A Not-So-Quiet Library

Thanks to the sound library, background music is coming to the forefront

For most people, a library is a place to research arcane subjects, flip through odd magazines, or carve your name on a desk, all at the softest of volumes. The "sound library" is far different. While the term suggests a place where noisemakers run amok or matrons organize rows of sounds by some fantastic Dewey decibel system, the reality is even stranger.

In fact, there is no single sound library. Instead, it's a name for a type of music made specifically as background filler for film, television, and advertising. For the past four decades, sound library record labels all over the world have worked in relative obscurity, employing talented musicians to craft music that most people won't even notice. In recent years, however, vintage sound library music has been discovered by DJs, hip hop artists, and electronica producers. Now these background sounds are becoming available to the general populace -- whether through reissues, samples, or club DJing.

Sound library labels first sprung up in earnest in the early 1960s as various mediums showed an increased interest in using pop music as aural wallpaper. The labels gathered composers and musicians to record with premium gear and the latest studio techniques. Then the labels assembled albums by thematically grouped tracks and gave them to production companies, with the agreement that the companies would not resell them. The labels received money (and paid artists) only when songs were licensed or broadcast. Although some labels specialized in narrow genres, most series were comprehensive, like a library -- designed to reach every possible need, from staid advertisers to ethnographic filmmakers to gritty cop shows. Instead of commissioning custom music, clients could simply dip into this vast musical reservoir.

Most countries had sound library labels: For example, England had KPM, Music de Wolfe, Chappell, and Bosworth; France had Montparnasse 2000 and Telemusic; and Italy had Octopus, Lupus, and Squirrel. Despite the fact that many overseas libraries aped the sounds of American pop music, the U.S. produced only a few noteworthy labels in this niche, with Valentino/Major Records by far the best.

No matter what country they lived in, the sound library composers were a motley bunch. Most often they were studio musicians and arrangers working in the background of the popular music scene. Occasionally, established artists wandered into the library ghetto to earn extra cash -- African saxophonist Manu Dibango, exotica guru Les Baxter, Moog pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey, and even English psych-rockers the Pretty Things all played on tracks. On the other hand, a few composers crossed over in the opposite direction, from background to forefront, with John Cameron releasing a jazz album, Off Centre, and the Academy Award-nominated soundtrack to A Touch of Class, and Keith Mansfield recording the Loot score. The most famous crossover composer is Walter Murphy, who scored a flash-in-the-pan disco hit with "A Fifth of Beethoven" on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

Stylistically, sound library music ran the gamut of musical genres. Although much of it sounded like the pop trends of the moment, many releases were in period or international styles -- albums were as likely to feature barrel organ or bagpipes as wah-wah guitars. Further, the music was almost always instrumental; if voices were used at all, they were generally considered instrumentation.

The need for variety often encouraged sonic experimentation with unique textures, rhythms, and moods. The sound library labels of France and Italy were particularly experimental, combining dissonance, electronic effects, and beats to create soundscapes unlike anything ever commercially released.

Though sound libraries seemed to encourage versatility more than personality, some composers, such as Keith Mansfield, Janko Nilovic, and Guy Pedersen, managed to assemble distinctive bodies of work. By using shuffling, bass-heavy rhythms (Mansfield), orchestral sweeps (Nilovic), or trebly bass-guitar leads (Pedersen), each achieved his own signature sound.

When the bulk of the library music now available was created, no one thought it would be remembered, let alone revered. But in one of life's little ironies, music recorded to conjure the atmosphere of, say, a drug-crazed discotheque has become the soundtrack to such real-life scenes, whether in the form of library albums played by DJs or the songs that sample those albums.


For the past 15 years, DJs and producers of all stripes have hunted for new sounds, often plumbing the depths of the most obscure African-American music for material. England's Northern Soul scene, for instance, has celebrated the gritty sound of mid-'60s American R&B for several decades. Likewise, the British rare groove scene, which first flowered in the mid-'80s, resuscitated the heavy funk of James Brown and his progeny. As time went on, rare groove DJs began looking farther afield for funky tracks -- first to jazz/funk and Latin records, then to international and easy listening, and ultimately to sound library recordings. DJ Chris Veltri, owner of San Francisco's Groove Merchant Records, frequently spikes his club gigs with library tracks. He says he prizes the music for "the innovation, all the experimentation you can find, the studio trickery, and, of course, the drums."

Rap and electronica producers followed a similar path, although with a slightly different emphasis. Most sample-based music grew out of that old-school hip hop staple, breakbeats -- that is, tracks containing percussive sounds suited to break dancing. (Oddly enough, one of the classics of the genre was the Mohawks' "Champ," which was released on a KPM sound library album and commercially as an English 45.) While DJs often looked for long, interesting grooves, electronica producers tended to be more all-embracing, searching for a unique drum sound or pattern, an arresting riff, or sound colorations like Moog noise. Library records, with their emphasis on exploratory sounds and pristine recording, were a font of sample-ready sounds. Beni B, head of Oakland's ABB Records, cites the "big, wide open sounds" of library recordings and the fact that "there's so many it's almost impossible to know where the original source comes from" as two reasons for their popularity. Producers like the Beatnuts, DJ Shadow, and DJ Spinna have drawn samples from library music, as have hip hop artists like Black Rob, Nature, and Pace One.

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