Sonically, it could be the early 80’s again.
Last month, Blade Runner 2049 and Stranger Things 2 touched down. While the former began life as a neo-noir released wildly ahead of its time (1982), the latter is a Netflix-gen small town sci-fi set in 1983 which taps a very precise Steven Spielberg / Stephen King nostalgia.
But perhaps most notably, both echo a time when sound was a lead character in sci-fi.
The first Star Wars film, A New Hope, landed in 1977, setting the tone for what would become the new soundscape standard through the 80s. See, back when sci-fi films were becoming increasingly popular, sound designers didn’t have vaults of digital sound libraries to scroll through, so they had to get their hands dirty. And as we shake off the noughties’ penchant for using heavily-synthesised audio just because it was available, the trend has (mercifully) shifted back to blending organic, real world sounds with a tasteful sprinkling of synthesis.
Naturally, our senses share a connection. We see a movement, and before the sound even reaches our ears we’ve formed an expectation of what it should probably be like.
But the thing about designing audio for sci-fi is, a lot of the elements that require a sound… don’t actually exist. So, sounds must be created. Things like fictitious weapons or unnatural creatures need to be given sonic life.
Which leads us into interesting territory.
A good sci-fi sound effect will be unique without ever looking/sounding unusual. And, you’ll be distantly familiar with the real world sound, but because it’s so out of context, your eyes will fool your ears, making the familiar sound feel completely alien.
For instance, to create the sound of the new Blade Runner blaster weapon, the team recorded a .50-calibre sniper rifle, which they then laid over a Roland 909 bass drum. Or for the sound that (Ryan Gosling’s character) K’s flying Peugeot makes, they put a subwoofer in a van and surrounded it with chains and metal that would rattle with the vibrations.
Craig Henighan used similar techniques for Stranger Things, like shortening, pitching-down and filtering the roar of a seal to create the core vocal sound of the demogorgon.
Both teams also blurred the lines between sound effect and score. In the case of Stranger Things, moments of highly present sound effects are usually underpinned by more tense, atmospheric analog sounds, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein using retro synths like the Juno 106, the Korg Mono/Poly and the ARP Odyssey to aurally capture the early 80s.
Blade Runner, on the other hand, uses industrial sound effects in repetition to create rhythmic feeling, blended with compositions by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch using the same half-analog, half-electronic CS-80 synth that Vangelis used for the original score.
To further explore the aural tricks that sound designers frequently play on your sensual connectivity, here’s how some of film history’s most iconic sound effects were made. Spoiler: Star Wars, the greenest pasture when talking iconic sound design, features heavily.
Sound: Marion Crane being stabbed in the shower.
What it actually is: Melons. Yes, the fruit.
Star Wars (1977)
What it actually is: The hum of an idle film projector, combined with the buzz from an old TV set.
Star Wars (1977)
Sound: Darth Vader’s breathing.
What it actually is: A microphone inside a regulator on a scuba breathing apparatus.
Star Wars (1977)
Sound: TIE Fighters
What it actually is: A (heavily-treated) elephant.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Sound: The boulder escape.
What it actually is: A car set in neutral, coasting down a gravel road.
Sound: Proton packs
What it actually is: Filtered engine turbines.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Sound: The T-1000 phasing through jail bars.
What it actually is: Dog food slowly being sucked out of cans.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Sound: The T-Rex.
What it actually is: Slowed-down versions of various animal noises—from a baby elephant’s squeal to an alligator’s gurgling to a tiger’s snarl. The T-Rex’s breath was actually the sound of air escaping a whale’s blowhole.
Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)
Sound: The Balrog.
What it actually is: A cinder block being dragged on a wooden floor.
There you have it. Next time you’re watching a well-designed sci-fi and hear something unworldly, try and imagine how the sound was made.
Oh, and PS – If you’re so inclined, the Stranger Things original score is fabulous music to work to.