How Nuno Fonseca built an audio startup that Hollywood studios can't live without
Photos provided by Sound Particles
Sound Particles develops audio software that utilizes computer graphics to create fantastic soundscapes. Founded by Nuno Fonseca, the startup's technology has been used in all major Hollywood studios and leading gaming companies. Previous productions that used Sound Particles include Dune, Oppenheimer, Game of Thrones, Indiana Jones, Stranger Things, Ready Player One, and many more.

Nuno always had a passion for both engineering and sound. After completing an engineering degree while attending music composition classes, he got a job at an IT company. Realizing he wanted to continue marrying both tech and audio, Nuno took up a professorship instead, which allowed him to do side projects. "At the time, there were a lot of sampling libraries that had several sounds of choirs and I decided to create a utility that would allow people to write text and [make the software] sing like a choir," he shares, talking about his first successful music tech product launch. That kicked off his collaboration with Eastwest.
After pursuing his PhD, in singing voice resynthesis, Fonseca was in search of a new venture. Being a fan of cinema and visual effects, the founder decided to take one of its concepts, particle systems, and apply it to audio. In films, visual effects are created using particle systems, a computer graphics technique that makes thousands of small objects to simulate those effects. Nuno wanted to build a technology that would generate thousands of sounds that would allow the industry to create amazing soundscapes.

Usually, there are two different types of software: ones that work with pixels (tools like Photoshop) and others that have endless 3D spaces where you work a lot with virtual cameras. "For audio, all we typically have is the digital audio workstation – we pretty much do the same thing like with pixels by putting sounds on top of other sounds," the founder says. "Yes, we do have some 3D effects but it's almost like going to Photoshop and applying a perspective filter." For Sound Particles, he applied the same concept of empty endless space, giving users the opportunity to add sounds in different places and set their directions. "Instead of manually placing a sound here and there, I can say that I want 10,000 particles spread over an area of one square mile and then import 300 sound effects," Nuno tells me. This process can take as little as 10 minutes.

Although Fonseca had this idea for many years, he began testing it out only after completing his PhD in 2012. "I started creating my prototype, a 3D CGI software but for sound," he says, adding that he spent the next two years developing the MVP on his own. In 2014, he traveled to LA for the AES Convention and sent out six emails to the production studio giants there. Nuno still vividly remembers his first response: "[It] was Skywalker Sound, [which] invited me to do a presentation. Within the next six months, I ended up doing presentations at Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, Sony, FOX, and later on at Disney, Pixar, Apple, Google, Blizzard, Netflix, and others."
"I knew that this could be particularly interesting for big productions but let's face it – what are the chances of someone in the middle of Portugal creating software to be used by major Hollywood studios?"
At the end of 2015, the founder rolled out the first product version through the Mac App Store. In the first month, he got "a few thousand euros in sales" through licenses. Although the sales dropped after that, it showed that there's interest and there is demand for this product. "It was also tricky to sell on the App Store because you don't know who you're selling to," Nuno adds, saying that this was one of the reasons he switched to selling directly and opening a business.

A year after putting out the prototype, Fonseca decided to hire two other employees: a software tester and a second developer. "For two or three years it was a bootstrap approach – the revenue allowed [me] to pay the salaries for two other people," he recounts. When he saw another company start doing something approaching the Sound Particles concept, he considered turning to investors to have financial resources to hire a bigger staff and scale faster. "[That company] was still far away from what we were doing but it was a matter of time until others start exploring this – if that happens, it's game over," he says, explaining his thoughts then.
Nuno began looking for money from multimedia companies. It didn't take long before one of them put an acquisition offer on the table – it didn't invest in startups but wanted to buy Sound Particles for approximately $500,000, later raising the price to $1,000,000. Having a feeling that it was too soon to sell the tech, the founder declined the sale and instead found angel investors in Portugal. "Since we already had traction and movies like Superman v Batman were using Sound Particles, they said yes," he tells me.

In 2018, the company went from three people to a team of 10. Since then, Sound Particles has seen steady growth even when the pandemic hit. "We more or less double the revenue every year, but we also double the expenses," the founder conveys.

Looking back at how much the startup already accomplished, Nuno sees a fantastic journey, being able to attend ceremonies with directors like Steven Spielberg and working alongside top professionals across the entertainment industry.

Still, it's a journey that involves a lot of challenges. "Creating audio software is very complicated from a technical point of view – I'd say it's the most difficult area of software development," he says, laughing. "Creating a plugin is a nightmare – one DAW would work, and the second one doesn't. Then there are new operating systems [coming out], and everything now is broken. Sometimes, there's a bug in the DAW itself." The founder also mentions the oversaturation of the market in general, saying that there are probably as many users as there are plugins. The options are almost limitless and it's never been harder to break into the industry.
"We were nominated for an award by the Cinema Audio Society in LA and at the same ceremony, Spielberg was receiving an award for his career. There I was, meters away from [him] and Bradley Cooper. A few months ago, I was at another award ceremony and spent 15 minutes talking to [someone who turned out to be] the director of Top Gun 2. It's a rollercoaster."
While Sound Particles started off with film and TV, later adding games, it began developing products for the music industry only recently. If before the startup was mostly focused on sound design, it now offers a plethora of plugins and virtual instruments to expand its diversity of audio applications. "When people think about spatial music, they think about using a 3D paneer," Fonseca explains. "What we brought to the table was these 3D tools that allow us to bring much more features. Our goal was to think outside the box and bring new ways to interact with 3D sound."

The 3D synthesizer, panners that work virtually but also react to sound through this organic movement or the space controller where you can use your phone and simply point to where you want the sound to be are all evidence of this 'outside the box' thinking.

As the founder shares, the team has an endless list of plugins that they want to roll out for many years to come. "When we started thinking about this new way of working with 3D – this native 3D painting CGI-like approach – it was a whole new level where [everyone was] entering the world of computer graphics," he elucidates. "For me, it doesn't make sense when a big animation studio like Pixar makes everything on a computer, [and] you have the 3D position of every object, and when it comes to audio, everyone disregards that information and tries to do the same thing as 50 years ago."
With the entertainment industry turning to spatial audio, whether that be movies using Dolby Atmos or video games, there is still the underlying problem of the listening experience. Because most people don't own 12 speakers in their living rooms and rely on headphones instead, the industry still is in need of a proper 3D design. "Sometimes binaural reminds me of those color 3D glasses where you can see a movie [in a new way] but it ruins the colors and many other things – yes, you play the sound with headphones and sense a few things but [the tech] is not quite there yet," Nuno says.

To contribute to this issue, Sound Particles set out to build its own binaural solution, not liking the current options on the market. Beginning the development five years ago, the startup plans to roll it out as a prototype by the end of this summer. "One of the things I'd like us to do in the future is have our tech spread to allow everyone to get this 3D sound experience as it should be, not as it is today," he concludes.
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