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.

There are enough original sound library records to bankrupt even the richest collector. To begin with, there used to be hundreds of library labels, some with catalogs running into triple figures. Since the albums were originally pressed in tiny quantities and carried restrictions on their resale, today they usually fetch a hefty price, more for rarity than for quality. Furthermore, sifting through these releases can be difficult, since the catalogs often cover numerous styles, sometimes on a single release. To make matters worse, the covers aren't a reliable gauge of content, and the albums are almost always uneven.

Locally, Groove Merchant is the best source for original library records. Veltri does a brisk business in them -- particularly with DJs -- finding many copies through trades with European dealers. While most sound library albums run $8 to $15, Veltri occasionally sells individual albums for as much as $200.

Luckily (especially for the novice listener), dozens of compilations of library material have been released over the last five years, both legitimately and as bootlegs. The legally issued collections typically focus on an individual label or artist, such as Janko Nilovic's Impressions Volumes 1 & 2 or the Cabildos' Crossfire. Bootleg compilation series such as Planet of the Breaks and Dusty Fingers often combine sought-after library tracks with commercially released material that sounds similar.

The first well-known library compilation was EMI's Sound Gallery, a 1995 oddity that showcased easy listening tracks from the KPM label. Others followed soon after, mostly from European labels. Recently, Veltri and his partner, Vinnie Esparza, got into the act by reissuing Nino Nardini's sound library effort Jungle Obsession on their label, Rejoint Records. The album has sold well, garnering good reviews as well as college radio and club play, encouraging Veltri to license other library tracks for future releases.

The newfound popularity of sound library music has had another odd effect: A few of the studio musicians have become minor pop stars on the strength of work they did decades ago. James Clarke received widespread notice when his old tune "Elephants a Go Go" was used front and center in the Gap's khaki ad campaign, while sexagenarian organist Alan Hawkshaw performed at a recent London concert for musicians who used to compose for KPM.

Sound library music began as nothing more than a cheap way to sell detergent or fill out a car chase scene. Now it's invading home stereos, nightclubs, and hip hop records. When they write the sound library chapter of music history, they'll file it under "b" for "bizarre."


Out of the Background

Here's a dirty secret: Even though sound library reissue compilations allegedly feature the best material, they aren't always the most scintillating listens. After all, the tracks were originally designed as background music -- many simply run riffs into the ground. With such concerns in mind, the following are some of the most consistently satisfying releases.

Super Sounds of Bosworth (Trunk UK) Divided equally between ambient electronic interludes and rigorous funk, this collection manages to be both eclectic and consistent.

Setting the Scene: From the Vaults of KPM (Groove Attack Germany) An excellent overview of the biggest and perhaps best library label, focusing on a number of KPM's more important composers.

Blow-Up Presents Exclusive Blend Volume 3 (Blow Up UK) Drawn from the Telemusic label, this compilation showcases the exotic and weird sound of French library music, with particular emphasis on the work of Guy Pedersen and Bernard Estardy.

KPM Soundclash (Mono) Along with Setting the Scene, this album provides a superb introduction to the sound of KPM, and especially the work of Keith Mansfield and Alan Hawkshaw.

Nino Nardini -- Jungle Obsession (Rejoint) This reissue is an unusually cohesive album by a legendary, prolific Italian composer, a unique fusion of exotica and funk that brings to mind Martin Denny leading James Brown's band through a luau.

Cinemaphonic: Electro Soul (Emperor Norton) Cinemaphonic focuses exclusively on the best of the American labels, Valentino/Major Records, with tracks drawn together by former What's Happening! star-turned-DJ, David Hollander.

Janko Nilovic -- Rhythmes Contemporains (Cosmic Sounds) This rerelease of a 1973 sound library album brings together big band jazz, funk, rock, and symphonic music in a synthesis that's dynamic and unique.

Bite Hard: The Music De Wolfe Studio Sampler 1972-80 (Barely Breaking Even) More than either of the De Wolfe albums released on the Italian label La Douce, this compilation provides a superb overall view of one of England's most important library labels.

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