Creating the Sounds of Star Wars

Last month, when I was putting the finishing touches on my post on the classic British Cinesound sound effects library from the 1960s and 1970s, I did a quick Amazon search to include a link to the sound effects from the original 1966 iteration of Star Trek, which you can download as an MP3 collection for use in your own DIY video productions. That was when I came across this:

The Sounds of Star Wars? I had to have it.

Written by J.W. Rinzler, Lucasfilm’s in-house historian, who has previously crafted well-readable guides to the making of each of the Star Wars movies, as the title implies, this edition focuses solely on their sound effects.

While Star Wars quickly became legendary upon its initial 1977 release for revolutionizing visual effects, and phrases such as “Industrial Light & Magic” and “the Dykstraflex” became household words, Star Wars also revolutionized movie audio as well. Building on the pioneering efforts of Walter Murch, who has worked on a number of Francis Ford Coppola’s productions and Lucas's first two movies to bring the world of the recording studio to movie sound and sound effects, Ben Burtt created a distinct sonic palette for the Star Wars universe. Largely eschewing the sounds that Star Trek and other previous science fiction productions made famous, Burtt armed himself with Nagra recorder and a series of high quality microphones, and ultimately crisscrossed the country to build his own library of organic sound effects. While many of the sounds he captured were ultimately sped-up, slowed-down, and electronically-processed, the Star Wars sonic universe sounded remarkably believable, because it was built on an astonishing variety of real-life sounds.

In his interviews with Rinzler, Burtt recounts the story of how those sounds were captured: how Chewbacca’s voice was based upon growls recorded from a series of bears. How the lightsabers’ hum derives from an old film projector, and how the TIE fighter’s Stuka-like banshee wail was a combination of a slowed down elephant roar and car driving on wet pavement.

You’ll also learn how Burtt created R2D2’s unique voice from a mixture of an ARP 2600 synthesizer and by electronically processing his own voice while making child-like sound effects. As Burtt said, “Artoo had to act with Alec Guinness. So there had to be a certain amount of credibility and performance in order to sustain a conservation with such a terrific actor, who is talking to what looks like a drinking fountain or a wastepaper basket.” And since R2’s physical movements basically consist of turning his head from right to left, the audio has to carry the rest of the load.

Creating the sound of R2 in motion dovetails into a brief mention of Star Wars’ other sound effects man. Just as the James Bond series made John Barry a star while leaving fellow composer Monty Norman in the lurch, in The Sounds of Star Wars, you’ll also learn a bit about Sam Shaw, the first Star Wars movie’s lesser-known other sound man, who, while coming from a more traditional movie industry background than Burtt, used an equally radical approach for one of Star Wars’ signature sound effects. Shaw recorded the motors driving the power windows and power antenna on a Cadillac Eldorado as the basis for the servo motors whenever R2 and C3PO turn their heads or walk.