The Delightful and Unexpected Origins of 16 Star Wars Sound Effects

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When my girlfriend Marta and I saw Lincoln in the theater, we stayed and watched all the credits, as is our wont. When I saw Ben Burtt got a "Sound Designer" credit, I was all "Ooh, Ben Burtt did that sound!" That's the kind of thing that makes me excited, even after the movie is over. I hadn't given much thought to the sound during the film, but that's also the point: Lincoln had an immersive soundscape, one that drew you into the film's world without calling attention to itself. That's just Ben Burtt doing his job -- and he got his start in the business on the original Star Wars.

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There's a great book called The Sounds of Star Wars -- available at the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library -- in which Burtt describes how he did the sounds for all the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, and The Clone Wars. The real killer app is that it has an audio module doohickey which lets you listen to samples of each of the 256 sounds. It's kind of incredibly awesome, especially since the majority are isolated from the John Williams score, meaning you can appreciate them in a way that you can't from just watching the movies.

As is so often the case with chronological Star Wars history books -- the otherwise fascinating Star Wars Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle has the same problem -- it gets significantly less interesting once you get past the original trilogy, so I'm going to focus on his work on the first film. It's really astonishing what he achieved on such a small budget, all the moreso for how comparatively primitive his equipment was: Basically a few tape recorders, a few synthesizers, and a metric asstonne of ingenuity. It's no wonder that of the 256 sound clips in the book, 92 are from the original Star Wars. He'd already invented much of what needed to be invented.

All of the sound effects below are sourced directly from the sound module in the book, using the book's numbering and naming conventions, and I tried to match the screenshots as closely as I could to the book's graphics. (The main difference is that my screenshots are from the original theatrical cut of the film, 'cuz that's how I roll.)

001: Rebel Blockade Runner Fly-By.

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The sound of the Rebel Blockade Runner at the beginning of the film -- the ship that isn't the really big one -- is a slowed-down recording of World War II AT6 propeller-driven plane, mixed in with a recording of 747 recorded at LAX and some "muffled pink noise through filters." Did you even know pink noise was a thing? I sure didn't. Learning is fun!

002: Star Destroyer Rumble.

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Meanwhile, the sound of the Star Destroyer -- the ship that isn't the smaller one -- was a recording of a malfunctioning hotel room air conditioner combined with the Goodyear Blimp. With flanging, of course. Flanging makes everything better.

004: R2-D2 "Comments."

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Good ol' R2-D2. Who doesn't love R2? Nobody, that's who. And part of the reason is the dialect that Burtt developed for the droid, essentially a form of baby talk filtered through an ARP 2600 synthesizer. It's more complicated than that, but like most of these things, it's beyond my ability to properly condense without quoting from huge chunks of the book.

006: Tractor Beam and Coupling.

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Primarily a stock recording of buzzsaws in a sawmill, with the clunk-clunk-clunk sound derived from a piledriver.

012: Leia Zapped by Stun Gun.

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The ARP synthesizer again. We tend to associate synthesizers with digital, but that wasn't the case in the '60s and '70s. They were heavily analog at the time, and they produced a warm, meaty sound you just don't get from digital synths. There's also a bit of an air cannon mixed into the sound.

021: Aunt Beru's Food Processor

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Such a minor, insignificant little thing. You probably didn't even remember that Aunt Beru had a food processor, or that the lady with the wide lapels was called Aunt Beru. Nonetheless, this piece of slowed-down beeps is one of my favorites, because I'm sucker for the sound of shortwave radio, and this bit originates from a 20-minute recording Burtt made off his grandfather's shortwave in July of 1960. Burtt doesn't specify, but I'd like to think it's from a numbers station.

245: Old Obi Howl

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Now, George Lucas's constant tinkering with his films is legendary, usually "updating" the visuals, replacing the original optical effects with soulless CGI. (Not to editorialize or anything.) He tends to avoid the sound effects, though, mostly because Burtt nailed it the first time around. The weird howling sound Obi-Wan makes to scare off the Sand People is one of the rare exceptions.

Neither Burtt nor Lucas was ever happy with it, mostly because it was a stock animal sound, probably an elephant bellow. (I've always wondered what Alec Guinness's reaction was the first time he saw the movie and heard the sound. I'll bet he had no idea that was going to happen.) So, they decided to redo it. The Sounds of Star Wars says this happened in 2004, though the final sound as described doesn't seem to have actually been integrated into the film until the 2011 Blu-Ray release, a year after the book's 2010 publication date. Mystery!

Whenever it was, Burtt recorded sound designers Matthew Wood and David Alcord screaming their heads off in parking lot. The recording is awesome in its sheer goofiness.

246: Raw Yells.

Burtt then blended them together.

247: New Obi Howl.

Is it better? Enh. Is it different? Sure. Was it all worth it just so the "Raw Yells" recording can exist? Hell yeah.

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1 comments
Oliver Hull
Oliver Hull

Thanks, I have always been so in love with Star Wars fx...great to sample. The speeder/glider from endor come to mind...il

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