I love reading. When I read, I am transported to another world, as described and defined by the author. And yet, there is one thing I’d love for books to have: sound effects. One of the things I love about movies, ever since reading about the amazing work done by sound engineers in Star Wars, is the background noises that we take for granted. For example, a spaceship’s hum.
So, how easy is it to come up with these?
Eric Grundhauser of Atlas Obscura recently interviewed Spike Snell (aka Crysknife007 aka Cheesy Nirvosa), a noise musician whose YouTube channel consists largely of over a hundred videos with loops from the ambient hums of dozens of science fiction ships. Presented as white noise/sleep aids for geeks, it has earned him an amazing nine million views so far.
Each to his own
“Each spaceship sound in sci-fi culture is unique and has differences in the way that they rumble, and in the subtleties of their atmosphere,” says Snell. The background sound of the ships have done almost as much to build their respective worlds as the sets themselves, even if you don’t normally notice them.
Since no one actually knows what a warp drive sounds like, these hums and drones are created by sound effects editors who take tones from a number of sources to create some of the most recognizable spaceship sounds around.
Peter Lago: a ship’s character
According to Peter Lago, a sound effects editor for Warner Brothers, creating a ship’s sound is all about its character.
The Millennium Falcon is going to sound like the Millennium Falcon. In the movies, they call it a piece of junk, so it’s got to sound a bit broken down, but still cool and badass.
Once the nature of the ship is determined, whether it is a sleek, well-cared-for vessel or a janky barge, barely limping through the cosmos, its background hum can be created using anything the sound designer can dream up.
Lago recently worked on the CW show The 100, which features a century-old space station called The Ark, a vessel which had been cobbled together by an ancient United Nations, but is, during the time of the show’s story, beginning to fall apart. In creating the ambient sounds for The Ark, the age and impending failure of the station needed to subtly come across in the sounds of the location. For The 100, Lago would sometimes just create sounds from things around the house:
I’d just set some microphones on the ground and drag something slowly. I’d tie a bunch of my kids’ toys together and drag them slowly, and get a nice little recording of some weird sound, and use those pieces in there.
But even within a larger ship, the sounds can differ from location to location. For instance, the peaceful solemnity of a captain’s quarters is probably going to be different from the hustle and bustle of an active cargo bay, requiring similar, but distinctive sounds.
One thing I did for The 100, I was shopping at a Fresh and Easy, and they had this freezer that made this incredible, “OOOOMMMMM.” So I just stuck my recorder in there and closed it, and just stood outside of the freezer for a minute or so. Then I took that recording, and cleaned it up, and it was kind of elegant.
But a smooth elegant hum wasn’t right for all of the parts of the ratchety, old ark, so Lago used it specifically for the upscale chambers of The Ark’s ruling class.
For all of the work that goes into creating the unique sound of a given spaceship, the ultimate goal is to make sure that the noise both informs the setting, but also goes unnoticed behind the sounds of dialogue and other active sounds in the world. When this delicate balancing act is achieved, the viewer shouldn’t be actively aware of the tone:
A lot of this stuff happens in the subconscious, or it goes by unknown. It’s gotta feel so natural that the audience believes that [this is what this spaceship sounds like].
Here are a few examples collected by Eric Grundhauser for your enjoyment, along with Lago’s comments:
‘This ambient loop feels like a heavily processed recording of an airplane in flight. I don’t hear the nuts-and-bolts of the engine components, but rather the smooth, higher and lower airy sounds, which give it a soothing and steady feel. This feels like a practical ship; a working-man’s ship, but with a slight hint of something more elegant underneath.”
“This has a heavier, hollow, more sci-fi presence. The loop has a definitive heartbeat of sorts, percussive and militaristic. Appropriately ominous.”
“This feels like a more modern, heavy LFE (low frequency energy) rumble of modern science fiction films and shows. It’s rich, round, steady and badass. I love this stuff.”
“This sound is similar to the Star Trek loop in the sense that it’s airy, steady, and urgent. This feels a bit like a processed hot rod/El Camino/Camaro idling, blended with a slightly-flanged air conditioning return. It’s not a fancy, romantic sci-fi element, but it’s cool!”
“To hear the actual sounds of an actual space station is exciting. Its active, in motion, engaging and real. Steady air flow, high-frequency computer/electrical hums, some kind of rhythmic clanking in the loop… Listen to it long enough and you’ll find yourself nodding your head to the beat.”