Always listening

Ben Burtt was still a graduate student at USC when George Lucas asked him to design the sound for Star Wars.  The first thing Burtt tackled were the light sabers, and he says he had in mind something almost immediately to crate that now iconic sound:

“I was a projectionist at the time at the USC cinema department. In the projection booth there was an interlock motor on the projectors that made a wonderful hum. It was a musical hum, and sounded like a light saber to me. So I recorded that sound.”

But the projector’s hum alone didn’t sound quite fierce enough to him, so he kept hunting.

“I was doing some other recording in my apartment. I had a broken microphone cable which, when I carried the mike past the television set, picked up ‘buzz’ from the TV picture tube. Just the kind of thing you normally would not want in your recording. You’d reject it. But I thought, ‘Oh, that buzz sounds dangerous.’ So I combined the buzz with the hum of the projectors. The two together became the basic light saber sound.”

Ben Burtt says that he’s always listening for new sounds to use in the movies, whether he wants to or not, and that his passion for sound goes way, way back:

“As a child, I remember playing with my grandfather’s shortwave ham radio set in the blisteringly hot attic of his Ohio home during summer visits. I loved tuning between stations and listening to all the tones and beeps and whistles and static. Often I will do that today. I’ll turn on a shortwave radio, put it next to the bed, and mistune it somehow so I’m really not hearing any station directly. There’s something cosmic and enchanting about the endlessly different textures of random noises and tones—I find that it opens my mind. I find peace and excitement at the same time. So I guess that’s something that I’m always going back to.”

You can hear Ben Burtt on Studio 360 this week here, when Kurt Andersen and I talk about artists who take familiar materials and transform the way we see – and hear—the world. 

I love Burtt’s description of finding peace and excitement at the same time – is there a place where you go to find both?

Photo by dryfish.