I reach Rob Nokes during one of his few breaks at work. Today he’s working on Bones, and can’t believe the show’s been running for 12 years. “We never thought it would last this long,” he says. Nokes was born in Winnipeg, Canada and is the founder and president of Sounddogs, a sound effects company with a small team based in Los Angeles. A kind and eager conversationalist, Rob is even curious about the methods I’m using to record our interview and have it transcribed. It’s immediately obvious that he’s the real deal.
Prosumer vs. Professional
Nokes is pro-sound. He’s a lover of the art and science it takes to research and capture the perfect sound and he can talk about it for hours. He’s even building a technology to help him keep track of all his sounds.
“The difference between, say, a prosumer recordist with their zoom recorder and what I do…” He trails off, searching for the best way to describe what seems to be a huge chasm in quality. “If you have a great sound and you put a Rhodes mic, a Zoom recorder, any of those devices up, you’re going to be 70% of the way there. You’re automatically in the ballpark. What people expect from me is to go two or three notches higher to get as close to awesome as possible and that’s really the difference. I have to think, ‘How do I get as close as possible to a red-tailed hawk and make it scream.”
The prosumer carries their recorder around to seize the moment, the professional does days’ worth of research, drives 4 hours with a hired specialist in the car to find the moment, then records it from one foot, two feet, and three feet away, with variations on each.
“Quite often with animals it’s sunrise, you know?” he asks (I didn’t know!). “That’s when they make the most noise. When you put all the little details together, that’s what it takes to record awesome, great sounds.” He stresses the lengths it takes to go to a sound. “You don’t record it from half a mile away and hope it’s going to sound good, because it’s not going to be the right level. I want to be an arm’s length from the car that passes me. I’ve had planes where I’ve had to duck or it would have hit me in the head. Maybe it’s not the safest thing in the world to do but if you want to get big sounds you have to be super detailed and have patience.”
Piracy and the Future
You can’t talk about sound effects without talking about piracy. Unfortunately, they’re easy to steal and difficult to track.
“It’s widespread, happens to all of us, and makes me very sad,” says Nokes. “We recorded one of the greatest tigers and lions libraries for a movie called The Hunter. It was a Korean movie about a year and a half ago. If you go to YouTube and type in ‘tiger sound effects,’ you’ll hear incredible recordings from a guy in Pakistan or a guy in India, that no one has ever heard of. It seems too good to be true — if he’s that good, he should be doing movies. The lesser quality stuff is easy to place, anything that’s scratchy, from too far away without the best preamps or with other faults, it makes sense that it would be someone with no credits. But when I listen to these tigers, I know there’s no way this guy recorded this eclectic set of sounds and owns them.”
Nokes says that a lot of the pirated sounds come from real libraries that someone has spent time building. “The person stealing the sound will just change one effect and put their name on it. It’s crazy.” The risk isn’t just in having your sounds stolen — it’s in buying stolen sounds from acquired collections. “When I bought SoundStorm, we put a lot of effort into vetting the content and making sure that we avoided those issues. I don’t want to be the person who’s ripping someone off, even inadvertently or accidentally.”
Ways to combat this issue are evolving, as the demand for content becomes standard. Watermarking is what people are using now, but Nokes envisions a time where the audio fingerprint is the new standard. “Fingerprinting would be in the DNA of the file. I could play the same two dog noises together and a fingerprinting system would know the difference.”
Stories and Insights from the Field
Rob has been to some of the most remote places the earth, and he’s brought back more than noises: he’s got stories.
He’s waded through swamps while recording frogs. He’s stood in Algonquin National park with moose all around him, wondering if he was between a mother and her baby. Once, he was in Kazakhstan and found himself in a circle of camels watching two of the camels have sex. Naturally, he reached for the mic. “This is is awesome – like Star Wars awesome”, he says of the sounds. “I’m maybe eight inches away with my microphone and then I looked down to see I wasn’t recording! It was such an amazing sound my IQ dropped.” He managed to press record but only got half the sound. When he (and the camels) finished, his translator told him he was lucky the camel wasn’t jealous or it would have ripped his arm off.
He’s recorded in a Los Angeles morgue and in monasteries in Prague, with countless tropical fish, dogs, birds, football games, cars, and junkyards. His IMBD page ranges from Seabiscuit to Barely Legal to As Good As It Gets. He tells me the story about when he and his wife were detained and kicked out of Cuba, but deportation isn’t even the heart of the story: Nokes is more focused on the sounds of the island’s cities.
“With globalization, everything has started to sound the same. There are subtle differences, but you could be in Singapore or New York and probably not have a big difference in the technology of the cars, for example. When I went to Cuba, it sounded like 1956. No helicopters buzzing or Ducati motorcycles. Just old clunkers that have been well-maintained. Cuba was a time capsule and I wanted to get down there before the embargo is lifted. After that, it’s going to sound just like Florida. A lot of stuff there is still done by hand so you can actually get craftsmen doing craftsman-type stuff that we would have had 50 years ago.”
Check out Sounddogs’ collection of sounds in the Pond5 library below: