Star Wars Sound Effects: The Secrets Behind Wookies and Lightsabers
In an age when we can download lightsaber sounds in a single click, it’s easy to forget their origins. However, there’s a lot we modern sound mixers can learn from the 1970’s practical sound effects—and game-changing remixing techniques—of the original Star Wars saga.
Lions, Walruses, and Bears, Oh My: Creating Chewbacca’s Wookie Growl
Perhaps the largest lesson learned from the Star Wars sound team is that two sounds are often better than one.
Sure, YouTube and junior high cafeterias are ablaze with screaming impressions of everyone’s favorite Wookie. However, nothing quite measures up to the real thing—which, in the Trilogy’s case, is not a single human impression, but a mixture of bear, walrus, dog, and lion roars mixed together by original sound designer Ben Burtt.
And the sounds of all those TIE fighters flying through space? Quite similarly, they were created by layering varying tracks over top of a standard elephant call.
The lesson here? Creative mixing can turn even the most ordinary sounds into effects so original and successful they’re still being mimicked thirty years later.
(If you still need convincing on the power of mixing, Google “Brittney Spears without auto-tune.”)
Mixing Sound and Motion: Recording a Lightsaber Duel
This same mixing technique is, of course, responsible for the origin of the lightsaber whoosh as well. Burtt, formerly a movie theater projectionist, theorized that the hum of his vintage projection equipment (which had two motors creating varying pitches) would be perfect for the franchise’s lightsaber sound effects:
“I was a projectionist at that time at USC cinema,” Burtt said in an interview with NPR, “and there was a motor in the projection booth that had a humming sound when it just sat there idling. It had a very musical sound, a nice tone, almost a hypnotic tone. And I thought immediately that would be a good element for the lightsaber . . .”
However, the sounds alone needed something more: the buzz of electronic feedback that Burtt recorded from the back of an old television set. Mixed together at roughly 50-50, these sounds became the hum of the stationary lightsaber:
“ . . . a few weeks later I had an accident with a broken microphone cable, and the microphone picked up the hum from a nearby television. [It] had kind of a scintillating, angry buzz. Normally you throw that away, thinking it was a mistake, but I saved that picture-tube buzz, and I combined it with the sound of the projection motor, and the two sounds together became the basis for the sputtering hum of the light sabers.”
To make the light swords whoosh as they were swung in battle, Burtt simply ran this hum through a speaker and swung a microphone by it—creating a Doppler effect as the microphone recorded the track while passing back and forth.
The Chosen One(s): Finding Nature’s Blasters
Sometimes, of course, practical sounds have a different destiny—that of standing alone. Such was the case with the Star Wars blaster sound, which Burtt recorded using nothing more than a hammer and wire:
“The famous Star Wars laser gun, the blaster, came about because I was on a hike with my family, and we passed underneath the guide wires of a radio tower. I bumped against it, and the wire made a twanging sound.
I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s a laser gun,’ and that wire on that particular radio tower became the basis for all the blasters.”
Recently, a YouTuber named Michael Asher also discovered that a paper-cutting machine produced a similar blaster sound effect, so there’s still new territory to be discovered all around us:
Or, of course, you can let others do the work and just download the results royalty-free from our library. It might save you from having to explain to the police why you’re smashing someone’s radio tower with a hammer.
*We’ve got plenty of plain hammer sound effects too, should you tire of all the sci-fi whooshes.
Matt Siegel writes about stock audio, technology, and media for VideoBlocks.