Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Lightsaber Sound

Happy new year Skywalkers!
I was fortunate enough to have been contacted by a few readers regarding my last post. That means that this new year you'll also be reading new contributors.
So, let me introduce to you Mr. Noah Jurcin, aka Phonaut. He is not only a lover of all things Skywalker Sound but also a sound designer himself, working on the videogame industry. Without any further ado, I'll let you read this wonderful post he prepared for us.

- Sam

The Lightsaber sound. What more can be said about one of the most iconic sounds in one of the most iconic sagas in film history? Rather than retread what has already been discussed about these futuristic swords of light, this month's blog entry is a convenient roundup of resources available on the web about how this sound was created, and how you can make similar sounds using easily available and inexpensive gear. Let's start with Ben Burtt's own comments about how he discovered and created the components of the basic lightsaber humming noise:

As mentioned in the video clip, the lower-pitched component of the saber-hum originated from a Simplex projector with interlock motors, while the brighter, buzzing component came from the quite serendipitous action of walking around a cathode ray tube while he was holding a microphone. The interference from the CRT as captured by his particular microphone created a textural sound which, when combined with the projector noise, created the lush drone we all know as the lightsaber sound. You can approximate these effects without having access to these exact pieces of equipment. Radio Shack stocks an inexpensive ($8) item called the "Recorder Telephone Pickup" which you can use to make the basic humming loop.

I plugged one of these into my handheld recorder and captured a multitude of strange, otherworldy electronic noises simply by walking around my apartment. All electronic gear creates an electronic field just begging to be tapped into by anyone interested enough to tap into it. Check out this small collection of sounds produced by commonplace household devices such as a laptop, microwave, a CRT computer monitor, and a clock. You will hear that my loops contain the all-pervasive 60Hz hum that wall-outlet electronics in the USA create (or 50Hz outside the USA).

The next step brings us to the remarkably simple technique Burtt used to add movement and realism to the hum. This technique tricks the listener into thinking the lightsabers are moving around in space by adding subtle doppler shifts to the humming loop. Just play one of the steady loops out through a speaker in a room while holding a microphone in your hand. A shotgun mic might work better because of the elongated shape. By swinging the mic toward and around the source speaker playing the loop, you will add slight doppler shifts to the microphone recording you are making. I approximated this effect by moving my telephone pickup device in various ways around my kitchen microwave. This method didn't add doppler shifts per se, but did add textural variations of interference which mixed in different ways depending on the position of my pickup device.

For sound designers ready for a much more meticulous and detailed account of recreating lightsaber sound effects, I highly encourage you to stop over and read the Lightsaber Sound Cookbook put together by Derrin Blondin.