Sound designer Ben Burtt shares how many of the iconic sounds in the Star Wars universe were first created.
I can’t think of a more iconic sound from my childhood than the “bbpshowwunnnnn” which came from those toy lightsabers that were so popular in the early 2000s right after the release of The Phantom Menace. It’s crazy to think how that one sound can bring up so many feelings of fantasy and adventure, only to learn its source comes from the hum of an old film projector.
As is the case for many of the canonical elements of the Star Wars universe, which now feel so lofty and magical, the source and inspirations come from so many innocuous inventions and happy accidents.
Focusing specifically on the sounds of the Star Wars universe, let’s explore how sound designer Ben Burtt was able to come up with many of these iconic sounds from his work on Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
Starting with perhaps the most recognizable sound in the entire galaxy, the lightsaber’s source audio comes directly from cinema itself. Burtt shares how the original inspiration for the lightsaber’s hum came from his time as a projectionist at USC, as the revelation came directly from old 35mm projectors in the film booth.
However, Burtt didn’t find the hum by itself to be “dangerous” enough, so he would go on to experiment with an array of broken microphones, television buzz, and some clever looping techniques to simulate the sounds of the lightsaber’s movement.
Honestly, we could highlight every sound effect which Burtt lists in this video, but the blaster noises are particularly unique. They also seem to simply sound exactly like how laser blasters should. Burtt’s inspiration for the blasters also comes a bit by accident as he discovered the distinctive sound from the twanging of a radio tower guy-wire while out camping.
To replicate the noise, Burtt went on a hunt across the greater Los Angeles area to find the exact right radio tower guy-wire, banging on each with a small metal wrench until he discovered one with the perfect sound to record and modify.
Burtt’s first assignment as sound designer for the original Star Wars would maybe be his single most famous audio concoction. Early in the makings of A New Hope, Burtt needed to design a rough cut for what Chewbacca’s roar would sound like so the production would at least have a scratch track to work off of.
Burtt would eventually settle on using bears as the source animal, and even cites his preference for a specific cub named “Pooh” who offered plenty of emotive roars. Burtt would then break down and sort these sounds into different emotions which he’d use throughout the productions.
A sonic undercurrent to all the Star Wars films which you might not always recognize, but certainly should always appreciate comes from just how alive all the sets and space stations are. For the Death Star in particular, Burtt worked hard to give any scene set on the gargantuan space station a “low rumble” and a “rhythmic pounding, almost like a heartbeat.”
As far as sound design goes, it says a lot about how important it is to world creation in any film or video project. In many ways, sound design can be just as important as the soundtrack to help engage the audience and to help inform how they should feel.
If the lightsaber might be the most iconic Star Wars sound, the roar of the TIE fighters might be the most terrifying. The way the noise rips across your ears as the starfighters flash across the screen is perhaps one of the most visceral elements in the entire franchise. The origins of the TIE fighter screech are also some of the most surprising.
While Burtt insists that he preferred to organically create the majority of the sounds for his first Star Wars film, there were a few which he adapted from the back catalogs of 20th Century Fox and Fox Film. Case in point, the TIE Fighter scream was a direct rip and manipulation of elephant roars combined with a race car driving across wet pavement.
This is a practice that has continued through and into the sound design on the latest Star Wars films and series like The Rise of Skywalker and The Mandolorian.
What's your favorite sound from the Star Wars universe? Let us know in the comments!
Don't forget to check out our mega-post of educational Star Wars links, too!