata services to companies and libraries in need of advanced music search tools and optimization. Read more about us on our website:

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