Why Sound Designer Ben Burtt is The Real Hero of Star Wars

Sound Designer Ben Burtt is the unsung hero behind the unusual sounds behind the franchise’s weapons, vehicles, backgrounds, and key characters.

Ben Burtt was a film sound enthusiast as a child. In fact, rumor has it recorded and replayed the soundtracks of his favorite films just before enrolling at the University of Southern California in hopes of becoming a director. As a student, Burtt had a part-time job cataloging the Columbia sound library, which had been donated to the school’s film institute.

After showing a keen interest in all things audio and sound, Burtt received a call from Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, which got him a job in the franchise’s sound department. He was given the chance of working from home in order to experiment, craft, collect and record all those sounds that might be useful for the film.

After a year, Burtt had recorded anything that could help George Lucas’s world come to life. It is said that Lucas and Burtt had agreed upon coming up with organic sounds, clearly staying away from an artificial and electronic soundtrack. Since the two were about to design a visual environment that had a lot of different elements such as dirt, rust, metallic sounds, explosions and weapons, Burtt was tasked with getting raw material from the real world: real engines, real squeaky doors, and real insects and animals.

The basic thing in all audiovisual projects and films when it comes to sound is to craft and develop something that sounds believable to the audience. So, how did Ben Burtt craft all those sounds? Here’s a list of his own tricks.

Imperial Walkers

The sound of the Imperial Walkers was crafted by simply modifying the sound of a punch press and mixing it up with the sound of various bicycle chains being dropped on a concrete floor.

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

R2-D2

50% of R2-D2’s voice was originally thought to be generated electronically. The rest of the sounds is a well-crafted blend of Burtt’s own vocalizations, whistles, and water pipes. In fact, the droid’s moves, generated by rotors and engines, were always recorded alongside its voice; however, Burtt decided to bury them most of the time during post-production and let them sound occasionally to keep a consistent texture that tells you that it is indeed a mechanical being.

TIE Fighter

This fictional star fighter’s screech is no less than an extremely altered elephant bellow.

Laser Blast

This typical sound was crafted after recording the sound of a hammer on an antenna tower guy wire.

Chewbacca

All Wookie sounds were developed by putting together recordings of walruses and other animal sounds. In fact, Burtt came up with bits and other fragments of animal sounds to be used depending on the character’s mood. That’s why we can recognize affectionate sounds, angry sounds, and so on. Chewbacca poses quite a challenge during post-production because, as said by Burtt himself, he would end up with up to six tracks, sometimes more, to get the flow of just one sentence.

Lightsabers

Lightsabers are perhaps one of Star Wars’ most characteristic sounds. In fact, it was the very first sound Burtt envisioned and crafted for the whole franchise. For some reason, after reading the script, Burtt decided to tackle this sound first, putting aside other tasks such as finding a voice for Chewbacca and R2-D2.

Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com from Pexels

After being presented with the lightsaber’s visual concept, Burtt immediately had an initial idea of what they could sound like. At that time, Burtt was still a graduate student at USC working as a projectionist. The projection booth was full of very old simplex projectors that had an interlock motor which connected them to the system when idle, and that made a very distinct humming sound. Burtt recorded this sound and would change its pitch and mix it with another motor making a very similar sound, but it was not quite enough.

Since he was constantly working between projection booths, television sets, and film studios, one day Burtt walked past the television set and he heard an unusual buzz coming from one mic being passed through the picture tube. Immediately he recorded that buzz and combined it with the humming sound he had previously recorded, and that’s how he got the basic lightsaber tone; however, there was one more issue to tackle: how to get the sense of the lightsaber moving and clashing during Jedi battles?

Burtt decided to have someone wave a microphone in the air next to the lightsaber sound he had developed so that he could get a Doppler’s shift. The microphone would then approach the basic lightsaber tone coming out from one speaker and then get away from it. That way, he was able to provide that particular sense of movement.

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We tell stories through sound. We specialize in creating a complete audio post-production and sound design experience.