Sound design is one of those things that makes a huge difference in a film production, but that you never really think about. We're not talking about music here -- everyone knows the themes to Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and The Godfather (three of those made by the same guy, incidentally). We mean the robot beeps, heavy footsteps, massive explosions, monster roars, sword clangs and laser blasts that help bring a fantasy universe to life.
All of that stuff has to be created from scratch, usually by just one or two people. And usually, the high-tech sounds are created by whatever random shit they have nearby. For example ...
This one is instantly recognizable. The wonderfully distinctive "pew-pew" of blaster fire in the Star Wars films sings through the action, whether Greedo is shooting first or the Stormtroopers are missing everything in sight.
Laser blasts kind of sound like bullshit in either case.
One would assume that the sound effect for a deadly piece of future technology would be made with ... well, technology. A computer mixing board or a synthesizer or some other engine of bleep-bloop witchcraft has to be responsible for creating those wicked laser sounds, right?
Legendary sound designer Ben Burtt (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Willow ... basically, this guy made the soundtrack to your childhood) decided to eschew the old sci-fi cliches of synthetic beeps and buzzes when he worked on Star Wars. Sure, he could've just used a synthesized oscillator to make the laser sounds, but he went above and beyond the call of duty. Way above, as it happens.
Star Wars Wiki
He also made the whummmm whum whum tssssssh whum. Bless you, sir.
Burtt, armed with a tape recorder and a microphone, climbed a nearby radio tower (this was before 9/11, when people could do things like that for no reason). Then, presumably while trying his very best to look like he knew exactly what he was doing, he beat the ever-loving shit out of one of the guide wires with a hammer, recording the sound of the strikes. After a little bit of cleanup in the production studio, voila! Laser sounds! Subsequent generations of nerdy children could now be kept safely indoors.
"I bet if I smashed that with a hammer it would sound like the future."
Obviously, no one knows what a dinosaur actually sounds like.
That being said, arguably most people's knowledge of dinosaurs comes courtesy of one film: Jurassic Park. That movie showed us all what dinosaurs looked like, how they moved and (most importantly for this article) what noises they made. That last part is the brainchild of one man, sound designer Gary Rydstrom.
Many scientists insisted that dinosaurs didn't really roar the way we might imagine them to, and more likely just made gurgling sounds, but Rydstrom saw how totally lame that was and decided that this time, science could go screw itself.
"Gurgles can suck it. The T. rex sounded like a freight train made of teeth."
The result was a library of dinosaur roars, screeches, grunts and snarls that has essentially become a scientific document in the popular consciousness.
Tasked with imagining the vocalizations of several distinct varieties of long-dead creatures with absolutely no frame of reference, Rydstrom started where you'd expect -- by recording some contemporary dangerous animals and tweaking the sounds. But it wasn't as simple as "record a lion and make it more dinosaury." It was much more insane. Take the most iconic dinosaur from the film, the Tyrannosaurus rex:
There are about a half a dozen animals involved in his "voice": a whale (for the breathing), lions, alligators and tigers (for the low frequencies of roaring), an elephant (his primary, gut-busting roar) and a freaking koala (for the grunting).
Seriously. Check out this video and listen to the similarities:
The part where T. rex eats the lawyer off the toilet? That visceral chomping sound is a horse eating a corncob. The raptors breathing? That's the same horse, just relaxing. And later on, when T. rex bursts into that clearing like the Kool-Aid Man and eats a gallimimus? That sound is another horse, a female in heat screaming at a nearby stallion, because it is completely reasonable to assume that giant lizard monsters made noises like that.
So you have your Federation-class starship, a sleek, futuristic environment that looks clean enough for neurosurgery. But what about the doors? They can't just swing open on creaky old hinges, that would be totally ridiculous.
And Star Trek is never ridiculous.
So the doors on the Enterprise slide open autonomously, making that distinct whooshing noise we've all come to recognize. Check it out here, in this Star Trek: The Next Generation clip (which not only illustrates our point, but is also a tour de force of unintentional comedy):
Picard's hilarious and vaguely sexual commands aside, what could be the source of that futuristic "fssshh" noise made by the door to his office?
Believe it or not, that sound is just a piece of paper getting pulled from an envelope and somebody's shoe squeaking across the floor. Honestly, that's all it is; listen again and it'll spring out at you clear as day. Every time Kirk or Picard goes through a door: fssshh, paper from an envelope, squeaky shoe.
Sometimes space sounds like a guy in wingtips opening his mail.
The new J.J. Abrams Star Trek film used a different inspiration for the door slide -- a vacuum flush toilet, because apparently he wanted to take the series in a different direction while still preserving its dignity.
Doctor Who, the proud flagship of the BBC sci-fi department, is either a boring cheesefest or a grippingly engaging, witty drama, depending on how old you are when you watch it. Arguably the most recognizable element of the show to both fans and nonfans is the TARDIS, a blue police box that flies through space and time because in Britain that's called "imagination."
Eh, still better than crappy CGI.
Anyway, as you may have guessed by now, the TARDIS makes a unique and instantly recognizable sound that has solidified itself in the minds of nerds across the globe over the past half century. Take a listen here:
Again, it seems like far-out electronic space noises, something that could only be produced by computers or keyboards or some kind of tone-deaf robot.
That timestream-slipping sound is just house keys scraping along piano wire. Layer in some static for the buzzing, add some reverb and boom, it's TARDIS time.
Why don't we keep our police in boxes?
The effect was created by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which in the 1960s was the foremost sound department in the world, pioneering new sci-fi sound effects that mixed organic and synthetic sources into a strangely awesome cacophonic blend.
The most awesome part of the TARDIS noise? They're still using variations of the original effect that the Radiophonic Workshop made 50 years ago.
The Balrog Effect:
Even if you aren't a fan of The Lord of the Rings or only saw the first film, chances are you'll probably recognize the Balrog scene, if for no other reason than the now-famous phrase "You shall not pass!" inhabits the Internet in about a billion different memes that we assure you are only getting more hilarious:
The Balrog is pretty goddamned fearsome, in particular its hellacious bellowing roars. How did the sound of the Balrog take shape? By now you're probably thinking it was the same as with the Jurassic Park dinosaurs -- a bunch of dangerous animals and a microphone.
Or putting a microphone near Viggo Mortensen when he was being manly.
The Balrog Reality:
When David Farmer (sound designer on the LotR project) came up with the original template for the Balrog, he wanted it to sound like it was something that would live in the very bowels of the world, sort of like a big flaming turd with a sword and a whip. Or a giant horned tapeworm, if you will.
To that end, the Balrog's voice, and some of its movement, wound up being something ingenious in its simplicity: a cinder block scraping along a wooden floor at different speeds. That delightfully cracky, grinding sound that accompanies the demon is made of a mixture of rocks grinding together and the cinder block tearing over someone's parquet. Go and listen to it again and see if you can hear it.
Also listen out for "What the fuck are you doing to my floor?!" at 0:55.
The Ringwraith Effect:
And then you have the Nazgul, aka the Ringwraiths, aka the nine black-clad bad guys on horses who chase Frodo and company in pursuit of the ring. Part of the dread they inspire is their horrible eldritch screaming, like nails on a blackboard or fingertips on a balloon. Something about it sets your teeth on edge and sends even the mightiest pair of gonads retreating back into their body:
Surely there can be no other source for this sound than the hollow, demented screams of actual undead spirits.
The Ringwraith Reality:
As it turns out, the noise of fear itself is just a couple of plastic cups scraping together. No animals, no lunatic sound design interns screeching into a microphone -- just the cups, the kind you play beer pong with. To be fair, the sounds have been sweetened in the studio with some layering effects, but at their base it's just a guy with a microphone playing around with disposable party cups.
"Who's ready to PAR-TAY ... hey, where's everyone gone? Hello? I'm so lonely."
It's cool to know that in an industry dominated by CGI supercomputers and nine-figure budgets, there's still room for a creative guy and some shit he found in his kitchen cabinet.
For more help in making your crappy indie film, check out 8 Movie Special Effects You Won't Believe Aren't CGI and 5 Ways Hollywood Tricks You Into Seeing Bad Movies.