Star Wars – Designing a Universe of Sound

Star Wars – Designing a Universe of Sound

*VHS inserted into player* [Intro Music] Whether it’s through an elephant roar mixed with tires on wet pavement or the rumble of an air-conditioning unit, Star Wars has continued to build on a landscape of sound that’s been ingrained into our cultural consciousness for the last 40 years. With film, the goal of a traditional audio department is to reinterpret the visual environment into a complementary aural environment, giving realistic contextual sound to the images on screen. But what happens when none of those sounds exist? When there’s no source to draw from, how do you convey the sound of light? Or speed in a vacuum? Well, that’s the job of a sound designer. This sound designer in fact, Ben Burtt. The creator of the majority of the sound effects in the Star Wars library which houses over 5000 unique sounds and continues to grow with each new film. The term sound designer didn’t really come into the film-making vernacular until Burtt’s work in 1977. Before then, film sound could be broken up into two different categories: the production mixer, which is this guy here in the pink booty shorts, whose job entails capturing onset recordings of dialogue and background elements; and then there’s the sound editors, who fabricate different sonic effects in studio or make creative enhancements to existing sound. That’s the tradition of the division of labor in feature film and it has been since the ‘Talkies’ of the 1920s. Ben Burtt: “Since I was an exception to that traditional division of labor I needed to describe myself in some term, so I began to use the term, ‘sound designer,’ which essentially meant that, I although I emphasize my creative work in sound effects, my job was to coordinate all that you heard in the final sound soundtrack of the film.” And only about 15% of the final mix in the first Star Wars is originally recorded audio. The rest was added in post with ADR and foley. Darth Vader: “But yes…” *transition* Darth Vader: “…now I am the master.” Ben Kenobi: “Only a master of evil, Darth.” *lightsaber noises* *transition* *hitting noises* The sound gives those visuals credibility and can take something that seemed relatively awkward during production *hitting noises* and transform it into something epic. The sound and the score allow those moments to have weight, but some sequences rely on the sound alone to hold that emotion. A good chunk of the lightsaber duels are played without score, letting the rhythm of the sound design dictate the edit and create a cinematic atmosphere. And when the score resumes, the sound has to play against the music and the dialogue seamlessly. A fault in any of those three elements could ruin the entire mix. Vader’s wheezing for example could have very easily become a major distraction, but instead of sounding like an asthma attack, they were able to turn a very unnatural sound into a natural characteristic of his voice by matching the low frequencies of James Earl Jones’ delivery with breaths through a Scuba tank regulator. And that simple effect gives more context to that character than any expository dialogue could. Some characters like R2D2 were developed completely through sound. R2 has no dialogue or real physical action, yet he’s able to have an entire spectrum of motion just through ‘beeps’ and ‘boops.’ C-3PO has limb articulation, he’s humanoid, and he has a human voice. Even BB-8 to a degree has different physical cues that you can attribute emotion to, like the lowering of the head or the thumbs up. R2 is just a trash can on wheels, but we always know what he’s feeling. And Burtt was able to achieve that by combining his own voice mimicking the sounds of an infant with a synthesizer, creating a performance that kept our R2’s language very abstract and robotic while maintaining a human element you can empathize with. That’s what grounds these effects. Every sound has its roots in organic recordings, rather than artificial ones. And that brings a familiarity to the unknown. The visual world of Star Wars is rusted and gritty and lived in, so every belt gear and exhaust used in the foley helps sell that authenticity. It was essential that each sound be unique, making a clear association with the visual it originates from, especially in chaotic sequences like the attack run on the second Death Star. The Millennium Falcon, Star Destroyers, X-Wings, Y-Wings, A-Wings, TIE Fighters and explosions are all distinct and clear enough that you can locate them in the space of the frame even with your eyes closed. And that was important given the fact that most cinema audiences in the late 70’s and early 80’s would only experience the film through a single channel monaural sound system. A six-track seventy millimeter version as well as a Dolby Stereo version of the mix were also on exhibition in the film’s original release, but out of the seventeen hundred and fifty theaters it screened in, only about forty of them were equipped to handle anything other than the mono track. This was the 70’s after all and technology was pretty slow to roll-out. But the incredibly dynamic mono mix of that first film was able to fool many audiences into thinking they were experiencing a much more advanced sound system than they actually were. And if we deconstruct some of these effects we can see how that illusion is possible. The lightsaber for example is essentially just the hum of two harmonizing simplex projectors’ interlocked motors in idle, along with the buzz of the transmission signal from the cathode ray tube television set, and the combination of those two sounds creates this, which is the foundation of every lightsaber blade. And when played in the steady state condition to a speaker and recorded by a moving microphone, it creates a Doppler pitch effect, and that makes for a very authentic sense with movement to depth, even through a monaural sound system. But we’ve come a long way since those early days, and the sound design is something that’s only improved as the sagas progressed. Here’s a list of the things many people, myself included, take issue with regarding the prequels. But the one thing I think we can all agree on is that, this: *sound effects* is absolutely incredible. There’s a belief that good sound design is completely invisible, that foley should only be perceived on a subconscious level, and that the sound should melt into the image as to not become a distraction. But I think that method of thinking stifles creativity. The sounds of Star Wars are just as iconic as the characters, vehicles, and weapons they give life to. And not every story warrants aural spectacle at the forefront, but film is in equal parts an audio-visual experience. And when the sound is relegated to playing second fiddle to the image, you’re limiting an entire spectrum of artistic expression. I’d like to thank Squarespace for sponsoring this week’s episode. Squarespace is a great all-in-one website building platform that offers easy-to-use tools with no patches installs or upgrades required. And with their award-winning 24-hour customer service and a great selection of designer templates to choose from, Squarespace is the perfect option for anyone wanting to build their brand online. Sign up today at to get 10% off your first order. That’s [End Music]


  1. I legitimately find myself shaking my head in amazement after each one of your videos. Your content is legitimately important. This is the kind of content that can take your average person that simply enjoys art because it entertains them and turn them into someone that strives to more fully understand it, and therefore have a greater experience from it, no matter the medium. Incredible stuff.

  2. I'm sorry but I really want a job I can wear pink booty shorts to. I just get so sick of the tech world recruiting process I want to wear booty shorts! Like the sound mix guy in this video @ 1:09. He looks like he's having a blast!

  3. Never knew the sabers movement was via doppler effect. Thats actually amazing. How many other sound effects do you think are made via manipulation of the mic itself?

  4. You ever thought of doing a video on Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Sort of show you're analysis would be so good for not to mention it's the 20th Anniversary

  5. Whoah, never cease to impress me. You should do a video on The Legend Of Zelda and how it became that we know of it as today or something along those lines.

  6. I hope you see this comment. Kristian, you should do Pink Panther/the importance of silence. I suggest this because recently I've found out that they gave the panther a voice. Since you usually do overlooked/underrated topics, I thought this would be good.

  7. Thank goodness for the sound guy in pink booty shorts. If it weren't for him and his colleagues, we would not have Star Wars ever. Plus, I think this is an interesting topic regarding SW, since everyone talks all the time about the SFX in SW, but rarely the sound design. Amazing work as usual, Kristian.

  8. I don't know why , but I always get incredibly emotional wen I watch your videos. I hate you bro lmao

  9. Woah.. just found your channel and yet here I am binge watching everything you put out…
    Excellent editing, excellent analysis and excellent narration…

  10. my favourite example of sound design work is actually in Wall-E. Go back and watch it again, incredible sound design.

  11. 5:07 – these visuals are beautiful. Does anyone know where I can find them? I want to use them as wallpapers

  12. 40 years of the best franchise in the world! While we had awesome movies with great sound design and music, I honestly think that nothing can top the sound and music of Star Wars!

  13. Boom operator (Ken Nightengall) is in pink shorts. The sound mixer is sitting with a nagra probably near video village.

  14. Really wish you would have mentioned how they created the sound of the Millennium Falcon, I love that sound so much.


  16. Awesome job. Little nit-pick, the guy with pink shorts is actually a boom operator. The sound mixer usually has a separate (seated) setup where he controls the various microphone levels, and makes sure the boom stays out of frame while recording. This used to record wires, but a large portion of the sound industry now uses wireless booms as they've become more reliable.

  17. Ben Burtt is the unsung hero of Star Wars, and the saving grace of the prequels. JJ called John Williams the "secret sauce" of Star Wars, but I think Ben played an equally important role. Great video.

  18. these videos are all so insanely well produced that theres no way this was his first channel or run with video production..

    im curious about yung kk's beginnings

  19. Impecable as always. One minor observation could be to let the key sounds you are talking about be heard on their own a little longer without your narration. At times you were talking on top of the sounds you were exposing (4:43). But pretty minor indeed. Great videos, im hooked!

  20. The art that shows from 5:08–5:15; where did that come from? Some pretty good looking images.
    Edit: Found them-

  21. "Film is in equal parts an audio/ visual experience"
    This is incredibly important, and sometimes I'd argue as far in saying that audio is more important than visuals.
    Bravo on another great analysis and fresh perspective.

  22. It's hard to appreciate the point the narrator is trying to make about the creation of sounds effects when the narrator doesn't shut up for one single second.

  23. Thank you for making this, Star Wars has always been a huge part of my life and I was very pleased to see your take on it. Keep up the good work!

  24. So glad you mentioned the sound of the seismic charges from Attack of the Clones; those are some of the coolest noises I've ever heard

  25. Great video, man. I only wish you'd given us slightly longer to listen to the sounds you had been talking about in the video. :

  26. What would you say the use of sound in Tarkovsky's films, especially in Solaris, and The Mirror, which preceded Star wars? Stalker is still the best when comes to sound design.

  27. Love your work, thanks for the great upload! Also always love the picture of the dude in the booty shorts, but I'm pretty sure he is the boom-op, where as the mixer is off in a corner with his/her cart full of recording devices, listening to the sound as it comes in and changing levels accordingly (and yelling at planes as they go by).

  28. How many takes were necessary in order to say "this guy here in the pink booty shorts" without laughing!?

    Oh, and as far as sound goes don't forget about Walter Murch…

  29. Thank you for an absolutely stunning video. Your editing skills are spectacular and now I am definitely going to look out for particular sound effects in the Last Jedi this weekend. Keep creating more amazing videos, can't wait for the future of the channel!

  30. Hey Kristian, great vid and I totally agree, that space depth charge sound effect in attack of the clones has always been one of my fave (even though logically it shouldn't make any sound in space ha)

  31. 3:58 I never noticed that some of those TIE fighters just appear out of thin air… or thin vacuum, I guess. Play at 0.25 speed, you can see eight or so just get dropped in with no transition.

  32. Id love a video about 10 cloverfeild lane or the sound design of avatar the last air bender (the cartoon not the live action movie obviously)

  33. Sound design has really lagged behind other aspects of storytelling over the recent years. Back in the 80's and 90's, audiences would say they felt cheated if a hero didn't use his assault rifle on full auto or if a handgrenade couldn't envelop a house in napalm. The fireball of which, the heroes would still attempt to outrun and trow down at the last minute.

    Today, combat footage has show audiences what it actually looks like, and movies have adapted. Yet even today; swords go "schwiiing" when drawn, horses still have coconuts for hooves and fucking Willhelm still works as an extra on every god damn set.

  34. Maybe if I watch with the intent of appreciating the sound work I'll be able to stomach the latest post ep 6 film.

  35. "Technology was slow to roll out"

    "Star Wars tricked people into thinking they were experiencing a much more advanced sound system"

    So does technology being held back actually make it advance faster in the long run?

  36. Darth Vader diver breathing taken from Graduate movie and asthmatic breathing have appearance as Captain Phasma (Astma) in new Star wars or Adam Driver (Diver{r}) Kylo Ren as new Darth lord.

  37. Anybody else made a confused face when you saw a man only wearing some pink booty shorts happen to be part of the star wars production??

  38. Alot of what you said in the video isn't 100% right.
    You forgot to mention Walter Murch as he was also very important when it comes to the introduction of the term sound designer.
    The guy in the picture you called production mixer might have been a boom operator. There are sometimes several sound people on set, and especially on bigger productions.
    To think that the casting, visual effects and cinematography of the prequels were "issues", is very subjective of you. If you go back and watch them a few times I'm sure you'll find yourself surprised.

  39. @5:22 !!! I thought I was the only one obsessed with that one sound effect of the Star Wars franchise. I’m not even particularly a fan of the films. But it’s an awesome sound nonetheless. Who does the music throughout most of this vid? Great content.

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